Tech is staying in a hotel on the outskirts of Moscow. “It’s Really plush, fantastic!” he enthuses. But then he goes on to speak about the “pallet-board” sheds around it. These are not run-down, vacant business premises, no; these are staff quarters, still very much in use. It’s that living contrast again: black and white side-by-side as “normality”.
It’s quite the package deal: As an employee, you get to live in a shack with the luminous, luxurious facade of your workplace on your doorstep, just to rub in the salt. Then when you hop from your world to “the other”, you’ll taste a level of luxury that you’ll never own, whilst facilitating it for others through your subservience. All this on a basic salary too (for the most part). Sign up now!
Tech is a professional, it’s true, but not the only one installed here. There are the official staff of course, but for other types of professionals, this is also their place of work. He now greets them as acquaintances and passes time of day, finding them all polite and sociable now that they’ve realised he’s not here as a customer. They are women in the oldest profession of course. He describes the hotel restaurant and foyer as “full of them”, their unofficial presence tolerated and facilitated by the ubiquitous “backhander”, a mainstay of the Russian grey economy.
Things are formal, reserved and polite here on the ground floor. There are appearances to be kept “up”, naturally. What happens upstairs in a guest’s room is, of course, private and discreet, but the basement bar is another tale entirely. Tech speaks of a subterranean scene resembling a carnal supermarket as painted by Hieronymus Bosch. It’s a coin-op version of the last days of Rome: place your money in the slot and be serviced while you wait. Tech didn’t partake, incidentally. Even leaving aside the morality issue, it’s just not worth it…
As recently as 2009, the BBC interviewed Ms Robin Gorna, the head of the International Aids Society, who described the spread of HIV inside Russia as “out of control”. About.com chillingly reported that: “many experts believe Russia has the fastest growing HIV rate in the world.” Almost unbelievably, another statement, from “Russian officials” in 2010, claims that “50% of all Russian citizens could be HIV infected within the next 10 years.”
Could this be true? That’s effectively a proclamation on the destruction of an entire economy, indeed society as it now stands. I assume that’s if current trends continue. But however you look at it, it’s horrific. It’s a complicated issue, spreading way beyond the blind eyes turning in upmarket hotels -and also beyond the scope of this particular blog post. But, here and now in the basement club: the taste, smell and flow of money, the easy alcohol, the ostentatious surroundings and the beautiful, beautiful women that Russia is renowned for -all contribute to mask a waking nightmare to come, now only a faint black smear on tomorrow’s horizon.
A final word on the subject from Tech’s employer and the font of all wisdom, the Oligarc: “There are no prostitutes in Moscow, merely women with ‘sponsors’. It’s just so incredibly expensive to live in Moscow that they have to do it to support their lives”. I check with Tech, and yes, this often includes paying for basic necessities too.
Back upstairs, Tech is probably in the restaurant. He only returns to the establishment to sleep and eat, after all -unless Russian hospitality takes him elsewhere for the evening. He’s discovered that it pays (quite literally) to let his Russian hosts do the ordering, mind you. Once Russia’s service industry (or perhaps any other, here) has identified you as a Westerner, then price-list-number-2 comes into play. This basically includes an additional “Westerner” tax, running (so Tech reckons) at around +100%.
Tech is pragmatic though, even with such inflation: “The prices are reasonably cheap anyway. It’s not offensive. I can even see why they do it” he says (we’ll get to that next time). “But” he continues, “it does grate when you then see the manager driving a Porsche.” Quite.
Next time: Business in the City of Extremes #3: All kinds of valuables
More from Tech, with anecdotes and advice about Russian business and financial transactions.
[Photo by thisisbossi]