Business in the City of Extremes, part 2
Tech is staying in a hotel on the outskirts of Moscow. “Really plush, fantastic,” he enthuses. But then he goes on to speak about the “pallet-board” sheds around it. Not run-down, closed-down business premises, no, but staff quarters, still very much in use. It’s that living contrast again: black and white, side-by-side as “normality”.
It’s quite a package deal: As an employee, you get to live in a shack with the luxurious, luminous façade of your workplace on your doorstep, just to rub in the salt. Then whilst you hop between your world and “the other”, tasting a luxury that’s just out of reach for yourself, through your subservience you get to help facilitate it for others – and all (for the most part) on a “basic salary” too. Sign up now.
Tech is a professional, true, but not the only one installed here. For some professionals, not counting the official staff, this is indeed their place of work. He says hello to them and passes time of day, finding them all polite and sociable now that they realise he’s not there for their business. 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 describes a subterranean scene akin to a carnal supermarket, 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” and, almost unbelievably, in a statement that purportedly came from “Russian officials” in 2010, that “50% of all Russian citizens could be HIV infected within the next 10 years”.
Could that possibly 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 blind eyes turned 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 tomorrow’s waking nightmare, now only a faint black smear on today’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 does often include the basics too.
Back upstairs, Tech is probably in the restaurant. He’s only back in the establishment to sleep and eat, after all, unless Russian hospitality has taken him elsewhere for the evening. It pays (quite literally) to let your Russian hosts do the ordering, mind you. Once the service industry, or perhaps any industry, has you pegged 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: “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 (Continued): Valuables
More from Tech, with anecdotes and advice about Russian business and financial transactions.
[Photo by thisisbossi]