For perhaps the third time in a month I awake to see the industrial suburban landscape that my room looks out on made beautiful by an all-encompassing white blanket, visible even at this hour of darkness. Its magic is still enough to send a little tingle of excitement down my spine even though it is my third winter spent in this city. Perhaps it jogs memories almost lost to me now of the first carefree, innocent years of my life when it used to snow like that every year in England. Perhaps the tingle I feel now is a leftover from that uncontrollable joy a child feels at the sight of snow and the prospect of fun and games it brings.
The excitement and the magic are short-lived. I leave my flat and head out into the cold, wet, polluted city. Thankfully I live in a relatively nice area and on the other side of my tower block from the industrial suburbia are several parks. They are almost empty at this hour, just one or two grey forms visible by lamplight through the snow flit back and forth along the paths, early risers like me or perhaps late homecomers. The
World's most evil camel
Much like the ostriches I encountered in Belarus, I'm not quite sure what this guy was doing there
tall, leafless trees stretch from my flat to the main road on the other side of the first park, every one of their thin branches delicately covered with an inch of snow. For a moment the magic flickers back into life.
Then I remember why it is stupid to get excited about the first snows in Moscow. Already enough people have walked the paths through the park to turn the white powder into a black sludge inches thick that somehow manages to get inside my shoes. I am almost tempted to defile with my footprints the soft, white, as yet undisturbed layer that stretches away from the path on either side, wondering whether it will be any less wet than this. I slow to a snail's pace, trying to avoid slipping. On the other side of the park I see that the cars have done the same to the snow on the road. Puddles of the black sludge are everywhere and the cars, throwing it up onto themselves as they drive, will gradually take on its colour as the day progresses. I hop, skip and jump as many of the sludge-filled potholes as I can, in vain as it
turns out: by the time I reach my bus stop my feet are soaking and freezing. I join the crowd of smokers waiting there n the cold darkness. I would say they are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the bus, but it is impossible to be eager about anything at this hour of a Monday morning in these conditions.
In the city centre the snow has disappeared completely. Everything is wet and filthy. I spend the day trudging from lesson to lesson alongside armies clad in greys, blacks and browns, their heads down, shoulders hunched and hands in coat pockets. I long to return to my suburban flat where in the green areas at least I imagine the white blanket will remain intact. But then in the afternoon the pure white sky turns a bleak, depressing grey and it rains. Even those green areas are swamps of sludge by the time I have to walk home through them.
How different the city was just two months ago: warm, sunny, lively, colourful. Every day I would leave home in just my shirt and only once in over a month got caught in the rain. People would sit outside cafes,
talking and laughing on the street. People dressed in brighter colours and happier clothes, the sky was blue, the cars were not filthy and the sunlight made even the buildings themselves seemed less grey and drab than they are now. The city has undergone a transformation from a dynamic, bustling, cosmopolitan metropolis to an ugly, freezing, inhospitable place where everyone's only thought is getting back inside a building as soon as possible. It is only temporary, I tell myself: by December it will all just be cold and crisp, much colder than it is now in fact but less wet and therefore more bearable. The snows will be so heavy that they will settle properly and the rain will not be there to turn them to filth or take away their magic. But still, right now I feel the need to escape.
At the weekend I take a bus to Arkhangelskoe, an eighteenth-century palace estate just outside the city, with my friend Luciana. Just thirty minutes and already small, traditional wooden cottages almost outnumber their concrete counterparts. It is noticeably colder here than in the city but I do not care - for the first time in three month
I cannot smell pollution hanging in the air.
After we get off the rickety old bus an old babushka waddles up to us and, having heard us speaking English, proceeds to sing "Happy Birthday" to us. At first unsure of what to do, we are soon in peels of laughter as she explains in Russian that she needs us to write birthday cards in English for her grandchildren who's mother married an American and lives there now. None of us have any paper or pens but she has a couple of old receipts and Luciana has a red white board marker which she used to write "Dear John, Happy Birthday! Love, Babushka Nina". The sight of the bright red writing (the only remotely colourful thing in my field of vision) and the whole hilarious incident, considerably brighten up the day.
Proud of myself that I managed to convince the ticket seller that we were Russians and thereby pay a third of the price that tourists normally should, we enter the gates of the estate and wander down a tree-lined road, yellow tsarist-era buildings just visible through the gardens on either side of it. The bleakness of the day
detracts from the place's beauty and I try to picture it in summer with bright flowers, hedges, trees in full bloom. As we wander between pillars into the palace courtyard we imagine it full of nobility at a summer party, dressed to their best, waltzing, drinking fine vodka and eating Beluga caviar by the tea spoon.
Next to the Sanitorium a vast stone balcony overlooks a wooded valley through which the Moscow River flows. It is my first glimpse of the countryside in over three months and even on this overcast day there is something refreshing and even thrilling in it. Then I think of peasants toiling, sweating and groaning in the fields by the river banks, living in abject poverty and being bought and sold as slaves by their masters while the caviar-nibbling party continues in the palace courtyard. Russia, more than most places, has always been a land of extremes and contrasts starker than stark. Perhaps the biggest has always been the gap between rich and poor. Pre-1917, peasants paid for so much of the man made beauty in Russia with their lives. Thousands, for example, died in forced labour during the construction of St. Petersburg. Plenty
of others no doubt simply died because they were worked too hard by masters keen to extract every penny possible to build up estates like this one. Then the tables turned with the 1917 revolution and the rich paid with their lives for their past good fortune. Then everyone other than the government and certain other privileged sections of society paid during the famines, wars and purges of the early Soviet Union. In 1991 with the collapse of the USSR society was reshuffled again and a new elite emerged - the super rich oligarchs who had taken advantage of the situation, conned a lot of people and turned themselves into billionaires almost overnight. Now politicians, more than one of whom are suspected of being multi-billionaires, are joining their ranks while elderly people starve, people die on stretchers waiting in hospital corridors and apartment blocks collapse because they were designed by "architects" who never studied architecture but bribed an underpaid university professor to obtain a degree. You might say that some things have not changed much since the days of those caviar-nibbling parties and toiling peasants.
Sometimes I get carried away by such thinking. Despite it all, things are infinitely
better in Russia today than they were even ten years ago - the economy, the middle class, life expectancy, all are booming despite the impressions that Western media try to give. I turn away from the river and from thoughts of caviar and peasantry. I decide I will treat myself to a shwarma from my favourite Tajikistani kebab shop when I get back to the city before heading to a poker game at a friend's house I'm due at in a couple of hours. Greasy food does wonderful things for the mood on a cold, horrible day.
I'm getting chilly so I put up the collar of my black woolen coat, lower my head, hunch my shoulders, shove my hands in my pockets and trudge towards the estate's cathedral, hoping to get a quick peek inside and a dose of warmth before the walk back to the bus stop.
Click this link for advice on independent travel in Russia
, with individual sections on many beautiful, interesting, hard-to-reach and off the beaten track destinations within the country.
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