Xtravaganza Interview: Accidental Moscovite Dishes on Driving, Elections and Russian Millionaires

No that babooshka above is not her. It is one of many evocative photos by a woman who dubs herself an “Accidental Moscovite” (A.M.). She left London Town for the epicenter of all things Russian and all the adventure to be found there. She chronicles her experiences on her blog (HERE) and in her two books (Book 1, Book 2). Let’s get right to this week’s Xtravaganza Interview with the Accidental Moscovite (sic)!

Charles (C): So what brought you to Russia?

Accidental Moscovite (A.M.): I came to Moscow on a bit of a whim after a nasty emotional bust-up (that will show him!) I am here teaching interior architecture at a private school, so to keep some distance I call myself ‘accidental moscovite’ – notice the inaccurate spelling, silly mistake – but you can call me A-M.

C: Moscow sounds thrilling and daunting at the same time. What are some challenges you have overcome?

AM: Even Muscovites agree that Moscow is a difficult city to live in. It is very in-your-face, chaotic and unforgiving. But at the same time it is an amazing place, full of life and energy.

C: Your blog features some humorous pictures of Russian parking techniques. What tips can you give those who wish to drive in Moscow?

AM: Tips on driving? Don’t! Well unless you are Italian and/or have a death wish. There are three types of car-driving idiots; first, people in elderly Soviet-period Ladas which are held together with string, and who bought their driving license with a bribe, i.e. they don’t know how to drive. Second, there are the new rich (and/or their chauffeurs) in their huge MPVs who drive very, very fast in – the non-existent – outside lane, that is directly against the oncoming traffic. Third, there are young men who are not only drunk but in a very good mood. Not surprisingly YouTube is full of clips of crazy driving ‘incidents’ (interview continues below photos).

AM: Actually the worst thing about the traffic is not the likelihood of being crashed into but the jams. You can be stuck for hours, both because there are just too many cars, and because roads are closed at random and for long periods of time, for example, when Putin goes from the Kremlin to his home.

This is a city which has one of the best metro systems in the world, but where people still insist on using their cars.

C: The Western media (especially Hollywood) paints such a one-dimensional view of Russian. What are some ways Russian people have surprised you?

AM: Everyone who visits from abroad assumes that Russians are very grumpy and bad-mannered. But this is actually our problem, because we have very different everyday facial habits and behaviours. Even in a big city like Moscow, too much smiling in public is thought unnatural, false and insincere (something to be suspicious of). Smiling, then, is something you only do with people you like, not just for politeness with strangers. With friends, at work and socialising, Russians are as cheerful, warm and friendly as anywhere else; they are also direct, do not hide their feelings and can be anarchistic, poetic and very funny. In fact, among the Russians I like, the most common facial expression is a mischievous glint in the eye.

C: The recent election in Russia caused quite a controversy. Do you think the recent protests will lead to change?

AM: In a way, the protests have already made a change. One of my Russian friends, who was initially quite cynical, went on the march at the end of December and told me how amazing it was to be in public with such a large, diverse and lively group of people ‘all walking in one direction’. And they represent a growing young, urban middle-class who are not going away and who have a powerful community, mainly online. But post-Soviet Russia is endemically corrupt, making it feel both unstable/uncontrollable and stagnating/immovable at the same time. So I think many kinds of reaction to this impossible political situation will continue, but whether and what changes happen, who knows.

C: The Russian winter is so harsh it helped vanquish both Napoleon and Hitler. How do you cope with it yourself?

AM: I love Russian winters!  Moscow is the most beautiful city when it is under snow, often with the clearest pale blue skies. The older buildings glow with turquoise and ochre and pastel greens and gold. Lovely! And I am still enjoying the variety of effects as the temperature falls. Did you know that snow sounds different after about minus 18? (It starts going crump instead of crunch).

I have had to learn a new approach to clothes. English people are used to wearing layers which we strip on and off all the time as conditions change. Moscovites have only two variations, tee-shirts for indoors (the heating is a city-wide system and always very hot) and the full hat/scarf/gloves/thick coat/boots assembly – with as much fur as you can afford- for outdoors.

The only thing I can’t cope with is keeping all that stuff on, for example in the metro. Russians do this to build up a body of heat for when they go out in the cold again, but I just loathe getting sweaty and uncomfortable even if it is for a perfectly logical reason.

C: As a BRICs emerging economy, what are some of the ways people who can take advantage of this are spending their new-found money?

AM: The sad fact is that anyone who makes money does two things; immediately spends it on high-status luxury goods, and gets it out of the country as quickly as possible. Russia already had its economic collapse in the 1990s and anyone who had savings lost everything. Even now credit cards are still quite uncommon and most financial exchanges, even big ones, are done in cash. And the combination of corruption and meaningless bureaucracy makes it sensible not to have any longer term plans (such as setting up your own business).

C: Each ex-pat community has their own character. I’m curious what kind of foreigners are drawn to live in Moscow (people of their own volition rather than simply placed there).

AM: Ex-pats here are all a little crazy I think (although whether they came like that, or Moscow made them that way, who knows). Moscow appeals to me because it may be difficult and frustrating, but it is never boring.

C: Despite the struggles of everyday people, the news paints a picture of exorbitant wealth in the Russian upper crust. Have you seen glimpses of these newly wealthy?

AM: Of course. They are building themselves incredibly big ugly houses in special gated settlements to the west of Moscow, and can be seen in very expensive fur coats and massive cars everywhere. For this generation it is still all about ostentatious display. So, for example, there is an Italian restaurant I go to which has two halves, both serving the same food from the same kitchen. But one half is much more expensive. So sitting on that side shows you have money to waste. Similarly there are high-end supermarkets that sell imported goods at exorbitant prices, which are bought not for quality but for showing off.

C: What vodkas do Russians actually drink?

AM: Vodka is so cheap here (the word itself is a derivative of voda meaning ’water’), and there are so many brands that the issue is more around the quantity you intend to drink rather than the quality. Me, I like Stolichnaya which is quite strong and not flavoured. The correct way to drink it in company is in one gulp and followed with a pickle. I got told off last night for sipping. Vodka, said my friend, is not a long drink.

C: Do people speak nostalgically for the days of the USSR, or is it all about the future?

AM: There is some nostalgia for the Soviet Union. You can still see groups of elderly people near Red Square waving the red flag and singing patriotic songs at the weekend. But there is also a more considered response from people wary of the particular form of robber-baron consumerism and capitalism which has taken hold here, and who have some good memories of the less consumerist and more equal social relationships between people in the Soviet period (the elite were just as bad, there were just less of them).

As to the future – one of the most interesting things for me living here is that Russians don’t have a strong sense of ‘the future’. This is not just about recent history, it is more of a cultural habit. There is little belief in planning ahead, beyond the next week. So I am learning to live here, and enjoy Moscow’s many pleasures, whilst staying in the immediate present!

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Read about AM’s adventures @ Accidental Moscovite and check out her books (Book 1, Book 2).

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