Moscow Diary: Swept by a gale of vodka and humbug

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The Independent Online
IT'S OVER for another year, thank God. While International Women's Day slides by unnoticed by most other countries, Russia marks the occasion with a two-day holiday in which the entire country is swept by a gale of humbug, bogus gallantry, and vodka.

This year was even worse than last. One male politician after another barged onto the airwaves to make self-serving speeches about the wonders of the fairer sex.

The occasion did at least offer the Russian media a chance to explore the intricacies of the male attitude to women, who are generally viewed as awesome matriarchs or simpering ornaments or - occasionally - both. There were several surveys about gender, the most interesting of which was published by Moskovski Komsomolets newspaper.

Muscovites were asked to name the women they felt had played "a superlative role in world history, politics, art, literature sport, and other areas of human life". The overwhelming winner - with 21 per cent - was Margaret Thatcher. Princess Diana came third with 11 per cent. Catherine the Great only managed fifth place.

The respect Russians hold for Baroness Thatcher is a mystery, given their loathing for their own Mikhail Gorbachev. "She symbolised order, that's all," says my Russian colleague, Lena. The survey was, however, compiled before Russians found out about her plans to host a dinner for Aslan Maskhadov, the President of Chechnya, who - much to the irritation of some here - is visiting Britain this week.

I have been mulling over a remark made by my friend and neighbour, Oleg. He rang to tell me that he was as "happy as an elephant", a term which meant that he was about happy as it is possible to be. An elephant? Since when was this threatened species happy, I asked? It is clear Russians believe a grin lurks behind that wrinkled trunk - like the long-faced Russians themselves, elephants are clearly thought to be happier than they look.

This will have to be chalked up as one of the many small, strange differences that separate the British from the Russians. Most defy explanation. Why do Russians insist they will get a sore throat if they drink chilled drinks, yet buy ice cream on the streets in the middle of winter? And why do they believe overcoats carry germs, a conviction held with such vehemence that they are insulted if you keep your anorak on indoors?

They feel equally baffled by us. The other day, I invited a handful of Russian colleagues for an early-evening drink. I offered them some ripe brie and camembert and semi-sweet Russian champagne (a favourite here). The cheese was clearly a novelty, and they fell on it with the eagerness of Tiggers trying Pooh's honey. Big mistake. "Why do you foreigners like this stuff?" asked one, wavy-lipped with disgust. "I suppose it's not really surprising," volunteered Yelena, our two-year-old's nanny, "I have known this family for two years and not once have I seen them eat a single slice of sausage." There was universal astonishment.

The reason for Oleg's elephant-like glee is parked on a patch of icy mud outside his front door. He is, he announced, the proud owner of a new, bright red Niva. When you consider what he went through to get it his rapture is justified. The car cost $7,000 - way over his annual salary. So he took a motor-minded friend to check the car over, knowing that there would be no exchange or refund if it turned out to be a duffer. They found two significant faults, which Oleg later fixed at home.

While the West is moving to correct the damage wrought by the motor age, this city is only just entering it. Like most Muscovites, Oleg has no garage, but a light-weight metal shed, which looks like a bread bin.

Nor does he have insurance, as the $700 annual fee is well beyond the pittance he earns as a linguistic expert in the Russian army. What happens if your new wheels are stolen, I asked? He shrugged. But the moment we switched on the engine to take it for a spin, his elderly mother shot out of his front door to check us out. Who needs a car alarm?