STREET LIFE: SAMOTECHNY LANE, MOSCOW; They gave a residents' working party - but nobody came

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The Independent Online
"RESPECTED Muscovites! You are invited to help clean up your local backyards. Please come to Grep on Saturday morning and we will find a job for you."

"You're not thinking of volunteering for that, are you?" asked my neighbour Tanya, lazily. She was sunning herself on the pavement at Samotechny Lane, sitting not in a deck chair but in an old car seat from the wreck her son, Lyosha the tearaway, was cannibalising.

"Well," I said, "I thought I might. After all, it's not like the old subbotnik, it's just to improve the environment, isn't it?"

In Communist times, Russians were made to celebrate Lenin's birthday by doing unpaid overtime on the nearest Saturday to 22 April - hence subbotnik, from the word for Saturday. Usually, they washed windows or did other spring cleaning at their factories and offices. The work was supposed to be voluntary but they earned black marks if they refused to join the collective effort. The sign on the wall at Samotechny Lane was a polite invitation. There was no sense of coercion any more. After winter, the yards were filthy. And I was curious, so I decided to join the cleaning campaign.

On Saturday morning, there was a deadly hush in the yard, as on a public holiday. I looked out of the window but could see nobody at all. Undeterred, I went to Grep, the council office responsible for repairs and maintenance in those flats still owned by the state and for the upkeep of communal facilities such as roofs, lifts and staircases.

The door was flung open by a man in goggles, with an overpowering smell of vodka on his breath. I had encountered this flying ace before.

I had woken up a few mornings earlier to see his face at my third-floor window. He was riding in the basket of a crane. Our balconies had been disintegrating, dropping brick fragments on to passers-by below. For some reason, I thought he was going to fix my balcony. But what he actually did was to bash the bricks with a metal pole so that all the loose ones fell down. Then he rode away, leaving me with a balcony full of holes on to which I would be mad to step out.

Now here was this Biggles again. "There's a volunteer for you!" he shouted and lumbered off down the Grep corridor. The manager, Galina Mikhailovna, invited me into her control room. "There's no one else here yet," she said, "so we might as well put the kettle on."

Over tea, she told me about her work. Like a Star Wars commander, she sat at a huge panel of buttons, knobs and flashing lights. "People call in, complaining that their toilets are blocked or the light bulbs need changing in the stairwell. We send out plumbers and joiners and electricians."

Jobs that in the West are mostly done on a private basis are carried out here by the council workmen. Galina Mikhailovna admitted that while Russians are often house-proud inside their flats, they take little care of the areas that belong to everybody and therefore to nobody.

We had another cup of tea. Galina Mikhailovna answered an emergency call from someone stuck in a lift. I was still the only volunteer for the yard clean-up. Biggles, really an Azeri called Vagif, and a couple of other handymen, being Grep employees, were obliged to be present, but they had arrived with hangovers and were already resorting to the hair of the dog.

"You could go out in the yard on your own and pick up a few twigs," said Galina Mikhailovna. I looked out of the window at the pot-holed yard, needing proper asphalt, turf and saplings to renew it in any meaningful way, and was overcome with a sense of futility. Instead, I went home and swept up the cigarette butts that had been dropped in the immediate area outside my own front door.

Then, because I could no longer sit on my balcony, I took a book out into the nearby Children's Park. It was about Africa - cruelty, absurdity, heat and dust - but it only made me think of Russia - cruelty, absurdity, cold and mud.

Tanya strolled past me and gave me a wink. An old man sat on a bench, playing an accordion. Life is short and Russia is eternal. Just enjoy it while the summer lasts.

Helen Womack