Street Life Samotechny Lane: Nudist beach stripped of its decency

MOSCOW NOW is as hot as Hell, and Man and Beast are longing for one thing - water.

The stray dogs at the wholesale market stretched out in the dust, their tongues lolling. The traders sweated as they manhandled crates of soft drinks. No sooner had I swigged one can than I wanted another.

I was there with Sveta, who was buying groceries in bulk, enough for her mother-in-law to feed her children all summer in the family village north of Moscow. Sveta would have to stay here and work, economic necessity having made long, lazy summers at the dacha a thing of the past for able- bodied adults.

Sveta's trolley was piled high with macaroni, porridge, tins of tushenka, the Russian equivalent of Spam, and boxes of orange juice to provide vitamins. "Maybe you should get some jam to go with the porridge," I said.

"Never mind that. The bilberries will soon be ripening. For now, it is luxury enough for them to be by the lake."

The said lake at Valdai, so clean that beavers swim among the water lilies, sounded enticing. But I did not dwell on it. After I parted from Sveta, I decided to try out the Olympic swimming pool, just down the road from Samotechny Lane.

"You're supposed to put flip-flops on beyond this point," scolded a fat woman with a blue rinse, acting as the self-appointed matron of the changing room. "And you can't use that locker."

The old men were nicer. A former naval officer flirted with me in the shallow end. He actually called me a mermaid! But there is not much excitement to be had in ploughing up and down, overtaking pensioners. Or to be nearly kicked in the head by teenagers jumping from the diving boards.

Suddenly, I had a better idea. I would go to Serebryany Bor (Silver Forest), an area of beautiful, mature pine trees and sand dunes on the "clean" upper stretches of the Moscow river. At one end is a peaceful little enclave for nudists. At least, that is how I remembered it.

The nudist beach was one of the triumphs of perestroika. A small group of people gained the confidence to come here and enjoy the sun as God had made them.

With nothing on me but sunglasses and a notebook, I once conducted some vox populi interviews on this beach. It was a real Garden of Eden that had nothing to do with sex. The nudists were all gentle, hippie types. I especially remember one man, speaking earnestly of merging with nature. He was naked except for an absurd little triangle of paper covering his sunburnt nose. But he would not drop it on the sand. The nudists never left litter.

When I arrived this time, however, I sensed a change immediately. Socks and bras were hanging in the pines like garlands on Christmas trees. Noisy groups were playing volleyball and quaffing beer. Glass crunched underfoot. A few bewildered nudists were wandering about but most people were wearing pants and were all the more aggressive for it. Furtive sex was even going on in the bushes.

I did not stay long. When I got home, I read in the local paper that police had arrested some "real nudists", who had strayed from the beach in search of a new paradise. Apparently, the police had "patted" them with their truncheons.

It would have been funny if it was not so sad. And still I was yearning for water. I took a gin and tonic from the fridge and ran a bath.