Dingy it is, but at least Russia's still human

MOSCOW DAYS

I have to admit, I was pleased to see Sergei and Alexei and their two friends, Katya and Anna. A few moments earlier I had slid into the bar, a basement dive round the corner from my apartment, in the hope of numbing the profound shock of having just moved to Moscow after four years in Los Angeles, world capital of consumerism and convenience living. You'll feel fine if you can just have a Bud, said that inner voice.

The four Russians were half-way through their second bottle of vodka, having dispensed with a bottle of Martini, when they beckoned me to their table.

"Felix, my friend, sit down," said Sergei, a young furrier, after I'd introduced myself. Philip is not an uncommon name in Russia but my hosts were uninterested in attempts to correct them. "Tell me, Felix, what do you think of Russia? It's a good country? Not like America?"

Even if my Russian had been fluent, and even if Sergei's attention had not wandered to the leather-clad female singer in the corner, there was no way this question could be answered.

How would I have explained that it is possible to miss Californian waiters, the aproned gymnasts who bound from table to table accompanying every calorie-cleansed plate of salad with a story about their real careers in Hollywood.

How would Sergei, a burly man who skins rabbits to be made into hats, have reacted had I pointed out that the three grim barmaids smoking behind the beer taps lacked any apparent desire to cater for their handful of customers.

If there is one aspect of Moscow life that is striking to the newcomer, particularly one from the United States, it is the gap that still exists between Russia and a truly consumer-orientated society. All those stories about Russia's growing middle class, supermarkets packed with champagne and lobster, and yuppies cruising around in BMWs, are true. But at street level, where according to the World Bank as much as a third of the population lives below the poverty line, daily life remains closer to Soviet times than to the West.

Given the lack of wealth, it is surprising that Russians often seem to have little appetite to make a profit. It took me two attempts to persuade a dingy restaurant near my apartment that the reason I had walked in the place was to have a meal. (The first time they simply turned me away).

In the grocer's a few blocks away, a sparsely stocked store where the cashiers still use an abacus, staff waved away my request to buy bread and cheese. I was interrupting their lunch, they said. When I then retired to a cafe, the elderly waitress seemed put out that I had disturbed her viewing of a dubbed television movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. She agreed to bring me a bowl of soup, or more accurately, a bowl of hot water with an egg floating in it.

This paralysis, the by-product of 70 years in which the pursuit of profit was seen as criminal racketeering, has its refreshing side. America's hunger for the dollar can be even more exasperating than Russian gloom.

In LA the bogus vocabulary of the salesman has permeated every walk of life. Shop assistants in California's giant electronic stores now are known as "sales counsellors". When we recently decided to get rid of the rats in the roof of our home, we called a pest control company. No, we couldn't hire a rat catcher, the company said. We would have to go on a "monthly rodent assessment programme" (complete with a monthly fee).

Perhaps the most heartening reminder that Russia has an element which is lacking in the pre-packaged, push-button world came when a colleague invited me to a barbecue at an old wooden dacha outside Moscow, a small slice of paradise that Stalin set aside for top nuclear scientists. As Costya, her husband, prepared the food, it was clear that this gathering could not have taken place in southern California.

A: It was raining (no Californian would have dreamed of being outside in wet weather).

B: Costya did not have a barbecue, not even one of those $3 use-once- and-throw-away kits. He built a real fire, without a single instant-igniting barbecue briquette.

It was with this in mind that I began to answer Sergei's question. Too late. The furrier was on his feet, bursting into folk songs. "Stand up, Felix!" he said, waving his glass of vodka at me. "Let's toast Russia and America." So we drank to them both.

PHIL REEVES

Suggested Topics
News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories