Moscow Stories: Dogged by strays and drunken servicemen at the baked potato stalls

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The Independent Online

There's something about Moscow and dogs. Stray dogs, that is: they seem to be everywhere, despite the city authorities' best efforts to round them up and intern them in some kind of canine concentration camp on the outskirts from which they do not, I think, ever emerge.

There's something about Moscow and dogs. Stray dogs, that is: they seem to be everywhere, despite the city authorities' best efforts to round them up and intern them in some kind of canine concentration camp on the outskirts from which they do not, I think, ever emerge.

Worryingly, you get to recognise the same old faces. An elderly black Labrador-like mongrel basks on the steps of Pushkinskaya metro station every morning, apparently oblivious to the raucous cries of the newspaper sellers and leafleters around it. Then there are the wilder ones. In packs of four or five, they trot along Moscow's broad avenues as if sweeping across Africa's plains.

Frequently mangy, often rabid, these creatures congregate around the popular jacket potato stands dotted around the city, where they think nothing of trying to snatch hot spuds from nervous diners.

Getting rid of them is often difficult, but Muscovites, who are used to all kinds of strange sights and sounds, don't bat an eyelid; in fact many merely chuckle when they see a scrawny mongrel filleting a rubbish bin. But they can be a hazard.

A friend of mine was enjoying what had up to then been a successful date, when a foaming stray sank its teeth into the girl's backside as the couple strolled along the pavement. The girl required various painful injections, had to forgo alcohol for an extended period and the evening ended, quite literally, in tears.

¿ Another hazard on Moscow's sometimes mean streets are aggressive drunks, particularly servicemen who find themselves on leave in the capital and go on massive benders. With musclebound, tattoo-infested arms bursting from their striped, sleeveless tops, these men are best avoided if you're not Russian.

Clutching cheap cans of the Russian equivalent of Special Brew, they stagger about the place singing patriotic songs, pawing the local talent and leering at anyone who makes eye contact. It doesn't matter what you wear or how tightly you keep your mouth shut, they always seem to spot that you're not one of them.

I was recently surrounded by a trio of drunken military men (at a jacket potato stand, needless to say) who appeared to have been imbibing for the previous 24 hours. "You foreigner," they cried. "Do you know who we are? We're paratroopers."

"I bet you haven't done your military service," one challenged, grabbing the counter for support. Another started to jab me in the ribs and push me about as if I were an animal that needed rounding up, which is quite possibly how they perceived me. I didn't stick around to find out what would happen next, but I got the distinct impression that morale in Russia's armed forces could be higher.

¿ There is more than jacket potatoes on sale in Moscow's streets. Everything is available, from strawberries to forged college diplomas to pirated DVDs of the latest Hollywood blockbusters for $3 a pop.

Babushkas sell freshly picked fruit, vegetables and flowers for a few roubles, and in the summer heat, soft drinks and ice-cream do a roaring trade. That you might expect, but there are also the kiosks that crowd the streets and the city's underpasses. They sell alcohol and cigarettes, knickers and tights, electrical cables, religious crosses, lovingly crafted fake watches or pirated software.

It is a characteristic Russian mixture of free enterprise and illegality, epitomised by the latest CD-rom to go on sale - pirated copies of the Moscow police's criminal record files.

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