Magicians and motors go nowhere fast

MOSCOW DAYS

The thickest of Moscow's ever-burgeoning traffic jams is usually on Brest Street, a narrow road that runs from the city centre to the Belorussia Station. Here the almost exclusively male drivers of Soviet- era Ladas and second-hand BMWs brought in from Germany sit for hours honking at each other while the air turns blue from their exhaust fumes.

A trip on the marble-lined Metro from the Kremlin to the station would take them a mere five minutes and cost the equivalent of less than 10 pence but they would not be seen dead using public transport.

I found myself stuck in my car for an afternoon on Brest Street last week. It was impossibly hot, so the window had to be open. Breathing in the poisonous air probably took years off my life. But the jam did give me a good vantage point from which to contemplate the Russian free market in all its vitality and ugliness.

Trotting in and out among the cars, poor children were hawking newspapers and magazines to the sweaty drivers, and wrecking their young lungs. On the pavements stood older youths, ready to take a cut of the money.

One grubby boy of about eight moved me especially. He was dressed in a frock and a baseball cap. His face was streaked with tears as he tried to persuade drivers to buy Playboy, which he kept dropping in the dust.

I took a copy of Iz Ruk V Ruki from him. The newspaper, whose title means "From Hand To Hand", is nothing but classified ads but it makes fascinating reading. Usually I like to enrage men in traffic jams bysinging nonchalantly while they strain to inch forward but this time I drove them mad by calmly flicking through the paper.

Classified ads are a rich source of information about any society. Because private trading was illegal in Communist times, the Soviet press never published them.

But Iz Ruk V Ruki advertises absolutely everything money can buy, and there is a lot of money washing around in Russia now, although it has yet to trickle down to the masses.

The property pages of the paper are astonishing. "For sale. Villa on the Estonian coast. Multiple garage, sauna, tennis courts, guards. Can arrange Estonian visa." Or: "New brick-built cottage outside Moscow. Four storeys. All mod cons including Finnish plumbing and Jacuzzi. Half-a-million dollars."

If you are not in this league, you can always find a flat to rent in the pages of Iz Ruk V Ruki - if you are racially acceptable. Ads repeatedly end with the words "available to Russians only" or even more blatantly "no blacks". Apparently there is no law against this. By "blacks", Russians do not mean people of African origin but the dark-haired Caucasians, whom they dismiss as gangsters and terrorists.

I like the adverts for magicians best. These are not performers who will pull rabbits out of hats; they are white magicians who will advise superstitious Russians on the most auspicious times to make important decisions, and black magicians who will, for a fee, put the evil eye on a client's enemies.

The lonely hearts columns are also fun. In Soviet times Russians were prudish, but now they say straight out what is on their minds: "Man wants woman with big tits."

But of course, the largest part of Iz Ruk V Ruki is given over to adverts for second-hand cars. Pages and pages of BMWs fresh in from Germany, which will soon render Ladas obsolete, to jam up the rest of Moscow as hopelessly as Brest Street. And further poison the planet in the name of freedom.

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