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MOSCOW DAYS: Besieged by a fortress mentality

I can see it quite clearly amid the trees below the window of my office. Just outside the fence that rings our apartment block, there is a burnt-out black Mercedes. Local gossip has it that the vehicle was destroyed by a Molotov cocktail hurled through the windscreen by a vengeful mafia man.

To the knot of Russian men who have gathered to inspect the wreckage, its sooty hulk is a familiar reminder of the perils of doing business with the wrong people. But to outsiders like me it also suggests that it is a good thing that we have a fence. Though most are delightful, not all of the neighbours should be invited in for afternoon tea.

Like many expatriates in Moscow, I live in a peculiarly protected environment. The entrances to our monolithic complex, built by the Soviet authorities to coop up foreign diplomats and journalists, are blocked by barriers overlooked by guard posts. Security menwander rather aimlessly around the pavements along the foot of the building. The doors can only be opened by a code; they stand next to a small glass booth, usually occupied by a middle-aged woman who watches visitors come and go.

Excessive though this snooping often seems, there is some justification. Over the years, there have been muggings and robberies.

Such is the general mood of unease that several neighbours have taken to employing their own muscle. For a while, every time I walked up the stairs to the office an oaf would dart out from an adjoining corridor, where he was guarding a businessman's flat, and give me a hostile glare - presumably to deter me from contemplating a bombing mission. Happily, he's gone; but there are bound to be others.

Concern about safety is hardly surprising in a city in which bankers and other businessmen are assassinated with such regularity that their deaths are barely commented upon. A thriving criminal class has filled the vacuum created by the end of the Soviet empire and bungled economic reforms. Not to take sensible precautions would be daft. But in Moscow, a deeper trend is underway, the flowering of an obsession.

By today's standards, our apartment block is positively lax. Those with money - Western executives and newly-enriched Russians - have a widening choice of fortresses in which they can seal themselves off. And more and more are choosing to do so.

It can cost $8,000 (pounds 4,900) a month to live in Park Place, a US-managed complex in south Moscow, but there are plenty of people willing to shell out for an apartment in this privately-run Kremlin, in which the passageways are monitored by cameras and security men with earpieces roam the building.

There is no compelling need to go beyond its thick concrete walls, unless it is to work. It has restaurants, cocktail bar, tennis court, nursery school, gym,courier service, shops, bank, travel agent's, and more besides. The owners of luxury cars need not worry about fire bombs or the corrosive effect of freezing winters, as there is a heated underground car park. According to a friend who lives there, one of the residents remained indoors for so long that her small child never saw Russian grass.

All this is, of course, repeating a depressing pattern that has divided society in the United States, South Africa and - increasingly - western Europe. Take, for example, my old stamping ground in Los Angeles. Desperate to attract advertising in a dismally regulated multi-channel world, the local television stations churn out bloody-thirsty, and often wildly exaggerated, stories about crime. The motto among competing news executives is chilling, but accurate: "If it bleeds, it leads."

Bombarded by this gore, the population has grown daily more terrified and distrustful of itself. Those with cash buy more guns and try to hide behind lock and key. Thus, the rise of the gated community - entire villages built behind high walls and electronic barriers.

In Russia, the same process is beginning without the catalyst of a hysterical ratings-crazed news media. If tabloid television ever arrives, it will have plenty of material with which to whip up an even greater froth of fear. During one recent weekend five women were stabbed in Moscow; 22 people died after drinking fake vodka in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk; and 10 Russian soldiers were gunned down after one of their colleagues flipped. You see, the country is at times wild and lawless. But it won't get any better if its elite over-reacts and withdraws from it entirely, cowering from reality in their own very expensive, hermetically-sealed hutches.