Optimism rises from rat-infested rubble
Although it was early summer, temperatures were stuck below zero and there was as much chance of seeing a tourist as of spotting a cactus. This man made his living by persuading passers-by to pay him for the privilege of being photographed next to a moth-eaten, stuffed reindeer.
Now, several thousand miles to the south, he has a challenger. She is sitting before a pair of dark-blue curtains in a television studio that looks like one of those kiosks you go to to get a new set of passport photos. One almost expects her to giggle, so strange is her proposition. "Apartments for sale," she says, before reeling off a list of addresses with all the confidence and fluency of a Mayfair estate agent.
"There is water, electricity, and gas," she continues. No mention is made of the fact that the water supply is polluted by the city's damaged sewage system, or that the electricity supply regularly breaks down, or that the gas pipes are peppered with so many bullet holes that people set light to the leaks to stop them from exploding.
Nor does she have anything to say about the neighbourhood, which is likely to comprise an assortment of rat-infested piles of rubble, interrupted by tall, burnt-out, Communist-era apartment blocks. After 21 months of war, the residents of Grozny, capital city of Chechnya, can no longer see the chaos which surrounds them.
We are watching Marso television, one of several makeshift Chechen-run television channels which broadcast intermittently on the Caucasus republic's airwaves in the aftermath of its war with Moscow. Even the most patriotic Chechen would probably concede that this would not, under normal circumstances, be anyone's first choice of entertainment. But there's nothing much else to do once the sun has set over this ruined city.
Although Grozny now has dozens of new cafes, they close at night. There are no bars; alcohol has been banned by the Islamic republic's separatist- dominated government.
The city-centre is busy enough by day - teeming with new Japanese and American cars driven by former Chechen fighters (one bearing the sticker: Drive Carefully. Future President Inside). There are even traffic cops. We were fined $5, for an illegal left turn, regardless of the fact that 200 yards away we saw a car driving down the pavement. But the nights are eerily still.
So, television it is. After a while, the property commercials give way to a man in office clothes miming to a popular song as he wanders through some woodlands. Then there is a Hollywood "hot-rod" film starring Charlie Sheen, great fun for anyone prepared to endure a movie dubbed from English into German, translated into Russian, and broadcast on the blurry airwaves. The merest hint of sex is censored.
But the Chechens seem to approve. "We hate Russian television. We can't watch it in front of our families. It is too embarrassing," explained our host Hassan, proprietor of a rickety house in central Grozny which has become a watering hole for foreign correspondents over the past two years. He rails against the "pornographic advertisements" transmitted from Moscow", in which - horror - actors are seen kissing.
But the fledgling broadcasts are symptoms of an instinct to survive. Russian troops are still withdrawing from the republic after a war that has left tens of thousands dead. It is uncertain where the money will come to rebuild its shattered society. Yet, an entrepreneurial spirit is unfurling amid the mayhem.
Four months after the end of the war, you can buy every necessity in Grozny, from soap powder to soap operas. And if you have the guts, you can buy a house - even though this might qualify you for the title of the world's most optimistic person.
Revealed: Devastating impact of 'bedroom tax' sees huge leap in demand for emergency hardship handouts for tenants
Notes from a small island: Is Sealand an independent 'micronation' or an illegal fortress?
You thought Ryanair's attendants had it bad? Wait 'til you hear about their pilots
Revealed: Eerie new images show forgotten French apartment that was abandoned at the outbreak of World War II and left untouched for 70 years
Chloe Johnson death: Family of five-year-old British girl who died in a pool at in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh resort 'angry' that more wasn't done to save her
- 1 Stoke City investigate 'religious abuse' after 'pig's head is found in Kenwyne Jones' locker'
- 2 Gove’s lesson: spare the comma, spoil the child
- 3 Ukip captures Labour fortress in South Yorkshire by-election
- 4 You thought Ryanair's attendants had it bad? Wait 'til you hear about their pilots
- 5 Join Ryanair! See the world! But we'll only pay you for nine months a year
BMF is the UK’s biggest and best loved outdoor fitness classes
Win anything from gadgets to five-star holidays on our competitions and offers page.
£30000 - £40000 per annum + BENS: Progressive Recruitment: Drupal Developer A ...
£45000 - £50000 per annum + bens: Progressive Recruitment: C# WEB DEVELOPER Le...
£240 - £260 per day: Progressive Recruitment: WPF Developer (C#, VB.Net) North...
£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: KS2 teacher needed to do PPA ...