Tver, Russia, May 2006
In 2005, for my third year at university, I moved to Russia to study Russian in two towns a few hours north of Moscow. In Yaroslavl I had lived with fractious landladies, glued bushy sideburns to my face to act in a play, spent Friday nights with classmates in a nightclub called Joy Party, and made friends with Georgian and Azeri traders at the town’s clothes market. In Tver I had lived in the university hostel with a dozen warm-hearted Finns.
The happy memories were punctuated by being evicted from one apartment, trapped in another, and several bouts of exhausting Russian ‘flu – but the most enduring misfortunes didn’t happen until my last day.
It was a warm May evening in 2006, and my second semester had ended the previous day. Instead of flying home when my visa expired I decided to take the train to Kiev to spend my twenty-first birthday there. I would take the elektrichka (inter-city train) from Tver to Moscow, stay at my friend Helen’s apartment in Tsvetnoi Bulvar for the night, and then leave for Ukraine the next morning.
As I began the forty-eight hour journey, I met my first problem after less than a minute. My suitcase’s plastic handle snapped as I bounced it down the stairs of the hostel and, having to use its strap instead to carry my winter clothes, laptop and a year’s worth of bric-a-brac, my right hand was bleeding by the time I stepped off the marshrutka bus at Tver’s train station.
I haul the suitcase on to the elektrichka, choose a spot on one of the blue metal benches and rest my feet on the bench in front of me. I ask the couple beside me how long it would be before we start moving – as the woman rolls her eyes at my accent, the train jolts forward with a metallic clunk. Tver disappears, and soon we are travelling past northern Russia’s lakes and marshes.
I had taken the elektrichka to Moscow half a dozen times that spring. The four-hour journey to the capital costs less than a cup of coffee, and is as much of a treat as the culture and creature comforts of Moscow itself. As the train moves slowly through Tverskaya oblast’ (province) it passes pretty wooden cottages and brightly-painted fences. At some rural stops old women in faded, multicoloured headscarves board the train and sing folk songs as they walk up and down the carriage, the other passengers filling up their plastic cups with kopecks. The trip used to soothe me, but this time I was tired after a day of chores and farewells. Between Klin and Kryukovo dusk fell, and I fell asleep.
When I woke up, there was no mobile phone in my trouser pocket, no camera in my rucksack, and no laptop in the bag that I had been using as a pillow. The couple that I had spoken to earlier had gone, too.
My chest tightens and a chill runs through it. My face is numb. A yell bursts out of my throat; when I stop screaming, my body heats up and I feel sick.
A drunk lying on the bench behind me had seen the couple take my belongings. My chest freezes again. Now, as I pace up and down the carriage, the men and women who had done nothing as the thieves put their hands into my pockets gather around me. A man in a sports jacket tells me to pull a lever to call the conductor. The conductor calls someone. When we stop at the next station, a member of the militsiya (Russian police) steps on to the train. The elektrichka stands still. As the man calls me towards him the other passengers shuffle back to their benches.
I had been told to be careful if stopped by the militsiya. I had not yet read of the extent of the malice that they cause throughout the Russian Federation, but many of the Russians who I had spent time with that year had explained the nasty ways in which they operate – bullying people for bribes, or imprisoning those who they know to be innocent of a crime, just to close the case. They are hated from Vladikavkaz to Vladivostok; that is why no-one woke me up as my laptop was taken.
The adrenaline fizzing in my blood dulls my judgement. I am not as scared of the man in the ugly green uniform as I should be. I know that it is pointless to look for the thieves after dark in Kryukovo’s labyrinth of creepy housing blocks, so I make no designs on his time. The man says goodbye, tells me to be more careful in future, punches the drunk in the face for smoking in the carriage, and steps off the train.
My laptop and camera had hundreds of pictures from my year in Russia saved on them; the numbers of everyone I had met were saved on my phone. During the final stretch of the journey, through Moscow’s miserable outskirts, I have tears in my eyes.
It is after midnight when the elektrichka arrives at Moscow’s Leningradsky train station. Weak yellow lamps throw eerie light on to the platform, which is empty besides a few wastrels shuffling through the shadows. The air is tepid and unwelcoming. Helen is not there. I wonder how many times she had called me that evening before having to catch the last metro home to Tsvetnoi Bulvar.
I rest on my suitcase and stare across the platform. In an enormous city that I barely knew, with my only friend there out of reach and with just a couple of hundred roubles in my pocket, I had nowhere to sleep. My hands were bleeding. The metro and all other transport had closed – there was no chance of reaching Moscow’s Kievsky train station before the morning.
My suitcase is drawing attention to me; I shiver at the thought of the hundreds of skinhead gangs that walk Moscow’s streets at night. I shiver again: what would the man and woman on the train have done if I had woken up while their hands were in my pockets?
My longest trips to Moscow had been for three days. I only knew the city as a collection of memories: ice-skating in Gorky Park with friends, chats with Helen in expat pizzerias; singing hymns in French at the Catholic Church behind the Lubyanka prison. I didn’t know Moscow well enough to form a plan. Tourists can appreciate cities’ various cultures, but only those who live in them know how they breathe.
Two men walk out of the shadows and approach me. I recognise their ugly green uniform and peaked military cap.
I tell them in careless Russian what had happened on the train. Then I ask uneasily whether they could find me somewhere to sleep. They tell me to follow them. We walk into the station and enter the waiting hall. The hall is a large, musty room with a high ceiling. It is almost empty, with just a few weary passengers sitting silently on wooden chairs. The two men speak to a woman standing behind a desk in the corner. They say that I need a place to stay until morning – she replies that I can’t wait in the hall without a ticket for the next day.
(The answer to why, in modern Russia, people show no compassion to strangers is as unfathomable as Russians’ hospitality to their friends. I had learned not to expect help from strangers in Russia the previous autumn, when in Yaroslavl I found a young man in the street whose throat had been cut. A dozen people stepped over his body before I ran across the street to tell a shopkeeper to call an ambulance. Upon hearing that a man was dying outside, the woman behind the counter finished dusting her till with a cloth before shuffling towards the telephone.)
We leave the station and walk into a pitch black car park. The bigger of the two men pushes me into the back of their car. My suitcase is put in the boot.
At one o’clock in the morning just outside the centre of Moscow, I was on patrol with the Russian militsiya. The car smells of cigarettes; the leather seat creaks as I move on it. All of my senses told me that I shouldn’t be there. A journalist or photographer – anyone braver and more mature than me – would have fought for the chance to see Moscow at night through the eyes of two members of the city’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. But I was a tired, twenty year-old student – I kept my mouth shut and my eyes focussed on anything but the men in the front seats.
The men talk between themselves. They discuss where they should take me, but the names of hotels and kvartaly mean nothing to me. When my turns come to speak my Russian is formed by a brain exhausted by nerves and a throat dry from apprehension. The raspy vowels give my accent authenticity. I begin to settle down.
The bigger man puts on some music. It’s the type of post-Soviet trance music that I used to dance to on happier nights at Joy Party. The volume is incredibly high. I want to ask them to turn it down, but I stop myself. It doesn’t take much to make a militsioner become aggressive and I had seen earlier in the night what happens when they do. I lie instead: “Krutaya muzyka!” – He nods his approval. They return to their conversation. I press my head against the window once more and stare out at the passing city.
As a man and two women cross a wide street at a set of traffic lights, we accelerate and swerve to try to hit them. Both men laugh.
After about forty minutes on the motorway we turn into a side alley and stop. The smaller officer tells me to get out of the car. The surroundings – unattractive dark buildings, advertising boards, street lights – gave no clues as to where we are; we could have been in any of Moscow’s hundreds of districts.
They tell me it is Izmailovo. I had been here once before, with classmates in the Christmas holidays, to choose Secret Santa presents at Izmailovsky market, from rows of thousands of hip flasks, chess sets, matryoshki dolls, Red Army uniforms and medals – but I still have no idea where I am in relation to anywhere else.
The bigger officer points to a building in the distance and says: ”There’s your hotel”. Then he says: “This isn’t a free ride – understand?” – but the money in my pocket has to last until I find a cash machine the next morning. I explain that I can’t give them anything.
The sound that the first militsioner’s punch made against the drunk’s nose comes back to me. My head already throbbing from the nerves and the music, I wait for their fists.
Instead, they calmly fetch my suitcase from the back of the car. The smaller officer even shakes my hand. They drive away. I start to shiver again. They could have knocked me out and left me on the side of the street. No-one knew where I was, and no-one knew who I had been with. I wondered why they didn’t. Perhaps they realised that there was nothing in my suitcase worth taking. Perhaps my speaking Russian distanced me from the tourists that the militsiya are used to harassing. Or maybe it was the compliment about their music that earned me an easier ride.
I drag the suitcase into the hotel quickly – my aching hands make no difference to me now.
The men had misunderstood me when I asked them to find me a place to put my head down until morning. The hotel is a plush, five-star place, with soft red carpets and a lounge with expensive tables and chairs. The air is clean and warm. I ask the girl at reception how much the cheapest room is: the answer is two hundred dollars more than I have on my credit card. I panic: I have nowhere else to go. I press my hands to my chest and beg to sleep in a corridor, in the kitchen, in a bathroom, but the girl’s refusals become more and more terse.
As I turn to leave I hear English spoken from the lounge, where a group of Australians are drinking around a large glass table. For most of my year in Russia I had spoken as little as possible to the English-speakers that I had met on my travels; I thought that there were only a handful of foreigners in Russia, and each one I learned about made my own experience seem less unique. But at that moment I was too desperate to be idealistic. I walk up to them and tell them that I had been mugged. Every one of them laughs. I ask to sleep on the floor in one of their rooms. They refuse. They think I am lying. I show them my student card from Tver State University. Their spokesman tells me to give him my passport too, as if the card was part of a confidence trick along with the cuts on my hands and the tale of the couple on the train.
I plead with them one last time – they tell me to piss off. I use most of my roubles to pay for some time in the internet café in the corner of the lounge. I send emails to my dad and to Helen. At about four o’clock I put my left hand on my suitcase, my head on the keyboard, and close my eyes.
I wake up at 5.30. The adrenaline has dissolved: the cuts on my hands are sore and my head is in pain. My breath is revolting. I pick up my suitcase and leave the hotel.
Since the shock of the previous night had worn off, my accent had returned. I stop two men on the street outside the hotel to ask for directions to the nearest metro station – as they walk away I hear one mutter to the other: ”Fucking foreigner”.
At Izmailovskaya metro station I find a map of the city and work out a route to Kievskaya, the station underneath Kievsky Vokzal from which trains to Ukraine leave. I walk up to the kassa to buy a metro card. After spending most of my roubles at the hotel I don’t even have enough change in my pocket for a single journey. I retreat to a corner of the metro entrance and find my wallet tucked between two pairs of jeans at the top of my suitcase. There are another few hundred roubles in it – and something else between the notes: Helen’s business card, with the name and address of the Chamber of Commerce where she worked written on it. The relief brings me close to tears. I zip up my suitcase, buy a metro card and put some money on it, and return to the map of the metro system to find the way to Mayakovskaya instead.
I haul my suitcase along the station platform and on to a train. The metro had only just opened, and there were only a few other people in the carriage.
Moscow’s metro system can fascinate even those in the worst of moods. You could study the city’s history and feel its culture just by reading aloud the names of all 178 of its stations. Some honour Russia’s creative canon (Pushkinskaya, Turgenevskaya, Chekhovskaya); some celebrate its emphatic past (Leninsky Park, Marksistskaya, Proletarskaya). Other station names mean nothing to those who weren’t brought up in the city, but their gorgeous combination of sounds – Kozhukovskaya, Dubrovka, Kuzminki, Nagornaya, Novye Cheremushki – give voice to Russia’s mystery and majesty.
It is still before seven o’clock when I arrive at Mayakovskaya station. I must have changed trains at Teatralnaya, but I have no recollection of it. There is hardly a soul on Tverskoi Prospekt, the wide, glamorous boulevard that leads to Red Square. Soon I am on ulitsa Gasheka, the address printed on Helen’s card. It is two hours before the start of the working day. I sit on my suitcase and wait.
After sitting for about an hour on the same spot, businesspeople in expensive suits join me on the empty street, as Moscow’s high-flyers begin to filter in to their offices. Some offer cold glances at my ungraceful pose and unshaven face. At the end of Gasheka street there is a confectionary kiosk; I leave my suitcase resting on the gate outside the Chamber of Commerce to walk the hundred or so steps to the little cabin and buy a half-litre bottle of Coca Cola with some of the roubles that I had found earlier. With time to spare, I relive the previous night: as I realise how fortunate I was to have walked away from both the elektrichka and militsiya car.
I wait for another hour. When Helen appears on the street I run to meet her and give her a clumsy hug. I have no energy left – my story of the night before lasts thirty words. We go to her office but I can’t stay: I have to cross the Ukrainian border before my visa runs out at midnight. An hour and a half later I arrived at Kievsky Vokzal and left for Kiev soon after.
Since my studies there ended three and a half years ago I haven’t returned to Russia. I don’t think I ever will. But hundreds of memories from the vast, unfathomable land stay with me: of the Azeri traders, the Finnish flatmates – and of the night in Moscow when two thieves showed me a side to the city that few know exists.