Moscow Prices (and Buses)

One does not need to be an economist to see that these are hard times in Russia, especially for pensioners (like my mother and father). Western sanctions and the plunging price of oil have meant that prices in Moscow have risen and these, plus the sneaky new ‘taxes’ the government has introduced, have made life difficult for those on fixed incomes (pensions have recently been frozen so there is no way Russia’s senior citizens can escape the rampant inflation).

20150826_105328 blog Moscow
(pic taken from the Aviagrad Zhukovsky website: http://inzhukovskiy.ru/rubriki/ekonomika/04-09-2015-12-35-52-zhizn-po-aktsii/#undefined )

 

A number of Russian businesses have realised how tough life is for older Russians. Some shops have special deals for senior citizens: in the cheap-ish chain “Piatiorochka” (“Little Five”) pensioners get a small (5-10% depending on the goods) discount if they do their shopping in the morning before 1pm (only six months ago it was 2pm). And, of course, they still get to travel for free on buses, trams, trolley buses and the Metro, which is great.

 

But even public transport in Moscow hasn’t been immune from the cut-backs. There are definitely fewer buses on the roads, so the queuing time has lengthened. One other funny thing is that the bus routes have been changed in a most peculiar way. Going into the city centre, the bus I take – Bus 774 – stops near the tube station I need to use to get on the Metro. However, coming back from the city centre you find that Bus 774 doesn’t stop at that station. Err…? I always thought it a general rule that a bus has two stops at approximately the same place: one to go to one direction and one to go in the opposite direction. I am not sure what the bus route planners of the Babushkinsky district were thinking about when they introduced those changes. Perhaps, they don’t use buses. I have a general understanding of modern life that designers don’t use the things they design: that’s why ironing boards are never wide enough, vacuum cleaners are utterly unmanageable … and bus routes totally illogical (or maybe this is to confuse foreign spies?).

 

To make life even more difficult for pensioners a new tax was introduced as from July last year, the so-called fee for “capital refurbishment”, i.e., for the upkeep of the block of flats in which you live. This had proved very unpopular especially as the tax in Moscow is levied at 15 Roubles per square metre of your flat whilst, say, in St Petersburg the rate is only 2 Roubles per square metre. All I can think by way of explanation for this difference is that the Moscow authorities believed they were going to harvest a fortune from the Muscovites who have huge incomes and huge flats in the centre of Moscow. For ordinary people though this additional payment to the government is almost unbearable.

 

Hard times or no, Russia is chuntering on. There is still lots of food and drink in the shops, including various types of cheeses and wines produced locally. Russia’s close neighbours  countries like Azerbaijan  are delighted about the sanctions: now they are taking up the space in the market previously occupied by the Poles who have literally been fighting (okay, demonstrating) against the sanctions – something that has not been covered by the Western media.

 

Russians are survivors. And it is not all doom and gloom: in the next couple of posts I will be writing about dacha life – what can be more fun than remembering summer!

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I’ve Visited Again… Part 2: Advertising

The second surprise of my trip to Moscow came almost as soon as I disembarked from the plane and was on the train en route to Paveletskaya station: the billboards lining the track were either empty or advertising the advertising space. It was the same on the underground – the Metro to us Russians ‒ all the posters had gone.

Znak Kachestva, or the Seal of Quality
Znak Kachestva, or the Seal of Quality, the version of the Russian Wikipedia; though I seem to remember the actual words “znak kachestva” somewhere on it, and the “USSR” being not as pronounced as it is on this picture. I wish I could find the real thing – well, still looking!

When I came to the UK for the first time, I remember being aghast by the number of adverts: everywhere you looked, something was being sold to you. As I am a big fan of architecture and once was even thinking of a career of an architect, I remember being particularly upset about all these ads covering the beautiful London buildings. It is difficult to imagine this now, but in the Soviet Union advertising did not exist. There were “brands” but they did not compete against each other. There was usually only one brand for something; for example, the “Moskovsky Kartofel” for crisps; “Moloko” for milk, which used to come in blue or red – depending on the fat content – pyramid-shaped cartons; “Maslo” for butter, etc. Some foodstuffs would have a special sign of approval – Znak Kachestva. There were several types of toothpaste, or washing powder, and of course, a great many Soviet perfumes. But in general life was a lot easier, as you did not have to constantly make decisions on what exactly you wanted to buy.

As capitalism moved in, adverts started appearing everywhere. Moreover, many adverts were advertising Western goods, because western companies had the money and the marketing  acumen to spend it on advertising their products. I have to admit, that when I first saw those adverts on my beloved clean pure white spacious ceilings above escalators of the Moscow underground, I did not like it. It felt like travesty.

The Evropeisky shopping centre - are we in Vegas?
The Evropeisky shopping centre – are we in Vegas?

It is incredible to think now how we used to live without adverts. All communist newspapers were plain black on white, with an occasional photograph of a labour peredovick (champion). Although overall the papers were full of communist propaganda, the content was stronger and more diverse compared to Western papers I read now: there was more information, in particular, on world affairs and science. All buildings in Moscow were clear of advertising and there were no billboards advertising products, only billboards with placards of drawings of Soviet workers, farmers and general communist calls for devoting one’s life to serving society or citations from Lenin, like “The Party is the brain, honour and conscience of our epoch”.

On the right - The Evropeisky shopping centre, on the left - Kievskaya Railway Station. Funny effect.
On the right – The Evropeisky shopping centre, on the left – Kievskaya Railway Station. Funny effect.

I, similarly to Tonia Voronina in “Ghost Love”, witnessed all this change. In the second half of the 1990s billboards adorned with photos of beautiful models grew along all major routes into and out of Moscow. On one of my previous trips to Moscow I happened to pass a huge shopping centre near the Kievskaya railway and underground station. In the Moscow twilight it looked weirdly like a piece from Las Vegas. I am sure, it is serving its purpose, but I am not so convinced that the architectural ensemble of the Kievskaya Railway Station, built in 1914-1918, is entirely in accord with this modernity.

Sviblovo Tube Station - free from advertising
Sviblovo Tube Station – free from advertising

Now, once again the beautiful white domes above the Metro’s escalators are poster-free, all the adverts dismantled. As I say, I was never a fan of those, and neither, apparently, was Mr Putin, but one wonders if his dislike is the only reason behind their disappearance. Rod is of the opinion that during hard times a company’s advertising budget is the first to suffer … TO BE CONTINUED

I’ve Visited Again… Part 1

(«Вновь я посетил…» is a famous poem by Pushkin.)

I’ve just come back from my annual two week visit to Moscow and I have to say it was a visit full of surprises.  These are going to be the subject of my next few blog posts which will cover prices, taxes, advertising, dacha life and mushroom picking. A pot pourri of observations!!!!

I flew by EasyJet and the flight was PACKED which was the first of my surprises. Apparently as from March next year EasyJet are stopping their flights to Moscow. Now with so many people using their service this seems not to make much sense on commercial grounds so all I can think is that this is something to do with EU sanctions and that the overall number of passengers from the West is falling? I hope not. The sanctions aren’t scheduled to be reviewed before next January: I just hope for EasyJet’s (and my sake) the sanctions are lifted …

The second surprise came when we were touching down at Domodedovo airport and the Captain announced that the outside temperature was +25⁰C. Unthinkable! I wasn’t the only one surprised: all my fellow passengers immediately started taking off the coats, hats and gloves they were wearing in anticipation of facing the start of the Russian winter. And this wasn’t freak weather. During my first week it got even hotter, reaching +30⁰C: Russia’s Indian Summer of 2015 is apparently the hottest on record. In fact, according to The Economist (3rd October 2015 issue), July 2015 was the hottest month for the world every recorded. Maybe climate change is already kicking in? That’s what comes of making annual visits: changes are much more noticeable. When you live in a country changes sort of creep up on you unnoticed but they’re much more apparent to annualists like me.

I’ve been discussing this with Rod who alerted me to the controversy  Charlotte Church kicked up on ‘Question Time’ when she linked drought to the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. I have a lot of sympathy for her views. This is the predicted annual precipitation levels in 2050 (National Center for Atmospheric Research; the pic is taken from http://www.wired.com) as modeled for moderate greenhouse gas emission levels. The darker the red the more severe the drought. Studying this, buying a house in Siberia looks to be a smart move!

Climate Change; picture taken from www.wired.com
Climate Change; picture taken from http://www.wired.com

Well, Russia 2015 might be unseasonably warm but autumn is a beautiful season there with the leaves of the trees turning to such enchanting shades of yellow and red, these dappled by that special mellow autumnal sunlight which, I am convinced, only exists in Moscow. It’s a special time, that brief interlude between the end of summer and the time the sun disappears behind the heavy October clouds and winter’s ice-cold hand grips the country. It’s a time of year that always conjures up music in my head (Tchaikovsky’s “Seasons” or his wonderful “The Sweet Slumber” … “Cладкая грёза”) so it’s no surprise that it’s the time of year when I had my heroine in “Ghost Love” meet the love of her life …

PERESTROIKA QUIZ!

The wonderful team at The Kompass who are part of RBTHRussia Beyond The Headlines have not only published the first couple of chapters of “Ghost Love”, but have also come up with this really fun and clever quiz on the theme of perestroika! I helped a little bit, Rod and I having a lot of fun putting some questions together and remembering the good old times.

Don’t forget that you can win a free paperback copy of “Ghost Love” if you answer the ten questions correctly and leave your email address. Have a go, follow this link HERE!

CHAPTER 31: (NON)COMMUNICATIONS IN THE USSR

Here is Rod coming out of    the Telex room of the Intourist Hotel in Moscow
Here is Rod coming out of the Telex room of the Intourist Hotel in Moscow

I pride myself in the fact that I have written the shortest chapter in the history of literary world: Chapter 31 of “Ghost Love” contains just three sentences these amounting to a miserly 49 words. The chapter is about Peter phoning Tonya twice from the UK, after which his calls stopped. But though the chapter is short every time I read it I’m reminded of how difficult communicating was back in the early 1990s.

We managed to survive without a mobile phone, e-mail and the internet. And if communicating was a problem in the West, inside the USSR it was nigh-on impossible. If you wanted to phone another country, you had to book your call one week in advance (and you didn’t know if the person you wanted to speak to would be at home). You also had to book the length of the call – say, five minutes, which would cost you 5 roubles per minute. If you compared this with my student allowance of 45 roubles per month … you know what I mean. To add to the problem of cost, there was this inconvenience of the operator listening to the whole of your conversation… apparently they had to do this, I am not sure why but I can guess.

Of course businessmen could use the Telex (a text messaging service linking up teleprinters around the world) to contact the outside world. Most of the larger hotels had a Telex facility. Here’s a picture of Rod coming out of the Telex room at the Intourist hotel (don’t bother trying to find the hotel now: it was built in 1970 and demolished in 2002. Such a shame: it had a great pizza restaurant which my children loved!).

A fax message Rod sent me on 19th December 1990 - a fax Christmas card! x
A fax message Rod sent me on 19th December 1990 – a fax Christmas card! x

And then, in 1990, the fax came!!! Yay! I remember looking at the fax machine in Alphagraphics where I worked, stroking it and thinking, this is the best human invention ever! My loved one is on the other line, sending me this letter, and I am receiving it here and now, in real time from three thousand miles away!

After that the improvements came thick and fast. When Rod and I moved into our first apartment in Moscow, the district hadn’t been connected to the ‘phone network so we became one of the first users of mobile phones in Russia. ‘Mobile’ is perhaps too generous. It was enormous and weighed a tonne. It was also temperamental. Still, it worked … sometimes.

To summarise, back in the 1990s it was very difficult to keep in touch. Things are so much easier today … aren’t they? For those of you who are trying to dial Moscow, the powers-that-be have made a change in the code system, so now Moscow has two codes (depending on the district you’re calling): 007 495 and 007 499. A great way to confuse the life out of everybody. Who said communication in the 21st Century was easy?

INTERTWINNING

‘Ghost Love’ has two intertwined stories set twenty-five years, the first set in present day England and the second in Moscow circa 1990. They feature the same lead character, a Russian girl called Tonia, though in the present day part her name has been anglicized to Toni. The story is told from her POV.

The idea I had was to compare and contrast Tonia/Toni’s life in the two eras and to show how the decisions she made back in the USSR affected things a quarter of a century later. It also allowed me the opportunity to explore how Toni’s attitudes had changed after she settled in the UK. Initially I thought about making the book a two-parter, the first part in 1990s and the second in the present day. But as I began to write the two stories I came to the conclusion that it would be much more satisfying and provide the reader with a much more immediate and stronger contrast if I were to alternate one chapter set in the 1990s with one set in the present day.

Intertwining: then...  (moi in 1991)
Intertwining: then…
(moi in 1991)

There were problems with this though. In the book Tonia’s English boyfriend, Peter, who she meets when he visits the university where she’s an undergraduate, dies, leaving Tonia and her baby by him alone and destitute in Moscow. Now by intertwining the stories it was impossible to hide this from the reader (I mean, he only features as a memory in the present day section) so all the surprise was gone. So what I did was confront this head-on and in the first page of the book the reader learns Peter’s dead (but seems determined to communicate with Toni via FaceBook). In retrospect I think this helps the story telling by making Tonia’s love affair with Peter all the more poignant because we know it’s doomed.

The other problem is making the chapters past and present complement each other. For instance, an important character in the book is Georgie, Peter’s devoted but unbalanced sister. Georgie believes Tonia is a gold-digger simply after Peter’s money (and a British passport). There are scenes in both the past and the present when Georgie takes Tonia/Toni to task over this and I wanted them to follow one another in the book so that Georgie’s hostility was emphasized. This took some very careful writing (and a whole load of cut and pasting!)

Intertwining: and now
Intertwining: and now

The final problem is that with Toni being twenty-five years older than Tonia and with their stories being told side-by-side I had to make the character’s development both convincing and consistent. Toni is considerably tougher and more world-weary than she was as a twenty-two year old girl in Moscow and this jaded outlook had to be communicated. The fun I had was seeing Toni recover some of her youthful joie de vivre when a new man walks into her life.

So to sum up. Intertwining stories in a novel presents narrative opportunities (especially regarding character development) but is tricky to pull off. Fortunately, thus far, my readers seem to have enjoyed the novelty of it. I’m encouraged, so-much-so that this intertwining trick is one I’m determined to pull off with my “next after next” book ‘Hotel Rus’.

BOOK SETTING: ENGLAND

The adage drummed into any new writer is that you should ‘write what you know’ and fortunately for me I know Russia and England very well.

I was born, brought up and went to university in Moscow, and, like Tonia, met and fell in love with an Englishman. We set up home in Moscow and had children. Everything was wonderful but …

Isn’t there always a ‘but’? Post the ‘soft’ revolution of the late 1980s Russia had descended into chaos (this will be the setting for one of my future books which I’ve tentatively entitled ‘Hotel Rus’) and it was dangerous chaos. For a time Russia became a kleptocracy – a country run by thieves – and for people, like my husband and I were, trying to establish a business quite scary. I think if it hadn’t been for our children we’d probably have toughed it out but in the end we decided to up-sticks and relocate to the UK. I arrived there in 1998 and it’s been my home ever since. The impressions and experiences I’ve had living and working in England form the basis for the story of Tonia’s adventures … though with certain embellishments.

This beautiful house situated not far from where I live now could be the magnificent Maintree Hall
This beautiful house situated not far from where I live now could be the magnificent Maintree Hall

I am not, as Toni is, a full-time writer (I wish!) but as I spend most weekends bashing out and polishing what I write when I’m on my daily commute to-and-from London it wasn’t terribly difficult to extrapolate this.

I am not, as Toni is, a keen cyclist. Working in London and witnessing the regular near-misses between cyclist and truck has put me off cycling for life (when my daughter, who’s at Oxford Uni, got a bike I almost passed out). But the plot of ‘Ghost Love’ needed Toni to cycle …

It has stables...
It has stables…

I have not, as Toni has, lived in an English public school. I’ve taught in one (Russian is quite a popular foreign language in the UK) and my children won a scholarship to one of the oldest, spending their sixth-form years (17 to 18) there so I’ve a pretty good idea of the ethos of an English private school. For the record neither of my children are great fans of a boarding education …

I have not, as Toni has, a daughter (Rosie) who is a ballet dancer but as I work in a ballet school I’ve been able to form an understanding of how ballet dancers think and act (this I’m going to explore further in ‘Hotel Rus’), experience I was able to use in describing the ballet-obsessed Rosie.

And this could be where Toni went by mistake and lost her way at the party
And this could be where Toni went by mistake and lost her way at the party

I have not, as Toni has, a daughter (Roxy) who is a punk rock singer but as I toured the UK when I was trying to make it as a nuJazz singer I know the ins and outs of the music business. I think it’s one of the most difficult businesses in the world and definitely the most exhausting: physically, emotionally and morally. That’s how I’ve portrayed it in ‘Ghost Love’ but I can’t say any more than that without giving a plot twist away.

I have not, as Toni has, had creepy paranormal experiences over FaceBook.

And I most certainly to not have, as Toni has, a homicidally-inclined acquaintance!