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!

Advertisements

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: MOSCOW

I’ve set part of the action of “Ghost Love” in Moscow circa 1989, a time when Communism was crumbling and the Iron Curtain being torn down. This was a bit of a no-brainer. After all, I am a Russian and in 1989 I was fresh out of university, trying to make my way in the world.

A monument to Lenin (one of many). The slogan behind reads, Leninism Is Our Banner!
A monument to Lenin (one of many). The slogan behind reads, Leninism Is Our Banner!

Revolution is many things: disruptive, confusing but also very, very exciting. In the late 1980s Russia underwent its second revolution of the 20th century. Sure it was something of a ‘soft’ revolution – there wasn’t the fighting in the streets and the civil war that marked the revolution of 1917, but in many ways it was just as profound. The move from a centrally-planned, authoritarian Communist state to one which was free-market and democratic (well, sort of democratic) was pretty traumatic and one the old Communist apparatchiks fought tooth-and-nail.

I guess that’s the essence of my story: the struggle my lead character, Tonia, has in moving from the old Communist world to the bright new Capitalist one, from a world of repression to a world of freedom. In a way she mirrors the struggle the whole of Russia had in coming to terms with these changes.

Another Lenin - with a lovely floral display in front of it
Another Lenin – with a lovely floral display in front of him. Red, of course!

Being young when this happened was a great help: the young are much more adaptable. Looking back I can see why my tutors at university (some of them die-hard members of the Communist Party) were so resistant to change: they were frightened. All the certainties that had underpinned their lives were suddenly removed. Since they’d been children they’d been told that Marxism-Leninism was the only true political philosophy and then, almost overnight, there was an ‘oops, no it’s all nonsense’ announcement.

This is me then - standing in front of the Cosmos Hotel surrounded by the mounds of snow, one of which the KGB threw me into! lol
This is me then – standing in front of the Cosmos Hotel surrounded by the mounds of snow, one of which the KGB threw me into! lol

I’ve put some of these characters in my story and though the names have been changed to protect the innocent pretty much everything is true. Just as Tonia is, I was lectured by my English teacher at university to use our lessons with English students as ‘an opportunity to prove to our British guests the superiority of the Soviet, socialist, way of life especially when compared to their rotting Capitalism’. And just like Tonia, I was thrown by a KGB officer into a mound of snow for trying to send a fax, and I watched the attempted coup of 1990 unfold on CNN (pre-Internet, CNN was a great force for freedom). And I do remember waking up to find tanks parked on the lawn outside some Moscow apartment blocks (scary).

Of course, for someone like Tonia (and me) it was a marvellous time. Suddenly the drab, dour Moscow was being brought into the modern world. How excited we were (yes, really) when the first McDonalds opened (with the two hundred metre queue to get in). And what a thrill of going abroad for the first time was – that first visit to the UK, wow! (I will write more about it later).

So what I hope I’ve done in “Ghost Love” is communicate the mix of emotions Tonia experienced as she made the transition from Communist schoolgirl to modern woman. It was fun, it was frightening, it was confusing but boy did you know you were alive!

PICK A BALE OF COTTON

One of the key events in ‘Ghost Love’ revolves around my lead character Tonia singing in her university choir.

In Soviet Russia schoolchildren were encouraged to perform on stage, and if you had a good voice, that meant being part of the school and, later on, the university choir. As I wrote earlier, if you had talent you could attend a music school in addition to the usual school, but going to the music school cost money, in my case it was 21 Roubles per month (to compare, my Grandma’s monthly pension was 56 Roubles). In my music school the choir met every Saturday and we performed at various celebrations: the Great October Revolution Day (7th November), May Day (1st May) or Victory Day (9th May) being the most important ones in the Communist calendar.

Me in the music school choir second from the top right
Me in the music school choir second from the top right

This is a picture of me trilling away at one of those performances (I am second from the right in the top right corner). How glamorous we all looked in our celebratory write aprons and white ribbons in our hair! You also had to wear long white socks which I used to hate for those occasions (I’d always get cold in them!).

Tonia has a good voice so she’s naturally part of her university choir which features twice in ‘Ghost Love’. The first time we meet her rehearsing for a performance on the Great October Revolution Day – a BIG deal in Soviet times ‒ and, just like my university choir had I’ve made the choir leader an American. Not as strange as it might sound; there were quite a few American Communists in Moscow then, having fled the States to avoid persecution by McCarthy. All of us studying English used to flock to the choir sessions just to listen to her great accent (real English spoken by a real American, wow!) and to learn some of the old American songs. One of them was “Pick a Bale of Cotton”. I suppose the song is a little non-PC now and I’ve tried to communicate this by the observations made by Georgie, the rather outspoken English girl:

They worked hard for the next hour, running through the three numbers the choir would be performing at the Revolution Day Concert in November. Of these ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton’ was Tonia’s favorite, she found ‘Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’ a little too ponderous for her taste though the occasional asides by Georgie regarding the lyrics – ‘racist crap’, ‘fucking nonsense’ and ‘sentimental bullshit’ being the most memorable – did enliven their performance. And sandwiched between Georgie’s comments and Natasha’s rotten singing – the girl was tone deaf, which probably accounted for her terrible English pronunciation – by the time Mrs Maier called it a day and dismissed the choir Tonia had a monumental headache…”

The one thing about my singing in the school and later university choir, it stood me in good stead when I began to sing jazz (something else which features prominently in ‘Ghost Love’). When I came to England in 1998 I fronted the band performing in the jazz-themed hotel my husband and I set up. An interesting few years which culminated in my recording a critically-acclaimed nuJazz album called “Jazz Noir” (you can watch me singing that great Marlene Dietrich number ‘Falling in Love Again’ if you follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2J5Phukc8Y).

Alas for poor Tonia the consequences of becoming a jazz singer were much more threatening … but to find out why you’ll have to read ‘Ghost Love’!