This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
All Moscow theme restaurants actually have the same theme. The theme is: you’re not in Moscow. An old joke that used to be funny. Abruptly, as Russia’s invasion unfolds and the trappings of civilised life fall away with every new sanction, the observation becomes sad.
The bare brick walls, graffiti decor and hipsterish artisanal lightbulbs of 15 Bar and Kitchen once made Potapovsky Lane feel like an outpost of Brooklyn. Now it feels like a mocking reference to a receding, westernised world that is becoming more distant by the day.
Ikea has closed. ApplePay has shut down. Microsoft and Adobe software won’t update
I meet an old friend at the Moloko restaurant for dinner at two in the morning. Alexei sits hunched in a leather banquette, drunk. He’s too absorbed in doom-scrolling to notice my arrival. Despite sharing a name with the hangout of the sinister Droogs in A Clockwork Orange, Moloko is actually a homage to Balthazar brasserie, only classier. Tasteful, warm lamplight gleams on sleek black pillars and polished brass. Alexei looks up, smiles crookedly and brandishes his phone. He’s been looking up real estate listings in Tbilisi, Georgia.
“You always were fashionable,” I say flippantly. Tbilisi has been the destination of choice for self-exiled Moscow journalists artists, writers, architects, film and theatre people for some years now. Suddenly — these days everything seems to be happening suddenly, in swooping downward lurches — Tbilisi is no longer a lifestyle choice but a Noah’s Ark against a dark tide of chaos.
Earlier that day, a TV drama project that Alexei had been working on with Netflix had been abruptly cancelled a week into shooting. “My life here in Russia is over,” he says, in that matter-of-fact way that Russians have when speaking of the disasters that periodically engulf their lives. “I don’t fancy sticking around while this place becomes North Korea.”
Ikea has closed. ApplePay has shut down. Microsoft and Adobe software won’t update. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have been banned. Visa and Mastercard have pulled the plug on Russian cards. SWIFT has cut off Alexei’s bank from the rest of the world, snapping shut his ruble savings — which in any case lost close to half their dollar value in the war’s first two days.
Alexei slaps a fat envelope on the table. It’s stuffed full of euros he wants me to take abroad for him. I have to refuse. Other friends have beaten him to it and I’m already well over the Russian customs personal export limit of $10,000 in cash. “You know what, man?” Alexei says as we part. “I’m good with being a citizen of the world. See you on the other side.”
Anxiously, I text artist friends in Kyiv. The city is under rocket attack, but my crazy pal Misha breezily reports that he and his wife have taken all precautions — in the sense that they have toured the town buying up all the French champagne and cognac they can find. “Are you in a shelter?” I ask. No. They’re having a party in their studio in Podol.
I’m woken before dawn by a voice message from Misha. Important news — two of his artist mates, even more degenerate than himself, have got high and drunk and headed out to a local civil defence station. There they were handed a Kalashnikov, a heavy-calibre semi-automatic pistol and a large supply of ammo with which to defend their capital. Delighted, they return to the party to show off their new weaponry. I pause before replying. Does Misha really find this situation hilarious, or is this just desperate bravado? “What could possibly go wrong?” I write, followed by three smiley faces.
Valentina, a literary editor, can’t make dinner. She was arrested at a protest a few days before, fined £120 and given a criminal record. A second arrest, and she’s in jail for 15 days. Sensibly, she prefers to stay off the streets which are full of cops. “We can go for a walk in my courtyard,” she offers. Unlike Alexei — and in common with most members of Moscow’s intelligentsia — Valentina has no envelopes full of euros to spare. Panicking Muscovites have booked out all the planes and a ticket to Istanbul now costs five months of her now-devalued ruble salary.
She’s resigned. “We thought we could live a normal life in a fucked up country,” she tells me. “That was a nice illusion.” No plans to move to Tbilisi? “Who’s waiting for me there? Naaa. I’ll just have to become Russian.” Valentina is Jewish. “You know — learn to suffer for the Motherland and all that heroic shit.”
“Afraid of Bolshevik death, we chose a living death over here”
War brings out the hidden patriotic moron in unexpected people. Tatiana, a fashionable Moscow artist, posts images of her latest works — socialist-realist, Stalin-era-style images of soaring biplanes, steam locomotives and 1920s sports cars on social media. “Russian transport of the future?” I comment, ironically. “Those are American vehicles!” she shoots back. “Ours are much cooler!”
A close relative of my Russian wife calls to say that he’s sitting at the dacha with a group of particularly feeble-minded neighbours drinking to the success of Russian arms. He’s childishly gleeful about “restoring order for the khokhly” — a disparaging term for Ukrainians. I am glad I am not in the vicinity, otherwise I would go round and punch them. Then set their cars, motorbikes and houses on fire. I have never felt this urge in such concrete terms before. Cars first, or punch first?
My son and I arrive in Istanbul on a packed plane. I lived in this city for 15 years and left in 2016, but haven’t been able to face the prospect of return since, as I loved its decayed beauty and energy so very much.
But inflation and an influx of refugees have beggared the place. War, political instability and mass arrests have killed off the tourism industry — except for an influx of cut-price Gulf Arabs. Istanbul now feels even more tired, chaotic and poor than when I first arrived in 2000. Just like in the old days the distinctive, catching smell of brown coal smoke lingers in the alleys of the Tarlabasi slums. Fashionable cafes on Istiklal have become cheap kebab joints. It feels like a glimpse of Moscow’s near future.
The streets of Istanbul are full of Russians, mostly newly arrived and en route to places where they can live visa-free. Covid had shut down tourist visas for Russians for two years, so nobody has a European Schengen or US visa any more. Turkey offers just 90 days. Only Georgia, Armenia and a handful of other places allow Russians to live and work indefinitely. Talk in the cafes is of Georgian landlords refusing to rent to Russians.
The alleys of Istanbul’s Beyoglu quarter have seen this all before. Many years ago, I interviewed an elderly Russian man who lay dying beneath a tattered portrait of Nicholas II. He lived in a garret under an abandoned rooftop church, one of several in Karakoy built atop hostels for Russian pilgrims enroute to Mount Athos. His father had been the caretaker at the Imperial Russian Embassy, just up the hill, where he had been born in 1915.
Aged five, he watched from the Embassy garden as hundreds of French and British ships filled the Bosphorus carrying refugees from General Baron Pyotr Wrangel’s defeated White armies. Today’s influx of exiles is smaller and less desperate. But the sense of being expelled from home into a cold, hostile world is the same.
I read the diaries of Teffi, the pseudonym of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya, a witty St Petersburg writer who fled to Kyiv after the Bolshevik revolution. The fortunes of war carried her, like a defunct banknote blown on the wind, to Constantinople and
She describes her exigent life of nostalgia and poverty, where former colonels are reduced to driving taxicabs, ex-noblewomen dress up as gypsies to serve tea in cafés and all the castaways of the ancien régime cling absurdly to the affectations of their old way of life. “Their eyes are dull, limp hands drop and the soul wilts … we believe in nothing, want nothing, await nothing, dead. Afraid of Bolshevik death, we chose a living death over here.” Exile, she wrote, is like being “a poor relative who finds herself at a birthday party in a rich house”.
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