Disclaimer: Deirdre Clark, who uses the pen name Deirdre Dare, used to write a column for The Moscow News. MN is also the place where I work. Just putting that out there.
The best part to this piece by Anna Blundy, on the life of Western expats in Moscow, can be found in the comments.
This is what someone named “sence” wrote in:
If you managed to live in a city and a country of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chechov, Pushkin, Chajkovskij, Rackmaninov etc. etc. and all you could see was nights clubs and saunas – it is certainly not Moscow’s problem!
I may not agree with some of that spelling, but I certainly agree with the sentiment. Moscow is what you make it.
It’s easy to veer off into slut-shaming when discussing the writing and individual experience of the likes of Deirdre (whom I’ve never met, unfortunately) or Anna Blundy, or, for that matter, Western dudes and the local women who go out with them. I condemn sex-tourism because it is rife with exploitation and the violation of the basic rights of sex-workers, but when it comes to people’s dating habits, who the hell am I to judge? What irks me is not promiscuity, or drinking, or whatever – what irks me is the idea that “all of Moscow” is essentially like this.
Like Anna Blundy, I used to feel threatened by women who compete for the attention of rich foreign men. But I felt this way before I moved to Moscow, because I could afford to entertain all sorts of cliches about the place. Now that I’ve actually been here for a while, I’ve settled into a certain “scene” (or else several overlapping scenes) and am quietly going about my business, despite the occasional scandal. Or race riot (hardy har har…).
If you go by the articles, Western expats in Moscow are reminiscent of your typical class of incoming Duke freshmen. A whole lot of them were nerds back in school, and now it’s totally important! To prove! That they too can party!
Of course, in most cases, it’s always a little bit more complicated than that. But like any group, expat writers in particular will want to perpetuate a certain myth about themselves. And if they say that they lead soulless or otherwise unsatisfactory lives as part of perpetuating said myth, they’ll also be quick to point out that it’s totally not their fault to begin with. I mean, Moscow is a scary place. You have to deal with the never-ending terror of existing here somehow.
Seriously speaking, the part in Blundy’s article that left me feeling dismayed was the following:
Emma, a 28-year-old lawyer, went to Moscow on a six-month tenure, attracted, she said, by “the offer of an adventure”. She was keen to escape what she describes as “the claustrophobia” of London and the small professional world she lived in. She was not disappointed. “There was a sense that you could get away with bad behaviour in Moscow. No-one whose opinion you really cared about would ever find out,” she explains. [Emphasis mine]
Well dang, Emma, sweetheart. If you’re staying in a huge city, surrounded by all kinds of people, and there’s no one next to you whose opinion you really care about – then I almost feel as though your life in this city… kind of sucks? Forget falling in love – it looks like you’re not even making new friends. Or, you know, even going so far as giving a damn about the casual acquaintances you meet. Forget about Moscow being scary – you’re kind of scary, love.
I lived a very expat-y life in both Dubai and Amman, but at no point did I feel as though there was no one near me whose opinion I really cared about. You’ll say that living with an Arab dude was probably the reason for all that – but it wasn’t just my then-boyfriend who provided me with the emotional ballast that most human beings require. I had friends, acquaintances, colleagues; I took an interest in my neighbours, for God’s sake. I never really understood why, say, the Nigerian woman next door felt the need to beat her husband with an umbrella in the street on a number of occasions that I saw them out together – but these individuals sure as hell interested me as a couple. I was grateful for being invited to weddings and parties, because life did get lonely, and many social barriers came down after a few glasses of champagne or a few dances.
Amman was impossible for me in particular, but I’ll always remember it, and the country surrounding it, as stunningly beautiful. I’m grateful for having experienced life there – even if I couldn’t hang on to it, even though it was too hard. I have no feelings of bitterness and regret. Some of that surely has to do with luck, but some of it also has to do with the fact that I noticed Amman, and the people living in it.
When I read Anna Blundy’s descriptions of poor wee expats being trampled over by life in “chaotic and brutal” Moscow “that fosters a feeling of nothing to lose,” I wonder if these people and I live in the same city after all. I mean, don’t get me wrong – chaos and brutality are things I associate with Moscow as well (I spent 12 years in the good ol’ South, and my native Kiev is, to borrow the words of the playwright and screenwriter Natalia Vorozhbit, “a quiet little swamp”), but I also associate beauty with Moscow. Moscow is lying in the grass in the park until five a.m. in the summer, and snow squeaking underfoot in the winter. It’s a place where your friends are unashamed to quote poetry at the dinner table once the evening begins to wind down. It’s blizzards being suddenly overtaken by an endless blue sky and the setting sun setting ice floes on the Moskva river on fire. In Moscow, people still argue about theater like it matters. Prominent journalists write profanity-laced personal blogs. Dagestani taxi cab drivers hand you mint candy when you like down in the backseat, wailing about how pregnancy makes you car-sick.
I don’t care to classify Moscow as a “good” or “bad” place, but it certainly is a place, and I think that most people I know, expat or local, do, in fact, have a multi-dimensional view of it. I feel that the writing of Deirdre Clark, for example, is much more nuanced than people give her credit for. And it’s an honour to work with someone like Phoebe Taplin, who notices things about Moscow that many people who were born here have so far missed out on. It’s not about being June Cleaver and not going on benders (being pregnant right now, I do miss the benders), it’s about seeing beyond the benders. It’s about visiting a museum every once in a while, or, I don’t know, buying a CD off one of those street artists who’s actually pretty good. Or discovering you really do like Uzbek food.
In the immortal words of Foamy, “Live. Fucking. Life.” – Not because you’ll necessarily spend the rest of it here, but because whatever time on earth you do dedicate to Moscow will matter just as much as anything else, in the end.