Expats! In Moscow! Drinking! Banyas! Girls! And wishing daddy could see how naughty you’re being!

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:

Dear ladies,
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.

5 thoughts on “Expats! In Moscow! Drinking! Banyas! Girls! And wishing daddy could see how naughty you’re being!

  1. People from all over North America go to Las Vegas to party where outrageous behaviour is the rule rather than the exception, and rejoice in the fact that nobody whose opinion matters to them will ever see them. And you’d be hard-pressed to find a cheesier place than Las Vegas, although the rubes just love it. I wouldn’t take the implied dissing of Moscow too much to heart; it’s probably a great place to party, too. And non-cheesy.

    What you want to do when you’re in a strange big city probably depends largely on how much time you have, and who you’re with. If you’re there with a bunch of college girls (assuming you’re also a girl, which I’m not) and you’re there for a week, I can see Rachmaninoff falling off the schedule of planned events. If you’re there to work, have as much time off as every other working stiff and are going to be there for a year, you can likely work the culture angle a little more.

    There’ll always be people who seek out big cities for the anonymity they provide. And when we watch their antics, we’ll thank whatever Gods may be that they’re not at our table.

  2. I’m not against partying or anonymity – I don’t think these things have to make you unhappy either, I think I’d be *way* miserable now, with a baby on the way, if I felt as though I hadn’t had a lot of fun in previous years – but I’m against the idea that “oh, I don’t really give a shit about anyone around me! And it doesn’t make me happy! But whatever, Moscow’s such a horrifying place, it’s not like anyone is ever happy around here!” Because… get over yourself.

    And it’s different – if you live here for six months, or a few years, vs. deciding to pop into town for a week and just having fun. In the former scenario, even if you can’t interact with locals (language barrier, for example), you interact with your colleagues or your spouse’s colleagues or whatever. And if you don’t give a crap about their opinions either, if they’re not human to you as well, well… the problem is in you.

    I guess I saw way too much of that in Dubai, to the point that my tolerance level for it now no longer exists. “It’s so soulless here! So terrible! Everything’s for sale! Everyone’s a whore!” “Dude, have you tried making actual friends…?” “No, no, there is no point point! Everyone is beneath me! I stand alone! Doomed to solitude in my superiority! I’m going to go get wasted now and write moody entries about how everything and everyone sucks in my invite-only blog!”

  3. Ha, ha! That’s way too funny, and of course I know people like that, because I’d imagine everyone does. Yes, you’re right; there are those who carry their own exclusionary funzone with them when they go out for a good time, and a large part of the enjoyment often exists in making fun of others. Although I’d probably be one of the first to laugh at the abysmally drunk guy dancing by himself who thinks he’s got the moves everyone wants, but is having a tough time staying on his feet, usually I like to meet the people around me and make new friends: I rarely get drunk enough myself to be deliberately offensive. In fact, never, because my wife (like many Russian women) has a horror of drunkenness.

    However, there are (rarely) other people at parties who are complete buzzkills on purpose, and sometimes they go out of their way to ruin a good time for anyone trying to be friendly. Sometimes they’re locals, not out-of-towners looking for fun.

  4. Nice article. I live in a very old, picturesque village on the North West coast of England. People come in coaches, but they don’t seem to notice anything either. So, yes, it’s not places, it’s people.

  5. This blog gives rise to so many emotions that I have to be careful as to not make my response irrelevantly personal (it was published on my 27th bday for starters) or novel-length. Thanks for writing it.

    1) re ex-pats: the city I live in, Jerusalem, is teeming with US youth on vacations of different length sponsored by all manner of hideous right-wing Zionist organizations such as Taglit. Said moneyed young things are one of the abominations of this place (whose name is truly a legion) and are viewed as loud imbeciles by pretty much everyone else. Having said that, SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE AMERICANS.

    2) re Moscow et moi… Having spent there the first 9 years of my life, for which I’m painfully nostalgic, I’m fully aware that my perspective is an intensely personal one. However… The image I carry in my mind is of a lazy, unfussy, tasteful (add any number of similarly cozy adjectives) East-European capital. The city I saw in the noughties is defined by bling, robber capitalism, gaudy malls and sky scrapers that disfigure the urban landscape beyond recognition. What alienates me the most though is the language. I feel that nowadays Russian is spoken in either 1) spectacularly misguided attempts at sounding cool 2) shrill polemical tone that satirizes potential responses as it goes along (“ленинский сарказм”) 3) any number of tones and modes of argument loosely defined by 1 and 2 that have in common their depressing effect. On me.

    Sincere apologies if is this comes across as prejudicial or patronising. What drew me to your blog is that you write on Moscow in a style I enjoy and can identify with.

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