The gloomy Sunday that wasn’t

These waning days of July have been bad. The weather is maddening – in a city that gets so little heat and light, people require a proper summer. When summer peters out a month and a half early, as if the quotas on warmth have been reduced like the quotas on foreigners, you don’t know quite how to respond. Well, aside from responses that just involve screaming “fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck” very very loud at odd hours of the day.

Being trapped in the city makes it worse. Lev and I are due at my parents’ in Kiev next weekend for a few days, but I don’t think I even have the strength to look forward to that. When children are a certain age, the patterns hardly change. You don’t get any rest with children. That’s just how nature designed the process. You do get a lot of joy and excitement and random Instagram moments – but not rest. Not stillness.

When the weather began to turn in Moscow, I started thinking, “Another year?” Another year of waiting for the sun to return. The rains that turn to snow that turn to black ice that turns human bone to mush from a certain height. The ghostly outlines of outdoor cafes. Lev’s feet getting too big for his boots. Another unsanctioned protest and wondering when the other shoe will drop. Telling yourself half-heartedly that “maybe Thailand this winter” – and almost being relieved that you can afford nothing. Phone calls from the dentist wondering where you’ve been, and no longer being sheepish about responding with the truth – which is to say that dentists are a luxury right alongside space heaters.

And through it all, you wait for the day that your visa is not renewed, or the day you wake from troubled dreams to discover yourself transformed in your bed into Edward Snowden – or something. You wait for the illusion of home to fade away again like it has always done before. Just like nature reclaims human dwellings, so do governments reclaim whatever small, honeycomb spaces humans like to call their own. You wait and you get tired of waiting – and go for a walk.

Moscow has a way of fooling you in late summer. It greets you in the morning – gray and wrinkled with the wind – and then it mellows slowly, growing golden around the edges. Never promising anything, never explaining. Never harder, never sweeter. Moscow is a deadpan city where no one is ever waiting – except for people who matter.

visotsky zheglov gif


If I could pick one word to describe Russia today it would be “uncertain.” Doesn’t strike you as the right kind of word at first, does it? What is this? “An uncertain Russia”? How can a country be uncertain?

And yet uncertainty is the biggest governing force both in Russia’s daily life and the more abstract processes that are otherwise known as “Russian politics” or “Russian public discourse.” Uncertainty is like the weather. Or not, actually – uncertainty makes the weather.

For the standard expat, the kind who’ll spend no more than five years here, at most, the uncertainty is still palpable. Will I get my visa renewed on time? Will I get my visa renewed at all? Why are rent contracts here no longer than a year? How come I don’t know my neighbors at all?

For the expat who has decided that she wants to stay, the uncertainty takes on a greater shape, like a shadow growing at the foot of the bed. Will I ever be able to get residency? What if the ever-changing legislation result in me getting separated from the kid who’s just fallen asleep with his head on his toy rabbit and the husband whose tattoos I can trace with eyes closed? Will there still be a military draft seventeen years from now? Where in the world do I go should everything fall apart? Everyone should be so lucky as to have something that can be destroyed in the first place, I suppose.

Russian businessmen at the top of the food chain, clamped to the very mouth of the oil pipeline in a kind of kiss, have wobbly, uncertain dreams. Police generals walk with an uncertain gait. Models in advertisements for home loans and new cars have wary, uncertain smiles.Tajik guest workers in neon-colored vests engage in meandering, uncertain arguments with the displeased grandmas parked permanently on a playground bench.

“Anyone in Russia can end up in handcuffs,” says Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, jailed member of the punk group Pussy Riot, at her latest, Kafka-esque court hearing. The policemen inside the courtroom appear smitten with her.

“They can lock up anyone around here,” my new landlady, daughter of Crappy Landlady (RIP), confides in me over tea. The new landlady is a matronly retiree, a former City Hall worker who votes for Putin and thinks that every modern apartment should have a bidet. She’s also engaged in a fierce legal war with her father – who’s trying to have her boyfriend jailed on assault and battery charges. The conflict goes back to the old, Bulgakovian “apartment question.” The apartment in question is the one we are renting, though there are more properties that will soon be in dispute. This is what often happens when a family member dies in Moscow – the absurd real estate prices, highly influenced, no doubt, by the record 79 billionaires who officially call Moscow home, will do that to people. The billionaires are themselves uncertain – like airy, porous apparitions, blown every which way by the wind.

Mark Galeotti calls Russia’s real decision-making apparatus the Deep State, and he describes it now as being “in deep water.” It makes me think of Adrienne Rich, diving somewhere where the sunlight does not quite penetrate. It’s dark and cool there – and peaceful, the enormous pressure at that level rendering sudden movements impossible. Those who are down there, do they envy the surface as much as the surface envies them?

In the evenings, we walk on the eastern edge of Moscow, waiting for the baby to fall asleep in his stroller. The new ducklings on the ponds have already gone from yellow to brown. I realized recently, that my desires have not changed much since I was thirteen years old. All the girls want to love, and be loved and star in an epic of their own making. And in all of the epics – you can see the end, and yet the end is still surprising.