The summer of 1992
It was a summer of smells. The air outside the Metro station, loaded with the fragrances of human sweat, added to the odours that emerged from the Soviet retail stores. Greenish pieces of thawed meat at the bottom of broken freezers, the putrid remains of tuna, stinking mackerels. I learned to inhale consciously, savouring every breath like strange erotic scents.
I arrived in Moscow on the last day of May. For the first three months I had booked a room at the Mezhdunarodnaya hotel, today the Crowne Plaza. From one in the morning the girls would call: Do you want a little sex? Three nights in a row I turned them down, then I moved out. The breakfast was unbearable anyway.
The new, old country, Russia, had been in existence for a bit more than twenty weeks. Inflation was spiralling, finally amounting to 2,500% for the year. The last thing you wanted was roubles. Each day we exchanged a few and discussed whether the black market was legal or not. Nobody knew for sure.
Nobody knew anything, but all the while there were some among us who anticipated the future, clear as if cut in stone. Derk Sauer started a twice-weekly publication called the Moscow Times, a stapled pack of xeroxes reminiscent of a newspaper. Arkadiy Novikov opened his first restaurant, the Sirena on Bolshaya Spasskaya. It was a few steps from my apartment and considered hellishly expensive even by ex-pat standards.
The Gaidar government frantically tried to come to grips with the economy. I remembered them from a bizarre little conference in Lausanne called “Meet the Government of Russia”, that spring. Chubby Gaidar was the obvious mastermind.
At dinner I sat opposite Chubais, sharp and blue-eyed. Shokhin with his white face and thick glasses, bright and melancholic, sat to my left. They were young and unpretentious. They had ideas, enthusiasm and their boss’s trust, and they knew that the chances of them breaking apart that communist monster economy without destroying it, were pretty close to zero.
Nights in the city were dark. No neons, no ad posts and few vehicles. Hardly any locals in the scattered restaurants and no shops to speak of. At least there was parking space.
The foreign community and the blessed who owned dollars frequented the large new supermarkets. There was the German one in the yellow building around the corner from the Beijing Hotel, the Italian right on the open lot behind the Aerostar, a French one somewhere, a Finnish. There was no talk of oligarchs in those days, and the term Novye Russkie had not yet been invented.
We lived the life of the quintessential Americain à Paris after the Great War, grand theatre for the observant foreigner, safely lodged in a guarded UPDK apartment, watching through the tinted windows of chaffeur-driven limousines. Sometimes, in the evenings, we mixed with the mortals.
And it was a summer of death. The old society, what was left of it after years of decaying perestroika, was rotting by the day. I remember the lifeless bodies on the MKAD and on Yaroslavskoye chaussee, then about the only roads fit for speeding. There was no concrete barrier dividing the MKAD, and pedestrians used to cross it day and night, trusting in God.
I remember the engineer from Sweden who suffered a stroke in the toilet at our office. I spent the night with him in the run-down intensive care unit at the Botkin hospital, body-guarding the slim, sun-tanned man of fifty, brain-dead on life-support, until the sleek Swedish doctor arrived at dawn.
Years later, when renascent Moscow quickly grew into a fad, people flocked in from around the world. Californians, Londoners, all hungry for decadence in the face of doom. They enjoyed watching naked teenage girls dance on the bar at the Hungry Duck and they read, still later, about their oh so wild, wild life in the eXile magazine.
In fact by then it was long over. Gone like the smells and odours. People were already making money, playing urban games. But in the summer of 1992, when you opened the limo door and exited into non-reality—there it was. Moscow, raw: a world spiralling downward in free fall, a maelstrom composed of the stark, blazing white light that only the dying could see.