Moscow. Active Crime Scene.

I arrived in Moscow on the day the US military pulled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, and a couple of weeks before Dubya Bush made his infamous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech. Considering current events, such triumphalism illustrates the naïveté and casual vacuity of Western foreign policy, for it transpires we didn’t rid the world of despotism, poverty or stupidity, we just enjoyed a single euphoric moment equivalent to beating up the fat kid at school. Historically dumb ‘Regime-Changers’ and ‘State-Builders’ gave themselves self-laudatory slaps on the back as Saddam, a comical, pantomime baddie was over-thrown and replaced by an awkward coalition of neo-con bureaucrats, kleptocrats and homegrown religious fanatics, whose body count dwarfed anything Saddam -even if one includes his war with Iran, or if his psychopath sons were in particular bad moods- could muster. Instability in the region also birthed the hugely successful Arab Spring where more Middle Eastern and Maghrebian dictators, whose worst crimes were their penchant for gold fittings in their palaces and garish uniforms, were killed or sent into luxurious retirement in Gulf State Four Seasons Resort Hotels. Thereafter the leadership vacuum created some unintended industries such as the educational tourism pioneered by ISIS who opened universities and technical colleges into which enthusiastic Western students flew to matriculate, or Libya, a country that wound-down their nasty fossil fuel industry, so that its citizens could concentrate on making the country a vibrant hub for people-traffickers sending their wares to Europe.

Back to Moscow, where more Western triumphalism appears equally premature, as it transpires that Communism was also not defeated, as even the most cursory examination of Anglophone education syllabuses, government agencies and main stream media and entertainment platforms will demonstrate a fanaticism for collectivist solutions, loathing of tradition and the elites dichotomous faux-compassion/contempt for ‘the people’, would make Marx envious. In reality, Moscow replaced an ideologically sound communism with a corporately sound gangster capitalism, a decision for which we are suffering the consequences two decades later. My own interpretation is that the Russian people whom I met were initially excited about joining the concert of Western nations to assume their role as ovine foot-soldiers of Western consumerism and corporate avarice, which is not a particularly surprising choice considering the sophistication of corporate marketing. Whatever negative stories they had heard about the iniquities in the West, and conscious of their second-class economic status vis-à-vis the West, the Russians took solace in knowing that they were culturally superior to the decadent West whose populations had regressed into the contemptuous Homo economicus, obsessed with The Self, but shorn of spirituality and any vocabulary of transcendentalism. The West’s recent decade long adoption of a poisonous Woke-ideology and the concomitant self-loathing that this requires, will have only increased Russia’s contempt for us, as ‘pride in ones past’ is a foundational stone of Russian society.

 

The argument between Western modernizes and Slavophile traditionalists has been going on for centuries, without either side ever achieving a comprehensive victory. Nineteenth century Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev, who was very much in the Western, modernizer camp, could write, “we are an exception among people. We belong to those who are not an integral part of humanity but exist only to teach the world some type of great lesson,” a theme picked up by Dostoyevsky’s Prince Myshkin, “what makes matters worse in Russia is their naivete, the natural genius for belief and enthusiasm which causes Russians to carry out in action what the West, with its coldness and rationalism, only conceives of in an abstract thought.”

In such a light, it was always going to be more difficult to convert the Russians to free market capitalism, undergirded by liberal democratic institutions than by exposing them to nasty hamburgers, milky Starbucks coffee and Sienfeld repeats. Instead they took their own Russian turn.

The collapse of communism in Russia in the 90’s resembled a game of musical chairs, where a few lucky bureaucrats or technicians grabbed the obscenely lucrative energy and mineral chairs and became billionaires, whilst the rest of the populations became cynical alcoholics, who in brief moments of sobriety were seduced by the siren calls of the loathsome Putin, who reminded them of the time in recent history when the Soviet Union was respected, even feared, produced most of the World Champions in Chess, put the first man in space and its people were the dignified slaves to some esoteric idea called Dialectical Materialism rather than uncomprehending pawns of ‘market forces’, a heartless ideology in which untermensch such as the Kardashian litter could become billionaires, and democratic elections were won by breathtakingly mediocre technocrats who had been taught to lie by unethical spin-masters.

I had been invited out to Moscow by the client of a friend of mine. I was trying to set something up in Marrakech at the time and permits were taking longer than anticipated, so I asked this friend if he could sort me out with a quick consultancy number to keep me occupied. The next day he wrote back and said he had a two-month gig in Moscow, where I was to be parachuted into an existing restaurant to teach the team some new tricks. I stayed almost two years. Anyway, the restaurant, without any hint of irony, was called Snobs and catered to a new breed of clientele, one that would horrify the earnest ‘foodies’ in the West, as it was less Roaring 20’s, more Regency Era England, where a small clique, some who could use cutlery, some who could not, wore the laurels and enjoyed the spoils of a systems war against its people.

There doesn’t seem to be much point in reviewing the restaurants in the city, as they were all irredeemably dreadful. Myself, I remember eating a lot of cabbage and also a lot of caviar. I put a rabbit dish on the menu at Snobs and it was delivered with one paw still covered in fur. I asked whether this was meant to be a lucky charm for the chef to use as a key ring, but the guy said it was merely proof that the creature was actually a rabbit, rather than something domesticated in the West, one who might come when fishy things are put in its bowl.

The restaurant manager, who had been assigned to look after me, took us to an Armenian restaurant along the river from the Christ the Saviour Church, a couple of evenings a week, where we ate grilled ‘meat’ of uncertain provenance, stuff that would be covered, or maybe disguised with powdered pomegranate. We also drank liver-damaging quantities of vodka. I would plead for release to go to bed at two in the morning, whilst the restaurant manager would sleep on the banquettes of Snobs restaurant, even though he had a wife and children at home. He obviously got used to this life having served in the Russian military, where he had been a sniper and had travelled all around the world teaching the armed forces of the Soviet satellites such as Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Portland, Oregon?? how to shoot political dissidents from a distance? He had also served two tours in Afghanistan and been imbedded on a ridge above some valley that was used by the mujahideen, where he lay covered with sand for days, waiting for targets. I naively asked my dining companion, the restaurant manager, whether he had actually killed anyone. He sniffed, chewed on a bit of meat, and said ‘about two hundred.’ After that, he joined the detail responsible for guarding Gorbachov and Yeltsin, before the obvious career trajectory of restaurant management.

Applying the old adage of ‘never letting the truth stand in the way of a good anecdote’, my time in Moscow was pure theater. The city is really interesting for any history buff as it is where many of the seminal moments of the 20thcentury were hatched. There is also an incredibly rich cultural scene which in light of present circumstances is kind of redundant for Westerners, as we’re be unable to visit the city, except maybe as POW’s? My closest friend was the son of one of the partners, who spoke perfect English and possessed an encyclopedic mind. We would walk around the city and he would have an historic reference or vignette about seemingly every building in the city center, where someone notable had lived, or been tortured by the KGB. We played chess in Gorky Park and attended subterranean gigs where wannabe rockers played covers of Stones tracks. We visited Stalins gothic masterpieces on Sparrow Hill and elsewhere in the city center. We went out to his family dacha on the edge of vast forests and swam in icy lakes. We ate in Soviet era restaurants, as my friend -despite his father being one of the major beneficiaries of the carving up of the States utilities- was nostalgic for all things pre-glasnost, for the usual explanation that it was a time when the country was respected. This ‘retreat-from-Empire’ narrative has already been played out in the West, where Britain apparently did it magnanimously and the French did it petulantly. Reconciling oneself, whether as a country, or as an individual to a reduced status in the world is hard, and can be a partial explanation for some nasty behaviour.  

Back at the restaurant and more drama, we hosted Roman Abramovich, at a time when he was loved and lauded for injecting obscene amounts of cash into English football, who came with a dozen body-guards, we had the 70thbirthday party of the father of one of the partners, a guy who had won an Oscar for his film-making. There was so much security there that night and hilariously, we had someone outside the lift doors with one of those machine guns that is so heavy it has to be fixed on a tripod. I made sure I didn’t perform any tantrums or histrionics in the kitchen that evening. Another night, I was having dinner with one of the partners on our roof-top terrace and a waiter brought over a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild, one of our most expensive wines. The waiter informed us it was a gift from a middle-aged man on another table. True to the old adage that there is no such thing as ‘an ugly millionaire’, the aesthetically-challenged guy was with his own little harem of Anna Kournikova look-a-likes drinking the rest of the cellar of Lafite. We held up our glasses to him and I asked my friend who he was. Apparently he was one of the country’s most successful assassins, a skill set much in demand during the Yeltsin years when business contracts were enforced by people like the Lafite-drinker rather than lawyers. Happy days!

My beloved Boxer, Oliver even came to join me in Moscow and I had a Moldavian maid who looked after him during the day and would take him for long walks, even knitting him some little booties to keep his paws warm in the winter.

It was a good time and the present situation orchestrated by the historic-bastard Putin makes me so sad, as a ‘normal’ Russia would have been a great partner and excellent advertisement for the positive aspects of European civilization, especially as Western civilization is not very proud of its history itself, at the moment.

The last word belongs to Kolya from the Brothers Karamazov, “So he is an innocent victim and even though he is ruined, he is happy! I envy him.”

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