A blood-red fairy tale

Our Moscow correspondent prepares to depart

The Economist | March 2nd 2007


EVERY correspondent wakes up one morning and realises that he cannot go on: that he must never again quote “a taxi driver” in his report from some foreign city. Partly because using such easy interviewees makes him look lazy, even if he isn’t; and partly because taxi drivers are always and everywhere congenitally grumpy.

I remember the sad Gibraltarian whom I decided would be my last, and since moving to Moscow I have until now avoided citing in my copy its drivers’ reflections on Vladimir Putin, Stalin and the disadvantages of wearing seatbelts. But I am going to break this unwritten rule for Azif, my new friend in Baku.

Azif and I met outside Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry, where I had been interviewing a slippery diplomat, and he drove me back to my hotel, on the edge of Baku’s old town and just behind its best-known landmark, the Maiden’s Tower (so called, a questionable legend has it, because a nobleman’s daughter threw herself from the top rather than accept her father’s incestuous advances).

Anybody who has read the ultimate Baku novel, “Ali and Nino” (and anybody who hasn’t, should) would recognise the old town, or ijari shahar, from the book’s description of it a century ago.

The novel tells of the city’s last oil boom, which paid for the grand European mansions that lie between the ijari shahar and the outer ring of Soviet apartment buildings and new petro-condominiums; of the period before and during the first world war and the Bolshevik upheaval, during which Baku was claimed by four different empires in the space of a few years.

Now, as then, the muezzin’s wail sails through narrow alleys scarcely wide enough for the limousines of today’s kleptocrats to pass through, and crowded still with washing lines and skinny cats lazing by overflowing rubbish dumps.

I liked Azif because, in the irresistibly ingratiating way that some Azeris have, he complimented my Russian so convincingly that he might even have meant it.

On my last morning in Baku I breakfasted on coffee and kumquats on the hotel roof, looking out beyond the Maiden’s Tower to the latter-day oil rigs in the Caspian. The carpet salesmen who crowd the lanes around the tower were not yet at work (“Come in! It is not shop―it is museum”). I found Azif waiting for me, as arranged, on the Caspian side of the monument.

Most of what followed, on the way to the airport, was the standard post-Soviet harangue, about the corruption of the government and how terribly ordinary people live.

All the oil money, said Azif, was going straight into the pockets of bureaucrats, and to bank accounts in Switzerland. Meanwhile his daughter, a nurse, earned $60 a month. Everything required a bribe, he explained: getting into university, seeing the doctor, getting a job.

He was gratified when I assured him that life in Russia was much the same, and even more so when I told tales of police extortion in Armenia. In the 1990s, after the last local empire collapsed, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought one of those filthy little fratricidal post-Soviet wars that scarcely anyone in the West has heard of.

Whether my report of Armenian graft pleased Azif because of a post-war vindictiveness, or because it appealed to some older, submerged sense of pan-Caucasian solidarity, I couldn’t say.

What was moving about Azif was his bitterly frank (though not uncommon) nostalgia for the Soviet Union. There never was or will be another such country, he yelled: “Not your European Union! Not your England! Not your United States! Not your Iran!”, the last being Azerbaijan’s southern neighbour.

In Soviet times, Azif said, he went every few years to pick up a new taxi from a factory in Nizhny Novgorod, driving it peacefully back across Russia and through the Caucasus to Baku. Everyone lived the same, in those days, he said. “Don’t you feel more free now?”, I asked in Baku’s dusty outskirts, though I already knew what he would say: how can I feel free when I scarcely have enough to eat?

The other thing that I liked about Azif was his instant hospitality, one of many traits common to all the peoples of the Caucasus, whatever their internecine differences. As we reached the airport, Azif told me that I was a haroshi barin (roughly, a fine gentleman). The next time I came to Baku, I would stay with him. I would meet his daughter, and he would slaughter a sheep in my honour.

I gave him the two things I thought he wanted, though in what order of priority, only Azif knew: a promise that I would return, and a big tip.


DESPITE the wind that tears off the Caspian, Baku in February can be tropical by comparison with Moscow. But it is really a place for spring and early autumn. I first went there late one May when it was already seethingly hot, and was taken to the city’s best outdoor restaurant by a government official. We had met and hit it off in Tbilisi, and, out of some complex Caucasian mix of mutual exploitation and friendship, stayed in touch.

Shusha, the restaurant, is a monument to Azeri practicality. It is named after—and built to resemble—a fabled, ancient Azeri hill town which was lost, along with the rest of the disputed province of Nagorno-Karabakh, in the 1990s war with Armenia.

Within the fake ramparts of Baku’s Shusha you could pay in almost any currency under the sun, and wash down your sturgeon shashlik with the fine local beer. Azerbaijan is mainly Shia, but, as with the beer, the Baku women promenading on the boulevard—as coquettish as the cast of any Tuscan passeggiata—were not conspicuously Islamic.

On that sweaty visit I interviewed Ilham Aliev, the country’s president. Azerbaijan’s constitution says the country is a democracy, but in practice it has become a monarchy. Ilham inherited the presidency from his father Heidar, whose features, as every visitor to Baku notices, still peer spookily down from portraits and plinths and the walls of ministerial offices. The airport, roads, and (for all Heidar’s energetic service to the vigorously atheist KGB) mosques have been named after him.

It was a strange interview, which began with an urgent summons and a limousine ride across Baku at lunatic speed. Oddly, the flunkies left the president and me alone in a marbled reception room.

Ilham was plausible, but, for an authoritarian leader whose regime is accused of all manner of nastiness, he made a basic error by lavishly cracking his knuckles throughout.

Afterwards I took a frantic call from one of the flunkies: could he borrow my tape recorder? His voice suggested that his toenails were at stake. He had forgotten to turn on the bugs in the interview room.

The next time I visited Baku, it was for an election. If you ever wanted to see what a rigged vote looked like, election night in Azerbaijan was your time. In the middle of it I went with a tipsy official to a rural ballot station, where I had seen a stack of uncounted ballot papers lying on the floor. “Bring tents to the square!” yelled protesters at a post-election rally, thinking of Kiev, before skull-cracking riot police moved in. On this latest trip I revisited the opposition headquarters, overrun with foreign journalists during the election, now desolate and stinking of urine.

It takes many things to make a democratic revolution, including a charismatic leader, some free media, money, support from foreign governments and wobbly security services. Azerbaijan’s political opposition has none of them. But the country may one day find another alternative to the Alievs.

I had been to the fervently religious town of Nardaran, and been shown around its grand, Iranian-funded mosque by a memorable old man wearing three-day stubble, bizarrely trendy dark glasses and an astrakhan hat. My companion and I repeatedly tried to introduced ourselves to the mosque’s renowned imam, before we realised that the imam was a mummified corpse.

This time I had a meeting with a living, dissident imam, whose sidekick picked me up (perhaps a little incongruously) beneath Baku’s Soviet-era statue of a woman discarding her shawl. The imam was clever and reasonable and in favour of democracy, but warned about what might happen in Azerbaijan if the Aliev clan didn’t change its ways.

Azerbaijan is a country so relentlessly other than what it seems that, for all the beer and miniskirts, I do wonder.


FROM Heidar Aliev airport I flew back to Moscow, where the streets seemed to be dissolving in a sort of primeval winter ooze: you might half-expect a great, hairy, prehistoric arm to reach out from the slush and drag you under. Then, when the temperature drops a few degrees, black ice sweeps the city, and Russians adopt a kind of freestyle skating to get around.

I had my first fall of the season on the day I got back from Baku. Descending the maliciously smooth steps to an underpass, I forgot to curl my toes through my fur-lined boots, lost my footing, and felt that annual sensation of disempowered terror as I crashed humiliatingly down the stairs.

It is the time of year when walking to work becomes a daily steeplechase, on pavements heaped with snow and partly roped off: supposedly to protect passers-by from falling icicles, but often because someone wants to park on them. The only solution is to walk in the road, scuttling out of the paths of cars like some Gogolian urchin.

Pedestrians are not a big concern for Moscow’s rulers. A pedestrian self-evidently doesn’t have any money—and why worry about someone who doesn’t have any money?

Yet, as I got back, Moscow managed one of its blue winter skies, and at Novodevichy monastery, my favourite place in the city, Russian parents were hurling undaunted children down the great slope from the old walls on makeshift sledges, and out on to the frozen pond at the bottom.

Ambivalence is Russia’s defining characteristic, wrote the brilliant essayist Joseph Brodsky, an observation which remains true of the country as a whole, and of its overwhelming but sometimes lovely winter. Today, as before, everything is getting better and worse at the same time.

One contemporary result of this old contradiction is the bitterness felt between Moscow’s financiers, whose incomes depend on selling Russia, and its foreign correspondents, who, by and large, are not buying.

The bankers regard the hacks as misanthropic sensationalists. The journalists see the bankers as amoral mercenaries, who, so to speak, fail to notice the pedestrians, and the too many people who fall off the tightrope that is life in Russia.

Part of the trouble is that journalists concentrate on governments, and Russia’s governments tend to be corrupt, chaotic, or both. Last week I was struggling to find out how a crazy new immigration law would affect me. I got three different answers from the same bureaucrat, who finally referred me to the BBC—said to be the only people in town who understood the new rules.

But the worst, the very worst, are the police. When they stop you on the street—nominally to check your documents, actually to extort a bribe—it doesn’t merely feel like you are being mugged; you are being mugged. Even when someone else mugs you, the coppers can spot an opportunity.

Not long ago I was robbed, and to my shame I had omitted to keep a business card in my wallet—a precaution that, as true Muscovites know, would have enabled the thieves to call and sell my identity documents back to me.

Without the documents, as the Soviet saying goes, I was nothing. To get new ones, I needed a certificate from the police. I found the adolescent officers who were supposed to issue it playing computer games and listening to gangsta rap.

There were three portraits on the office wall: of Vladimir Putin, Felix Dzerzhinsky (founder of the first Soviet secret police), and Rommel. There was a sign that hinted “I cannot drink flowers and chocolates.” They could give me the certificate, they told me, but there would have to be a “stimulus”.


A FRIEND of mine has just “come out.” Not as a homosexual, though my friend, who is indeed gay, said the feeling was oddly similar. He had been taking part in an online forum and, for the first time in Moscow, he admitted it publicly: he is Jewish.

I am, too, and although I like to consider myself hardened to it, Russia’s pervasive anti-Semitism can still upset me. It isn’t so much the lost young neo-Nazis who vandalise cemeteries, nor the unhappy Orthodox nationalists with their faux-Romanov beards and images of the dead tsar and vile banners.

What grates is more the automatic, proverbial prejudice that, outside the refectories of certain public schools, scarcely exists in Britain. It is written into the language. Russian has two words for “Russian”, the more important of which is the ethnically charged “russki”. Though his family has lived in Russia for 500 years, no Jew can ever be russki.

One of my first bouts of it came when I went on a day trip to an army base outside Moscow. The other journalists were not Russian, in fact, but (perhaps vindicating Borat) mostly Kazakh.

On the way there our government escort had a minor crash, then a punch-up with the other driver as a traffic policeman looked on. The soldiers entertained us with zany manoeuvres in their ancient tanks.

On our way back the conversation progressed from Britain, to Chelsea football club, to its owner Roman Abramovich, and thence to the uses and foibles of Jews in general. I was grateful that my Russian was still rudimentary.

Not long ago I went to a bureau de change that, in one of the quirks thrown up by the wild privatisation rush, was hidden inside a Moscow circus. I was a little anxious about the cash I was carrying, so rather than taking the metro I flagged down a car (almost every vehicle in Moscow manufactured before 1995 is a taxi waiting to happen). Its occupant was soon denouncing the global Jewish-Masonic conspiracy.

My friend had a similar experience the other day. His driver was pressing him as to which football team he supported. My friend confessed that he didn’t really follow football. “What are you”, the driver asked, incredulously, “a Jew or something?”

So although I’ve recently finished a book (called “The Earl of Petticoat Lane”) that is partly about my family’s origins in what was then the Russian Pale of Settlement, I rarely mention those origins to casual acquaintances.

Still, there are two bits of good news, sort of, for Russia’s Jews. One is that, though many Russians still see Jews as devious interlopers, they dislike other minorities (Caucasians, Chinese, a few forlorn Africans) even more. The other is that the situation is better than in Soviet times, when worship was often impossible, and a Semitic surname could be enough to keep you out of the top universities and professions.

That warped history has bequeathed a Jewish community that does not always fit the expectations shaped by my parochial upbringing in Jewish north London.

I went one Yom Kippur―or Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar―to the beautiful choral synagogue in the city centre, no longer monitored by KGB informers. Since hardly anyone could read Hebrew, the rabbi declaimed key passages for the worshippers to repeat―rather movingly, I thought, even if some of the worshippers were talking on their mobile phones.

There was another unfamiliar interlude (though I later discovered it was once normal in the impoverished synagogues of the Pale). This was an auction.

The prizes were mitzvot―meaning, in this context, the right to perform one of the small ritual roles assigned to lay people during the service. The auctioneer was the chief rabbi of Russia, and the proceeds went towards the building’s restoration.

The top mitzva sold for around $20,000. The second was claimed, for a little less, by a man with a shaven head, a leather coat and a heavily bandaged right fist.


NOT long after I arrived in Moscow, an acquaintance―one of those foreigners who smelt the aroma of money wafting from the east in the early nineties, followed it, and stayed too long―asked me whether I liked Russia. I replied that I wasn’t sure. “Good”, he said. “The people who tell me they love Russia,” he told me, “I see them six months later at Sheremetyevo airport with no luggage.”

I am leaving Moscow soon, and (as Brodsky predicts) I am still ambivalent. Partly I am exhausted by what a predecessor in my job described as “the struggle for everything”. But at the same time I seem constantly to be putting on CDs by Vladimir Vysotsky, a Russian chanteur who was half genius, half bar-room drunk, with one of those ultra-throaty Russian voices that only several generations of chain-smoking could have produced.

The other night I was driving along the frozen Moscow river and saw GUM (the famous department store in Red Square) lit up like a fairy tale, then the giant blood red stars on top of the Kremlin towers, and then the House on the Embankment―once home to party cadres who vanished from it nightly during Stalin’s purges, now topped by a huge Mercedes sign. And I thought: why would anyone leave?

That sort of doubtful sentimentality is itself a very Russian trait, which somehow co-exists with all the country’s hardness. But there are things that, even in the sober light of day, I know I will miss. Driving around the city with a ranting Armenian, russki pop blaring from his decrepit radio. Feeling unselfconscious enough (as Russia somehow lets you) to rumba to an a cappella group in a Georgian restaurant.

Also the deep culturedness of Russians, however well-disguised it sometimes is. Take any three at random: one will be able to play the guitar, and they will all know most of Vissotsky’s lyrics, and some of Pushkin’s poems. The pride and seriousness of Moscow’s concert halls and theatres, all the more impressive for surviving in the new Russian world. Silver birch trees in the winter sunlight. Long evenings of effusive toasting. The camaraderie of overnight train rides.

I will miss the existential bemusement that working and travelling in Russia often brings. The country is still much more an empire than a state, with an empire’s variety and the crazy no-limits quirks that erupted all across it when communism collapsed.

I will miss the electricity of dissent in a country where there is something truly to dissent against, and the sense that today, every day, almost anything might happen.

I fear I may never again interview a six-fingered shaman while sitting underneath a Lenin statue in Siberia, nor a Cossack running an oil business in the Arctic. Maybe I will never again meet the sort of bona fide saint that only Russia and its history can give birth to: human-rights workers in the north Caucasus; campaigning journalists in the Urals.

But, for all my personal ambivalence about living in Russia, and my affection for many things and people in it, I will also miss the moral simplicity that is the double-edged privilege of being a correspondent here.

Journalism can sometimes mean simulating conviction, passionately arguing positions that are really more hunches than certainties. That is not true in Russia. It is captivating and addictive and desperately fun, but, in the end, it is also dismally misruled, wastefully cruel and very very sad.

Category: Russia