This page is a part of my Moscow Life project, collection of illustrated stories from Moscow available online since 1995. I keep adding new ones now and then, please check complete list of all 50+ articles accumulated over 9 years of project existence - or the most recent story.


LEAVING SNOW BEHIND, March 1999 in Moscow

Just a street lamp  

March 1999
      By the end of winter, the weather all of a sudden decided to remind us how beautiful the season was supposed to be in Russia. Frequent heavy snowfalls were keeping Moscow decorated with dazzling white furs becoming heartbreakingly blue in the evenings. The street lamps were wearing tidy hats, and even hissing of tires on fresh snow was somehow soothing. And the linen was smelling fresh not because of the modern detergent, but because it was hung to dry out there in the snowfall - or after the snowfall - when the air still keeps the thin fragrance of drifting snowflakes.

   Snow always changes the mood. When everything around looks like a Christmas postcard, you feel like visiting a fairy-land even if it's been a long time since you stopped reading fairy tales.

   Approaching spring was bringing more colors and contrasts to our lives. Bright sun combined with cold air blasts from the North was growing huge icicles out of melting snow on the roofs. Skies were getting really blue rather than winter pale, and the days, noticeably longer. We were looking forward for the equinox.

And, as always in my stories here, you can zoom in on any picture. Just click an image, and a larger and better quality photo will open. Many of the photos are worth looking at in postcard size.

   Half a year into the crisis, we are already used to uncertainty, the most persistent feeling of Russian life after August 17, 1998. Accumulated uncertainty slowly rots into uneasiness and hidden hatred. Millions of people are waiting for something or someone to show them who is to blame for all that shit and misery around. (Not that before August of last year the life here was stable and predictable for everyone. Still, some people in their business and private life were trying to do some planning. Some were even sincerely believing in their plans. Now it does not seem to make any sense.)

   It took NATO actions in Yugoslavia to set this volatile mixture of unhappiness and hatred on fire. Political analysts who try to predict international reactions do not think about people in other countries, they perhaps believe more formal data cleared of emotions. It was sad and strange to read in late March that Russian reaction was a surprise to American experts. Well, bad experts they are - they should have asked ahead of time anyone living in Russia, what happens if the situation offers an object to focus all those tons of unhappy hatred onto...

   Okay, to hell with politicians and their bloody games. Let's better get back to Moscow streets. There, and in the Russian market it is interesting to observe changes in behavior patterns. Market activity in the months of creeping crisis remains unnaturally polarized. Cheap low-end goods and services, necessities sell okay - we are not dying of starvation. Expensive high-end luxuries also survived happily, they used to be consumed by criminals or authorities (actually, there is hardly a difference thanks to ultimate corruption). Gangsters, politicians, and tax inspectors still are very well off.

   But virtually everything in between has disappeared. You can either buy at outrageous prices in the beautiful stores - or dirt cheap illegal import from China at flea street markets. Does not look like a stable situation in the long run - but who cares about long-term prospects when elections are so close. Elections in Russia always go hand in hand with possibility of drastic changes of political course and entire legal base, including financial and business regulations.

   So it is much more pleasant to look at Moscow and enjoy the scenery rather than discuss not very visible aspects of our life. Scenery of late winter offers all the funny details that make walking in the city a relaxing experience. How long since you played snowballs on Red Square in front of the Kremlin?

Snowfalls change sculptures and architecture, blur backgrounds and offer strange sights of someone digging under Lenin's Tomb - and then next day all the snow ends up in the river...


   In the parks, people enjoy Maslenitsa, the last day before the Lent begins, - the festivity of greeting the coming spring that survived from ancient pagan times and was reluctantly allowed by the Orthodox Church to live on. Amusement parks are also full on weekends, and balloons are sold even in the snowstorm.

   ...And snow, that same snow we started the story with, makes not just nights looking magic. Strange thing, this story is titled Leaving the snow behind - but it seems impossible to leave it there immediately. It just fills up the city again and again - and the famous VW Buggy sits in the snowpile like an exotic flower, with a graffiti-covered walls in the background - making it difficult to tell in what city in what country the picture has been taken.

   Snow also serves as perfect sunshine reflector, so good for first tanning of the season. Parks look like beaches even if the dresses do not remind of bathing-suits. They spell spring and sun anyway.

   Snow plays tricks with motorists - sometimes in the morning it is impossible to find the cars parked by Moscow houses. Walking in the streets and boulevards becomes an adventure in the snow kingdom... But those who are truly adventurous - go to the rivers for last winter fishing experience on already thin and vanishing ice!

Spring means brighter colors everywhere, and March started showing them indoors and in the streets. Advertising agencies struggling to survive through the loss of over 50% of their clients and severely cut down budgets of those who remained offer new cheaper but sometimes quite spectacular techniques. These guys dressed up in colorful costumes of ancient Russian street actors - but with advertising boards on their backs - became a frequent sight in Moscow. Red and yellow leather coats look great on white snow!

In GUM, the largest department store in the city (essentially a really big mall now), first tulips decorate the fountain. Though they are just the pieces of plastic, this flower ring in the middle of GUM whispers that the spring is already here... even if hiding for the time being.

Street vendors are also becoming more active and numerous. Warmer days mean more customers. Arbat, the street very popular among foreign tourists, shows more matreshka nested dolls, all sorts of former Soviet stuff: flags, medals, military hats and uniforms, hand-made shawls and dresses.

Snacks, ice-cream, and soft (or not so soft) drinks are sold well, crisis or no crisis. Small stands with hot-dogs, ice-cream cones and cola and juice cans and packs - both local and international brands, from Coca-Cola to genuine Russian kvas, fill the sidewalks. March plays practical jokes with them, and umbrellas that are supposed to protect from the heat of summer sun have to keep the snow away from the products - and salespersons.

Construction work often stops for the cold season. Of course, not every construction site will see activities restored even when snow disappears this spring. Some companies and their clients have lost their money and will not continue expensive restoration of old houses.

But there is always hope. Hopefully, this church will eventually be renovated... and will become another beautiful piece of architecture for spectators like me - and a spiritual home for those who need it.

The old house lost in the maze of small streets and lanes around Arbat will, perhaps, keep its facade (if it finds the right investor) - but behind it there will be modern luxurious apartments. Better not to think who will be wealthy enough to buy or rent them.

So... We are leaving the beauty of snow behind. The spring is on us, and March makes crazy not only hares and cats. Some people, mostly politicians, are affected too. They want to form a federal state with Milosevich, increase taxes so that they are higher than any possible profits, and piss on the windows behind which the Jews live. March makes them not only insane, but also talkative and they without fear, shame or shyness share their dreams with us all on TV.
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Excited people sit in front of their TV sets and enjoy the show. The city looks deserted and clean at the time - like on the top photo on the right. Brooms and shovels are waiting for their masters by the sculptures on Manezhnaya Square, cars are left in the snow in the middle of bedroom communities at Moscow outskirts...

Only long-haul truck drivers are not entirely happy in Moscow in these days of March insanity. On a small rally they are demanding more hospitality from Moscow authorities and less attention from city police. Lots of policemen were watching and listening - following the orders. Perhaps it was looking like a kindergarten to them, bracing themselves for all the battles of election years...

In short, life is happily going on in Moscow. Occasionally stumbling over a new steep rise of rouble exchange rate, but still limping on - or hopping on - depending on road conditions.

We are alive - life is fun. In Russia, in particular, if you are trained well enough to have this fun without risking too much. Moscow is great even without Hungry Duck. If our beloved city will not choke on its own greatness, in two months I will tell you more...

Andrey -

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