Sunday, 31 March 2013

A Moscow riddle, our experience, North Korea and Jazz

A riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma......Churchill used this image in a broadcast about Russian foreign policy in the early years of the second world war.

Now that we are homeward bound to London it seems like a vivid way of summarising our experience of life in Moscow.

Some things work very well - the Metro, for example.

The food in shops and supermarkets is good, and cheap, and there is a wide choice of everything.

Drink and cigarettes are very good and very cheap.

The people are very hospitable, love conversation, and are generally very warm and and unaffected - there is very little sense of the snobbery that pervades English life.

Russians are well educated - they know about our literature and world literature whereas we tend to know only about our own.

Russians know how to behave in public spaces - we saw none of the moronic rowdiness and drunkenness that is common in London.

Young people always give up their seats to the elderly on the metro.

There are many beautiful buildings, especially churches, tucked away in nooks and crannies, and Moscow has many quarters of back streets which retain their pre - war living intimacy.

A touching example of the sensibility of Russian people is given by the graffiti on these walls, which illustrates and celebrates the poetry of the great Esenin, a poet who is still a national hero and whose verses are known off by heart by young and old, despite the fact that he died in 1925.

Esenin floats above the church in this graffiti and we even heard a young busker on the metro  sing one of his poems to an appreciative audience on the train

Lines from Esenin's poetry on this backstreet graffiti.


You see a lot of poverty in Moscow - a lot of old women begging on the streets and, a very sad sight, many amputee beggars on the metro trains, and the mainline train stations play host to large numbers of very shifty looking characters. Fagin and his boys are alive but not well here.

Everyone seems to be on the take, and it is generally accepted that every one will rip you off if they can and if you let your guard down.

Service in shops and restaurants is hopeless - people just can't be bothered. There are exceptions, of course, but they are rare, and often accompanied by incompetence, so that the helpful attitude is negated by the practical result.

Today we had a fairly typical experience, we were in a bar, an Irish pub called Harat's on Arbat street,  in which the music was painfully loud. We asked if it could be turned down a little - no, but they could turn it up if we would like. Organisations often give the impression of being run for the people who work in them rather than for the people who use them.

This tiny basement in Harat's reverberated with the noise of a painful thrash rock band  which the barman  refused to turn down so stay away if you value your hearing.

My guess is that Russia will soon suffer from an Irish or Spanish style property crash.

Everywhere there are enormous blocks of ugly but expensive apartment blocks going up, and a lot of them seem to have been empty for some time. Economic forces are global, everywhere else has had a property crash, China's is just beginning, so Russia's can't be far behind.

The next crisis will take longer to play out : the Russian economy depends on the export of oil and gas. The infrastructure that makes this possible is rusting away, and recovery rates for Russian oil are declining.
Russia is frightening foreign capital away, so raising the money to replace the pipes and rigs that get Russia's only exports out to its customers going to be a problem, just as the rest of the world is learning to consume less of these anyway.

Russia's own elite does not trust its legal and financial system, hence the Cyprus crisis and the flood of money to London and New York.

If the Kremlin responds to this by punitive measures aimed at Germany, which it perceives to be behind the decision to penalise big depositors in Cypriot banks, it will be cutting off its nose to spite its face, and other customers of Russian energy will take fright.

Surely they can see this for themselves?

But is there anyone running the shop?

Or are there lots of people claiming to own it each of whom are quietly dipping their hands into the till?

Who knows, we hope we are wrong, because we love Russia, its culture and most of its people.

And as usual, we believe the answer is more jazz.

During the Soviet era, jazz was banned. ( of course, jazz demands initiative and individualism, qualities the Bolsheviks discouraged. What a disaster for Russia the Bolsheviks' were - Lenin too was a miserable sod, cruel and narrow minded, a puritan....uggghhh, and what an egotist, statues of him haranguing the people are still standing all over Russia.)

So those that kept jazz alive and revived it once the next disaster called Perestroika arrived are rightly regarded as legends.

We were privileged to experience a performance by the greatest living jazz legend in Russia and to meet him personally at his club in Moscow last night.

Alexey Kozlov is now 77 years old, but he is still playing beautifully with his own band in his own club in central Moscow. The club plays host not only to jazz, but brings together different genres, including opera!

Alexey should go together with Charlie Wright's club in Hoxton, London.

Alexey on stage at his club with his band, tuning his alto saxophone, which he plays with a Parker like fruity and strong sound which swings infectiously.

There is a surprise in store for club goers every night, and for the best and true spirit of Russia get yourself down to Alexey's jazz club as soon as possible.

If only Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin and Barrack Obama could get down there too, as soon as possible, before some sort of terrible accident happens as these power - mongers posture before their military masters  over who has got the most deadly killing machine.
A couple of pints each, Alexey and his band pushing out a cool vibe, and all could be sorted without any loss of face, which is what counts for these guys.
Here all three of them will discover that there is only one tribe that really matters, and it's called humanity, and that music brings it all together around the rhythms of life.

Talking of tribes, we were amused by Sasha Baron - Cohen on the David Letterman show to promote his film Borat.
Asked if he had learned anything about the USA on his trip, he replied that there was something he wished he had learned before he arrived- that you are not allowed to shoot Red Indians now. He then sincerely apologised to the Indians working in the Nevada casino........

In these posts, we have tried to describe how we found Moscow and Russia, and to find connections between these and the rest of the world. We believe that people are roughly the same everywhere, and that whilst there are obvious differences these are both important and superficial. Important because they provide humanity with variety and more opportunity to solve our common problems, but superficial because our humanity underlies the differences and our recognition that this is the case is ever more vital as the clock ticks towards nuclear midnight and our numbers move towards eight billion.

We will miss Moscow, and we hope to be back soon, meanwhile, here we are, at the exhibition centre on the top floor of the enormous new shopping centre located in the new financial district in central Moscow, posing by the inspiration for Churchill's remark about a riddle wrapped inside an enigma - yes, the Russian Doll  - a mystery indeed.

Next week, back in London, so long Moscow.

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