Sunday, July 02, 2006

Summer in Moscow

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi

Byline by MJ Akbar:Summer in Moscow

Moscow seems shamefaced about summer. Thirty degrees centigrade in the forenoon of last Wednesday is forty degrees higher than during my last visit in December. Moscow then was a grey world flecked with snow white. The wind screamed at the fur hat and taunted the ear muffs. Local faces had the confident serenity of a winter people, and a mild chuckle in the eyes at the visitor’s bewilderment at winter. Summer heat has surprised men and disoriented technology. The air-conditioner in my fancy, new hotel room leaks like an overburdened tarpaulin in monsoon. Complaints evoke genuine sympathy and the occasional mechanic, but no solutions. If the heater had been giving trouble in December they would have known precisely what to do. The male dress code for summer is linen half-sleeves. For women, it is a bit of an undress code: they peel off as much as they dare and store up the sun in their skins for the long dark winter just around the corner.

I wonder if the side-to-side and back-to-back traffic at noon is another sign of summer, with people finding any excuse to get out of office. This is not office-rush; this is out-of-office rush. By Friday afternoon this escalates into out-of-town mass escape. The weekend is sacrosanct from Siberia to California: as they put it, only thieves and policemen work on weekends. Not even newspapers are published on weekends. Information is an unnecessary intrusion on tranquillity. If a world war broke out on Saturday Muscovites would probably not know until Monday. On the other hand, they did fight a world war, albeit a cold one, for five decades — with both sides taking the weekend off. Very civilised. I wonder what would have happened if the Soviet Union and the West had fought each other on all seven days.

The role model for new Russia is a former KGB agent, Alexander Lebedev. A fortnight ago he threw a party in England at the 8,500 acre estate in Northamptonshire where Princess Diana was born and now lies buried. When Lebedev throws a party, it travels very far indeed. His idea of entertainment was a volatile mixture of Russian Wild East, Hollywood, confused Arabian Nights and high art. Extras in 18th century dress lounged among the distant trees. Others wandered around leading wolves on a leash. Cossacks charged across the English landscape. A camel or two sauntered by. The Christ Church Cathedral schoolboys’ choir sang from the balcony to shift the mood. One of Russia’s finest pianists, Andrei Gavrilov, soothed guests along with oysters and champagne. After dinner dancing was in charge of the Black Eyed Peas (a band) with help from a videolinked U2.

The guest of honour was former Comrade Mikhail Gorbachev. The cause: funds for the Raisa Gorbachev Foundation to help children suffering from cancer. Money was raised by auction (of a ride in the world’s fastest MiG, for instance). Salman Rushdie was among the guests, but I have no idea whether he coughed up anything. One million pounds were raised in a single night. How much money was spent on that single night? £1.3 million. Lebedev could have saved everyone the trouble and handed his bill for the party to the foundation, but that wouldn’t have been any fun, would it? Charity begins at home.

How did Lebedev become a billionaire, starting from a KGB salary? He resigned and set up an investment company during the heyday of Gorbachev’s glasnost. He stood on the same side of the barricades as the reformers when the old established order nearly pulled off a successful coup in 1991. In 1995 he was rewarded with the chairmanship of the National Reserve Bank, which was struggling to stay in business. It stopped struggling after Lebedev got the account for Gazprom, the massive state-owned energy conglomerate. Lebedev now owns 31% of Aeroflot, among other things. He also contested for mayor of Moscow and semi-secretly dreams of becoming President of the Russian Federation one day.

Watch the news.

I gather that the new international corporate mantra for upwardly mobile management types is to look each morning in the mirror and call yourself a rock star. This apparently provides enough of an ego boost to send your competence soaring. But take your time about behaving like Lebedev, or indeed any other rock star. Here is what I gathered from one article in a magazine abandoned at an airport. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt went to Namibia to have their baby in the mother of all nations, they demanded, and got, a no-fly zone over their villa. Foreign journalists were permitted to enter the country during their stay only if the Jolie-Pitt gang had cleared their arrival. A South African journo who violated this ban ended up in prison for three days. Namibia declared a national holiday to celebrate the birth of the infant Jolie. What makes you laugh-cry more? Rock-star stupidity or Namibia’s idiocy? Elizabeth Taylor wanted Buckingham Palace swept for security when she went to collect the gong that made her Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. (It exists. Britain still rules a couple of tiny islands in the West Indies.) Tom Cruise’s servants had to sign a contract that punished them with an escalating series of fines if they were caught passing on information to the media. A nanny could, theoretically, end up with a bill for a million dollars. Any management trainee with a hint of such airs is likely to get the sack rather than a promotion.

Maxine Maters, my Dutch friend who lives in Moscow and is the publisher of Moscow News, thought it a big relief that Holland had not qualified for the World Cup. It gave her the liberty of being neutral. Modestly, I pointed out that I had the same freedom. India had not qualified either. I changed the subject before she could ask me at what point of the tournament India had been eliminated.

I had the liberty of being neutral while watching Argentina play Germany on the big plasma screen set up in the hotel foyer. The commentary was in Russian, and it did not matter. There is no verbal commentary that can match the swooping cameras darting upon faces, on the field, on the sidelines or in the stands. Cameras create the ratings in sport. If the cameras had been inside our hotel at that hour, they would have dwelt I suspect on the undress-code ladies occupying the sofa between me and screen. I did wonder though if the real game of these ladies was football.

Since neutrality is anaemic, I have tried out a variation of historical determinism in order to find out who I should support. This system might also be called Losers’ Ladder. It is based on empire and colonies. As an Indian, my first preference was for the old colonies: Australia, Ghana, Togo. The whimper-exit of Ghana eliminated that option. My sympathy should, logically, have then transferred to the comparatively underdeveloped world, and thus to Latin America. The Latins also play great football. But, frankly, it is difficult to support a continent one has never visited. You can’t put a context to your cheering. Logic took me to the next category: the countries in which one had good friends. I am pleased to report that some of my best friends are English, but England ruled itself out because it had made the mistake of ruling India once. That left me with Germany and Italy.

Both won on Friday night. Thank you, Moscow.

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