Recently, against my better judgment, I was dragged by some friends of mine to a Russian house party. I didn't really want to go, but some architect friends persuaded me it would be really great, and I was told that it was at the apartment of a local journalist. Journalists and architects--sounded pretty civilised--and I've been reading so many articles lately about "Russia's growing middle class" that I thought it would be much better than old-school Russian parties I'd been to. Surely, with this birth of the middle class, the days of sitting round a long table eating bowls of mayonnaise and drinking inhumanly large shots of vodka were over. After all, what does "middle-class" mean if not pleasantly decorated homes, civilised party chatter, an assortment of ethnic niblets and a few glasses of wine that's cheapish but drinkable – perhaps a nice Chilean or Argentinean number? And journalists and architects are surely just the sort of people that should be the vanguard of this new burgeoning bourgeoisie.
The first sign that not everything was as it should be was when we found out the address–-a street somewhere near Proletarskaya. Stepping out of the taxi, it was clear that while Proletarskaya might be only a couple of stops outside the ring, we may as well have stepped through a time warp. For a start, only the Soviets could have come up with such an absurd name for a region. In any other country, calling an area "Proletariat Region" would have such a horrific effect on house prices that the residents would band together and change the name immediately. It's like a region of London being called Chavside, or an American town Trailer trash, Tennessee.
We disembarked our taxi outside a Produkty shop to stock up on some provisions for the party. The only brand of wine they stocked was called "Arbatskaya" (oh yes, many a time I've walked down Novy Arbat and seen those groves of succulent grapes ready for picking), so we decided to go for beer.
"Fucking hell, it looks like there's a war on," said a British friend, who the architects had also persuaded to come along, looking at the shop's food section–-Soviet tinned shite with white, plain labels. SARDINES. CONDENSED MILK. LIVER SPREAD. He was right–-the only time I'd ever heard of condensed milk before I came to Russia was in books about the Second World War.
We bought six cans of beer, coming to 182 rubles, and gave the woman 200.
"Do you have the 2?" she asked, with an ominous look on her face.
I rummaged around.
"No, sorry," I said. She started muttering stuff and slammed down the change on the table. I peered into the till and spotted a vast collection of coins and ten-rouble notes. What, I wonder, is the obsession with wanting the exact money, even if you're not short of change to give back? They're just so emotional about it that there must be more to it than sheer laziness–-maybe it's easier to skim the till when there are lots of coins in it, as the alkash owner is less likely to notice. Either way, the absence of a two-rouble coin in my pocket made for one seriously angry woman.
I imagined hooking up this blond-permed monster to one of those machines that monitors spikes in heart rate, and reading aloud various statements to her.
"Your president ordered the detonation of apartment blocks killing hundreds of innocent people, just so that he could start a war and become more popular."
"One of the country's most fearless investigative journalists has been shot in her apartment building in cold blood."
Heart rate stays constant.
"Your country is dying. A combination of booze, cigarettes, terrible working conditions, disease and poverty is slowly wiping your race from the face of the earth."