I’m currently deep in the editing process for my novel, set in Moscow in the 1990s. I had put the manuscript to one side for a few months after I completed the first complete draft. Now there are some episodes in it that I had almost forgotten, so I have the odd experience of reading some things with relatively fresh eyes; something that, when I was in the first frenzy of weaving it all together, I would never have believed possible.
It has given me a little perspective, and I can see some of it much more objectively.
I don’t think I’d ever seen a gun close up before I went to Moscow. I’d seen them in the hands of flak jacketed policemen at the airport, but that would have been the extent of it.
So when I saw a young man dressed in military fatigues, balancing a machine gun (which, in my ignorance, I imagined to be a Kalashnikov) the butt in his hand, the muzzle pointing to the ceiling, in the lobby of the office, when I arrived for my first day of work, it would be an understatement to say that I was surprised.
But after that striking introduction I gradually became aware of guns, both blatantly visible, and obviously concealed beneath bulging jackets, in many places. Some restaurants had airport style metal detectors at the door, many offices, like ours, had armed guards inside their entrances; strangers in the street had a swaggering gait that came from a particular kind of confidence.
My first view of Moscow in daylight, from the Slavyanskaya, December 1994
For my first three weeks in the city, I lived in the Radisson Slavyanskaya hotel. At the time a fierce commercial dispute between the Russian and American partners in the hotel joint venture was approaching its violent end. By pure mischance my room was on the floor used by the American partner when he was in residence. His bodyguards would congregate in the large open area by the lifts and watch every one getting out with close suspicion. I would rush past them as quickly as I could and would only relax once I was behind my own locked door.
What with the bodyguards in the hotel and the gun juggler in the office lobby, I was convinced that I stood quite a high likelihood of being shot by accident.
Some violent crime did unfortunately affect people quite close to me, and a couple of men in another department of the firm fell victim to their own vanity by being taken in by young women in bars who then subsequently drugged and robbed them.
It was these experiences that fed into my imagination when I was writing about Rose Fleming and her experiences in the city. For the purposes of drama, I subjected her and her colleagues to some frightening and potentially dangerous situations, although, to my knowledge, none of them actually happened. At the time I did occasionally consider the possibility of what I would do if I really had to confront danger, but it’s not the sort of thing I can linger on and still be able to sleep at night.
While through work I had only indirect contact with officialdom in the form of the various taxing authorities, the closest I ever came to a member of a police force was the regular contact anyone travelling in a car had with the GAI, the traffic police. They would stand at road junctions and wave down unlucky drivers for infringement of one of the multitude of potential offences. For the majority it was easier and quicker to pay the officer than to deal with the protracted delay involved in having a formal ticket written. The rate was clear and uniform across the city; it amounted to a sort of privatised taxation.
I was perhaps fortunate that the only crime of which I was directly the victim was the regular theft of my telephone bill, something that was as mysterious as it was frustrating, as it frequently resulted in the phone being cut off.