Some time ago I was having lunch on the veranda at Moscow’s fancy Simachev Bar with my friend Alexei. He recently became the editor-in-chief of a high-end glossy magazine. We were having lunch and discussing my career options when I realized Alexei didn’t think I had any.
“I think you should just marry an oligarch,” he said.
Surprised, I downed my 250ml. bottle of water in one go.
“What? You think I could pull an oligarch?” I asked.
“Like they say, every supply will meet its demand,” Alexei replied matter-of-factly, and shrugged into his herringbone suit.
“But that’s just so… degrading,” I said and gave Alexei an offended look.
“I think it’s degrading having to work every day… See, I can’t even finish my lunch. I have to run back to the office. Do you want this caramelized sculpture I received at a watch presentation? It doesn’t fit into my sac a depeche.”
I bit on the caramelized flower; it was pretty but tasted like liquid soap, so I dumped it under the table and left for the metro. It started to rain. I felt like Alexei might have had a point.
* * *
After I returned to London, where I’ve been living for a few years now, I met up with Karina, a young luxury PR specialist. I was surprised to learn that she was preparing to move back to Moscow. She was getting married to a guy named Lyosha, a sweet if slightly middle-class Moscow State University graduate. Lyosha couldn’t get a working visa in England, so Karina going to relocate back to Moscow to live with him.
“Couldn’t you wait a bit, maybe he can still get a British visa?” I asked her. “You’ve always said how much you liked living in London. What’s with all the hurry?”
“Oh, I don’t care,” she said. “I just want to get the whole marriage thing over with now. Cause you know, after 21 you’re kind of over the hill.”
“I thought 25 was over the hill!” I shouted.
“At 25 you’re already in the gutter,” Karina replied in her usual grim way.
* * *
I decided to ask my German friend Manuela, especially since age-wise she’s just an inch away from that gutter herself. How was she seeking salvation?
“I’ll become the editor-at-large for American Vogue,” she said.
“And if it doesn’t work out?”
“I’ll try Harper’s.”
“What if they make you rot in the fashion closet for five years?” I asked.
“I’ll give myself three years and if I fail, I’ll just go back to Monaco and marry Giovanni… They say re-heated coffee tastes like shit. I hope Giovanni will still taste good.”
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll find someone else while you’re building your career?”
“No… His family would never let him marry anyone else. I am the only girl they know who’s not after his inheritance. He is surrounded by sluts.”
I was baffled. If even Manuela, who had a billionaire family to fall back on, was considering getting married to an infantile eurotrash loser as her backup plan, what was left for me? The harsh truth was dawning on me. I look back now at the days I spent sneering at my friend Nastya’s trophywife hunting when we were in art school together, and I now I’m thinking I was just self-righteous and foolish. She was the smart one all along. After all, the last time I heard from her, she and Sergio were engaged. Maybe I should have bagged that Vlad guy when I had a chance.
* * *
The last straw was the news about Marina. I’ve always assumed she’d go back to Russia and grow her parent’s already hugely successful business, which she seemed so well-suited for. I met her in the airport last Christmas. Marina was heavily pregnant, and she seemed chemically sedated, all wrapped up in a gray cashmere blanket, blond and fragile: she looked like a German POW. I asked her what happened to her? Marina explained that she got knocked up accidentally by some surfer, dropped out of college, got engaged, and is now planning to move into an English country home that her rich parents bought her.
“They’ve always wanted a second child of their own so this one would be like the one they never had. I am happy. What would I do in Russia anyway? It’s all going to hell. This Medvedev guy? Don’t make my shoe laces laugh! He’s just another crook. I’m gonna put my roots in England. I am pretty happy. After this child, I’ll get citizenship and it will all be chiki-piki,” Marina explained.
* * *
I congratulated Marina but frankly, this trend was terrifying me. Because to add to all my anxiety, my eligible-mate-radar alerted me to Sergey, a vaguely hot guy I met while queuing in the local Starbucks. Sergey’s father, as I later found out, was one of Russia’s most famous politicians. I remember my mother once described him as “the only human face in politics” and she pushed her extended family from the provinces to vote for Sergey’s father in the 2000 presidential elections. My mother’s provincial relatives all voted Communist as usual, and Sergey’s father never advanced past a marginal place in the Duma.
Another sign that Sergey’s dad was a good guy is the fact that he didn’t have a Belgravia mansion and the best Sergey could afford was a moldy bedsit in Chelsea Cloisters, a grotty prison-like complex populated mostly by students, prostitutes, silverfish and enslaved Arab wives who are only allowed out for a walk at around 5.30 am.
“The prostitutes… they are actually not so bad,” he told me. “Both of my neighbors are prostitutes, they all speak Russian, so I can hear what’s going on. They have a Kazakh pimp who once came around and broke into their room with an axe. They must have owed him some money or something. He made a giant hole in the door, I never saw them since.”
“Are you serious? Isn’t there supposed to be security?” I asked.
“Yeah, but they only care about what’s going on in the nicer apartments above. For those in the hellhole below… it’s just you and the rats.”
“It doesn’t sound like you’re very happy there, with the rodents and hookers and all.”
“It’s ok. It’s cheap for the location. Just about 500 dollars a week.”
Sergey just got his PhD and reluctantly admitted still living off his parents.
I asked him how old he was.
“How old do I look?” Sergey replied coquettishly.
“I don’t know… 19?”
“I am 27! Yeah, I look young. But it helps. In business, I let everyone think I’m some kind of a teenage yokel. They let their guard down and I crush them. Except I have this huge wrinkle–” Sergey pointedo the giant frown line across his forehead. “Do you think I can do anything about it?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Botox?”
I kept meeting Sergey for lattes almost every day. Turns out, he’s been living in the UK for thirteen years, and he managed, in his own words, to “acquire a European mentality,” which made Sergey strangely proud.
“Can’t say I’m Russian anymore. I mean, English culture is so much more understandable to me. I barely even speak Russian anymore. I have a foreign accent now…” said Sergey with a tone of affected remorse.
“No you don’t,” I said.
“I do! My parents even make me listen to Radio Svoboda and Echo Moskvy and such, and report news back to them, so I won’t forget the language and so I know what’s going on.”
I asked Sergey if he cares about Russia at all. Surely, his dad wouldn’t invest all this money in Sergey’s education if it wasn’t to make him a better citizen of the glorious Motherland? Continue his father’s noble work? Help fight for democracy?
“Nah. We both realize Russia is in the shit swamp. There is too much stupidity and cruelty. It’s not just ‘the regime’ that’s at fault, it’s the people too. I remember people in Moscow used to be so different – kind, friendly and freedom-loving. That’s why I love Ukraine, people there are what Russians were like 15 years ago.”
“Well, don’t you want to put Russians back on the righteous path?”
Sergey laughed. “Not me. I want a good life. Too much stuff happened that doesn’t make me feel safe or welcome there.”
“You mean the whole reprivatization ordeal?”
“Yes, but not just that…” Sergey replied ominously. “You shouldn’t talk about these things with me. There are probably like ten angry Russian exiles living on your street alone, go ask them.”
Maybe, I thought, I should pursue some nostalgic YUKOS refugee. In fact, there could be one living in my building! Someone called Vladimir Khrenov, as I recalled from the correspondence table in the hall. He always looks sad and mysterious while entering the elevator, maybe he could use some comfort. I’m guessing Vladimir lives in the flat on fourth floor, the one with the balcony. In Knightsbridge, this isn’t bad at all. I marched upstairs to Khrenov’s apartment, but he wasn’t there. A nice Spanish neighbor told me he fled three days prior to that.
“He owes 2000 pounds in council tax. They came to repo his things but he ran away somewhere. If you see him in Moscow, will you give to him this?” I took the stack of red letters from her and went back to my flat.
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