It’s 1996 and I’ve been living in Moscow for two years. My Russian is fluent, but my accent leaves a lot to be desired and I’m mistaken, variously, for an Estonian, a Latvian or, more insultingly, a local with learning difficulties. Unlike the majority of Westerners living in Moscow who call themselves ‘Expats’, I am very much a ‘Lo-pat’. Expats have company cars, complete with drivers, swish apartments in the centre and four free business class flights home per year. I, the lowest of the lo-pats, have a one-roomed flat in a green and white tiled prefab high rise in a difficult to pronounce suburb, so close to the death-trap outer ring road that I can hear car horns tooting at all hours of the day and night. I ride the Metro and pay for my own plane tickets.
There are upsides though; I am the only ‘Brit in the village' and a minor celebrity in the locale. Shopkeepers greet me by name (not my real name - natch, but ‘Jane’ - the Bronte classic was a set text in the Soviet Union) and children ask me to correct their English homework. Even my dog enjoys free membership of the local tennis club, where he is fed titbits by the restaurant chef who considers George’s palate superior to that of the paying, braying Nouveau Riche clientele with their bodyguards, armour-plated cars and stunning girlfriends, years younger than their grandchildren. On this - if not on his eclectic and bewildering use of previously unknown to ‘Homo Sovieticus’ combination of ingredients - he is probably correct.
Despite my lo-pat status, by Moscow standards of rare, honest graft, I earn a jaw-dropping amount of money as Head of TV sponsorship at an American advertising agency. These days, my colleagues would be called ‘my team’ but mercifully we’re still in the 90s, so they’re just my mates. We hang out together after office hours, discovering new bar after naff new bar, dancing the night away at clubs where naked men in huge fish tanks swim in time to the music, before stumbling into the Starlite Diner at dawn for a breakfast of chilli tacos and banana milkshakes.
My Russian colleagues are far more highly educated and refined than I; top-of-the-class gold medals at school, ‘red’ degrees from Moscow State University, diplomat parents and vast, aristocratic apartments, bookshelves heaving under the weight of the collected works of Pushkin, Lermontov and Gogol with some Brezhnev thrown in for irony. One of them is the great grand-daughter of a pre-Revolutionary Prince. But yet again, the status of ‘foreigner’ trumps all. I am fêted and pampered, my opinion is sought, my advice craved. I hold a party in my one-roomed flat and everybody comes, carrying crystal bowls loaded with mayonnaise-soaked salads, bottles of ‘Sovietsky’ champagne and armfuls of flowers. We sing and dance, laugh and cry and it is generally agreed that I am ‘one of them’ and have a Russian soul. My good.
In the aftermath of the party, I take a fresh look at my flat and decide it’s time to splash some money on the place. My husband is indulgent, up to a point, and declares he’s happy for me to spend whatever I see fit on the place, but he’s going to stay in a hotel for the duration of the renovations. He moves out and I set about finding competent workmen. I know from the bitter experience of friends that the phrase ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ is particularly pertinent in Russia and so arrange for a UPVC window company, a door company and a flooring company to come in at different times to do their stuff. When the window specialist arrives, he offers the option of bullet proof glass. I giggle, but on seeing he’s serious, ask how much more this would cost and am quoted $11 per square metre. This sounds like a bargain and I bite.
I’m delighted with the renovations; Masha and Pasha, the painters I found on a lamppost, outdo themselves and are dreaming of setting up a decorating firm with me, their English friend. We spend night and day together, them sleeping on the pull-out settee, George and I on bags of lumpy cement, and toast our brand-new friendship with vodka drunk from cheap, pretendy china cups.
When the renovations are complete, I host dinner party after dinner party, laughingly, shamelessly boasting about my bullet-proof windows and Finnish kitchen cupboards.
Six months later, my husband and I are sitting in the kitchen, the balcony door flung wide open. It’s a stifling, summer evening, the air heavy with petrol fumes. Instead of a weather-appropriate cooling salad, I’m true to my roots and have rustled up a roast dinner; golden chicken, crispy roast potatoes, carrots, peas and gravy. The light is fading and the sky is a beautiful mix of pink and navy. We chink glasses of Moldovan red and get ready to go into the ‘other’ room to watch the news. Suddenly we hear a ‘pop’, then another ‘pop’ then a ‘pop, pop, pop’. I look at my husband and in a worried voice ask him ‘what is that?’. He calmly - unbelievably calmly – says, ‘I think someone’s shooting at us - drop to the floor, don’t worry, the dog’s in the other room, get on your hands and knees and crawl out of the door’. I do as I’m told and somehow from the floor, he manages to switch off all the lights in the flat and phone the police.
Miraculously, the police arrive within ten minutes. They are huge; overwhelmingly large. Everything about them is out of sync, out of scale with our flat - their feet, their bellies, their smell - it’s all too much and I start laughing in quiet hysteria to myself, remembering the joke about the elephant in the fridge. They are, though, reassuringly professional and set about examining the balcony and the window frames. We go into the ‘other’ room and the ‘Starshi Lieutenant’ calls for vodka and some shot glasses, not for himself, of course, but to calm our nerves. He kindly drinks a third of the bottle and we get down to business. He asks if we would like him to write up a protocol and we nod our heads, confident that this is his recommendation. One of his juniors produces a cheap, yellow writing pad and a biro, before passing both to our saviour. Mikhail Vassilieyvich licks the pen, reminding me of my dad and instilling even more confidence, before asking for details:
‘Names, Patronymics, Surnames’
‘Dates of Birth’
‘Places of Birth’
It’s all going well. The junior has plucked a bullet from the door frame and established that it came from a Makarov pistol. Another bullet ricocheted off the window pane and has been found in the rubbish bin I keep on the balcony.
‘Do you have any enemies’?
We look at each other and shake our heads, before looking away, each knowing that we certainly do have enemies, but surely not the kind who would do something like this?
The vodka bottle is empty and Mikhail Vassilieyvich calls for another. We don’t have one, but we do have some Armenian cognac, which is pronounced ‘satisfactory’. The juniors are becoming bored now and I’ve pulled myself together enough to be annoyed that they’ve trampled dirt into my new hall carpet. Mikhail Vassilieyvich has been talking to some colleagues on an ancient walkie-talkie and has learned more shots have been fired further down the street. His interest wanes; the shooting was random, probably kids, we are in no danger.
‘Do you still want me to write up the protocol?’ he asks, ‘because if I do, I should warn you that you’ll have to come down to the police station every few days to check on progress, and you won’t be able to travel until we find the culprit, which is highly unlikely; we are rationed to 50 litres of petrol per week, and when we run out, that’s it’.
I am indignant - I’ve literally just dodged a bullet. It wasn’t Mikhail Vassilieyvich’s plump body sitting in the kitchen as the shots went ‘pop, pop, pop’, mere centimetres from the open doorway. But my husband, a veteran of dealing with Russian authority figures, senses which way the wind’s blowing and lets the policeman off the hook. Mikhail Vassilieyvich visibly relaxes and then asks if I would consider giving his grandson English lessons. I fix him with what I would - much later - learn is called a Paddington Bear ‘Hard Stare’ and he gets up to leave. His acolytes scurry after him, my husband thanks him at the door and it’s over. We never hear from them again.
The dog pads over to me, all waggly-tailed, as if nothing untoward has happened. It’s time for his late-night walk and he casts a hopeful look at the furry tennis ball in the corner.
Then the phone rings, its shrill, insistent tone breaking the silence which has descended. It’s nearly midnight, so it can only be my mum, calling from a three-hour- time-difference Manchester.
I pick up the receiver and hear her breathless excitement from 2,000 miles away;
‘Jen, you’ll never guess what! Me and your dad have decided to get double-glazing’.
Originally from Manchester UK, Jennifer Craig studied Russian at University and moved to Moscow in 1994, where she lived full-time until 2012. She now divides her time between Sofia, London and Moscow.