[Reader-list] power on the streets of Moscow

Rana Dasgupta rana at ranadasgupta.com
Thu Aug 10 23:55:36 IST 2006

extract from my BBC blog


In Andrew Meier's fascinating Russian travelogue, Black Earth, we find 
the following vignette from Moscow:

"Beyond lust and fear, Moscow breeds power. You cannot help feeling that 
you are trespassing in its path. Every effort is made to impress upon 
the populace its privileged proximity to the unlimited power of the 
state. This is not just state power as in other countries. This is not 
merely the pomp of officialdom, but the deliberate demonstration of the 
state’s power over the people, an ever-present slap in their face.

"It is mid-morning. You walk through the cold, dank underpass, lit by 
long fluorescent lamps. At one end stand two grandmothers, selling 
cigarettes, hand-knit caps, dried flowers. The underground walkway fills 
with the sounds of an accordion. A mournful Russian ballad. Every day 
the accordion player, a Moldovan refugee, is here busking. Every day he 
squeezes out the same song. It is a long underpass. When at last you 
emerge and climb the stairs up into the cold wind of the far side of the 
street, you suddenly hear it: the silence. Nothing announces power like 
the silence.

"Kutuzovsky Prospekt may well be the broadest street in Moscow. At its 
widest it has seven lanes in each direction. In its center the road is 
divided by a lane reserved for the political and financial elite, or at 
least any Russian sufficiently well moneyed or well connected to procure 
the coveted migalka, a little flashing blue light that, once affixed to 
a car roof, announces the right of the faceless passenger hidden behind 
the curtained, smoked windows, to break any traffic rule or regulation. 
In the morning as the city’s bankers and bureaucrats rush toward their 
offices, the road is filled with cars and heavy trucks trying to tack 
their way into the center. The roar of the traffic, with all fifteen 
lanes fully loaded, is deafening. Walking the sidewalks of Kutuzovsky, 
as I did nearly every morning, can be unpleasant.

"Until the silence comes. It happens at least twice a day, usually in 
mid-morning and just before the sun sets. You are walking down the 
sidewalk, and then in a single moment, you realize something has 
changed, something is amiss. All you hear is the crunch of your boots on 
the hard snow. On the street, the slow-moving river of cars has not 
simply stopped; it has disappeared (In minutes a road as wide as a 
highway is completely cleared.) he trolley buses have pulled over and 
stand along the edge of the prospekt. The citizens too, waiting at the 
bus stops, stand still. Everyone waits. Hundreds of poor souls, trapped 
in the stilled traffic, sit mute in their parked cars. The street has 
frozen into a photograph, and you are the only one moving through it.

"For several minutes nothing stirs. Then suddenly a black Volga, an 
illuminated migalka fixed to its roof, speeds down the middle of the 
prospect. Then another, and a third, a fourth. And then the chorus of 
sirens accompanying the flashing lights. A convoy of automobiles, a 
dozen in all, each duly impressing the motionless citizenry with its 
size, speed and cleanliness. As men, women and schoolchildren (and the 
secret policemen in plain clothes sprinkled among them) stand and watch, 
a squadron of BMW militsiya sedans sweeps past, followed by an extended 
black Mercedes limousine and a quartet of oversize Mercedes jeeps. As 
the convey passes, the cars leave a ripple of turned faces on the sidewalks.

"A visitor might imagine the world had stopped because of a dire 
emergency. But the Muscovites frozen in place along this vast slate gray 
avenue recognize the scene for what it is: their president, the leader 
of all Russia, making his way to work. More than twenty miles of roadway 
in the Russian capital are closed in this fashion every day. In a city 
already paralyzed by too much snow and too many cars. And still no one 
complains, ever. It is the essence of power, Moscow style. It is 
naglost. In general, naglost is an unseemly blend of arrogance, 
shamelessness and rudeness. In this instance it is the contemptuous 
disdain of the rights of ordinary Russians."

The only word of this fantastic description that jars with me is the 
word "rights" in the last sentence.  This is a piousness creeping in, as 
if rights were naturally existing entities that "ordinary Russians" 

To people living in Delhi, this description would not seem exotic or 
strange.  The reality of power in the streets is very clear, and the 
invocation of "rights" in this context a pure anomaly.

Rana Dasgupta

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