I recently dubbed the massive shopping mall to the south of Moscow “the most frightening place on Earth.” But I may have been too hasty in my judgment – for part of the last week of December it was definitely the Russian capital’s Domodedovo Airport.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. I just thought I should point that out before the irony-free among you start accusing me of insensitivity towards the unfortunate inhabitants of Mexican drug towns and the cholera-stricken voodoo island of Haiti.
Still, hyperbole and insults aside, there was certainly something distinctly hell-like about the airport after a freak and dramatic ice storm cut off electricity supplies and plunged the region around Moscow into darkness and chaos on December 26.
By the time I took my parents to Domodedovo two days later for their flight back to London, the power was still off and the airport had descended into a state of near anarchy. Large parts of the transport hub were shrouded in darkness, and stumbling around in the gloom, disembodied voices in dozens of languages all around us, the scene resembled a medieval-era depiction of limbo. (Apart from the huge plasma TV screens, elaborate cakes and home fitness gear poking out of suitcases and all manner of bags that is.)
As we jostled for position in a gargantuan line to register for a flight that had very little chance of taking off in the immediate future, passengers grouped, inevitably, into ethnic groups. The Russians, to my right, complained that “the English” were pushing in, while my fellow countrymen uttered identical accusations of their hosts. A punch-up was avoided mainly thanks to the language barrier. No one was aware of the increasingly virulent slurs being muttered just inches from their ears. I was tempted to translate, just to see a few heads kicked in to help pass the time, but even I sometimes weary of tension and ultra-violence.
Still, the stress, although much more was to come, was too much for some folk. Namely an overweight female Russian pensioner who began kicking wildly at bags and people in an attempt to elbow her way to the front of the line (which still wasn’t going anywhere). One of the large suitcases she lashed at semi-crushed my mother’s foot, almost causing her to faint.
A group of dodgy-looking medics then arrived on the scene to thrust forward medicine for my mother’s non-existent “heart condition” and attempted to whisk her off to the nearest hospital. (Perhaps they just wanted an excuse to get out of there?)
“Take this! I use it all the time for my heart problem,” an enthusiastic female doctor declared, her eyes blazing with the very thought of the miracles modern medicine had to offer.
“Let me just give you an injection,” her companion, a young guy with a bowl haircut, mumbled. Lethargic and pale, he was nowhere near as animated about the drugs he had to offer. My mom declined both suggestions, in any case.
When we had escaped their clinging attentions and managed to snag some boarding passes, we headed through to the departure lounge. You’ll be glad to hear that faced with the difficulties thrown up by the weather, everyone was pulling together to make the best of things. Why, cafes were serving food and drink by candlelight, so eager were they to keep operating. After all, if they threw in the towel who would be on hand to charge $5 for a couple of slices of bread with some cheese and ham stuffed inside and bottles of water for around $15? It was a tough job, but someone had to do it…
We stood around in another line for a few more hours cursing the Wright Brothers. Why did they have to be so dissatisfied with terra firma?
It was around this point that people began smoking wherever they pretty much felt like it and the depths of hell opened up to reveal hordes of malevolent demons thirsting for human flesh. (Or were they the OMON Special Forces officers deployed to defuse mounting tensions? It was tough to tell at this stage where reality ended and illusion began.)
I eventually had to leave my parents when they went through passport control to avoid overstaying their visa. Almost 24 hours later they were still there, sitting in near darkness and subsisting on leftover airplane food and water.
As the next day dragged on, I decided to go down and see them, to attempt to con my way through passport control with a large bag of food and liquids. It was a long shot, but as the ancient, wise Russian proverb states: “He who does not take the metro (subway) to Domodedovo, will never arrive.”
But I’d only traveled two stops when my phone buzzed.
“We are on a plane!” my father wrote.
I considered going ahead with my trip anyway, to hand out food and drink to the desperate crowds at Domodedovo. But my courage failed me. Now that my parents had escaped that abominable, accursed place, I could not bring myself to face once more the horrors I knew awaited me.
So I went home and scoffed the lot.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.