I wrote last week about being stopped by cops at one of Moscow’s main train terminals. I used to quite like hanging out at these places. Despite the filth levels, they were, and still are, a good place for a spot of people-watching. You get all sorts there.
My favourites though were the tramps (that’s British English – so vagrants, bums, hobos, you get the idea, if you speak the Justin Bieber’s English), who use the stations as places to take refuge from the streets, to grab a bit of shut-eye, or simply to engage in a bit of witty conversation with their fellow homeless.
Accordingly, the air in the waiting and ticket halls is hard to breathe. Fouled with the stink of the lice-caked, urine-soaked tramps, it causes an involuntary gagging. Still, after a while, I found that I was able to get used to it, and that I could sit there, a silent phantom, gazing at the carousel of lunacy revolving around me.
The vagrants were constantly being moved on by the police. It was, I noticed, the younger police officers who had the most loathing for the homeless. One of my first times there, I saw a uniform, he must have been no older than 20, shooing out an old woman. Her face was a mass of the welts and inflammations that mark the later stages of the alcoholic’s disintegration, when the body refuses to function without spirits and is, in effect, nothing but a skin bubble of alcohol ready to burst. She turned around, to protest perhaps, and he brought his truncheon down upon her head. The act was quick, to the point and without even the tiniest drop of pity. It was carried out with the same kind of dispassion that you or I would crush a cockroach. (If you’ve ever seen one that is.)
She looked at him, and mumbled, “I’m old enough to be your mother,” for which she received another belt around the back of the head, one that sent her tumbling out of the glass doors into the sub-zero night.
The older cops seemed to be more tolerant. Perhaps it was the wisdom of their years, or maybe they just couldn’t be bothered anymore. Maybe they had, somewhere along the way, lost that edge.
I’m not sure, really, why I am telling you all this. I don’t mean to shock you, and I am not attempting to prove to you how brutal life can be. You’ve probably figured that one out for yourself. It is just an observation. Nothing more.
Being a tramp in Russia is very different to being a tramp in the West. For a start, there is the weather. Minus twenty degrees Celsius is not uncommon in Moscow, and minus thirty is not unheard of. But more than this, there is no culture of support. Due to the conditions, tramps decay a lot more rapidly than in the West, making it a lot harder for them to play the sympathy card.
I mean, would you buy the Big Issue, or one of those other magazines the homeless sell, from a guy who you couldn’t even stand near without wanting to vomit, who made your skin crawl, who you were afraid to even approach for fear of picking up a whole bunch of diseases?
The tramps, I noticed, also seemed to have no interest whatsoever in food. They realised it was necessary for survival, and that was all. I have seen cars being filled with petrol express more satisfaction then they did whilst eating.
Drinking, though, that was another thing. As you may have heard, Russia is big on drinking. One of the traditions is that no one should down vodka without a snack afterwards. It’s actually a very sensible thing to do. But the tramps, I observed, were loath to spend cash on food and so merely sniffed their own hair after putting a shot away. At first I couldn’t work out what they were up to – what was this world, where men and women inhaled the fumes of their greasy follicles?
Many of Moscow’s tramps spend days on end at the Nikolskiy Dump, the huge rubbish tip on the edge of the city where the homeless build refuges out of cardboard and foam, metal and plastic, scavenging to survive. Urban legend has it that there are whole communities there complete with laws, authorities and militia tramps. I’ve never been there, but I plan to one day. I’ll let you know what it’s like, I promise.
I have, though, high hopes for the place. I imagine it as a site of future tramp revolts: Moscow brought to its knees by marauding homeless, come to take revenge on the city that rejected them. It would be like the fourth part of Planet of the Apes, when the oppressed apes turn against their enslavers, Roddy McDowell leading the inevitable revolution.
If you’ve seen it. If you haven’t, you really should.
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.