Trendwatcher: Lunching with the Enemy

© RIA NovostiNatalia Antonova
Natalia Antonova  - Sputnik International
A man representing one of Moscow’s most hated professions pushed the sugar bowl in my direction. “You need more sweetness in your life,” he said. “You look like such a sourpuss.”

A man representing one of Moscow’s most hated professions pushed the sugar bowl in my direction. “You need more sweetness in your life,” he said. “You look like such a sourpuss.”

Arseny, not his real name, is a real estate agent. Spend a few hours in his company, and you are guaranteed to turn into a sourpuss yourself.

I was ostensibly meeting him on behalf of a friend looking to buy, but halfway through our chat, I realized that this man was worth a column. Naturally, he was delighted. According to Arseny, “it’s the real estate agents who make things happen in Moscow.” And earn outrageous commissions while they’re at it, of course.

The trouble with local realtors is that they are not regulated or licensed. They don’t have a professional code of ethics. And there are so many they remind you of that old Alexander Blok poem, “We are hordes, and hordes, and hordes. Try and do battle with us!”

Moscow’s outrageous prices for real estate mean that everyone is trying to get in on the action. Even if you’re just renting a dumpy one-bedroom apartment for the equivalent of a thousand bucks a month (that’s as cheap as dumpy one-bedroom apartments go in Moscow, nowadays), chances are, you likely paid a lot of money to a smarmy agent who “guided” you to that particular refuge.

Sites such as are attempting to battle the issue of outlandish commissions, but the per-month rent of the apartments advertised there tends to be higher than average. And don’t even get me started on buying and selling real estate – that way, danger lies.

I’d like to see the statistics on how many people have been killed in Moscow due to shady real estate deals. I asked Arseny, and he just shrugged. “Look, it’s a mean world out there,” he said, biting into a juicy steak. “You either get clubbed over the head – or you have a good real estate agent on your side.”

“Good” means “not an outright criminal,” of course. On all other fronts, specimens such as Arseny are nevertheless lacking. They are rude, smarmy, pushy, and, above all else, fantastically greedy.

To impress me, Arseny used words such as “prestige” and “VIP” a lot. He also pointed out his watch, which, he said, was a gift from a grateful client, whom he refused to name. “The name would speak volumes, of course,” Arseny smiled as he recalled the days of basking in the client’s glorious presence.

“A woman like you should have a nice watch,” he told me. I explained that I mostly check the time on my mobile phone.

“If you do that, you’ll never end up in a VIP-class apartment,” he said, raising his fork in the air. “If you act poor, you’ll be poor.”

Perhaps in their own way, Moscow’s real estate agents are evidence of an extreme desire to escape poverty – a kind of prolonged effect of PTSD from the 1990’s. Obviously, many have families to support (Arseny prides himself on “not being tied down,” naturally), and many are in a kind of harried frenzy, as they wait and see if the real estate market will indeed collapse one of these days.

In many ways, their behavior is a symptom of a broader lack of social guarantees. “You never know what’s going to happen,” Arseny said wistfully, at one point. “It’s kind of sad. When I was a little boy, there was a cultural center in our town, where they used to show movies for free. And then it was demolished. There’s a shopping mall there now, but it’s ugly. That’s life. Life can be a bit sad.”

Unsurprisingly, when I asked him if making money made him happy, he just shrugged.

The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

Trendwatching in Russia is an extreme sport: if you’re not dodging champagne corks at weddings, you’re busy avoiding getting trampled by spike heels on public transportation. Thankfully, due to an amazing combination of masochism and bravado, I will do it for you while you read all about it from the safety of your living room.

Natalia Antonova is the deputy editor of The Moscow News. She also works as a playwright – her work has been featured at the Lyubimovka Festival in Moscow and Gogolfest in Kiev, Ukraine. She was borxn in Ukraine, but spent most of her life in the United States. She graduated from Duke University, where she majored in English and Slavic Literature. Before coming to Moscow, she worked in Dubai, UAE and Amman, Jordan. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, Foreign Policy, Russia Profile, AlterNet, et al.

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