Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

#7 - RW 7268
The Sunday Times
July 27, 2003
Help, the Russians are coming

Forget the Red Army, writes Vitali Vitaliev. The current crop of visitors from behind the old Iron Curtain are more likely to be mafia men Vitali Vitaliev is an Edinburgh-based author, columnist and broadcaster. He will be appearing in Perspectives On Europe a panel discussion with American historian William Hitchcock at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on August 9 at 3 pm in the main theatre

They boarded the Edinburgh-bound GNER train at Londons Kings Cross, two sullen Al Pacino types in Harley-Davidson bomber jackets. One stocky, pot-bellied, with a red beefy face was obviously in charge. The other bony and dark skinned with brown eyes and unintended designer stubble had a look of a mafia minion: frightened and threatening in equal measure. In Russian criminal jargon, which I had learned while investigating the Soviet mafia, a bossy type is known as a pakhan, or big daddy, and underlings as shestiorki, or little sixes, meaning subordinates or gofers.

I knew the men were Russians before they had a chance to open their mouths. After many years of life in the West, I had learnt to identify my former compatriots from afar.

No matter what chic western clothes they wore, there was something in their gait, bearing and body language that made them immediately recognisable. That something was a complex mixture of bad haircuts, stilted movements and over-defensive I-am-waiting-to-be- hurt behaviour all consummated in a peculiar facial expression, which I came to describe as the seal of oppression: a haunted and permanently worried look, moulded by years of queuing, fear and repressed emotions, as if constantly expecting a blow from behind.

Interestingly, this same genetically transferred look is characteristic of all people living under totalitarian regimes, no matter which part of the globe they come from Cuba, the former USSR or North Korea.

There is a huge advantage in being able to understand your travel companions verbal exchanges, when they themselves are sure you dont. Theres no need to ask them questions, for they are bound to spill out everything about themselves anyway.

The Russians installed themselves across the aisle from me. Pretending to be immersed in the obituaries page of The Times, I could hear their every word.

For a while they were chain-smoking silently. Then Gofer said: I saw that nice old paperweight on sale in Notting Hill for two grand.

Why dont you call Andriusha and offer it to him for three? asked Pakhan.

Gofer took out a mobile phone and dialled a long, multi-digit number, which sounded like a medium-length musical overture: Andriusha, how are you? We are fine, on the train to Scotland.

Listen, Ive got a lovely paperweight just like you wanted. Yes, with a beetle very cute. I could deliver it to you for three, plus our 10% commission. (Pause) Well, think about it.

Also, I saw a chandelier authentic art deco stuff, about 1910. Dont know how to carry it very bulky. Shall be sending you a photo by e-mail, just in case, okay? Anyway, Ill call you back about the paperweight, bye.

He turned to Pakhan and asked: If he buys this chandelier for a fiver, could you throw in the paperweight? No way! For six, maybe. Andriusha is a bloody millionaire. Whatever costs six, he sells for 10. Whatever costs 10 he sells for 30.

There was a good deal of admiration in his voice.

They went quiet for a while, only swearing occasionally under their breath.

Look at these beautiful villas! Pakhan exclaimed all of a sudden, pointing out of the window. The train was passing through some slum-like London suburbs.

I know this area well, he went on. Theres one spot here where girls undress in the street and then come to sleep with you in your car.

All the way to Edinburgh, the travelling antique wheeler-dealers carried on about how to dupe other contacts of theirs: Sasha, Kostya, Petya etc but I was no longer listening.

I soon got profoundly bored with these two shining (or rather swindling) examples of the relatively novel breed of my former compatriots, the so-called new Russians, who had invaded the western world.

In a well-known Edinburgh health club the other day, I became an unwilling witness to a conversation between two other Russian men, each boasting of his wealth (servants, villas and suchlike) and discussing where one could order the best custom-made underpants in Rome, in Londons Savile Row or in Singapore. Later I saw one of them trying to flag down a cab in Princess Street with a pair of slippers he had stolen from that very health club (probably to wear at one of his villas).

Theres no denying the fact: British (and Scottish, in particular) cities and towns have become extremely russified. Gone are the times when, on hearing Russian speech in the streets of London, a defector like myself felt an urge to walk away. These days I feel like running away at breakneck speed, for the words I overhear on most occasions are brilliant examples of Russian underworld vernacular.

A brisk walk along Princess Street or the Royal Mile is now much more enriching for an eccentric St Andrews University don who dedicated all his life to compiling a comprehensive dictionary of Russian criminal jargon, than years of painstaking research into obscure 18th-century literary sources.

I remember spotting unlikely Russian graffiti in one of the narrow lanes of Soho about 12 years ago. It is beyond explanation. It is something in your blood, it stated mysteriously. Nowadays, Russian graffiti is much more common and much less romantic. You are all f------ wankers, an anonymous Russian visitor inscribed in 10in letters on the otherwise blank notice board near a London Tube station. The morning commuters could only guess who precisely he (or she) had in mind provided they could read Russian, of course.

This is not to say that all Russian visitors to Scotland are bound to be as boorish and as uncouth as Pakhan and Gofer. Scotland always occupied a special place in the hearts of cultured Russians. This was largely due to the huge popularity of Robbie Burnss poems (particularly those with boozy overtones, such as John Barleycorn), widely circulated in the USSR in brilliant Russian translations by Samuel Marshak.

Russian intellectuals love making pilgrimages to birthplaces and former abodes of their literary idols: Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekhov, Tolstoy whose lovingly kept house museums are normally open to the public. Most of them, I am sure, would love to travel in Burnss footsteps.

His status is close to that of a Russian national poet. The only problem is that their earnings are unlikely to take them much further than Moscows Sheremetyevo International airport. And yet, with formerly banned trips abroad remaining one of Russian lifes main achievements on a par with winning a lottery jackpot, buying a Volvo or obtaining a PhD there will be many who would save for years to afford such an intellectual treat.

All things considered, even with the proposed direct flights linking Scotland to Moscow, Scotland is still unlikely to ever reach the status of Cyprus, the Costa del Sol, some trendy Alpine ski resorts or the South of France these playgrounds of Russias new rich, to which they flee in their thousands to indulge in gambling, dissipation and extravagant (even by western standards) spending sprees as if there was no tomorrow.

A 200kg Russian woman recumbent in a chaise longue and grinning at you maliciously with her gleaming gold teeth has become a common sight on the French Riviera sea front.

It is important to understand that most of the Russian nouveaux riches, falling over themselves to flaunt their sudden wealth, are the flesh and bones of the totalitarian Soviet society, which in 75 years had managed to destroy peoples dignity and integrity and infected most of its members with the notion that capitalism was about grabbing, cheating and wheeler dealing.

That is exactly what they started doing after communism collapsed, while still carrying the seal of oppression on their souls and faces for, despite having pocketfuls of money, they still suffer from a massive inferiority complex, deeply rooted in their unchanged Soviet psyche.

My most recent encounter with my travelling former compatriots was at the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, where I took my kids last weekend. Two buxom, embarrassed-looking Russian ladies stumbled into one of the museum rooms looking around like a pair of troubled seabirds.

Theres nothing to catch here, except for birds, one of them concluded out loud.

Right you are! echoed the other. Lets get out of here! And, thankfully, so they did.


Keen to exploit the growth in Russian tourism after the opening up of society and the relaxation of bureaucracy governing passports, a delegation of Scottish tourist bosses travelled to Moscow last September to schmooze exhibitors at the countrys largest travel fair. Ryanair recently became the first budget airline to announce plans for direct flights to Russia. The number of Russians visiting Scotland is up 8%. Russian tourists are famous for outspending even Americans.

Top   Next