The Red Army incident

It happened as it happens in this town. A couple of weeks ago, I ended up spending an evening with a Swedish theatre group performing in Moscow. I hadn’t seen their play, but I met them standing in line outside one of the French cafes scattered around Nikitsky Bulvar.

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Now, I’ve never managed a large restaurant, but if it’s 10:30 pm and more than half of your tables are empty, you’re doing something wrong – especially if you turn away a hungry group of Swedes with good taste in wine. After being refused for a third time, I took pity on them and led the whole bunch to a good restaurant in a small side-street.

As most of us know, it doesn’t take more than 24 hours to see if someone is Moscow-proof. Most of the actors weren’t.

Some of them had paid 5,000 roubles for a five-minute taxi ride, while others got hopelessly lost in the metro – and all of them tried to ask police officers for directions.

After we were finally in the restaurant, the group got mad when some of the desserts were served before others had their starters. Only Stella seemed to enjoy her plate of borshch.

“It’s a long story, and it’s not easy to tell,” Stella told me, hesitating before she explained that she had always really loved the taste of dill. Although born in Sweden, her mother was from Moscow. And as she found out just a couple of years ago, so was her father.

“I always knew something was wrong – there was something different,” she said. “Of course, my mother was Russian, but I noticed there was another secret in our family. I simply sensed it; I don’t even know how.”

Other than the borshch that was served in her youth, the rest of her childhood memories were “as Swedish as IKEA”, she said.

But where her mother got older, suddenly Stella felt she just had to ask.

“I remember it very well. I took a glass of water, my mother was about to take a seat and I simply asked if my father maybe wasn’t my real father after all.”

It turned out he wasn’t. Her real father was a Soviet soldier who had returned from the war and met up with her mother just before she moved to Stockholm. Her husband was aware of the “Red Army incident”, but they agreed never to speak about it again.

“So, go figure,” Stella said. “I’m as Russian as all the Russians here. I was conceived in this city, my roots are here. I might not speak a single word of Russian and have only been here a couple of times, but I know it feels, somehow, like home.”

The next evening, I went to watch Stella perform on stage. She shone.

Afterwards, she introduced me to her Moscow family that she’d only met for the first time just a couple of years ago. After some thorough archive searches she’d found cousins, half-brothers and a whole group of close relatives.

“You know, all my life I’ve played different characters who were never ashamed to ask the boldest questions at very painful moments,” Stella said. “I never dared to ask it myself, but I’m so happy now that I did. And if you ever wonder if something’s wrong, just try to find out. Who knows, you could be a Muscovite too!”

Have grandchildren – will travel, and travel and travel

Life wasn’t always this easy for Valentina, an 82-year-old Moscow grandmother. For nearly half a century, she used to fit clothing for the Soviet elite in one of the city’s most expensive hotels. But now – with an Aeroflot frequent flyer card and a big bunch of grandchildren – she’s living it large.

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“Don’t forget to put the air miles on my card,” Valentina tells the Aeroflot representative at the airport.

Since it’s mostly pretentious businessmen and free-wheeling government officials who hammer on the miles, it’s quite unusual for the girls at the check-in counter to see an elderly grandmother clocking up such huge distances.

“I use them for my grandchildren,” Valentina told me after she easily swept past security. “Sometimes I take them along, other times I just let them fly on my miles.”

As she later sips a cup of tea, I say that she’s probably the favourite grandmother in the family.

Since then she’s been nearly everywhere – from Argentina and Australia to India and Indonesia.

After working for nearly half a century fixing buttons and sewing coats in one of Moscow’s most expensive hotels, she suddenly got an option to buy a central Moscow apartment. With her last savings she then bought another apartment, and with the rental income she kept on investing until she had enough to fly around the world, business class.

“I just came back to Moscow to collect the rent,” she says.

At the height of the Moscow real estate boom, Valentina sold up and moved to Israel. “I was sick of moving around and wanted to spend my old age in the Holy Land. But honestly, it’s boring over there, and lonely. All my children have settled in Moscow, and nobody would visit me.”

So Valentina moved back to Moscow – and now each month she takes one of her grandchildren on a trip. This week, she’s going to New York.

“I was there before, but little Vanya really wanted to see it – and he’s not old enough yet to go there by himself,” she says.

When Vanya is out of earshot, tears well up in her eyes and the emotion comes tumbling out. “I remember the war and the hard years after it,” Valentina says. “When I was young, we had to steal potatoes to survive. Now all of a sudden, I have everything. I still can’t believe it. Even during the war, I never cried. And now suddenly the tears flow.”

When 16-year old Vanya comes back, she brushes away her tears. “Life is good now,” she says. “I’ve got seven grandchildren and they all like me.”

Vanya nods his head, and explains that his grandmother has hired a special tour operator to organise all her trips.

“Next up is Dubai,” Vanya says. “They told babulya that there was a city in the middle of the desert, so now she really wants to go there.”

A Caucasus cowboy

When we first got a video player, I played the tape that came with it over and over again. In the film, Paul Hogan puts on a big hat and plays Crocodile Dundee, launched from the Australian outback into the concrete jungle of New York. As he walks down the street, thousands of busy people pass him by, and he says a friendly hello to each and every one of them.

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“I felt like that when I first came here,” Yussef told me when I met him on a Moscow side street. “It’s impolite if you don’t greet people who cross your path.”

Yussef may not tame crocs, but he’s a real Russian cowboy. Back home in the mountains of Karachai-Cherkessia he herds flocks of sheep with big horns. In Moscow, the only thing that’s missing is his horse.

Other than attracting expats, adventurers and migrant workers from abroad, Moscow is foremost a capital that features an eclectic mix of Russia’s ethnicities. And if you’re travelling somewhere in Russia far away from Moscow, there’s no better way to prepare than to visit that particular republic’s diaspora.

Whether they’re Khantys from the Arctic north, Kalmyks from the steppes or Karachais from the Caucasus mountains, with a bit of effort you can find them all in our capital.

“I always carry my knife with me,” Yussef explains when I point at the big sharp thing attached to his belt. “You never know what the day might bring, and it actually comes in handy if you’re eating an apple.”

The Moscow police were less amused, however, and one day arrested Yussef and confiscated his knife. He made himself a new one the next day.

“They always say Moscow is dangerous, but if you carry a good knife, nobody touches you,” he says.

It’s not the cops who are giving Yussef grief, he explains, but his daughters.

“God decided to give me four daughters,” he says. “And as they are growing up, it’s costing me a lot of money to get them married off.”

In Karachai-Cherkessia, as in many other parts of Russia, the family of the bride still has to offer a dowry.

“My oldest is 19 and got married this spring,” Yussef says, a smile on his face. “But it cost me a washing machine, a refrigerator and an oven!”

In Moscow, Yussef makes a living by going around slaughtering sheep for Muslim families that don’t want to get their hands dirty. And, like many others, he also drives a car around town as a taxi at night.

To cope with the massive influx of migrant workers, fortune-seekers and cowboys, the Moscow city government recently proposed a code of conduct.

Amongst other do’s and don’ts, Muscovites are discouraged from grilling shashlik on their balconies.

Yussef agrees, but with one difference. “Cooking shashlik on the balcony leaves black smoke on your walls,” he says. “It’s better to cook on the roof instead.”

And it’s not just a way of placating the neighbours, Yussef says. “The concierge usually has the key, or you can simply break the lock with a good knife. Then you can cook with a view. And with a bit of imagination, these flats are my mountains.”

Moscow’s circle of life

Ask anybody what’s the best thing about Moscow and they’ll tell you it’s the speed. The blistering pace of life includes everything from the social whirl and nightclub beats to the money you spend.

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Is there a way to take a break and enjoy life in the slow lane for just a little while? Sure: Just hop on a trolleybus with Vera.

There’s no better way to see Moscow then by making a trip on the circle line. Not the metro, but by overground trolleybus. They’re marked with a big ‘?’ and tootle amiably around the Garden Ring.

So find any bus stop there and just wait for the old trolleybus to roll along.

For a mere 28 roubles, you’ll get a fantastic tour of town. Alongside amazing Stalin-era architecture, you’ll pass the storied Gorky Park, soon to be replaced by some kind of Russian Disneyland. You’ll also go underneath the statue of Mayakovsky, fly over another intersection and pass clunky 1970s architecture, such as the RIA Novosti building where this paper is produced.

Vera loves the ride too. “It’s the most sought-after line amongst trolleybus drivers,” she explains. “Even though it gets harder every day with the traffic, it’s a beautiful circle time and time again.” Being a proper trolleybus driver, Vera wears a bright orange jacket and has a set of tools at the ready to repair the bus when it breaks down.

You’ll soon notice that it’s a whole different world out there on the circle line. Passengers greet each other when they get on and people mostly spend their time reading – on a wide range of topics. On one single ride last week, passengers variously recommended which poetry of Lermontov’s I should read; gave me an excellent recipe for fish cutlets; warned me against drinking pomegranate juice; and even gave me the number of a Chinese acupuncture therapist.

Vera knows the regulars on her bus – mostly elderly people who have a tough time walking. She greets them like old friends. When after a full circle on the bus, I got out and met her again a couple of hours later, she remembered me.

As if within a city of millions, you’re in a small village.

“I remember faces,” Vera told me. “Especially if they buy a ticket.”

She has to pay attention, though, as driving a trolleybus is pretty hard work.

“It’s quite a workout to push the pedals, sell tickets and keep an eye on the road in the meantime,” Vera says. “And then you have to fix the bus all the time.”

It’s a truth universally to be acknowledged that Moscow trolleybuses always break down halfway along their route, and have to be fixed on the spot. As the buses are hooked up to cables, they can’t pass one another that easily. With huge gloves Vera hooked the bus back on, apologised – and told me she has the best job in the world.

“Sure, the traffic is horrible and sometimes there are drunks shouting at you, but in general it’s a very friendly place,” she says. “It’s like driving your own car, but with a lot of friends aboard.”

Half-way during the ride there’s an announcement: The bus company is looking for new drivers to join the world’s biggest trolleybus network. They pay, at best, 35,000 roubles. So grab your chance now!

Up the canal without a filter

It’s without question one of the most unusual souvenirs to bring back from Moscow: a pack of Belomorkanal smokes. The hollow filters and Soviet design are stunning – a blast from the past. And best of all, a pack won’t set you back more then 10 roubles.

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And don’t worry, Muscovites don’t smoke them either.

Somewhere in a little darkened student dormitory in Moscow I tried my first (and last) Belomorkanal cigarette. We wound a plastic bag around a smoke detector, bought the cheapest beer in the produkty store and lit up the thick cigarettes, just to taste these strange Soviet artefacts.

Some of us became instantly sick, while others vomited from the balcony. The faces around the table slowly turned green, and nobody managed to finish a single smoke. I remember feeling light-headed and wondering why anyone in the world would buy such heavy cigarettes.

The answer, the students told me later, is simple: to smoke marijuana.

Smoking dope in Russia is of course illegal and comes with hefty penalties, so this is not a recommendation. But the trick, they say, is to take out the tobacco from a Belomorkanal, toss it away and fill the empty tube with an eclectic mixture of better tobacco and marijuana. I’ve seen people doing it while driving a car and talking on the phone.

If you think it’s hard to find marijuana in Russia, try telling everybody that you’re from the Netherlands. With a Dutch passport, you get offered marijuana every other day. Police officers, businessmen, taxi drivers, young guys on the street or even customs officers – everybody seems to think that in Amsterdam we do virtually nothing else but smoke pot. And consequently, most Russians I’ve met want me to try their locally-grown greens.

I should say that I always decline the offer, but last week Igor, an acquaintance of mine, invited me to have a look at his semi-professional greenhouse.

Like most Muscovites, Igor does things at lightning speed. In the course of one year he got married, divorced, sent his little son to live with his mother – and did his own special form of yevro-remont in the rooms they vacated.

“I had no clue what to do with the apartment, so I took up gardening,” he says, laughing. On the sixth floor of an apartment block on the outskirts of town he has a sprinkler system, automated light regulation, a continuous breeze of fresh air and a complex filtration device that keeps the intense smell hidden from his neighbours.

A little forest of about 30 bright green plants was steadily growing. “The first challenge is waiting until it dries up,” Igor says. “The next one is not to smoke it all.”

Igor says he’s not in it for the money. He claims that he gives most of his supply to friends and friends of friends, and only takes some money to pay for the upkeep of the greenhouse.

“It’s hard to sell,” he says. “Since it’s a criminal business, the next thing you know there’s a bunch of police officers confiscating your supply and smoking it themselves.”
He also says he’s convinced that law enforcement officers are among some of the biggest drug dealers in the country. “They’re a bit more professional than me,” he says.

In his kitchen, naturally, there was a big stack of Belomorkanal. His friends fill them with marijuana and puff away, he says. “You know, its use is quite cunning,” Igor says, adding that Belomorkanal helped him to quit tobacco smoking.

“Just throw away your Marlboros and Parliament and promise yourself only to carry a pack of Belomorkanal,” he says.

“Within a day, you’ll lose the urge to light a ‘normal’ cigarette. It should be used in medicine!”

The other Prokhorov

Russia’s richest man certainly seems to enjoy himself. Mikhail Prokhorov’s Live Journal page features him attempting a back-flip with a jet ski, amongst other fun stunts.

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Then there’s his decision to pay tax not in Moscow, but in a little village far away from the capital.

It had an immediate benefit for the regional budget, which instantly quadrupled.

Less fortunate, perhaps, was his temporary detention over one New Year’s holidays – along with several young female Russian students-cum-models – in the French ski resort of Courchevel.

According to Prokhorov’s blog, the incident at the ski resort was based on a misunderstanding, and the French police offered their apologies. But in all frankness, who’d care? And if you like basketball, why not buy the New Jersey Nets?

So when someone called to ask if I’d like to meet Mikhail’s sister, Irina, I was quite intrigued. Not only because she’s well regarded as a patron of the Russian arts scene and a very respectable person, but also because I was interested to see how her brother’s wealth would rub off on her.

Where were we to meet? On the top floor of the Ritz Carlton, perhaps, or in a penthouse near Patriarshy Prudy? Not exactly, it turned out.

I got kind of worried, I have to admit. The tall quirky guy from a PR agency took me out for a long walk, somewhere near the last stop on the metro line. We passed rough streets and worn-out apartment blocks – and at last came to a crumbling building housing a publishing company.

“Here we are,” said my guide.

But something was out of whack. There were no high fences, no angry doormen or dogs, and no barbed wire – just an aged concierge with a boiling pot of tea, who actually seemed happy to see some guests.

As Irina poured out two cups of Nescafe from a simple boiler, I took a look around. For the offices of such a well-endowed foundation with millions to spend, it all looked very temporary.

“That’s exactly how I want it to be,” Irina explained. “Call it a non-Moscow approach, but I don’t want to be here.”

Back in Norilsk, the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation is the driving force behind theatre festivals, and gives training and support to local journalists. It even brings a bit of life to one of the most polluted places on Earth by repainting ugly grey buildings in bright, shiny colours.

For Irina, who also is a literary publisher and holds a degree in philosophy, bankrolling art is an art in itself.

“In a way, it was way easier in the past,” she said. “There was the underground, and counter-posed to that, official art. Now there are no rules for censorship, yet it can always occur anywhere. We’re treading on eggshells, trying the best we can and keeping in line with local traditions.”

Irina said her foundation was “changing a paradigm. When the Soviet Union collapsed, everybody was expecting a cultural renaissance – but it never happened.”

She recalled that when the theatre festival first went to Norilsk some years ago, “it was a big shock. Now, we sometimes bring things that are far more shocking, yet nobody notices it. This renaissance is happening now, bit by bit.”

As we sipped our cups of instant coffee, I had to pinch myself. It seems that the worlds of the Russian oligarchs and genuine philanthropy do occasionally meet.

The fast and the fearless

I met Anastasiya when she rolled down the window of her taxi and we negotiated the price for a ride that would take me back to the centre of Moscow. “Four hundred roubles?” I tried. She put on a sad smile. I couldn’t but agree to five hundred.

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Seatbelts are something that most male drivers in this town still insist is an insult to their driving skills, but I’ve been out of Moscow for a while and got used to buckling up again.

“I knew you’d be the type that would put a belt on,” Anastasiya said. “That’s why I took you.”

Anastasiya, or Nastya, hails from Ivanovo, a town that’s legendary for the number of beautiful women that inhabit it. She was educated as a nurse and wound up marrying a Muscovite. When her husband got into an accident eight years ago, she took up driving at night to help make ends meet.

“We suddenly needed an astronomical sum of money. If I stuck to working at the hospital, I could have been there for the next two hundred years, just trying to earn that amount. So I took the car out for a spin,” she told me.

For a long six months she was forced to stick to a self-destructive regime. “I’d drive until four in the morning, sleep for two hours, bring our little boy to school, and get behind the wheel again. Twenty-two hours of driving a day – you can’t imagine all the shit I’ve seen.”

I tried to guess, but Nastya is the kind of person who tells you everything before you get the chance to ask. “Hundreds of people have puked all over my car, and I’ve cleaned it all. Someone tried to kill me with a knife. It was hard, very hard. But I would come back to the taxi-stand the same day. What else could I do? Sit at home and cry? I’ve tried that, it doesn’t help – nor does it bring any money.”

When her husband recovered, Nastya kept her driving job. “If you learn how to deal with the risks, it can be fun. You can make a lot of friends. You won’t believe it, but at some spots in Moscow, gaishniki [the city’s notoriously corrupt traffic policemen] will have buckets full of flowers waiting for me.

If you keep working, keep smiling, life will smile back out you.”

Apart from burning rubber across millions of miles through the city, Nastya takes care of the household, brings up a son and she even wound up taking extra classes at a hospital to help prevent her husband from falling ill again. I asked her if she ever received any medals.

“Never,” she said to me. “But when my husband became ill again, I could take care of him myself. Studying therapy paid off. And my 16 year old is also doing fine.”

I tried not to look baffled at her last comment. It was hard to believe – very hard – that this woman could have a 16 year old at home.

“I know,” she said. “I look a bit younger than my age. Hey, if you ever need a ride, let me know!”

And off she went – a modern-day Decembrist’s wife in her Renault Laguna.

A sport without winners

When I was growing up, I didn’t know much about the Soviet Union apart from pale athletic men in red-and-white uniforms.

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I remember most international sports events from a technicolour TV in which the mysterious Soviets came, performed marvellously and took home most of the medals.

After I came to live in Moscow, at some point I started to wonder where these sportsmen had gone to. Contrary to my youthful imagination, Russia wasn’t quite filled with athletic, healthy sportsmen parading on Red Square.

“All sportsmen are alcoholics,” a Muscovite lady of a certain age told me once, when I was sitting at her kitchen table. “And trust me – I’ve been married to three of them.”

I found it hard to believe, I said.

“I adore their bodies, of course, but they have difficulties adjusting their mental state to the fact that they’re not winning anymore,” she explained. “The last one ran off to Georgia.”

Last week in Tbilisi, I decided to pay Husband No. 3 a visit.

Levan lives just outside of town on a hilltop. He calls himself an “exiled Muscovite” – and he is, indeed, an alcoholic. “Not of the nasty, Russian sort,” he tells me with a snobbish air.
“I grow, harvest and produce my own wine, and then drink it. Would you like a glass?”

If I didn’t guess it from his posture, it was easy to see from the medals on the walls that Levan was a champion weightlifter.

“We went everywhere,” he recalled with a smile. “Not just the outskirts of the Soviet Union, but the whole of Europe, North and South America – and most of Asia. It’s sometimes hard to think of a place I haven’t been!”

“Sadly, my train left a long time ago,” he mused metaphorically. “I used to have girlfriends in France, Germany – everywhere! But the only thing I lift now is wine barrels.”

His wine was truly excellent, and Levan was on his third bottle already. Georgian wine is something we have been missing in Moscow ever since it was banned for political reasons, together with the great, healing bottled water from Borzhomi.

“It was exactly then, in 2006, that I’d had enough of Moscow,” Levan explained. “I moved there when I was 16 and had a great time.

When I stopped training, I tried my hand at business. But after a while, the Americans wouldn’t give me a visa – and later the Germans and even the French stopped me from going there. Finally, when the Russian government started causing problems for Georgians, I realised it was time to go.”

According to Levan, it’s hard to exactly pinpoint when things changed. “At some point, your physical performance doesn’t match your memory,” he observed simply. “Then you suddenly realise you’re old – and no one needs you any more.”

As the evening progresses, more wine fills the table. An elderly neighbour drops in for a glass or three – and ends up falling asleep on the floor.

When I finally told Levan, “I should probably make this glass my last for the evening,” he just laughed.

“You see, drinking is a sport too!” he said, adding with a hint of melancholy: “But one without any winners…”

Gunplay (the Roman way)

We never really shook hands or were introduced, but I think his name was Roman. He was a young, rather aggressive fellow who had an angry look in his eyes. Like me, he spent most of the day at home. We met occasionally when he was smoking cigarettes in the hallway.

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During a house-warming party we threw there, one of our guests walked in pale as a sheet and crashed on the couch. Not being able to speak much, she spluttered that there was a guy pointing a gun at her in the hallway. As I opened the door to see, the gun was pointed in my face, and my neighbour pulled the trigger.

Unlike a Hollywood movie, my life didn’t flash by before my eyes. But I remember thinking that it seemed somehow very inappropriate to die before meeting my story deadline.

The sound of the hammer hitting the empty slide resonated in the hallway. Roma laughed. “Just to say,” he suddenly observed, very seriously, “your music is kind of loud. We’re trying to sleep, so turn it down a little bit.”

I unplugged the speakers from the laptop and somehow the party continued.

As the other people in the building knew, Roman had been to Chechnya. To most, that explained his behaviour. Some say he was running around the block naked looking for Chechens. Others reported he was handling his war trauma much better these days, not yelling as much as he used to.

Calling the police on him was not an option, however. He came from a family of respected militia men that went back generations.

Sometimes in the morning he’d leave the apartment in his MVD uniform, while other days he just hung around the place wearing not much more than jeans.

It’s hard to believe that this dark force ruling the capital will soon be renamed the police and will consist of friendly, honest officers who help tourists find their way. At least they won’t stick guns in innocent people’s faces, I hope.

We never spoke again about the “gun incident”, and in general Roman wasn’t very talkative. One day I saw him smash all the locals off the rink in a game of ice hockey on Patriarshy Prudy.

“On the ice, you’re free,” he said. “And you’re much stronger if you can dance.”

About the war he witnessed, he didn’t say much more than that it was “bad” and the whole of the North Caucasus should be bombed to pieces.

Yet in one respect, having a gun-crazed war vet for a neighbour actually turned out to be useful.

As our rental apartment was put up for sale, we’d tell potential buyers all about the lovely area, the structurally sound walls, the nice bathroom – and the little problem with Roma.
Back in the Moscow real estate boom, we managed to stay there for over a year.

In the end, the apartement was sold for half a million dollars to somebody with over 30 years of experience in counter-intelligence. He would have no troubles with Roma, he assured us.

“Every asshole fits in a jar,” he said. “You just have to show him who’s stronger.”

For days afterwards, I scoured the pages of Moskovsky Komsomolets to see who would survive the shootout.

Sometimes I think I should pay Roma a visit one of these days.

He might be missing that loud music by now.

The Heinrich manoeuvre

Anyone’s who ever been on a flight from Russia to Western Europe or North America has seen the following process unfold: While Westerners sail through the queue flashing their local passports, Russians and most other former Soviet citizens have to produce piles of papers before entering.

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Before stamping Russian passports, the British, American, French and especially German migration officers require people to turn their suitcases upside down and fish out bank statements, hotel reservations and other official documents.

Last week in Cologne, I saw an old man standing in one such long line. He looked very tired, and I called him up front to pass through customs in the fast lane. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ve been standing in line half my life.”

He and his elderly female companion slowly moved alongside. They smiled at each other and looked terribly in love – even the hard-hearted people at passport control couldn’t help but notice. The couple spoke Russian but carried mixed passports. I figured that they, like millions of others, had probably left Russia in the early ‘90s.

“Not quite,” 83-year-old Heinrich explained later. “I was born in Germany and my Jewish family lived there peacefully for generations. When Hitler rose to power we fled in time to escape the pogroms and find a better, peaceful life. But we made a great mistake.”

The mistake was not in leaving, he said, but in where they went.

While many refugees from Nazi Germany went to the United States, Western Europe or even South America, Heinrich’s parents put their faith in the Soviet Union. They moved to Moscow, learned Russian and found work in the buzzing Communist metropolis during the rapid economic growth that Stalin dictated.

“Then came 1937,” Heinrich told me while we were standing in another line later, buying railway tickets. “I probably don’t need to tell you any more.”

Seventy-three years later tears still well up in his eyes. “My father was shot by the NKVD and my mother passed away during the war. I was alone in that goddamn city. It was terrible.”

Yet, like many others, Heinrich obtained Soviet citizenship and managed to survive in Moscow.

“I guess I became Russian,” he said. “I had a job, got married, travelled around the Soviet Union and spent my holidays at the dacha. But somewhere in my heart I always knew I belonged to a different place. It always felt like being in prison. And when things finally opened up, I was one of the first to get away.”

Twenty years of fresh sea breezes and a return to the Heimat turned out well for Heinrich. These days he still runs up and down stairs, lifts heavy bags and looks pretty good for his age.

“I even have a girlfriend again,” he said, smiling and discreetly indicating his companion. “She’s from Kiev, it’s so wonderful – I really love her.”

Now Heinrich and his long-distance lover meet up by flying on low-cost airlines on terrible time-slots, enduring visa problems and multiple layovers.

It’s all for love, he says, adding: “I waited for this all my life.”

As Heinrich bids farewell, he wishes me luck.

“I hope Moscow became a bit better now,” he says. “But it’s covered in smoke again, just like it was in the war. May the Lord take care of you over there – Poka!”