The Twilight Watch
THE GENUINE OLD communal courtyards in Moscow's apartment blocks disappeared sometime between the eras of the two popular bards Vysotsky and Okudzhava.
It's a strange business. Even after the revolution, when for purposes of the struggle against 'the slavery of the kitchen', they actually did away with kitchens in housing blocks, nobody tried to get rid of the courtyards. Every proud Stalinist block that displayed its Potemkin façade to the broad avenue beside it had to have a courtyard – large and green, with tables and benches, with a yard-keeper scraping the asphalt clean every morning. Then the age of five-storey sectional housing arrived – and the courtyards shrivelled and became bare, the yard-keepers who had been so grave and staid were replaced by yard women, who regarded it as their duty to give little boys who got up to mischief a clip round the ear and upbraid residents who came home drunk. But even so, the courtyards still hung on.
And then, as if in response to the increased tempo of life, the houses stretched upwards. From nine storeys to sixteen, or even twenty-four. And as if each building was allocated the right only to a certain volume of space, rather than an area of ground, the courtyards withered right back to the entrances and the entrances opened their doors straight onto the public streets, while the male and female yard-keepers disappeared and were replaced by communal services functionaries.
Okay, so the courtyards came back later, but by no means to all the buildings, as if they'd taken offence at being treated so scornfully before. The new courtyards were bounded by high walls, with fit, well-groomed young men sitting in the gate lodges, and car parks concealed under the English lawns. The children in these courtyards played under the supervision of nannies, the drunken residents were helped from their Mercedes and BMWs by bodyguards accustomed to dealing with anything, and the new yard-keepers tidied up the English lawns with German mowers.
This courtyard was one of the new ones.
The multistorey towers on the bank of the River Moscow were known throughout Russia. They were the capital's new symbol – replacing the faded Kremlin and the TsUM department store, which had become just an ordinary shop. The granite embankment with its own quayside, the entrances finished with Venetian plasterwork, the cafés and restaurants, the beauty salons and supermarkets and also, of course, the apartments with two or three hundred square metres of floor space. The new Russia probably needed a symbol like this – pompous and kitschy, like the thick gold chains that men wore round their necks during the period of initial accumulation of capital. And it didn't matter that most of the apartments that had been bought long ago were still standing empty, the cafés and restaurants were closed, waiting for better times to come, and the waves lapping against the concrete quayside were dirty.
The man strolling along the embankment on this warm summer evening had never worn a gold chain. He possessed a keen intuition that was more than adequate as a substitute for good taste. He had switched his Chinese-made Adidas tracksuit in good time for a crimson club jacket and then been the first to ditch the crimson jacket in favour of a Versace suit. He was ahead of the game even in the sports that he played, having abandoned his tennis racket for mountain skis a whole month before all the Kremlin officials . . . even though at his age the pleasure he could get from skis was limited to standing on them.
He preferred to live