The Madness of Moscow: Cary Johnston

★★

One Man’s Journey of Life and Love in Russia

I was attracted to this book by its promise of revelation. Even in the modern age, Russia is still ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, and its role on the international stage is becoming ever more complex, fascinating and not a little worrying. Recent news has cast it as a country of hackers, oligarchs, corruption and assassins; but how true is all of this? What’s it actually like to be in Russia right now, as a Westerner? What makes the Russians tick? How open is modern Russia to the West and what it stands for? I hoped to find the answers to some of these questions, and hopefully many others, in this book. Unfortunately, though, I was disappointed. Johnston’s account offers little beyond a memoir of partying, vodka-drinking and his eternal and somewhat wearying quest to find his ideal ‘Russian Bride’. For a reporter, it shows a profound lack of curiosity.

When he finds himself at a lull in his early forties, still single and eager for adventure, Cary Johnston leaps at the chance to spend a year in Moscow working for the English-language TV station Russia Today. He’s keen to see what Russia is like from the inside and sets off, full of optimism, to embark on his new career. What he notices first, of course, is the cold: it’s winter and the temperatures have plummeted to levels that he’s never even imagined before. But he tries to settle into this strange new life, looking for an apartment with the aid of a friendly, rather motherly estate agent (and then moving on several times in quick succession when he realises that DIY at unsociable hours is a favourite Russian hobby). He gets to know his colleagues, goes to bars, and tries to figure out how one gets a social life in Moscow. And this is where the real theme of the book takes off.

Johnston comes across, deliberately or not, as desperate for a relationship. From the very beginning he’s making nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments about the gorgeous Russian women and dropping hints about his desire to get one to marry him. Every time he goes into a bar or attends an event, we’re treated to a reminder that all the women in the room are tall and thin and gorgeous and blonde and, even more amazingly, they’re all open to the idea of going home with a hopeful Brit. But, Johnston confides, all is not that simple. His Ekaterinas and Olgas and Yelenas expect something in return for spending the night: ideally a shopping trip, but at the very least a present of some kind. Much of the book is spent trying to puzzle out whether this makes them proponents of self-directed prostitution or whether it’s a legitimate approach to a relationship.

There was way too much drooling over Russian women for my liking – and a very one-dimensional attitude to women in general. We’re told on maybe two occasions about female friends that Johnston has, but otherwise his attitude towards the female sex verges on the predatory. Hope springs eternal, as he can’t understand what these Amazons could possibly see in the stumpy, solid, ugly men that Russia produces. Up against these goddesses, of course, we puny, bland and pasty British women don’t stand a chance. Johnston offers a word of advice to those poor wives waiting at home for their errant husbands who are away ‘on business’: ‘And what of all you women back in the UK who have husbands being sent to Eastern Europe and beyond for short business trips – should you be worried? From what I could see, hell yes!‘ Sadly I think that says more about the incontinence of the people he knew in Moscow than it does about the likely behaviour of men in general. Or at least, I would hope so.

And yet, despite Johnston’s extensive dating experience, chronicled in far more detail in these pages than any real insights into Russia itself, his experiences haven’t left him with much generosity towards the women of Moscow. ‘Going out with a Russian girl,’ he writes, ‘is like going to see a magic show – you know you’re being tricked, you just can’t work out how.

When we do leave the subject of Russian women for a few pages, there are some illuminating vignettes. Take the aftermath of the Metro bomb attacks in Moscow, for example. Johnston was news anchor at the time the bombs went off, and he writes with great sensitivity and compassion about the city’s mourning, and the trauma suffered by a colleague of his who was in the Metro at the time. He also talks of how grief and anger were channelled into violence against foreigners, who were made scapegoats for the attacks. Several of Johnston’s colleagues were attacked and he himself reports a rather scary story of being pursued through snowy streets by two strangers. He also recounts stories of shocking racism, to which he responded with what I consider to be remarkable poise and restraint, and yet which must have profoundly unsettled him. These were glimpses of the world that he must have come to know better through his time on the news desk at Russia Today, but I really wish we’d had a bit more of that thoughtful analysis and rather less of the girls in bars. It’s possible to see that Russia can be a scary and unpredictable place, but unfortunately we don’t really get to see enough of the bigger picture to understand any better why that might be so.

I suspect part of my problem with Johnston was a clash of personalities. He is utterly dismissive of pre-20th-century Russian history and general culture. Whenever he talks about anything remotely cultural, the book acquires a self-conscious shield of coolness, as if to reassure us that he really doesn’t care about any of this. Get him to a club, quickly, with a vodka in his hand and a blonde woman in a short skirt on his knee! That’s life! For example, he goes to the Bolshoi Ballet and is less bothered by ‘all the spinning around, tip-toeing and hoisting into the air‘ than by the fact that ‘I’m sure a couple of the male dancers were sporting mullets’. Though he can see how moved his Russian fellow ballet-goers are, Johnston doesn’t use this as a clue about the Russian relationship with art and beauty, but simply crosses it off as something that’s not his thing and thus not of interest. Further indignation was provoked, I’m afraid, by his wilful disregard of anything vaguely historic in other places he visited. On Kiev: ‘It was like a slightly more sophisticated Moscow: a prettier city with a less macho atmosphere, but that was about it.’ And on St Petersburg:

People rave about Saint Petersburg. They say it’s cultural, enigmatic, beautiful, and lots of other complimentary stuff. Well, sorry, but I disagree. The thing is, there are two types of city break travellers. Those who want to endlessly visit churches and museums, and those who don’t. I am in the latter group, which makes it difficult to actually find anything else to do in Saint Petersburg, as the place is full of churches and museums.

At this point, I lost my temper, shook my Kindle furiously and shouted aloud, “So why bloody go there then?!” It continued with an explanation of why walking tours or any form of historical study is completely pointless (‘They were all just people like you and me, trying to earn a living or just doing the weekly shopping. Why tourists find this sort of thing interesting is a mystery to me‘) and eventually concluded with a general rant against museums in general, which I feel compelled to quote with comments:

Why do they always have to be so dull? It’s as if the curators are making every effort to make the art as non-interactive as possible. [Curator here. So, how would you like to interact with this painting by Monet? Pick it up? Rip it in two? Poke it? Rub out any sections you don’t like? Or perhaps write your name in the corner, to be properly interactive?] Paintings hanging neatly on white walls, all pristinely and clinically labelled and dated [Isn’t it a bore when you’re actually told what you’re looking at?], with security guards watching your every move, waiting to pounce if you have the audacity to touch anything [Why do you need to touch anything?!], while tourists tramp around staring at everything as if they have any clue at all what each piece of art is all about [Maybe they do, because they’re reading the labels].

Yes, I was much vexed. I’m not saying that people aren’t allowed to find history and culture boring. Of course they are, each to their own. But I can’t help feeling that the idea of Russia we get here is a very blinkered one. Perhaps that’s what it’s like in Moscow? I can’t judge: I’ve never been, and that’s why I hoped to get a slightly more varied picture from this book. One comes away with a feeling that Johnston actually feels rather bitter about Moscow and its people, and that’s borne out by some odd sections, digs directed at persons unknown, perhaps some of his colleagues in the Russia Today office. These feel more like score-settling than journalism: ‘No matter how legitimately ill you are, you still feel guilty about not showing up for work (except for people who have had consensual sex with the boss and can therefore get away with doing virtually nothing all year round – every company has one of those, don’t they?)‘. And there’s an even longer venting of spleen against the unnamed person whom Johnston suspects of having been the ‘mole’ in the office, passing information to the authorities.

There are several amusing stories here and it’s something of a picaresque tale, as Johnston ricochets from club to club in search of the love of his life, always hoping she’ll turn up on the next night. You learn a lot about the methods of Russian women when sizing up a prospective partner. But, if you’ve come to this book hoping for an insight into Russian culture, history and society, rather than Johnston’s ultimately unsuccessful Moscow dating experiences, you’re probably in the wrong place.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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