Text, drawings and photos by Hugh Gatenby
I’ve written before about the caprices of Russian weather. My friends, hardened born-and-bred Muscovites for the most part, talk about climatic ‘instability’ and express surprise at recent vagaries of the weather – like our snow in May. Yesterday afternoon, with seemingly little warning, Moscow was hit by a perfect storm.
I was teaching at the time. One of the girls pointed out the darkening skies, the swirling trees and the lashing rain. Soon a storm of Wagnerian dimensions was playing outside. The Russian Federation’s Defence Ministry Boarding School for Girls, to give it its full title, comprises of big, solid, low-rise buildings, surrounded by a massive security-wall. The daughters of the Russian military are well-served, and well protected against any intrusion – included climatic. We carried on. The lesson over, I went down the corridor to one of the art rooms where my friend Maria was having her last session of the term with her youngest group. Maria, unfailingly cheerful, walked around her charges, checking on their oeuvres, warmly encouraging some, chivvying others. She’s a popular teacher and the girls plainly adore her. Happy that she could leave her girls to it, she donned an apron and sat down at her easel; solid walls, formidable double glazing and Louis Armstrong drowning out any sound of the mayhem outside. Storm or no storm, Maria presides over an incongruous island of creative calm in the middle of a furiously academic, at times even militaristic, institution. Girls often seek her art room out for that very reason.
The first real hint I got that things might not be well in the outside world was a message I got from my friend Isylu, a Russian employee of the British Council, with whom I’d arranged to meet for an after-work drink. She expressed concern for me being out on the streets, and suggested that we should meet underground at the Lubyanka metro (as all good James Bond fans and spy fetishists know, it bears the same name as the adjacent KGB headquarters) and go on from there. I looked outside. Everything seemed calm. Seconds later she sent me a photo of a fallen tree which, she wrote, had just gone crashing past her office window. It was starting to sound a bit lively. Maria had left, I helped the girls clear up, and still not convinced; I stepped outside. I walked through the spacious park in the school grounds; the tulips (yes, we still have them) were looking a bit sorry but the vegetation looked intact. The air had that fresh, clear feeling that follows heavy rain. I checked out through the guardhouse thinking we’d just had a little local weather blip, not uncommon in Moscow.
The Lubyanka meeting went as planned, and my friend and I had a delightful catch-up evening at one of Moscow’s many faux-English pubs. It was only after stepping out of the terminal metro station in my very green Moscow dormitory suburb, that things took on a more alarming appearance. I thought at first that the local council had been engaged in some haphazard pruning; there was plenty of foliage lying around and attempts had been made to keep the pathways clear. I then noticed, in the lamplight, the fallen trees, some of which had fallen across cables. Several cars were buried under foliage and one, a Lada kept in absolutely pristine condition by one of my neighbours, had been cleaved by a huge pine tree. It was only the next morning, when I ran in my local park, that that I was to see the fallen trees, heavy with their new foliage, the shards of wood from their broken boughs making it looked like they’d been scythed down by a giant hand. The epicentre, I was later to learn, was close to my district, and in its brief angry flurry the storm had claimed 10 lives and put 146 people in hospital.
The district local authority manual workers are now out there with their chainsaws, and my neighbour is tending to his Lada. He’s already taped up the windscreen, which had been turned to icing sugar. If the publicly-spirited locals, who’d been lending a hand, are still there tomorrow, I’ll join them before work. This old Soviet housing estate is going to need a lot of cleaning up.