Moscow

On the morning of July 15th, Moscow was as hot as an oven. Deep in the Metro, the trains seemed to travel too fast, the crowds were densely packed and the air was sweaty and close. When the news came that a train had derailed between Park Pobedy and Slavyansky Stations, killing twenty-two people, it was a fact to turn over in the mind, to consider with perverse wonder: I was on the Moscow Metro that very morning. I was down there, sweating and claustrophobic and silently complaining about the speed. Just as, the month before, I was flying over eastern Ukraine, on a Singapore Airlines flight to London, before that airspace was closed. Eat, drink and be merry, the universe was telling me, for tomorrow we go up in smoke.
Like a child, sleeping in a UN school in Gaza. In a Moscow hotel we watched the World Cup final. In the bar were thirty elderly Germans and a group of Israelis. Two screens had been set up, one a Russian channel, the other German. At half time, Russian TV played clips of sexy cheerleaders, while the German channel dourly switched to the news: live coverage of the bombing of Gaza.
We watched in silence, as Palestinian women and children screamed and panicked and died. I wanted to get up and say, OK, re Gaza. You Israelis, you Germans. Does anyone want to share? The Israelis were crying bullets, the people of Gaza were dying, the Germans silently sipped their tankards of beer. Nothing to do with them, these murderous Israeli tears. It wasn't their fault. Still, one thing was very clear: whatever or whoever had driven them to it, the Israelis had gone completely insane.

Moscow, unreal city, under the steel blue of a summer noon: the golden domes on the skyline, the exotic beauty of Saint Basil's Cathedral. When Salvador Dali visited the Kremlin, he was excited by the fluid chaos of Russian Orthodox architecture. He ran across the square looking at the domes and shouting, 'They're moving.'
It's a dramatic city, rich with history and secrets, gridlocked with security. In the hotel lobby: bodyguards. In the hotel gym: businessmen with bodyguards. In street restaurants: bodyguards standing sentry at tables. After a short time in Russia, the definite article starts to seem redundant. In streets: beauty of Russian Orthodox churches. In other streets: intimidating Soviet architecture. Outside Duma, lone woman protestor, holding up photos of her beaten face. On afternoon horizon fantastic statue of General Zhukov, riding against limitless blue.
And down under the Kremlin, in the hushed chill of the Mausoleum, Lenin is lying in state. Here the boy soldiers will enforce the silence, and rebuke anyone who has hands in pockets, and as you file past it is forbidden to pause and consider whether the pale corpse in his glass tomb can actually be real. Stalin's monuments have been removed but Lenin appears everywhere, and here he lies, surrounded by soldiers and viewers and flowers.
The train to St Petersburg takes four hours. On train: bodyguards. Out the window small towns, a dog sleeping on a platform in the heat, the vastness of the landscape at his back. St Petersburg is so far north that in summer it has white nights. It's a city steeped in history and culture, a hotbed of bikies and skinheads and criminals, a place where there are special schools of culture and theatres for children, where you can go to extraordinary opera at the Mariinsky Theatre and walk back to your hotel in daylight at midnight, past bars in which the denizens look rougher than Mad Max. The vast art collection at the Hermitage includes one gallery only opened since Perestroika, of art taken from Germany as the Russians drove Hitler's armies back. The palaces are so opulent they make revolution seem simply inevitable. The historic architecture is so beautiful it makes you glad it wasn't razed by the Bolsheviks, by the Nazis.
In a minivan with a leopard painted on it, driven by one Nicolai, we hurtled out of town. Under the seat, Nicolai had stashed a large knife, and another in the van door. That day the TV announced an airliner had been shot down over Ukraine. Anticipating the information war, Russian TV fired off early shots: the Ukrainians may have shot down the plane thinking it was the Russian President's, as his plane was red, white and blue. And while the British were heaping blame, it was important to remember that the entire British establishment, including the Royals, were paedophiles. It was Fair and Balanced, Russian-style. Outside were the minarets of the Church on Spilled Blood, the most beautiful building I've ever entered. Outside it was midnight, and the sun was shining on the domes.