Moscow is missing. It was supposed to be here, at the end of a three-and-a-half-hour flight on bmi, but we can’t find it anywhere. It is as though they have taken it away and hidden it and left instead a collection of eight-lane flyovers, scaffolding and concrete slabs, all baking under an improbably Mediterranean blue sky.
“I’ve been to Moscow many times,” Michael Nyman, the composer, will later say, “and I’ve never seen it in the sun.” Russians say that Moscow hasn’t looked like Moscow for years. Sometimes, from the window of a speeding car, we will catch glimpses of Red Square, or the sugar-topped sea anemone that is the Kremlin. Neither looks remotely convincing.
I’m here with the AngloMockba festival, which is best described as a cultural mission, or a one-sided foreign exchange. A handful of British cultural figures, possibly picked at random, scooped up out of London by an impresario called Pablo Ganguli, and plonked down in another city. Why? Why not? The big fish include Stephen Frears, Nyman, Dylan Jones, Stephen Jones, Henry Holland, Martha Fiennes, Gavin Turk and William Orbit, but there are many others, right down to tiddlers such as me. Don’t worry if you aren’t sure who all of these people are. They probably aren’t in Moscow, either.
The point, Ganguli says, is “cultural diplomacy”. AngloMockba is his fifth similar festival, with others having taken place in Marrakesh, Delhi, Mumbai (twice) and St Petersburg. You could write a book on Ganguli, but to give you the basics, he’s a 25-year old gay cherub from Calcutta, an occasional transvestite and a former boyfriend of Our Man in Papua New Guinea. I’ve no idea what they make of him here. To tell the truth I’m a bit perplexed myself.
Day One If they have swine flu yet in Russia, we’ll all have caught it at the airport on Friday afternoon. Passport control in Moscow is much like being kettled at the G20 demonstrations. Instead of riot police, though, they have steely-eyed young women in surgical face masks, occasionally wielding thermometers. It engenders an air of panic. Pull your jumper up over your face, I discover, and people keep their distance. Dylan Jones (the Editor of GQ) has a pig-shaped keyring that makes an “oink” noise whenever he presses a button on its head. That works even better.
Somewhere between the plane and the car park outside we utterly lose Lucy Freud, artist and daughter of Lucian. A rumour spreads that she might have swine flu. Turns out she just escaped early and took a taxi.
They don’t smile much, Russians, even when they aren’t wearing surgical face masks. This is discussed that night, over a dinner at a lavish gold and glitzy club called the Most. When I visited St Petersburg, I tell Orbit, the only people who smiled at me were prostitutes and one hotel receptionist who, because of my incessant smiling, eventually got entirely the wrong idea. Orbit is appalled. “I’ve been smiling at everybody,” he says. He’s worried what people might think.
Much smiling from the many beautiful girls on the dancefloor later, although I suspect this is for reasons already discussed. Ganguli kisses his boyfriend Tomas Auksas, Orbit plays Madonna’s Ray of Light, and the rest of us settle into a comfortable vodka haze. Cultural diplomacy seems a blast. On the way home we see women riding horses and there are packs of enormous wild dogs. Later, I’ll ask a Russian if these dogs are dangerous. “Eet ees rare,” she will tell me. “But eef ferry cold, they eat tramp.”
Day Two Today begins the festival proper. We’re in a function suite near the top of our hotel, the Swissôtel Krasnye Holmy, a five-star, 40ish-floor tower next to one of the most salubrious flyovers in the whole city. We start with speeches, and a letter of welcome is read out from the mayor, Yury Luzhkov. “He wishes you lots of new impressions,” says the translator, “and many outstanding victories.”
Over at the Eisenstein Library of Cinematographic Art they have begun a day of British films, including Martha Fiennes’s Chromophobia (which stars her brother Ralph) and Stephen Frears’s The Queen. Here we have a short film from Lucy Freud and then I’m hosting a Q&A with Dylan Jones about Cameron on Cameron, his book of interviews with the Tory leader. What do Russians think of Cameron? No idea. In one question, I describe Samantha Cameron as “fashionable”. Every Russian woman sniggers.
Lunch en masse afterwards in the John Donne, Moscow’s finest English pub, where the menu includes chicken tikka masala. Then we’re off to a gallery where there is a nude performance involving the British artist Pauline Amos and a lot of masking tape. Here, Nyman is giving a recital on a bizarre and apparently famous antique upright grand piano. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says later. The sound is booming, and everything comes out a little strange. When he finishes, Frears asks him why he didn’t play the soundtrack to The Piano. “I did,” Nyman says. “Let’s do a film together. I could flog you anything.”
A pause for drinks, during which Aliona Muchinskaya, one of the Russian organisers, stands up to apologise to the British guests, because they keep turning down vodka and whisky and asking for water. “In Russia,” she says, “this is unheard of. We have sent out for water, and we now have five litres”. There are about 100 people there.
To a party, afterwards, in a studio belonging to the fashion designer Andrei Sharov. Young people in strange clothes, and vodka that now tastes of chilli and pepper. It all feels a bit trendy East London ten years ago. The highlight of the evening is a three-piece beatbox outfit from Tatarstan called Jukebox Trio, who perform an a cappella version of No Woman, No Cry. That is to say, a group of Russians, singing in English, performing a song by a Jamaican in a style from 1980s New York. And you thought swine flu was global. It’s weird here.
Day Three A day of film and art, which begins at the Eisenstein Library of Cinematographic Art. Here, Frears, Fiennes and Danny Moynihan are discussing film with Russian critics and the film-maker Andrei Konchalovsky, who directed Tango & Cash (1989). Whoever knew that was Russian?
In Russia, Konchalovsky says, the money never ends up in the right place.
This is not just a problem with film. Recently, he says, an oligarch wanted to kill somebody, and spent 200,000 roubles on hiring a hitman. After middle-men, he says, only 2,000 roubles went to the hitman, who bought a dodgy Kalashnikov and ended up killing himself. This makes Russians laugh, and Brits just smile.
Afterwards, Danny Moynihan reveals that his own pending film Boogie Woogie was delayed because his main backer was a Russian, and he actually was killed by a hitman. This makes Brits laugh, and Russians just shrug.
From the audience, Frears is asked what film he would make about Russia. He looks helpless. “I don’t know anything about Russia,” he says, eventually. “I understood old Russia, because of Eisenstein, and Soviet Russia, because I grew up with it. But I don’t understand now. I don’t know where I am. It’s baffling to think that this was where the revolution happened. I can’t find the past.”
For the Brits, after two days of concrete, I think this strikes a chord. Again, though, the Russians merely shrug. I suspect that Russians rather pride themselves on Brits not being able to understand Moscow, just as we can never understand Russians themselves. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were obsessed by dusha, or the Russian Soul. Fiennes is a household name in Russia, in a way that she isn’t quite at home, thanks to her 1999 adaptation of Pushkin’s Yevgeniy Onegin. She says people always asked her whether she understood the Russian soul and that she never even got close. Konchalovsky says that if Russians were brown or black or green the West wouldn’t even expect to understand their soul. Because they are white, he thinks, we do.
Ask a Russian what he thinks of the Western soul and he’ll probably tell you that we haven’t got one. And perhaps that’s why when Russians ape the West, they often do so in such a gaudy, soulless way. That afternoon there is a long discussion about modern art (with Gavin Turk and Michael Craig-Martin) and, after that, an even longer one about fashion and hats (with Stephen Jones and Henry Holland). Russians, in such conversations, seem to struggle. Maybe that’s something that we’ve got, that they have not. They are not good at intellectualising fluff. Maybe that’s what our mission is all about.
At the Garage, an old bus depot converted into a gallery by Dasha Zhukova (Roman Abramovich’s girlfriend), I finally catch up with Ganguli. People who haven’t met Ganguli but speak to him on the phone often imagine him to be middle-aged, slightly worldweary and possibly French or Spanish. This bright-eyed bouncing Asian, often in a frock, can come as a surprise.
At only 19 Ganguli started out with literary festivals. Hardly anybody seems sure why as he doesn’t come across as the most literary of people. (“This is the house of Dostoevsky,” I once heard him tell a group of novelists in St Petersburg, “the writer.”) Ganguli shrugs. “Actually I read books in five languages,” he says. “I just never publicise this.”
Anyway, he now says, writers are dull. The worlds of film, fashion and art seem to suit him better. Push him, and he’ll admit that he’s more interested in people than in what they do. Over there, he says, Nyman is chatting with Orbit in a Russian café. Somewhere out there, in the city that people keep telling us is Moscow, Frears, Fiennes and Craig-Martin have been abducted by Konchalovsky, and driven off to his dacha for lunch.
“I always wanted to be a diplomat,” Ganguli says, sitting in his eye-shadow and his see-through shirt. And in the strangest of ways, that’s exactly what he is.