An Invisible Woman in Moscow

It all started when I first arrived in Moscow, some years ago, with two enormous suitcases, and no idea at all what living in Russia would be like. I could not imagine how my life would change and what surprises, angels, demons, documents and delights were in store for me. Anyone who has done this will know that so-called ‘culture-shock’ is a real, tangible, visceral experience. One of it’s immediate effects on me was to give me the vague and persistent feeling that I had become invisible.

The first signs of my new invisibility were immediately noticeable in the faces passing by in the streets. Russian people have an entirely different public face than most English folk. When you actually meet and talk with Russians, they can be the most hospitable, warm and friendly people you can imagine, but until you are allowed behind the social facade, the mask is an impassive, heavy and even apparently hostile one.

I laugh to think back to the times I can remember dancing a ‘pas-de-deux’ with strangers in a British street, each of us stepping to one side to allow the other to pass, but both of us stepping in the same direction, and apologising. In Moscow you have to be careful not to leave a gap of more than 10cm between yourself and the counter in front of you, because that’s big enough for someone to squeeze into. Be prepared to open all your doors for yourself, and don’t expect the traffic to stop for you if you’re on a pedestrian crossing. I have even been actually knocked to the ground on an icy pavement by a ‘hit-and-run pedestrian’ at a road crossing. Mind you, I have also been scooped up off the floor by a strong, kind Russian stranger, but that’s another story.

Then, of course, there is the experience of not understanding anything at all that anyone is saying. How many times have I sat in someone’s house, smiling vaguely, and listening to a stream of impenetrable noise that is the sound of other people talking, and been utterly ignored? It’s an inevitable situation when you’ve inconveniently moved to a country before you’ve even begun to look at learning the language they speak there.

It is at moments like this, however, that one’s superpowers begin to develop. When you can’t easily join in the conversation, you begin to ‘read’ other forms of communication that are visual or experiential. All the little signs and signals that we use alongside language to communicate are still there, and you just get better at understanding and transmitting those. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the period of time spent dwelling amongst people whose language you cannot speak, before you learn too much of it, is priceless. There are things to be understood that run deeper than words.

Part of the value of being the outsider, the stranger, is the unique, and in some ways privileged, perspective that you have. That is who I am right now, in this place. I love Moscow, I love Russian people, and I can even speak this strange, wonderful language now (after a fashion). But I am, and always will be, an outsider. I am both within and without, visible, and invisible: I have become the Incredible Invisible Woman.

14 thoughts on “An Invisible Woman in Moscow

  1. I stumbled across your website recently and read some of your posts. Well done. Keep it up.

    I was sent to Moscow in 1996 by the investment bank that I worked for. I remained there until 2005. Like you, during that time I kept a journal describes daily life and memorable events including the much frowned upon decision to have our first child in a Moscow clinic where Soviet dinosaurs thrived and having to navigate the impenetrable Russian bureaucracy. Russia was still extremely Soviet in those days.

    Employing domestic workers, dealing with city officials when we purchased our apartment in a decaying pre Revolutionary building and even visiting Russian fruit and vegetable markets armed with a Geiger counter to measure radioactivity levels were all obstacles negotiated with considerable difficulty. The pace of daily life continued unabated until the long overdue economic crisis of 1998 arrived and the Russian economy collapsed.

    Even today when I read my journal, I am astounded with the experiences that we went through over that nine year period.

    These were very interesting times indeed and I urge you to keep recording events as you are doing.

    Good luck.

    • Thank you so much for your comment.
      What different times when you were here! Mind you, I think one or two of my stories of bureaucratic journeys across the city to get a resident’s permit might compare with some of your soviet stories. As far as I know (and hope), we’re not particularly radioactive at the moment. I, too, have had a baby in Moscow, and have to say that the doctor and staff were all really good and helpful. I hope your grandchildren read those journals one day and gasp! I am duly encouraged and sharpening my pencil for the next post.
      Thanks again,
      IW.

    • Dear J
      Hilarious! I have found this system still operating but only in a couple of places, and it makes me chuckle (or rant, depending on what kind of hurry I am in!) It is almost sad that supermarkets have infiltrated the city and more or less taken over. Thanks for the link.

  2. I just came across your blog and am very impressed! Excellent writing, great images! You are obviously in the midst of a fascinating experience…I look forward to reading more!

  3. Hi-
    I’m the editor of ExpatArrivals.com, a site devoted to developing comprehensive destination guides aimed at easing expat transition abroad. I found your post on “Culture Shock” in Russia exceptionally informative, and I was hoping I could convince you to share of your insight with our web site. Any chance you’d be interested? If so, please drop me a line.
    Best-
    Stephanie

  4. Pingback: Living in Culture Shock | diaryinvisible

  5. Great story! I’ve been here in Kazan now almost 3 years coming from Seattle. I’m still adapting to this very strange land and struggling with the demons and angels as well. I hope make it. Not too many English speakers here and that makes it harder as there are no Russian language schools or programs here other than for foreign college students.
    Dan
    12-25-2011

    • Yes – a good Russian teacher can be very important. Good luck with the language and all the rest. You’ve made it through three years, so there must be something good going on 😉

  6. Hi, Nice blog. I’m an Englishman who lives in Russia most of the time, and I often try to stay invisible in Russia, for safety more than anything. It’s much better to blend in and look like a local than to stand out.

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