From dusk till dawn
Moscow, famously, never sleeps. But who are the people staying awake? Maryam Omidi meets the city's night owls in the first instalment of a two-part feature

A time of romance and a time of fear, a time of sleeplessness and a time of vice: the night means many things to many people. For most of human history, eventide prompted a retreat indoors, away from the crooks and convicts, the goblins and the ghouls. When daylight faded, fires would be lit, ghost stories told, dreamlands embraced. Gas and then electric lighting demystified the Russian night, making darkness a time for work and play. From the shadows, a nocturnal culture emerged with its own set of rituals and rules.

With each passing century, the Moscow night has been inhabited by a different set of people, each nocturnal iteration imbued with its own hue. “In 19th century it belonged to prostitutes, the police, sailors and the church, with Russian priests praying through the night,” says Yevgeny Dukov, the author of Dusk Till Dawn: Night as a Cultural Phenomenon. In the 20th century, the night metamorphosed from a time of slumber into a time of socialising, first at restaurants for the communist ruling class and later, after Stalin’s death, in the privacy of homes, where friends would gather to sing and recite poetry until dawn.

The collapse of communism transformed the Russian capital from grey into gold, giving birth to the night as we know it today. “The end of the USSR made everything possible for everyone,” says Dukov. “Night was no longer simply the time between going to bed and waking up.” Today’s Moscow is a thriving, heaving metropolis, powered by a 24-hour, all-you-could-want culture, a triumph of capitalism. Long gone is the era of Soviet deprivation, replaced by round-the-clock beauty salons, supermarkets, dentists, gyms, legal services, restaurants and bars. Burgers at Starlite Diner, French wine at bistro Jean-Jacques, a no-expense-spared meal at the aristocratic Cafe Pushkin or a $10-cappuccino at Coffeemania, whether midnight or 5am — all and more are open for your delectation.

Long working hours and ceaseless traffic jams mean that for some Muscovites, the night offers a momentary hush, a time to run errands, to get that spray tan or that flat-screen TV. On the weekends, the Russian capital comes into its own, its 11.5 million inhabitants engaged in an orgy of consumerism. While some can be found sweating on the dancefloor, arms aloft as DJs spin pounding soundtracks, others work through the night, stacking shelves or feeding the 24-hour news cycle. For now, Muscovites seem oblivious to the tightening noose of sanctions or the falling rouble: the Russian capital is more 24/7 than London or New York — slow down and you risk being left behind.

The graffiti artist

The can hisses and a toxic odour fills the night air. Using speed and precision, contours, shapes, colours, a word begins to emerge on the freshly painted white wall, a palimpsest. One by one the vestiges of another night’s work, someone else’s labour, evanesce. Face fixed on the concrete canvas beneath an overpass that offers half-shelter from intrusive eyes. It’s a 20-minute walk from Begovaya station in the east, down an ill-lit path alongside a train track, Moscow’s glass-clad skyscraper district twinkling on the horizon. Every one of Anatoly Atochken’s senses is engaged, every muscle alert, ready to cut and run; there’s no time for error. “Yes I feel fear but also clarity. It’s an experience like no other.” Trains rumble past, carrying passengers as far away as Estonia. Blank faces stare out the window, oblivious to the act of spray can defiance just metres away.

“Sometimes you plan where to go, sometimes you just come across a wall, a space and decide to make it yours.” Weaving through the backstreets in the dead of night, for these urban scribblers, Moscow is theirs for the taking, every nook etched into their mind’s eye. A strict code of ethics lays down some basic rules: no buildings of historical significance, no Soviet blocks, no churches. Everything else is fair game. Once consummated, a sense of ownership sets in, in this city of exclusivity and elites, of billionaires, billionaires, billionaires. Venal and indifferent, the police barely pose a threat. “Make sure your graffiti isn’t political and you’ll be fine. But if you do get caught, sometimes it’s better not to run because if you’re afraid, they’ll smell your fear.”

“At the beginning it was like an addiction. I was doing it every day. I was always looking at walls and subways. I was like a dog chasing a stick — it was inevitable.” On an average night, the crew meets for a “jam” session; riffing off each other, they engage in a ludic dance of tags, throw-ups, murals. For the ultimate high, it’s the S-train out to the suburbs where the city ends and the forest begins; they lie low until a hush descends and sleeping trains, unguarded, offer the opportunity for unrivalled play. “I see it as a strong habit rather than an art. Obviously everyone wants to present what they do as meaningful because you think that you, your name, your crew, your area, everything is you. Of course it’s all about egos. But let’s be honest, who does it actually benefit?”

The florist

Roses, chrysanthemums, lilies: Moscow nights are fuelled by flower power. No occasion is too small, no acquaintance too distant, no recession too deep for the gift of a floral confection. Every street corner has a florist, open at all hours, the air redolent with the sweet scent of flowers from Holland, Italy, Israel, Ecuador, Kenya, commingling. “Buying 200 roses at 2am is in no way extraordinary. Once a guy and a girl walked in at 3am and asked for a wedding bouquet because they wanted to get married the next day.” As the evening advances, men shuffle in to Moscvettorg on Kutozovsky Prospekt in east Moscow at around 9pm, post-work, beating the traffic-choked streets for a spray of flowers: the husband who goes home empty-handed is the husband who goes hungry.

The Russian enthusiasm for floral gifts peaks on International Women’s Day (8 March) when mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and aunts eagerly await the arrival of their perfumed bouquets. On 1 September, the start of the school year, pupils wait for the first bell to ring, posies in hand, as their parents did before them, and their parents’ parents too. Valentine’s Day is less universal: for the young, in thrall to American culture, it offers a more cosmopolitan form of courtship; for the old, it is nothing but a western import, bad for the soul and antithetical to all that is Russian.

“I moved here from Armenia five years ago because my husband lives here. There’s 21 of us at the florist and we all received training. I work from 9pm to 8am, three nights a week.” Selecting, snipping, trimming, wrapping — artfully arranged bouquets welcome babies, decorate brides, toast promotions and pay tribute to the dead and dying. An odd number of flowers celebrates a joyous occasion, an even number death. Seven flowers signal attraction, five a marriage proposal, and nine love and admiration. Less, however, is often more; a single stem can be the biggest statement of them all: you, it whispers, are my everything.

The social worker

It’s 11pm and though it’s September, it’s bone-achingly cold. Dmitry spies her sitting on the steps near Yaroslavsky railway station in northeast Moscow, blonde hair matted, face caked in dirt, eyes glazed over. “Department of Social Protection. What’s your name?” Booze-addled words stumble out. He offers her a cigarette and they walk towards the van, arm in arm. He is tender with her as he is with all of those he meets who are down and out in Moscow. “There are around 36,000 homeless people here, mainly men. They end up living rough because of family conflicts and alcoholism. There are also lots of internal migrants who come here for work but don’t find anything and are too ashamed to go back home.”

They drive back to the shelter in Maryino, a no man’s land on the outskirts of the city in the south. The van carries the basics: warm clothing, instant noodles and a medical kit. At the shelter, she’s checked over by a doctor, cleaned up and given a bed for the night. Tomorrow, once she’s sober, they’ll buy her a ticket back home. The hours are unsociable and the pay is poor, and although he’s never slept rough, Dmitry knows first hand what it’s like when your fortunes are flipped and there you are, all of a sudden, wretched. Soft-hearted with an iron-cast constitution, he’s grown accustomed to the limbless, gangrenous, gnarled bodies, pockmarked by weeping sores, slumped in doorways and subways or passed out on park benches. “Several days ago I was called out to help someone who had worms in his feet.”

Heading back out into the night, he criss-crosses the city in search of others he can offer counsel and solace to. With each passing hour, the darkness and cold become all the more inhospitable. “The tough part is convincing them that this isn’t the end. That there are services and jobs out there, that there’s a chance. How they respond depends on the time of the year. When the weather’s warm, they’re hostile and rude and refuse to come back with us to the shelter because alcohol is banned there. “You live off us,” they say. “You exist because of us. In winter, it’s a different story.”

The gypsy cab driver

Cruising through the streets in their clapped out Ladas, eyes peeled for outstretched arms, a potential fare, food in their belly, money for the wife and kids back home. Slow right down, negotiate the fare, 300, 200, 150 roubles? Done. “I moved to Moscow from Uzbekistan in 2013. Now I work from 7pm to 7am, six nights a week. Sometimes I earn 5,000 roubles but mostly it’s 1,000. I left my four little ones and my wife behind. Yeah, Russian girls are pretty but my wife is the prettiest of them all.”

Amid the tumult of the post-communist 90s, it was recession-hit Muscovites who took to the wheel, offering up a dose of daily politics along with their off-the-record rides. Today’s cabbies are less loquacious. Migrant workers, miles away from their families in the Caucasus and the ’Stans, Moscow’s “gypsy” cab drivers are stoic to their core. For some, ferrying passengers through the night is their bread and butter, for others, a way to supplement meagre pay from other jobs. “I used to sell chickens in Dushanbe but came here for a better life. I mainly work as a chauffeur but pick up people a few times a week at night.”

Every couple of years, the government vows to clear the streets of unlicensed cabs but like so many other pieces of legislation, this one’s rarely enforced. The real threat is technological, with the Ubers and GetTaxis of the world muscling in on their territory. Despite this, Moscow’s gypsy cab drivers are still going strong, offering cheap, white-knuckle rides around the city in their tenth-rate bangers. Far away from their loved ones, they set up home together, in cramped quarters on the city’s fringes, near the last stops on the metro and even further out towards the MKAD, the Moscow beltway. “Life isn’t better here. Uzbekistan is twice as beautiful,” says one, while another is less certain, “If you have money, life is better there. If not, then here is better. Here we have gas to keep us warm.” There is one refrain, however, a mantra expressed invariably and agreed upon by all: “My homeland is my homeland.”

Text: Maryam Omidi

Image: Max Adveev