Saturday, August 7, 2010

Moscow burning

There's a scene near the end of the novel Master and Margarita where the devil sits on top of the Vorobyovi Hills in Moscow and watches fires burn in different parts of the city. Apparently Bulgakov originally planned to have the entire city go up in flames (perhaps as a statement about Moscow, the guardian of Orthodoxy, the “Third Rome, never to be a fourth”).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about that almost-scene in the last couple of weeks. I can’t describe what it’s like to walk along the street and not be able to see the trees or buildings you know are just a few hundred yards away. What it’s like to feel an itchy sensation at the back of your throat and know that all kinds of particles are filtering into your lungs each time you take a breath. What it’s like to be so hot, -- so very, very hot -- and so tired, so ready to drape yourself on a chair and just sit and stare. It’s still around 100 degrees every day, no air conditioning, and I’m starting to feel a little crazy. Especially now that I’ve closed my window so as not to breathe in air that I’m told approximates smoking four packs of cigarettes a day.

From what I understand, this is all due to a number of forest fires and peat bog fires in the Moscow region and across Russia. Apparently many of the peat bogs were drained in Soviet times in order to harvest the peat, leaving a situation where the peat can spontaneously start to burn if the temperature gets too high. And Moscow has had record-breaking temperatures with no rain for over a month. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, the smoke from the peat fires can cover the city. And let me tell you, it smells awesome.

But I don’t want to let a little smoke get in the way of my summer, so a couple days ago I set off in search of a modern art gallery that I’d been wanting to check out. I came up out of the metro and walked for something like two miles trying to find it, spending more than an hour in the smog. The city felt so desolate, so apocalyptic. I tried not to think of the treeless, hazy end-of-the-world scenario in The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I tried not to think of the anti-smoking ad in the metro here that pictures a hand squeezing a lung and a thick stream of greenish gook oozing from it, tried not to picture my own lungs and what they might now resemble. I tried not to hear Robert Frost’s lines about the world ending in fire echoing in my head. The music in my headphones was like a soundtrack to an apocalyptic film, blocking out all street sounds, and everyone seemed to be moving in slow motion.

I finally got on a trolleybus, not knowing where it was going, but hoping it would deposit me at a metro stop, any metro stop. It did, and I got on a train heading for home, sank into a seat, put on my headphones and closed my eyes, pretending to be anywhere else but there. Pretending I wasn’t covered in a thin film of salt and dust and moisture, pretending everyone else around me wasn’t either, pretending I wasn’t breathing in smoke, even inside the metro – trying to go somewhere, anywhere else in my mind.

I think that was the first day I came home and put my head in the freezer to cool off.

Photos from the Moscow Times.

Read more here

and here

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