I have a fear of being brutally hacked and killed by a man. This fear manifests most in Russia. I believe it comes from my Grandmother. We left Russia in 1992 when I was six, so technically I never lived there but return to visit almost every year.* Every time I come, my Grandmother tells me stories. There was the one about a cannibal on the loose, whose hacked and killed several young women and sold their flesh as meat at the local market next to Metro Baumanskaya, where her flat is. I first heard this story when I was about 14, but instead of fading, as colored images normally do with age, they just keep getting more and more vivid. In the most recent one the police found a dozen fur coats in a taxi driver’s apartment, which belonged to women who he’s apparently captured and killed, disposing of their bodies in the woods, only keeping their furs as collectibles. Never go out onto the streets after dark falls she would say, you never know who might follow you home. And never ever get into a car with a stranger. It’s very common to hail a car down as a taxi in Moscow, but for me this associates with instant murder.
My Grandmother gathers her material from the news she watches on tv. Since she spends about 85 percent of her time watching tv, she is never short of material. Ever since I can remember, she’s been feeding me such material causing my fear to keep growing. I am not normally afraid anywhere else in the world, but as soon as I land in Russia, the fear takes over. It can get pretty bad, like when I am discouraging friends from visiting because it is a ‘dangerous’ country. A good friend who grew up in Moscow thinks I am totally delusional. Stop it with your paranoia and for god’s sake stop listening to your Grandma!!! But it is really not that easy to just unwind and erase it all. In my last trip, I spent about ten days in Moscow about 65 percent of which were spent slightly on edge, in that slightly tense position when you feel your neck and shoulders clenched tight and higher than they should be. Like an animal alert, on the constant look-out for danger.
When in Moscow, we stay in the countryside. It is about a 1.5 hour drive outside the city, surrounded by woods. Even though the neighbourhood is guarded 24/7 and surrounded by barbed wire, the idea that a blood-thirsty maniac with an axe or worse, a whole troupe of them could creep in in the middle of the night and rob and kill us all is very prominent. This trip round, I lay awake most nights very silently, listening to the faintest of sounds – any signal to notify their arrival. A few times I even went down to check who was making noises only to find my brother or his girlfriend rummaging around in the fridge. But this did not relax me. The worst break-ins are usually the most silent ones. And these guys are professionals using the latest technologies, like inserting sleeping gas into airways to make sure their victims don’t wake up.
In daytime, the fear subsides and almost totally disappears when I am in the city centre surrounded by people. But when I attempt to wonder outside our gates alone in the countryside, it creeps back in. One early morning I decided to brave it and go for a walk solo to take in all the beauty of the vast white outside, but all I could do was scan the surrounding birch trees, expecting a blood-thirsty maniac with an axe to jump out and drag me into the woods.
What brings the worst panic however is getting home at night from Moscow. To avoid the situation, I usually stay home all together or, if I have to go out, make sure to arrange a car with a family friend or a driver who we know in advance. But there are those moments when I find myself in the centre of Moscow and it is past midnight and no prior arrangements have been made. It happened a few nights before the new year, when my brother decided to show his Argentinian girlfriend, who was visiting Russia (and Europe) for the first time, the Red Square. We were at a nearby bar and it was 1:00 am – way too late to call and disturb anyone we knew about driving. The only choice was to call a taxi. But how? Not a local, and with no wireless on my phone, I felt the desperate handicap a stranded tourist might feel in a strange foreign land. Not knowing who to call and having no one reliable to consult on the matter induced great panic. The only option seemed to hail a car from the street…
We walked around the side of the street and saw a taxi in front of us with a handwritten cardboard sign in the window: Free. The sign was crookedly propped on a toilet roll on the front seat to stand upright. The handwriting looked ugly. The driver must have been one of the disheveled looking men chatting outside. Men, and men only. The whole thing smacked of a cheap horror film. Although I really did not want to, I approached them coldly and rudely. I only find myself being cold and rude to people in Russia by the way. Perhaps this is because there, I am constantly afraid. He names a ridiculously cheap price. My brother jumps at the saving opportunity and instantly climbs inside. But I am skeptical. Why is this man giving us a ¼ of the price? Is this his way of luring us in? We verify the address together on google maps. He is quite advanced for his age with all the technology in his disheveled looking vehicle, or the times have also moved on in the former USSR. He realizes it is not where he thought it would be, but a tiny village almost in Zvenigorod, an ancient Russian town with one of the oldest cathedrals in Russia. I quickly ask if he goes there, to make sure that if he does, that means he is religious, which will lessen the chances of him being a killer. Yes, he has been there a few times. He names a more reasonable sounding price. Ok, we go.
As he starts to drive he announces, a bit more loud than is usual, that due to a recent happiness in the family (he just became a grandfather) he is sober. Is he being sarcastic? I congratulate him but immediately get suspicious. Why does he have to share his levels of sobriety so publicly, would a totally sober person do that?? And would you not get drunk to celebrate such an occasion anyway??? But then why reveal it to your customers whose lives are in your hands???! This taxi driver is also unusually talkative, but I make sure not to discourage him, since slaughter thoughts have a higher chance of breeding in silence. He tells me about all his children, and about his new grandchildren, and about his eco-farm with home fed chickens in Belorussia where he is from. We pass kilometers of dark high fence – Putin’s famous residence – then Medvedev’s. He asks me how people view Putin in the West.
Finally we reach our neighbourhood but the guard is asleep and won’t open the front gate. We decide to let the Belorussian driver go, since it is almost 3:00am and he should get back to his family. We find ourselves, late in the night, standing in front of our gates, but on the other side. I look behind into the darkness and utter fear seizes. We are completely alone and unprotected and it is 3:00am and dark and the gate is closed. I scan the birch trees in the distance, expecting that maniac with that axe to jump out any minute now. The forest is not that far, so even if we run, there is nowhere safe to run.
Such psychopaths have no other reason for doing such things that simply because it brings them pleasure. I wonder what it must feel like, to catch innocent victims and treat them like prey, to keep them alive and let them suffer knowing that they have no way out. I imagine what it would feel like, to be trapped in the presence of such a person, with a weapon, staring you straight in the eye, and you know what they’re about to do, and there is no way out
*The year the Soviet Union collapsed.