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Editor’s Diary: Giving money to strangers in Moscow

The train was departing at 11: 23 p.m.

At 11:06 p.m., I had just bounded out of my building, and was standing on the side of the road, hand outstretched. A small sedan heeded my desperate call.

“Can you get me to Kievsky railway station in 10 minutes, give or take a few?” I asked.

“Uh…” The driver replied.

“500 roubles!”

“Get in!”

Moscow is the sort of city where people are willing to take a chance on you – especially when you’re waving a 500-rouble note around. It’s not a whole lot of money, in the grand scheme of things, but it’s not an insulting sum either – especially when Kievsky is not that far away, and you still need to get to the platform to give your mother her mobile phone (which she forgot – because mothers do that).

In Moscow, like in no other place before it, I feel comfortable offering people money, because goddamn, life can be hard on us all!

When three guys from Tajikistan who live in my building started flirting with me when I came outside on my way to work, I asked them if they needed a thousand roubles.

“Who doesn’t?” One of them replied.

So I invited them upstairs and had them carry out old pieces of broken down furniture to the dumpster for me. The stuff was too heavy for me to carry on account of my injured back – but three young guys did alright with it.

Now we’ve even become friendly with each other. The ice has been broken, so to speak.

Giving people money because they need them to help you out is one thing, though. Bizarrely random gift-giving is another thing altogether.

Faced with the task of defrosting my great aunt’s ancient fridge in the record-breaking heat, I had to carry a bunch of food out to the dumpster. Most of it was fairly mouldy already (I’m a crappy homemaker – what else is new?), but I did have a glass bottle of delicious fresh milk I was particularly loath to throw away.

After dumping the mouldy stuff, I stood there, bottle in hand, the cool glass sweating in the sweltering summer night, when I noticed a couple of dudes hanging out on a bench nearby.

“Good evening, guys,” I said. “Would you like a bottle of milk?”

“Are you selling?” One of them asked.

“No, just defrosting my fridge.”

“Well, is it fresh?”

“It’s excellent – fresh and delicious. And not skimmed.”

The guy sitting closer to me outstretched his hand. I handed him the bottle.

“Thank you!” I heard him shout at my retreating back. “This is VERY good milk!”

In America, I might have thrown this very same milk away. Just because I wouldn’t have wanted to impose a random gift on anyone – nor be taken for a weirdo serial killer type who spikes milk with cyanide and the gives it to strangers. Not that I’m saying Moscow is a more innocent place. It isn’t. Quite the opposite. But people here are a little more practical – and way more open to the idea that some random chick just really doesn’t want to waste her milk.

(Hm. The last line of the above paragraph could be construed as vaguely dirty. Oh well.)

The abundance of street musicians in Moscow presents an interesting dilemma, in the meantime – is giving money to them charity? Or are you just going, “Hey, thanks for the awesome music, guys”?

I prefer to do the latter. Which is why I only give money to street musicians who make me smile. I’ll even walk all the way back down the underpass, if I realize that the little band I just passed is actually kind of awesome.

The ones who play by Park Kultury metro always seem to notice.

“You came back!” They say.

“Because you guys are great!” I’ll say.

And we will smile and share the love – for a brief moment or two.

As I exit the underpass, my phone will usually ring. There will be someone at the other end of the line. Some man or some woman.

And they will be going,

“Is this Natalia? Oh hi. So and so gave me your name and number. I heard you write in English and such? Yes? Excellent. How would you like to earn some extra money on the side…”

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Natalia Antonova

Natalia is a writer and journalist. She’s the associate editor of openDemocracy Russia and the co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute.