New Yorker Deidre Clark (45) was sacked recently from her lucrative legal job in Moscow for "gross misconduct" after writing an erotic internet novel about the debauched behaviour of expats working for big companies with offices in the Russian capital. The book is called Expat and instead of her real name she used the racier nom de plume Deidre Dare. But it did not protect her from her employer.
Clark/Dare was working in the Moscow office of the London law firm Allen & Overy, one of the biggest legal corporations in the world. When she was sacked, their spokesman said: "We found that Ms Dare's behaviour was unacceptable and totally at odds with the standards we expect."
This was a bizarre statement, given that drinking a colossal amount, having plenty of casual sex and generally disporting oneself with abandon are the standards -- or lack of them -- that everyone fully expects from expats the world over. It goes pretty much without saying that things are at their most extreme in Moscow, where everything is at its most extreme.
Firstly, one has to look at the blindingly obvious. 1) It is cold in Moscow of a winter's night. 2) Everybody in Russia drinks a lot of vodka. These two key factors make Moscow a prime location for disguising (and, indeed, fuelling) any expat's incipient alcoholism and for finding all sorts of warming things to do after a stressful day at work, cuddling up to the nearest available person being only the most obvious.
The bars of all the Moscow hotels are full of jaw-droppingly beautiful women in furs, keen to befriend besuited Westerners for a large fee. It is usually Western men, not women, who spend their evenings watching women dancing in cages and buying drinks for the uncaged ones at the bar. But there are plenty of Russian men hanging around those same bars and clubs in the hope of ensnaring susceptible Western women. Many are quite charming, though I am not talking about those out to secure a new life in the UK. No Russian man I met during my many years of being a student, singer, television reporter and newspaper correspondent in Moscow would ever have dreamt of turning up for a date without a bunch of flowers.
I am sure I do not speak only for myself when I say that, as an English woman in Moscow, it is so lovely to have someone open doors, hold out chairs and light your cigarette for a change; casual sex often seems the least one can provide in return.
As for the heavy drinking and promiscuity enjoyed by some, it is not that they are tempting comforts in an inhospitable, intimidating and often genuinely terrifying city such as Moscow -- they are obligatory. A friend of mine who worked at an American law firm in Moscow ended up begging to be sent back to New York this summer because he couldn't take the drinking and clubbing any more. Clients expected to be taken out to nightclubs full of barely dressed, striking Russian girls, some of whom were prostitutes, some just out for a good time, all doing shots from the hip holsters of the vodka girls in bikinis and stilettos (no, really) and snorting cocaine in the loos. It was a matter of pride for these men to turn up at the next day's early meeting on an hour's drunken sleep, call the wife and have a beer at lunch to steady the shakes.
Moscow is an exciting place, but it's a scary one. The architecture is overbearing, crime is rife and Russians have a live-for-today attitude that is immediately infectious.
Emma, a 28-year-old lawyer, went to Moscow on a six-month tenure, attracted, she said, by "the offer of an adventure". She was keen to escape what she describes as "the claustrophobia" of London and the small professional world she lived in. She was not disappointed. "There was a sense that you could get away with bad behaviour in Moscow. No one whose opinion you really cared about would ever find out," she explains.
This feeling that one is invisible in a city so far divorced from normal life is ubiquitous among expats. This is not life, this is Second Life, one in which our Moscow avatars can date seedy gangsters (yes, I plead guilty), drink till we're sick night after night (yes, guilty) and then weep our Russian souls out at the transience of it all (also guilty).
That is perhaps why Deidre chose to write a "fictionalised" account of it all on the internet; as someone who has set three novels in Moscow, I am dubious about anybody who claims, as Deidre Dare has done, that their work is fictional, especially when it features a heroine of roughly the same age, background and behavioural patterns of the author.
My friend Dave had a new Sveyta, Lena, Olya or Nadia on his arm every night, each as dazzling as the last, the cocaine sparkling in the woman's eyes. What was always interesting though, was that Dave did end up feeling used, and was unable to build a proper relationship with the pragmatic Moscow girls he met late on vodka-fuelled nights under strobe lighting. "She expects me to pay for everything! She wants me to buy her mum a flat in Perm! She sits in the car and waits for me to come round to her side to open her door!" he would rant. Me, I admired the uncompromising tenacity of his latest Russian squeeze. Dave now lives in London with his English wife and two children.
For whatever the allure of a chaotic and brutal city that fosters a feeling of nothing to lose, the expats usually do shuffle home to recover, their livers depleted, their emotional lives in tatters, their memories blurry and their fingers hovering over control/alt/delete.
Deidre Dare's Russian visa has not been renewed.