On Sunday evening the bell tower of Moscow’s Novodevichy Convent caught on fire. Thin and octagonal like a red brick wedding cake, the tower was once the tallest building in the city. When pictures of the burning skyline made it onto Twitter, people speculated that the Kremlin was ablaze, although it is four miles away. Workers had been gold-plating the tower’s cupola at the time and the flames were held up on scaffolds. A startling photo shows the horrified nuns gathered outside watching the scene surrounded by blunt winter bushes like thorns, one clutching a framed picture against her black coat. They look like children who have just been woken up, bundled in layers and standing apart from each other in confusion.
In London people were occupied that day with whether or not President Putin was missing, dead, or having a baby. Any of the options would have made a great story. The photo and the fire reminded me of something that I had seen in Moscow one day early this year that had stuck in my mind, standing for emptiness, ever since.
In January the cold in Moscow takes your breath away, leaving you with a reeling headache and a clean but strange feeling in your lungs. In the subway, people stand evenly spaced on the escalators like pins, gliding through the orange cast of the air as grimly as miners off to the coal face. There are no adverts on the platforms, even at Christmas, meaning there is almost no colour, because everybody’s coats are black or grey or sepia.
The best Russian churches are dark and low-ceilinged, with walls of panelled saints and everything ready for burning. On finely turned altars, shaking layers of candles stand around vigil lamps, drawing you towards them. The long-burning lights in such a dark setting are supposed to symbolise our catacombed existence, where only god provides colour. The candles have special attendants, usually elderly women or young girls, who use paintbrushes to sweep at the fallen wax when it hardens, with such care and concentration they never seem to see the hands of the churchgoers lighting candles that get in the way of their task. But the women never slip and never touch the hands. Most churches have these attendants, who must have one of the most frustrating jobs in the world, their every effort ruined immediately by the next drop of wax. Only someone who believed in the holiness of the candles could do it without going mad.
One tiny church in a village that sits on the miserably blank bus route between Moscow and Vladimir, where only ice fishing huts break up the road, had rotting pools of water in the corners and a drunk man asleep on the single pew. But still there was a woman working to keep the light clean, as it were, brushing away as though to stop the shine getting clogged up for her unconscious charge. I felt like I had walked into an Arctic version of the English Patient as I stared at the candlelight, trying to make it warm my skull. These women are as much a part of the church scenery as the flat images of St John, and when you see them outside in natural light, doing ordinary things, it is as if one of the carvings has come to life.
In Russia, cleaners are everywhere, not hidden like in the UK, only seen by dawn and low-paid workers. It happens all day, in chic restaurants round diners’ feet, in bars seemingly all night long. Sometimes, like the candle cleaning, it will seem completely pointless, with people tramping muddy slush everywhere with their boots, while mops are readied to push more water round the floor.
Women in head wraps bend over steps with rags and heavy pails, even though feet will splash right over their work within five seconds. Often I thought that these usually very old women seemed to be making life unnecessarily hard for themselves. It is a strange way to live, like running on the spot, and it has a kind of egalitarianism about it; this is how things become beautiful! Street cleaners have bundles of sticks tied with string and very short handles like you might see in a fairytale, working at little spots on the pavement. Many of these are migrant workers from neighbouring central Asian states who don’t speak Russian, and are sometimes beaten up by Russian nationalists.
On Christmas Eve, Putin was beamed into homes and town squares as he prayed and sang with churchgoers. In the awful cold the streets were thick with security, the guards’ size doubled by their thermal suits. At Moscow’s biggest church, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, it seemed like a bomb was going to off as police spilled from vans and cameras on cranes bobbed around the huge Christmas tree. Bishops in gold frocks walked on and off stage, heavy and solemn, and the flame-keeping women were at work for a massed crowd, purifying the hot metal and wax that had drawn everyone in. Later I saw Putin on TV again, his strange eyes expressionless as he announced in a recorded speech that Christmas holidays were cancelled for government workers.
The next day the streets had that exhausted feeling that comes after big celebrations, and the three nuns that walked by me looked slow and crumpled. Orthodox sisters wear a stiffened hat under their habits that probably looks a little like a fez when dismantled, but when worn it looks like a machine, or like there might be many sets of arms and legs beneath. It is an impressive sight to see the sisters in line, their tops steady like they are on wheels.
De Beers diamonds sat in the windows of the department store they were passing when suddenly one of the sisters took the other by the wrist and slapped her in the face. It was one of the most dramatic things I have ever seen, and my first thought was how fantastic it was; I was getting my phone out of my pocket and thinking of a way to exaggerate it, when I suddenly realised how deeply inhuman I was being. The slapped woman looked haggard and small as the three carried on walking. What did she do, back at the convent, which could have been Novodevichy? Did she go to her bed and get in it and cry, or pack her bags and wait on the frozen street corner for a taxi? Imagine the boiling rage, someone’s fingerprints on your cheek, and not being able to run from them.
So when I saw the photo on Sunday I felt like I knew something about the women in the picture. I saw them standing in the shadow of the fire thinking how fragile their choices were, and wondering about their place in the cold world.
Ruby Stockham is a freelance writer from Bristol, with an MA in Modern Literature. Her work has previously appeared in The Spectator.