Russians are still fascinated as to why westerners would want to live in Russia, as surely the grass is always greener and life is better where you come from. ‘Там хорошо, где нас нет’ is the Russian equivalent. The simple answer is that in western countries, everything works but nothing happens, whereas in Russia isn’t the other way around? A slight exaggeration perhaps, but you see where I’m coming from.
Russia is a country of extremities, in more ways than simply its geography. Even mundane events like renting a place to live can throw up bizarre situations. Everyone who has been in Russia for any length of time has a landlord story. Everyone that is, who has had to deal with a landlord (or landlady – let’s not get sexist here; the business of letting out properties knows no genders but for simplicity’s sake in this article we will use the masculine). The exception is if you live in Rosinka.
Most follow one of two scenarios, typically the landlord informing you mid-contract that he soon plans to sell the place and that as soon as he does, you will have to leave. Or perhaps he has sold it already while you were away on holiday and you have a week to vacate, or simply that his relatives are moving (back) to Moscow and need to live there. Contract? Sorry, what’s one of those?
The other is that of the landlord turning up unannounced, or you arriving home and finding your landlord has ‘visited’ your apartment, gone through your things and left a note kindly thanking you for the bottle of whiskey on your shelf which obviously was for him. Or he’s still there, calmly having a cup of tea in your kitchen “I was in the area and just dropped in to check that the pipes are functioning; you don’t mind I had a cup of tea while I’m here, do you?”
Having spent around two decades living and working in Russia, I had witnessed all of the above, and more. Whilst renting a flat on the Novy Arbat I received regular calls on the landline (remember those) for Vladimir, although a quick explanation that I was his tenant and he could be reached on a different number sufficed in all cases but one. The same guy, who sounded drunk would call up every evening asking for Vladimir, and refused to believe that he would ever let out his flat. I then asked Vladimir to contact him to ask him to stop ringing, but was told “don’t worry, he’s just come out after a long spell in prison.” Numerous similar and even more bizarre incidents later and I opted to find somewhere else to live.
The next twelve years and two landlords passed off reasonably uneventfully, at least by Russian standards. Then in the autumn of 2015 after a brief chat with a real estate agent, I realized that for the same money I could find a significantly better abode, given how the market was moving. It was also an excuse to clear out tons of junk which had accumulated over the years – funny that I arrived in Moscow in 1990s with just two suitcases.
The landlord seemed like a nice enough chap, who would pop over once a month to collect the rent in cash, have a quick chat about the utilities and off he’d go. If I knew that I would be outside of Moscow on the particular day when payment was due, I would call in advance to let him know and typically arrange to meet up a few days’ later, or leave the money on the kitchen table if he needed it urgently – which only happened once.
This arrangement went along smoothly for several months, until I rang him up in early August and the phone was switched off. I tried again several times over the next week but the phone seemed to be permanently off. OK, no major issue, I’m sure he’ll get in touch at some stage; my previous landlord would spend the summer at his dacha in remote part of the country with no mobile coverage. A month went by and then a second; after messages to his facebook page went unanswered, we messaged his closest friends but receive replies that they hadn’t heard from him either.
Then, whilst I was down in Kazakhstan on a business trip, a lady from ЖСК (local authority) knocked on the door and said that we had 3 days to cough up RUR38,000 for an unpaid water bill or else we could be cut off. My girlfriend Sonia explained the situation and whilst there was some sympathy, the bottom line was if you want the water to keep flowing, pay the bill!
I had contacted the real estate agent who had found us the flat but she had no other contact that the landlord’s mobile number. Back home you would probably ring the Police and explain the situation but in Russia nobody voluntarily goes to the Police unless in an absolute emergency, which this clearly wasn’t. For starters I sincerely doubt that my landlord had been paying tax on the rent which I was paying him, and although that would be his problem rather than mine, I hardly wanted to drop him in it. More importantly I was slightly concerned that the Police might then take an interest in us, were we formally registered in the flat, etc., – easiest just to do nothing. Our friends were jealous; we were living rent-free!
Eventually, after almost three months had passed I began to realize that it was increasing unlikely that my landlord was simply on an extended holiday, and that something must have happened to him. Sonia even googled ‘my landlord has disappeared’ and the only (serious) post was from a lady in Kaliningrad who commented that her landlord had been in hospital for six months, but got in touch once he’d recovered.
With the winter approaching, and Sonia 8 months pregnant, the last thing we needed was a major incident as we were quite happy where we were and weren’t keen to move (again). Yes, we weren’t paying rent but as we planned to visit the UK for Christmas, we wanted to avoid a possible nightmare of returning to find ourselves locked out and our possessions removed. This needed sorting, so I contacted a Russian friend who used to work in the Militsiya (as it was then known) and arranged to meet up over the weekend to discuss the situation and hear his suggestions on how to proceed.
Then, completely out of the blue we received a call from a lady claiming to be our landlord’s aunt, who explained that he had died, and could she come over to meet us and sort out the situation. She was genuine, and came prepared, complete with the original agreement which I had signed, as well as with our (now ex-) landlord’s death certificate. It transpired that he had invited a friend over for a vodka session which had somehow turned violent, and he’d been whacked over the head with a bottle. He was only discovered several weeks later when an inquisitive neighbour wondered why the lights were on during the day in the summer and decided to inspect further. The aunt told us that Police didn’t even try to find the culprit, which surely wouldn’t have been difficult, as apparently they don’t bother to investigate what they deem ‘пьяные разборки’ (drunken incidents) unless a close relative kicks up a mad fuss. Nothing had been stolen, but our landlord was no more.
In Russia, when somebody dies, there is a 6-month period before any inheritance claims can be settled. The landlord hadn’t written a will, had never been married and had no children. The flat would presumably be passed on to his next-of-kin, which was his brother. His aunt then threw a spanner into the works by informing us that he’s permanently drunk and doesn’t leave his apartment. Great!
Fast-forward a month, Sonia gave birth to our little boy, Daniel, and the landlord’s brother sobered up enough to come over and meet us. His hands shook a little when signing the new contract but I’m pleased to say that all’s well that ends well – we’ve stayed put and all three of us hope to remain here for the foreseeable future!