Hello Goodbye

Peter Pomerantsev · At Moscow Domodedovo

I was in Russia when the suicide bomber blew him/herself up in the arrivals hall of Moscow Domodedovo Airport. A rush of worried calls and e-mails jammed my phone (‘I am fine, I was in the Urals when it happened’). One message stands out: ‘The fuckers wrecked our set. Our set!’

In 2008 I produced a television show at the airport for Russian TV. For a year I slept at the airport, I woke at the airport. I know where the smoke alarms are dummies and you can have a crafty fag; when the best light floods through the glass walls to get the best shots; how to cut a deal with the customs guys so they go and buy you duty free whisky. I know which flights bring in which types of passenger. The show was called Hello Goodbye, a remake of a Dutch format. The presenter would walk around the airport and talk to people leaving or meeting each other: emotional families reunited after a generation, lovers parting for ever, lads off for a dirty weekend. It was a microcosm of the new Russia, all the country’s stories under one high-domed roof.

Anna, a former ballerina, who now danced at strip clubs in Zurich, was waiting in a fur coat for her Swiss banker boyfriend. He was coming to meet her family in Russia, including her two children. He wanted to get married, but it was all happening too fast and she wasn’t so sure. Two weeks later we saw them again; they parted frostily as he flew back to Zurich. She wouldn’t tell us what went wrong, only: ‘Us girls called strip clubs Krankenhauser, loonie bins, only mentally ill men go there.’ Natalia was waiting for her Turkish lover. She had met him on holiday, and had been saving money for six months to buy his ticket for him. But he wasn’t let through customs, a problem with his visa, and she broke down in front of us.

Then there was ‘the milkmaid’, whose story became a Russian YouTube hit: a woman of uncertain age, with gold teeth, permed hair, bright pink lips, a chain-smoker’s voice, a fur coat over mud-splattered knee-high white boots. A milkmaid on a co-operative farm, she was waiting for her boyfriend, a teenage Tajik. Their relationship was the outrage of the village: a white woman with a Tajik, and her old enough to be his mother! And now she was pregnant. She told him when he came off the plane, on camera. We caught all his emotions: shock (he couldn’t have been older than 17), anger, and then joy as he hauled her up (she was twice his size) and twirled her round. Other people in the arrivals lounge began to applaud and cheer. That’s my brightest memory of the place where the bomb went off on Monday.

The international arrivals hall is the least shiny part of the airport. It’s been under construction for as long as I can remember. It has no natural light, is cramped and narrow. It was incredibly difficult to shoot in: we had to drag contributors to stand in front of a neon café sign to make the picture palatable. If they stood naturally the shot was awful, made ghoulish by the black-coated, grim-faced mob of illegal taxi drivers who leap on anyone coming out of customs to bully them into taking an overpriced ride into town. Many of the taxi drivers are from the North Caucasus. A lot of the suicide bomber’s victims would have been his/her countrymen and co-religionists.

One young couple we interviewed were parting for at least six months.

‘Why so long?’

‘There’s war on where I work. I’m a soldier. I serve in Chechnya. She can’t go there.’

This is how they met. He was alone and bored at his post, a little brick hut high in the Caucasus. It was night and he was drunk. He wanted to find a girl away from the front. He looked down at the serial number on his gun. Just for the hell of it he took out his phone and dialled the Moscow area code followed by the serial number. A sleepy girl answered.

‘Who is this?’

He told her. She slammed down the phone.

‘I just liked her voice,’ he said. ‘So I kept on phoning.’

He called every day. Slowly she caved in. They sent each other photos of themselves on their mobiles. Two weeks before our shoot he had some leave and came to visit her. She was from a traditional family from the Caucasus, and he asked her father’s permission to marry her. He agreed. Now they both wore rings. The wedding was planned for when he returned from the Chechen front in six months time.

‘This is my last tour of duty. I’m done with the army. In six months I come back and that’s it, no more war.’

‘Do you still have the gun with her number?’

‘The gun? I’ll always keep that gun.’

He blew kisses and she cried as he went through passport control. After that, I’ve no idea what happened to them.