LOVE AND DEATH: Fangs Have No Local Bite




I've had a horror film mini-festival running in my VCR for several nights straight. In other places in the world this would be completely unadvisable, and would lead to undignified behavior, like going to bed with a flashlight and waiting miserably for the closet door to creak open. But in Russia, no sweat - the credits roll and I turn off the lights and sleep as soundly as if I had just watched "The Little Mermaid." This is one of the unexpected perks of living in Russia. I would recommend that all people suffering from overactive terror glands move here right away.


With many years of experience as a dyed-in-the-wool weenie, I can earnestly attest to the supernatural fresh-air factor in Russia. Most real estate agents concentrate on elements like exposure, neighborhood, schools, access to shopping and the like, but as I've moved from place to place, my quality-of-life demands have narrowed down to one strict criterion - a little sniff test I've come to think of as the Vampire Quotient. Most people get over their vampire stage when they're 8 or 9, but I never will, and Russia therefore rates high on my list of livable spaces. I feel confident that as long as I live here, I will not meet my end by preternatural means.


What security!


It would seem to be a contradiction that a country as old, superstitious and underlit as Russia does not have a higher vampire quotient. St. Petersburg alone would make an ideal convention center for annual gatherings of the undead. But there are two qualifying statements to be considered before the quotient system can be wholly embraced. One is that the Russian hinterlands probably do host a vampire or two. Apartment blocks present too much of a navigational challenge; hence the perception of relative safety in bigger cities. Another is that the stomping ground of the nosferatu lies in the imagination of the beholder; some places are simply more suggestive than others. Old Tyotya Musya up in Vsevolozhsk may not fear the threat of blood-sucking night visitors in Urbana, Illinois, but take it from someone who knows - the American Midwest is party central for the walking dead. It's only a matter of time until they creep out of the cornfield and come scratching at your windowpane. Other hot spots include central Pennsylvania, upstate New York, north central Florida and just about any other place where there are likely to be piles of dead, crispy leaves gathered outside your house waiting for the telltale crunch of a footstep, and no neighbors around for kilometers.


In this part of the world, I have caught whiffs of trouble in Georgia and Bulgaria, but always with the sense that your predator would be heavy-lidded and gracious and the intrusion would go down in a much more agreeable manner: A little wine with that? But in Moscow - nothing on the radar screen so far. Simple reasoning suggests the following explanation: Life here is already frightening enough. Why fear the tap-tap-tap outside your eighth-floor window when the real terror comes from the knock of the police at your door, the gloom of a nighttime underpass, or a telephone call from the tax police? What's more of a threat, the red eyes of a fabled coffin-dweller gleaming in your bedroom or a burglar who's figured out how to spring your steel door? If your bank account is bled dry by ATM thieves or a devalued ruble, will Count Dracula's approach really seem all that novel? Between bombings, war and the systematized impoverishment of a nation, the supernatural element has simply been driven out by plain old life on Earth. The competition is too stiff.


Vampires were always at their most effective when they showed up unexpectedly, in areas where people least anticipated disaster. This is fully in keeping with Bram Stoker's relocation of his fanged hero from Transylvania to London, and also supports my personal theory about the Midwest.


A vampire in modern-day Moscow would have to go to considerable lengths, really pull out all the stops, to take the town by storm - and in all cases but those put forward by the literary charlatan Anne Rice, such showiness is simply not in keeping with the night-stalker style guide.


Vampires are traditionally shy, reclusive loners who nonetheless bear an aggrandized sense of self that is no doubt the natural product of having been alive for several centuries. But an egomaniac with a subtle supernatural touch is no match for a town full of egomaniacs who play the piano with a baseball bat, eat pickled garlic for breakfast and probably have a stash of sharpened stakes in the trunk. Forget night terror. You can be scared all day long around here.