Everyone overlooks them as they scurry about in their luminescent orange uniforms at all hours of the day and night, armed only with small brushes and the the type of long-handled lobby dustpans a concierge might use in New York or London to tidy up an entrance.
Moscow’s army of road sweepers keeps the Russian capital pretty spotless, but Muscovites hardly notice.
Most of the nearly 30,000 sweepers in the city appear to be Central Asian migrants — they are underpaid and the thankless drudgery offers few, if any, fringe benefits.
“If you fall sick, you get nothing,” said Sukhrab, a father of three from Kyrgyzstan, whose dark hair is flecked with gray and whose worn face makes him look considerably older than his 39 years.
A few months ago he suffered a stroke, but returned to sweeping as soon as he could struggle to his feet.
The city apparently has more than 6,000 single-seat vacuum trucks but tends only to deploy them, along with sprinkler trucks, sparingly, and then generally in swankier boulevards and districts in the center.
The machines are expensive to run and maintain and break down frequently.
“We are cheaper,” Sukhrab said.
The average monthly road-sweeping salary is $346 a month. Sukhrab, a veteran, earns around $500.
With a huge pool of Central Asian migrants in Russia — at least 11 million — there are plenty of workers available. Migrants are at the bottom of a strictly observed street-cleaning hierarchy and tend to be the drudges. Team supervisors and managers invariably are Russian. The bosses are corrupt.
“To keep our jobs we have to give the supervisors gifts,” he said.
Moscow’s road sweepers can be out in the streets even in the middle of the night, regardless of the weather, now starting to turn bitterly cold.
“They can send us out at any time,” Sukhrab said, adding, “Orders are sent by WhatsApp.”
Will Vladimir Putin finally relinquish the reins of power when his current presidential term ends in 2024? The guessing game is now a dinner-party favorite, of course, and no doubt is a key question Western diplomats based here are struggling to answer for their political masters back home. Western think tanks certainly are free with their forecasts, holding forums to focus on what will follow Putin.
Former Putin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky, one of those responsible for the whole architecture of the Kremlin’s media management during Putin’s first two presidential terms, said he doubts very much his old boss is going anywhere.
“I think it’s quite possible, he’ll remain president,” Pavlovsky said.
That, of course, would require rewriting the Russian constitution, which limits a president to two consecutive terms, but allows a return to the Kremlin after a break of at least a term. In 2008 Putin did a job swap with his doggedly loyal prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, while beefing up the powers of the premiership. It didn’t work out, too, well — factional strife within the Kremlin flared and Medvedev started to harbor ambitions of serving a second presidential term — an aspiration Putin disabused him of sharply, according to insider reports.
Putin won’t want to repeat that exercise, Pavlovsky said in his office a 15 minute walk from the Kremlin. He broke with Putin in 2011, upset with Putin's decision to push Medvedev aside. He thinks, though, that Putin still is “looking for a successor,” hoping to repeat what his predecessor Boris Yeltsin managed when he plucked him from obscurity to take over.
“He wants to repeat this exercise, but it is not possible,” Pavlovsky said. He said he believes it is much more complicated now because “Putin has accrued too much informal authority to be passed on to a successor.”
He says “the system” that Putin has helped shape while in power won’t let him quit. All the various Kremlin factions “will try to make him stay at any price,” fearing otherwise they could lose out.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but in my opinion, a successor is not possible at all,” and “so I think Putin will try to stay, probably by deleting four words from the Constitution. It is not a big correction — a small one.”
That would prompt a crisis, Pavlovsky said. Eventually "the system" will cross a red line and prompt a fierce public backlash, he said. Whether that happens in 2024, if Putin continues in power, Pavlovsky would not forecast.
“It is like Russian roulette," he said, "Some people play Russian roulette 10, 20 times and it doesn’t kill them, and it seems like they can play forever.” All the speculation about whether Putin will go is a useful political distraction for the Kremlin, he adds.
The Economist recently bewailed the gagging of comedy in Russia, starting its article with a 1980s joke by the Ukrainian-born comic Yakov Smirnoff: “Many people are surprised to hear that we have comedians in Russia, but they are there. They are dead, but they are there.”
It isn’t that bad nowadays, but The Economist argued political humor has been blunted in Russia compared to the perestroika period of the 1980s and the anything-goes decade of the 1990s. That’s thanks to the television channels’ fear of offending the government, the magazine said.
However, 37-year-old comedian Vyacheslav Vereschaka, a keen student of late-night American comics, especially Jimmy Fallon, and the work of British comics stretching back to Tommy Cooper, disagrees. He says the picture is more complicated than the one The Economist paints.
First, he said, television-based comics are cracking some sharp political jokes. He pointed to a recent broadcast by the long-running Comedy Club program on Russia's TNT-channel, owned by the Kremlin-linked energy giant Gazprom, during which the established comedian Pavel Volya ripped into the government, joking that his quips would no doubt lead to drugs being planted on him by the police or tax inspectors showing up at his door. Maxim Galkin, a performer on state-owned Russia One channel has also not been pulling his punches.
Vereschaka said he doesn’t feel restricted in his stand-up performances.
“I make jokes about Putin and I have routines about politics,” he said. He portrays politicians as drunks.
The bigger question, he added, concerns what audiences want from comics. “Humor is universal but there are also cultural differences,” he said, and the appetite for political humor isn’t as developed in Russia as it is in the U.S. or Britain.
He focuses his routines on his wife and children; he began his comedy career at 14 and his 13-year-old daughter is following in his footsteps with a YouTube channel of her own. People want comedy that connects with their daily lives, he said. Political satire is supplied more by political bloggers either in their blogs or on monologues they post on YouTube.
Another cultural difference, he said, is how audiences respond to humor.
“Russian audiences aren’t like Western ones, and appreciate jokes by laughing inside rather than guffawing loudly,” he said.
“They will applaud politely to show appreciation of a joke,” although that’s beginning to change with younger Russians, who are more expressive, he said.
The difference can be highly off-putting for visiting foreign comedians.
He recalled that one Irish comic was appalled when the audience sat stony-faced during his routine, and was nonplussed by the polite applause. “What am I doing wrong?” he bewailed.