In the post-Soviet chic of Moscow's newest restaurant, the White Sun in the Desert (named after a famous film), I refused alcohol. My German dining companions pressed it upon me. The gai (traffic police) hadn't stopped them for a year, they said; foreigners were no longer harassed. But I stuck to my two glasses of non-alcoholic beer and felt safe. All around, those Russians who had avoided the worst effects of last August's financial crash were having a good night out. They included an old acquaintance, taking his office out for a celebratory dinner. Moscow, I thought, was becoming normal.
The carhop outside, dressed in white uniform with an imitation Red Army cap and star, was helpful, opening the door of my borrowed car and guiding me into the street. He was speaking into his mobile phone as I drove away. Terribly normal.
Driving decorously down Petrovka Street, which takes you into the city centre, I saw a gai car parked outside the new Marriott hotel. The officer standing by it had plenty of time to take in the yellow number plate, which says foreigner, the K, which says correspondent, and the 001, which says British. His black and white stick went out, and he motioned me in.
He saluted, introduced himself politely and asked for my papers. I handed him my passport, the car's documents and my British driving licence. He asked if I had been drinking. I said I had not. "I smell it on your breath," he said. I told him I had drunk non-alcoholic beer with a restaurant meal (which, I thought, had come to more than his month's pay).
He took me over to the police car, a big Ford, where an older officer examined my documents, asked me why my driving licence didn't have a photograph (British licences don't, I explained), took my name and then confirmed that I smelt of drink.
Under Russian law, you cannot drink alcohol and drive. It was the reason I had not had even a little glass of wine. When I lived in Moscow, I had twice been stopped by the gai after light drinking. Once, the officer just banged his stick hard on my car roof and shouted, "Go away, stupid." The second time, my young son sleeping in the back, I offered to "pay the fine on the spot" and held out $50, which was taken instantly.
This time, I felt a mixture of piety and determination. My friends and I had gone through the usual dinner-table routine, retelling stories of Russian awfulness. But what of foreign awfulness? Why pay one's way out with the almighty dollar bill? Here was a policeman doing his duty. Normal.
We drove back in the Ford to the gai headquarters, dipping and lurching in the potholes. Moscow has changed a lot, I observed, trying to make conversation. Yes, the officer said, and not for the better. I thought he was talking about the endemic crime, but it turned out that he was talking not about Moscow the city, but about Moscow the superpower capital. "Ten years ago," he said, "you would not have had the west attacking one of our friends, because they would have been frightened of us. Then there was power here. Now Nato bombs the Yugoslavs and we do nothing but blah."
We reached the gai headquarters and clattered up some rickety and wholly unlit metal stairs to the third floor. There, a middle-aged woman wearing a dirty white coat sat at a desk, watching TV. The officer saluted, said, "Good evening, comrade doctor!" and explained that I was suspected of drink-driving.
The woman shuffled out from behind the desk, still staring at the TV screen. I could have sworn she was drunk. She said (not looking at me): "Hold out your arms!" Then: "Spread your fingers! Shut your eyes!" Then: "Touch the end of your nose with your right hand then your left hand."
Auto-suggestion is a wonderful thing. By this time I found it hard to act as if sober, especially confronted by the gentle swaying of the comrade doctor. I felt my hand wandering through space in the apparently endless pilgrimage to my nose; I could feel the conflicting tugs of wishing to touch the end of my nose briskly and efficiently, like a sober man, and the fear of missing it and gouging my eye out. I compromised with a wide arc-like movement - hitting the end of my nose with my forefinger tips with both hands. Exultant, I opened my eyes.
Comrade doctor looked at me expressionlessly. She went back to her desk and produced a metal box with a tube attached. "Blow!" she said. I blew, several times, confident in my alcohol-free breath.
She looked at the dial. "There is alcohol in your blood!" she said. Until then, I had suspended disbelief; I had told myself that this is normal; this is a procedure, a sensible if inconvenient check.
"That can't be," I said. "I haven't drunk alcohol. I drank only alcohol-free beer."
"There's alcohol in your blood," she replied, "it says so here." I asked to see it and reached out for the breathalyser. She turned away quickly, putting the machine half under the fold of her coat: "No, you can't see it!"
I protested more loudly. The gai officer edged closer. Comrade doctor went behind her desk and sat down heavily. "You have alcohol in your blood. What do you want? That's enough!"
The officer took me to another room and we sat under a flickering strip light. He got his pen out. "Look," I said, "I have not been drinking. I drank alcohol-free beer, that's what you smell. You can go to the White Sun in the Desert and ask."
"John Lloyd," he said, "I can't do that. That's another team of policemen. I'm a traffic officer. I can only do this. And the doctor has said you have alcohol on your breath, so here we are."
I protested a bit more, but after a while the words sounded futile. "What happens now?" I asked.
"Well, John Lloyd, of course you can't drive drunk: that's dangerous. We will have to take the car and put it in a store. You will have to stay here tonight . . . I can't say what will happen: a fine, maybe a spell of imprisonment. It's serious."
He paused. A silence settled on the room. It was midnight in Moscow. The cars swished by. The strip light crackled. It was the end of my piety.
"Perhaps," I said, "you have a system to pay fines on the spot?"
"We have such a system, John Lloyd!" he said. "I will take you back to your car."
Back outside the Marriott, its uniformed doormen bowing to the western clients, we discussed the details. "The fine," he said, "is 87 roubles and 23 roubles."
"If you add 87 and 23," I said, "that's 110 roubles [about $4]."
"How, 110 roubles?" he said sharply. I took out my notebook, put 87 on top of 23 and added them: 110 roubles. He took my pen and notebook. "No, no! Not 87 plus 23. 87 times 23. That makes 2,001 roubles. Then there are the expenses of transport, of the doctor's fee."
I took out $100. "This is about 2,500 roubles," I said. "Will that be enough for the fine and the expenses?"
"Yes," he said. "Thank you, John Lloyd!" And so, with dangerous levels of alcohol coursing through my veins, I got back into my car, attended by a smart salute from the other officer, who had remained on post and now had another suspect waiting. With great, indeed exaggerated, care I reversed and drove away. I had done my little bit to keep Russia in the state it is in.
Back in my borrowed flat I watched the neo-fascist Vladimir Zhirinovsky on a talk show. "What's the problem with you?" he was shouting at a young liberal politician. "You just have to love Russia. Love Russia! And that's all!"