Fifty meters underground, in the shadows of Marxistskaya metro station, the police are picking out everyone with dark skin. In front of me, a tiny woman in slacks and a crisp jean jacket is yanked out. Her eyes roll up in confusion at a militsioner in a platter-sized cap.

We pale-skinned folk whisk onto the escalator, up to the light.

What has this little woman done? Perhaps she is one of the estimated 3 million unregistered workers flooding the city to eke out a living from the oil trickle-down. Perhaps her internal passport—one must carry it at all times—is not stamped “Moscow resident” and she can’t afford the bribe.

Perhaps her purse hides a bomb. Of the five post-Soviet metro bombings (the latest in 2004, on the track before Paveletskaya, a central stop I pass through four times a day), investigators say that the bombs’ wire fragments are typical of those used by Chechen terrorists. Other police admit that the attacks could have been linked to turf wars between criminal gangs.

One might also recall the bungling of the 2002 Nord-Ost hostage crisis, in which a Federal Security Bureau SWAT team pumped poison gas into a Moscow theater, killing over 200 audience members and performers. A team of independent investigators claimed that the FSB used Chechen agent provocateurs to stage the attack, giving the government an excuse to kill ethnic Russians on a large scale.

Four of the six members of that investigative team have been assassinated, including journalist Anna Politkovskaya and former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko.

I climb out of the metro into an ash-gray March afternoon. Two men in army uniforms stand in the square, singing for handouts. One is on crutches, his leg lopped off at the knee. He isn’t singing much.

A pigeon lights on their empty collection box. Category I invalids from the Chechnya wars can trade their $60 monthly pension for metro passes and a trip to a hospital every four years.

A block down from the square, I find the office building (there is no company logo displayed) where I’m to teach my first private lesson to Andrey. I know little about him, only what he’d said over the phone: “I haven’t had the chance to say my thoughts in English in two or three years.”

After I check in with security, a solid-looking man of about 30 appears. “Let’s go to the winter garden,” he says.

In the third-floor atrium, he glances at a window, through which people at desks can be seen. “No, they might hear,” he says.

He sails to a corner, flannel shirt flapping, long blond curls flying. He sinks into a chair, then glances around at the potted palms, the royal-blue walls, and shoots me an apologetic grin. “When I was young, I thought life would be a pleasure,” he says.

I suggest that “fun” would be what a native speaker would say.

“Oh, sorry. Fun,” he says.

It turns out that what Andrey does for Schlumberger, the world’s largest oil-field-services provider (and in whose staff lounge we’re sitting), is set up data conferencing. The company keeps a low profile in Russia, preferring to leave its name off the oil producers they service and have bought.

Andrey groans. “Did you hear the latest? About the spies working for TNK-BP?” he says.

A few days before, plainclothes police had raided British Petroleum’s Moscow office, arresting two brothers of dual Russian-U.S. citizenship. The Kremlin claims the brothers were working to undermine the competitiveness of Russian oil. TNK-BP is a joint venture between British Petroleum and three oligarchs, and is one of the few nongovernmental producers left.

I tell Andrey that BP is rebranding itself as “Beyond Petroleum.” I’m joking, of course.

Andrey contradicts himself, but I enjoy his response. “I don’t listen to the news. I know what they will say. I even know the colors they will use.”

As for our lessons, it seems he wants to talk mainly about films. “Film makes me … I don’t know how to say this—makes me feel I can be emotional.”

His favorite is Apocalypse Now.

- - -

Andrey eschews the metro; he uses his two-hour car commute to “think.” I live a few stops away in a Khrushchev apartment, a fifth-floor walkup in one of 30 identical buildings in a complex. Every night for my first week, I wandered around for half an hour before spotting my flat. Its anonymity brings to mind the classic Soviet-era film Irony of Fate. Man drinks vodka in Moscow, wakes up in St. Petersburg. But his key fits into the lock of a building that looks exactly like his at exactly the same address.

Apparently, my Khrushchev building, with its faulty plumbing, is less desirable than the Stalin blocks. But I learn to copy my neighbors and leave my empty beer bottles under the birch trees for the babushkas to cash in. And it’s in the tattered hallway of my building that the pensioner next door tells me, “Don’t worry, you’re doing great.”

Yet moving into my one-room flat cost $3,000—two months’ rent plus an agent’s fee—considerably more cash than I was advised to bring. Now I’m serfed out to my school, repaying their settling-in loan. I have to laugh when a teacher friend tells his student, “Well, the school is all right, but Moscow is a little expensive.”

I mention our quandary only to explain why we teachers have had to take on private students.

On Fridays, the only day he doesn’t do after-school karate, I visit Kirill, an 11-year-old boy. His family is among the “new Russians.” Their spacious flat is all marble and Italian wood. The father does something with cardboard.

But one Friday, a school holiday, I’m asked to go to Grandma’s, which involves taking a bus to beyond the Outer Ring Road. Behemoth towers dwarf the spindly trees—and miniaturize the people who appear to have none of the verve of the inner city. Up on the 25th floor, Kirill’s 3-year-old cousin, Dasha, keeps wandering into the small bedroom, saying she wants an English lesson, too. Kirill and I go back to writing a story about stuffing a giraffe in a suitcase.

Two other “privates” come to my kitchen table. One is Valery, who does accounts for a company that imports Swiss jewelry. “We are small but have big dreams,” she says, grinning. She, too, lives outside the Outer Ring—with her husband, his three teenage brothers, and his parents. “But we took two one-room flats and broke the wall.” She and her husband sleep in the extra tiny kitchen. “It is difficult to find a place to be alone,” she adds.

I suggest she try earplugs, and show her a pair. “Ah. But are there eye plugs?” she asks.

Finally, there’s little Anya—or, as she confesses, Nuriya, her secret Turkmenistan name. Her husband is an electrician, she a nurse.

Nuriya hopes to help their immigration to Canada by passing an English test, part of which involves answering questions about her personal life. “I like to go with my family to the villages to gather mushrooms,” she rehearses, and slaps the table in triumph.

One day, she says that she and her husband and daughter are the only ones left; her sisters in Toronto have sponsored her parents. “They are 70. They have heart conditions.” Her eyes are tear-bright. “If I cannot see them …” she says.

- - -

Over the next month, Andrey tells me that the pigeons and fish in Moscow are going blind. (There is oil and gas in the river.) He tells me that he studied economics in Siberia. (There wasn’t a philosophy department at his university.) He tells me he did construction work when he first came to Moscow, teaching himself programming at night.

“I even sold a program I wrote,” he says. “But that’s not as interesting as the pigeons flying blind.”

His No. 2 favorite film is Dancer in the Dark. Björk plays a Czechoslovakian émigré, also going blind, he explains. “At the end, everyone gangs up on her. She hangs herself.”

One week in the winter garden, another teacher-student pair appears, with a business English text used in my company classes. I ask Andrey if Schlumberger might pay for his lessons.

“I don’t want them to,” he says. “They would decide the time, the book. And then there would be the three of us.”

He also talks about not wanting to bring up his two daughters (one unborn; his wife is due in a month) in “a country like this. Where there isn’t …” He hesitates.

I offer: “Freedom of choice, freedom to determine—”

He cuts me off. “No, no. It’s not just you,” he says. “It’s fifty-fifty. Freedom of choice means that you can control not just your own life but change the lives around you.”