For a capital where practically everything is supposed to run according to The Plan, this has been a very big winter for the unexpected.
Right after the New Year came a mysterious explosion in a subway car. In February there was a major fire at the Hotel Rossiya. In early March, late on a Friday night, an earthquake shook the city.
The point is not to make light of any of those incidents - the metro blast took at least several lives, the fire apparently killed about 45 and the earthquake, only a tremor really, frightened the daylights out of Muscovites who live on upper floors, but mercifully did no damage.
The way Russians reacted officially and privately, however, reveals something about the way people here think and how they deal with surprises, particularly when they happen to be catastrophic ones.
To start with, consider the splash any one of these events would make were it to happen in a big American city. The press, radio and television would go all out reporting every detail. Authorities would investigate and issue a full report. Little if anything would be left to the public imagination - and if there were remaining questions, someone would no doubt go on probing until they were answered.
By contrast, here is everything the Russian people were formally told about what took place in the subway, carried as an item on Tass, the Soviet news agency. A slightly modified version was published at the bottom of an inside page of a local newspaper five days after the episode. Nothing more has been said: Moscow Underground Railway Statement
MOSCOW - A Tass correspondent has been told at the management of the Moscow underground railway that a small explosion had taken place in the Schelkovski radius of the metro on Jan. 8. There were victims who were rendered medical aid. An investigation is underway.
The Rossiya fire, a dramatic blaze that swept through a massive wing of one of the world's biggest hotels, only a few yards from the Kremlin wall, received similarly cryptic treatment."Information" was the headline of a 17-line report on page three of the four-page Moscow Evening Daily, which noted that the fire was thought to have started in an elevator shaft and that "Those injured received medical aid."
The only acknowledgement of deaths was an expression of sympathy to families of the victims published a few days later as an official announcement in Pravda, the country's main newspaper. There is still no word of how many people were killed.
Western journalists who rushed to the scene - Russian reporters did not bother - were able to move about freely in the early confusion. But police soon closed off access, and several correspondents who tried to take pictures were manhandled.
"You are only looking for sensation," one policeman angrily told Fritz Pleitgen, the correspondent for West German television. "You should not laugh at our misfortune."
That comment says a great deal about the ingrained defensiveness many Russians feel about the curiosity of foreigners.
For some reason the earthquake received a big more attention, perhaps because just about everyone in Moscow felt it and nothing awful happened. There was an explanatory report in Pravda several days later, and film clips on television, of the devastation caused by the quake in Romania. The film was all the more striking because scenes of such damage usually are shown only if they happen in the West.
The rule seems to be that the closer to home something terrible happens, the less said about it publicly the better.
Results of that practice, as one might expect, are that the stories that circulate are often more elaborate than the truth would be, were it known.
Take the metro explosion: There was a flurry of excitement abroad over an item in a London newspaper by Victor Louis, a Soviet journalist who is occasionally used by the authorities for "disclosures." He said that the bomb had been planted by a terrorist. This was widely thought to mean that Soviet dissidents eventually would be charged.
But now there are at least two other prevalent versions here. One has it that a band of young workers from a provincial town set off the explosion and two others in Moscow about the same time to protest the higher standards of living in the capital and in outrage over rumors that the price of vodka was about to be raised. The culprits supposedly have been arrested.
A second account says that a "mad bomber" is loose in Moscow, a psychotic who may strike again at any time, rather like the man who terrorized New York with sporadic bombings in the 1950s. Both stories are solemnly attributed to reliable sources, this usually is meant to be someone with party connections.
The Rossiya fire has also prompted a good deal of lively speculation, mostly having to do with the inadequacy of safety precautions - fire doors were said to be locked - and the curious way the blaze was handled.
Russian eyewitnesses say, for instance, that while hundreds of tourists were hanging out of the windows shouting for help in the north wing of the hotel, gala wedding parties and dances went on in the west wing. A full house watching the popular Russian comedian Arkady Raiken in the Rossiya's concert hall was apparently never told of the trouble, and found out what was going on only when they went outside.
Since the fire was finally brought under control, it may well be that officials believed it best to keep people calm by not telling them about it. The fact is that we will never know what officials thought.