In remembrance of Moscow past

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I first visited Moscow in 1996, and, like so many other expatriates, was immediately overawed by the experience. So overawed, in fact, that I have been here ever since.

Although my original memories of Moscow have been trampled underfoot by the ambitious new Moscow, those first impressions of setting foot for the first time in the Russian capital – a bit like Neil Armstrong stepping on the Moon – are difficult to shake. What is the source of this addiction? At least part of the allure is the result of a lifelong indoctrination process that continually reminded us that “Russia is the enemy.”

The notion of an “evil empire” lurking somewhere out there beyond our sleepy American neighborhoods was rammed home by years of diving under rickety school desks at the clang of an alarm bell, in anticipation of a nuclear strike from our communist arch-nemesis. At the same time, Americans were involved in their own little war over the issue: “Better dead than red,” bravely proclaimed the rightist diehards; “better red than dead,” cautioned the leftist opposition. 

Yet the majority of Americans had no idea, of course, what the Russians really wanted, or even where Russia was, or that Russian children were also lying awake at night, trembling at the thought of a nuclear war. We just knew what we were told: the Soviet “Red Machine” wanted to roll over all of us. And judging by the way the Soviet Union usually rolled over us at the Olympics every four years, the idea didn’t seem too far fetched.

So when the day finally arrives when you find yourself strolling down Tverskaya Ulitsa in Moscow, enjoying a sunny day of shopping smack in the heart of a place that once gave you nuclear nightmares, it can be a profound experience. And it is safe to say that an equal number of Russians, finding themselves perched on a pedestrian island in the middle of bustling Times Square in New York City, standing in awe amidst the traffic, sounds and endless people, have also experienced this same surrealistic wake-up moment.

Talking with other expatriates about the changes that have gripped the Russian capital (for those out of the Moscow loop, Russians insist that Moscow, although described affectionately as a big village, “is not Russia;” much the same way, I guess, that New York City is not really America), most seem to yearn for the earlier days when the capital, indeed, the entire country, was walking a terrifying tightrope between the past and the future. Scarier times, for sure, yet somehow innocent at the same time.

Despite the desperate atmosphere that hung over the city like a cloud in the late 1990s, there was also something exhilarating and refreshing about Moscow, at least from the viewpoint of the foreigners, who, after all, always had the option of getting a taxi to the airport if things really got bad (and many did just that, in fact, following the disastrous crash of the rouble in 1998, which wiped out the fortunes of many individuals, Russians and expatriates alike).

The differences between Moscow and New York City, for example, were – and continue to be – nothing short of amazing. Back in the "good old days," the one thing that stands out in my mind the most about Russia was the curious “work ethic,” which basically said that if you were an employee you had the right to berate and degrade the person (the lowly consumer) who wanted to purchase your goods. Coming from New York, a place where the “consumer is king,” I found this to be a delightful, albeit occasionally infuriating reversal of roles.

"Why don’t Russians smile?”

Back in the grim 90s, a German friend was upset because he couldn’t understand why “Russian air stewardesses never smile at me.” This is a complaint that has been repeated on numerous occasions, and at first I agreed with the argument. After all, isn’t it the job of the stewardesses to smile at me and make me feel good about myself? At least provide me with some facial indication that everything is ship-shape in the cockpit and the wings are still attached?

But then I heard the Russian side of the story. Why do westerners need to have the stewardess (and other sales people) flash their teeth every time they pass? To make them feel good? Is that my job, one Russian asked me rhetorically, who was not an airline stewardess by the way. Indeed, “if the stewardess is doing her job professionally, why should it irritate them if the service lacks a smile,” she asked. Doesn’t this suggest that something is lacking in the person who feels ill at ease for not being flashed a toothy grin from an absolute stranger?

Furthermore, the Russian femme fatale said (and this one hurt, let me tell you), the western smile is all-too-often devoid of real feelings and emotions. There is nothing behind the eyes but a vacant stare. It is performed reflexively, like Pavlov’s slobbering dog, not spontaneously from the heart. When Russians smile, my heartless friend continued, they really truly feel it, not because some corporate employee manual deems it is required of them.

Although my Russian friend’s argument seemed to be a sound one, eventually the forced-smile camp emerged victorious in the debate. Suddenly, gleaming Pepsodent grins started to appear on Aeroflot flights alongside the Chicken Kiev and dried fish. Meanwhile, back down on Earth, the Moscow Metro was actually promoting a smiling campaign with the help of over-sized posters that featured a blonde Slavic girl smiling broadly, her two manicured fingers pointing to the corners of her stretched mouth, as if smiling had to be taught all over again to the Russian people.

Man the trenches, we have entered the hyperstore

Another big difference between “Moscow Then” and “Moscow Now” is the consumer culture of the two eras. If there was little to smile about in the stores in the 1990s, there seems to be even less now. Walk into an Ashaun “hypermarket” (is it just me, or is “hypermarket” the all-time ugliest word in the English vernacular?) and you will immediately understand what I mean. The French, bless their hearts, built one of these Meccas to Madness in the southwest of the city, near my home, but going anywhere near it makes me break out in hives. Trust me reader when I say: you must see it to believe it.

Across the front of the store are – count them – 110 cashiers, which must make the Russian Front during World War II resemble an afternoon picnic by comparison. I have never been to this place when there have not been less than 10 customers per line waiting to pay for their merchandise.

Due to the incredible size of this store, which features everything from plasma super screen televisions to frozen fish, the girls who do price checks and other such tasks negotiate their way around the linoleum floor on roller blades, which always bring to my mind the film Rollerball, since they are not shy about tossing elbows and hurling insults as they pass.

In the middle of this madness is a huge aisle that cuts across the store horizontally; it is large enough to handle the landing of a small turboprop aircraft if it had to. This is the place, the only place, where a person may escape the bump and crush of shopping carts. And clearly the people are shopping. Actually, it looks like the majority Russians are stockpiling supplies for the next World Cup football match and the whole apartment block is invited.

When contemplating all of this frenzied activity, it is so hard to imagine that just 10 short years ago Moscow had practically no shopping malls, no supermarkets, no hyperstores. In fact, most purchases could be made within walking distance from your flat. And since the stores were not necessarily overflowing with merchandise, there was little need to buy a sports utility vehicle to haul home the goodies. Indeed, in those laid back un-hyper days, a person told a girl behind the counter what he wanted, paid for it at a separate window, and then took his receipt back and picked up his plastic bag from said girl. Simple.

Here is the cruel irony: it was recently reported that consumer lines in Russia are the longest in the world. Longest in time; longest in space. Twenty years ago, this was also true, but nobody had much stuff in their carts. Now the critical question: has all this rush and stuff made Moscow a better place? Is anybody really happier? I for one doubt it.

A tale of two cities

Prince Yury (not Luzkhov, but Dolgorukiy) founded Moscow in 1147, about 500 years before New York City was first mentioned by chroniclers as a Dutch trading post. Today, Moscow and New York boast the largest populations in their respective nations, and both could be described as cities that never sleep. In fact, Moscow recently was declared the city with the highest number of billionaires, which has done nothing to lower shoe prices, let me tell you. New York, meanwhile, still retains its reputation as the world’s most important financial center, although Londoners may scoff at that claim.

First, Moscow cannot really prepare you for the shock and awe of New York City, and vice-versa. For example, although me and 10 million other commuters endure the daily crush of the Moscow Metro, this did not prepare me for the streaming masses of commuters on the New York City subway at rush hour. I gazed at the raging river of pedestrians for a solid minute before I got up the nerve to jump into the maelstrom. And even then, I still managed to get myself lost. Yes, although the Moscow Metro ranks as the largest subway system in the world, it is still far easier to get lost on the English-speaking New York Subway.

Although both cities are about the same industrial-strength size (approximately 450 square miles for about 10 million residents), New York City, with its towering skyscrapers that have a terrible habit of blocking out much of the available sunlight, feels much more urban than Moscow, which many Russians, as mentioned earlier, refer to as one big happy village. 

This is another aspect of the “Old Moscow” that is easy to miss. Just 10 years ago the car population was about half what it is today (untold millions). Russians reminisce about the “good old days” when getting back and forth to the office consumed a small portion of their commute time. A quieter, more relaxed time when it seemed as if Russian cars were not equipped with annoying horns and alarm systems. Today, Moscow, like every major city, continues to lay down asphalt in the eternal quest of keeping pace with the almighty automobile. Judging by the snarling gridlock around the Russian capital every morning and night, the city is losing that battle. And as the recent fight to preserve a birch and oak forest instead of a highway in the north of Moscow shows, Muscovites are willing to draw the line when the battle is over their dwindling amount of green spaces that serve as an essential escape from the metropolis, as the latest brutal summer proved.

Just like Moscow, much of New York's attraction comes from the sensation that the place is always on the edge of anarchy; around every corner there is always another spectacle, and not always the most glamorous one. The millions of people that make up this daily performance are intensely multicultural in character; every language, every religion, every nationality can be found on the streets of New York (In 2005, according to one poll, nearly 170 languages were spoken in the city, while 36% of its population was born outside of the United States).

Moscow could also be described as street theater at its very best, although the cast of characters is much more uniform and homogenous. This gives Moscow a predictability that a multicultural place like New York City could never have. If you hear a foreign language on the streets of the Russian capital, it is more than likely coming from a tourist or a temporary “expat” as opposed to a permanent resident. When you walk down a street in New York City, be prepared to meet any number of social and cultural elements. But the performance is no less exhilarating and exotic than in Moscow. 

Ten years ago, New York was grappling with soaring crime rates, crumbling infrastructure and a nasty image problem. Tourists avoided the city like the plague. Today, the Big Apple is almost worm-free: it has the lowest crime rates among the 10 largest cities in the US, while violent crime has dropped by 75% over the last 15 years. Meanwhile, the murder rate in 2005 was its lowest since 1963 (During a recent stay, I rented a room on 103rd Street and Broadway, a neighborhood with a heavy Spanish presence and an area that “nobody set foot in just 10 years ago,” the hotel's desk clerk told me).

The one time I thought I was being mugged in Moscow was in a gypsy cab. The unpredictable Caucasian driver all of a sudden started waving a large pistol around as he was driving, gesticulating with it and talking fast. I thought it was my "money or my life," and since I had nothing in my pocket but cab fare I assumed it would be the latter. I only learned a bit later that this desperado was merely trying to sell me the weapon (which was also strange, because Moscow is generally gun-free, at least amongst the non-criminal crowd).

Hello Tsereteli, and goodbye?

Meanwhile, Moscow is also enjoying its own renaissance. Cashing in on its energy windfall, the capital has escaped from its communist shadow in both a physical and psychological sense. Buildings that had fallen into disrepair during the Soviet period are now stunningly renovated (or even completely rebuilt, as was the case with the Christ the Savior Cathedral and the Moscow Hotel), thus giving shoe stores and coffee shops stunning, ready-made interiors. Meanwhile, the wave of gangster-style hit jobs that spooked the city a decadence ago have largely disappeared (touch wood).

The massive reconstruction effort, however, has not been without its criticism.

A large part of the Moscow skyline has become a gallery of sorts for the work of Zurab Tsereteli, a Georgian artist who befriended Mayor Luzhkov many years ago. The prolific artist is responsible for numerous city projects, including the sprawling Manezh Mall, which is resplendent with fountains, sculptures and a public square directly across from Red Square. He was also commissioned to adorn the massive Cathedral of Christ the Savior with bronze statues, as well as the vast War Memorial Complex on Poklonnaya Gora.

His most notorious piece, however, is the ghastly Peter the Great Statue that stands over ninety meters high on the banks of the Moscow River, barely a stone’s throw from the Christ the Savior Cathedral sitting opposite. The monstrous behemoth shot to infamy in 2008, when Virtual Tourist voted it the tenth ugliest construction in the world.

For better or for worse, the works of Tsereteli will come to define not only Luzhkov’s legacy, but also a critical juncture of history for the Russian capital as it passed through one of its most challenging periods of all time.

Whatever the final verdict, it has been one heck of a ride.

Robert Bridge, RT