Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 04:00:55 AM EST
I just got back from a trip to Moscow, and it has totally changed since my last visit 16 years ago. We stayed in the apartment of some old family friends, so we got to see the city the way its residents do. I'll try to highlight the things that have changed since the old days, but some things haven't changed at all - like the Moscow traffic. Luzhkov, the mayor, has built lots of roads, but there are many more cars, and the driving is sporting as always (Ooops, no seatbelts in this Zhiguli - hang on kids!)
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Skyline - Moscow looks like a boom town. High rise buildings are going up everywhere, not just in the center but also along the ring road and Metro lines. I spent some time near the Yugo Zapad station, and what had once been a desolate crossroads is now thronging with activity. Several twenty-story luxury apartment complexes have gone up (with more on the way), and there are all types of stores and street vendors. But the growth comes with some rough edges too - five blocks from one of the new buildings, you can stand in a weedy lot with trash everywhere and some guys fixing a beat-up old car. If you can imagine a European version of Atlanta or Houston, that's what it felt like.
People - Muscovites were much friendlier and more relaxed than on my last visit. The combination of freedom and relative prosperity has made a huge impact in people's daily lives. I saw this especially in ordinary daily interactions - everyone from bus drivers to bank clerks and waiters were generally friendly and helpful, even to someone like me with limited Russian. Oh, and they are always working. We saw lots of people with outdoor jobs: carpenters and bricklayers, gardeners and trash collectors, and everyone we saw was working hard. That's a very positive change from the old days, when the state pretended to pay them, and they pretended to work.
Churches - The most spectacular addition to the skyline is the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Words can hardly convey how amazing this building is on the inside, but there are some pictures at their website. As a protestant, I have spent my life worshipping in plain, unadorned churches, so this cathedral, with its floor-to-ceiling frescos just blew me away. This church was originally built to commemorate Russia's victory over Napolean, and its outer halls are covered with panels summarizing every major battle, and listing everyone, from privates to generals who was killed during the war. It was dynamited by Stalin in the 1930's and finally rebuilt in 2000. I was told that most neighborhood churches are also very active, so it seems that religious life has rebounded from Soviet oppression. Our cab driver even had some icons clipped to his rearview mirror.
Cell Phones - They are everywhere of course, but there are subtle differences in the way that Russians use them. First, they speak into their phones in a normal tone of voice, instead of shouting all the time, the way that Americans do. Also, their ringtones tend to be Tsaichovsky or Beethoven, which lends a musical air to the city.
Airports - We flew through Sheremetevo, which used to be the only international airport. In the past, it took at least two hours to clear customs, and passport control was manned by surly guards with AK-47s. This time, we saw courteous officials, and customs was quick and easy - it was an amazing improvement. It was also much less crowded, and part of the reason is that Domededevo airport has been completely rebuilt, and it is capturing a lot of the international travel now.
Metro - It is still crowded, but it's also the best way to get around town. Tickets are cheap too. I paid 195 roubles for a 20-ride ticket, which is about 37 US cents per ride.
Banks - The local branch of Sberbank was nicely decorated, and staffed with friendly and competent people. It was very easy to change money - not at all like the old days. The bank was also advertising an array of loans for anything under the sun: a new apartment, a new car, new appliances, even vacations. For better or worse, the consumer society has arrived.
Food - On our first night, we have a tradional Russian dinner of cheese and cold cuts, with pickled fish and bean dip, all on black bread. It was great, and there is a restaurant chain (Yelki-Palki) that does the same cuisine in a buffet format. All the American fast food outlets have a big presence in Moscow, but I'm glad that some local entrepeneurs have figured out how to do the local food in a friendly and convienient format. There are also lots of Georgian restaurants in Moscow, and if you go to one you have to try the Khachapuria, which is a cheesy and chewy bread.
Stores - Every neighborhood has several grocery stores. The one we went to was about the same size that we had seen in Amsterdam, and it had a good selection of everything that you could want. Right after Perestroika, lots of foreign food came into the country, but now local firms are making better quality stuff, and starting to claim more of the market. Consumer goods like clothes, furniture and appliances are also widely available. I could see on the street that people are much better dressed than before, and you can't always tell by looking who is a westerner and who is a Russian.
Well, its time to wrap up. Russia has plenty of problems, but I wanted to focus on the good news, and the incredible progress they have made in the last 10 years. Going to Russia used to feel like sailing off the end of the earth, but now, it is just another country. Here's an example of how Russians have made peace with their past: on the Arbat St. I saw Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and Czar Nicholas, in full costume, ready to pose for pictures with tourists. (I also saw a Putin impersonator on Red Square - not much chance of that during the Soviet era.) From Moscow, Russia's future looks bright.