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A Moscow Diary

by corncam 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.

My wife, the lovely and talented Mrs. Corncam, asked me to add her comments to this diary.  She is a fluent Russian speaker, and has been a frequent visitor to Russia for more than twenty years.  Here are her observations:

Moscow, Ten Years Later

     The first thing I noticed on the trip to the airport into Moscow is the large number of furniture stores on the outskirts.  Ikea is a prominent brand, but there are also stores that advertise themselves as domestic furniture stores.  Appliance stores and
lumber yards/hardware stores are also prominent.  There are a lot of new apartment buildings being built, as well as advertisements for townhouse developments.  There is also a lot of construction of fancy cotteges (suburban houses) outside of town which
I did not see but heard about.  New housing construction helps explain the interest in furniture and appliances, but people seem to be also upgrading their existing apartments.  
     The friend we stayed with has a very basic late Soviet clothes washer made of plastic, but which works, and he said he resisted buying a modern clothes washer.  His neighbors were singing the praises of their new, modern washing machines, and he finally caved.  He loves his new Whirlpool apartment model, and we appreciated being able to do our clothes, too.
They are not even thinking of getting a dryer.  Space is at a premium, and they have a perfectly good balcony for clothes drying purposes.
     The point here is that participation in Moscow's economic boom seems pretty widespread to me.  Not everyone can aspire to build a lovely suburban home and support a car for getting there, but my friends don't want a car (the roads are still bad outside of
town, although improving, and traffic jams are common in town), and they would not want the bother of a summer house.  Relatives of theirs have rented a lovely villa for a few weeks this summer, something that seems more attractive then owning one.  
     What matters is that my friends see real improvement in their day-to-day life.  They can get services, such as the locksmith who came on Sunday evening to fix a broken lock on their door, they have a neighborhood bank which provides real services and during the last financial crisis did not steal their money, and there is an absolute abundance of grocery
stores.  Ten years ago there were big, fancy supermarkets opening which featured mostly imported food, such as the 7th Continent.  A smaller, local, supermarket had opened near my friend's apartment, but it was jammed with people, and the clerks were pretty rude.
     Now there are local supermarkets all over the place and they are not crowded, and people are polite.  The "Self-Congratulator" is the store closest to my friend's apartment and is part of a big chain.  It has taken over more space, and features mostly
Russian-produced goods marketed to Russians in the neighborhood (there is only Russian on most of the packaging).  The prices are said to be much better than the import-oriented stores, and I believe it.  I bought a basketful of goods, including some expensive
items like blueberry smoothies for the kids, and only speant twelve dollars.  On a Russian pension of about $100/month those prices would be considered high, and I don't know what percentage of wage earners would be able to afford those smoothies, but food is much more
available, and has always been expensive in Russia.  
     Someone on a tight budget has more choices for sure.  My friend was buying buckwheat (a Russian staple), and had six grades of buckwheat to choose from, offered at different prices.  In St. Petersburg in the winter of 1981-82, I remember standing in a long line and paying what was considered a lot of money for a kilo of buckwheat.  I was greeted at the
dorm with wide eyes and congratulations that I had found any to buy at all.  Butter was not always available that winter, although usually I managed to buy some at  a certain store on Nevskii Prospect.  If you were primarily living on potatoes and grains, a little butter mattered nutritionally.  This all seems like ancient history, but it matters to people whose
memories go back that far that food is reliably available, and if not significantly cheaper, is not more expensvie either.
     Access to international travel rates as important change.  My friend who lives in California was in Moscow visiting his parents and his old friends who are all programmers.  He said that his programmer friends are pretty happy because they have a pretty decent middle class life.  They can go out drinking on Friday night, and once a year can go abroad for a couple of weeks.  They usually go to Western Europe, which is relatively close and affordable.  He though that his friends were pretty upbeat.  
     Many people believe that the access to foreign travel has contributed to the new politeness in Moscow.  People don't elbow you aside and shout at you any more.  It has occurred to the average person (who may have seen the outside world) that politeness as a
way of life is a good thing.  The recording on the Metro says "Be polite, give up your seat to invalids...."  Signs have always been posted stating that seats are for old people, invalids and people with young children, but the idea that one should give up one's seat POLITELY is new to Moscow.  This is a pretty stunning change.
      The religious revival is quite remarkable.  Lots of local churches have been re-opened, and hold services every day.  Novodevochy, the famous historic nunnery seemed to have people living and working there, a new development.  Certainly other monestaries
have been re-opened.  The Cathedral of Christ the Savior, built to commemorate the victory over Napoleon and dynamited by Stalin in 1931 has been rebuilt.  It is a beautiful building, and serves as the national church of Russia on important holidays.  The chairs where the Tsar and Tsarina were permitted to sit (everyone else stands at an Orthodox service) were
also restored.  Does this mean the current regime is open to a revival of the Monarchy?  Those chairs did not have to be put in there.
     What struck me was what a vibrant, living religion Russian Orthodoxy turns out to be.  The saint whose icon was featured on the day we visited the Cathedral of Christ the Savior was a priest who lived outside of Kiev, and who died in the early 20th century.  He was famous as someone important people (such as Leo Tolstoy) sought him out for spiritual advice.  We also saw an icon of Matryonna, a woman who has been sainted who lived in Moscow and died in 1955.  She was blind from birth and became a nun before the Soviet era.  She could touch people and tell them their story, including their future, and she healed people.  This is not a dead religion praying over a few ancient icons.  People pick a saint who speaks to their life experience, and use that person's icon in worship.  The driver who took us to the airport (actually a very dangeous trip, but we survived) had a little three-part icon in his car : Christ the Savior in the middle, the Madonna on the left (He said it
represented home and family life to him), and St. Nickolai on the right, the one who looks after you in your working life.
     The streets in Moscow are much calmer than they were ten years ago.  I suspected a vicous crackdown on petty theives, drunks and steet people, but people I spoke with only spoke with pride that crime was down.  Always watch your purse, though, was the message,
especially after Irina, who was touring with us had her purse opened by someone at a bus stop.  She noticed, and nothing was taken.  Ten years ago there was serious concern that your purse could be spirited away from your table at a restaurant while you were
distracted and eating.  Now there are so many lovely places where you can have a bite to eat (not cheap, but lovely), and there are not nearly as many people near your table and such a possibility did not seem that real.
     The explosion in restaurants and much more informal cafes is really delightful.  We ate at one on the Moscow river near the Tretiakov Gallery which was done up in the shape of boat.  It seemed designed to interest foreigners, with prices to match.  We were pleasantly surprised to discover Yelki-Palki, a Russian themed buffet place, where you could also
order hot pirozhki (cabbage or mushroom filed pies).  Our Russian friends ate there, although not often.  They still eat at home almost all of the time, with the exception of the occasions (maybe once a year) when they order pizza.  The pizza came in less time
than promised, was delivered by a very polite person, and actually tasted good.  Imagine having pizza delivered in Moscow!  Why should this be a sign of high culture?  Maybe it shouldn't, but having a variety of convenient, interesting options seems civilized to me, and I didn't have to cook that night.

     There are cracks in this fairly rosy picture.  It may have seemed lovely in Moscow partly because it was summer and the trees were green, and the sun was shining.  The city is less crowded in the summer because people go on vacation or try to spend time at their country places, if they have one.  But...our friend said that the library at her university was not getting funding for buying much by way of new books, so she relies on books she can buy herself and get from abroad for her research.  Another friend (G.), who teaches ancient and medieval history at an ordinary neighborhood school, said that really bright students were rare, as were students who took a genuine interest in his subject.  He thinks there is a change for the worse in this area.  People are running around a lot to earn enough money and not paying as much attention to their kids.  He said that another factor is that in recent years academic achievement has not had much to do with material success, so that
kids see no reason to work hard in school.  He told a funny story: A kid was not doing his work, so G. called his mother (and the kid) in to tell her that her son was not doing his homework.  The mother proceded to tell G. (in front of the kid) that the kid's father was a successful manager, and had told his son that he barely passed G's history class.  He says, "What could I possibly say to that?"  He has a fair number of Azeri students who are Muslims.  He says that they are disciplining their children more.  He called in the Father of one Azeri boy who was not doing his homework.  The Father was a locally successful shopkeeper, who upon hearing that his son was not doing his work, started to beat
his son right then and there.  G. didn't think the son needed a beating, and said so, but what a different response!
     Moscow has built actual malls, with food courts (can you tell that this matters to me?), high fashion stores, and public restrooms that are easier to find than in an American mall.  I noticed a dry cleaners at the one mall we went into, an important service for
getting sheets and large items done if you don't have your own washing machine.


by corncam on Mon Aug 8th, 2005 at 10:37:21 PM EST
Thanks for the diary!

It seems that most of the material and religious changes were actually just getting under way 10 years ago (about when I was there).  We knew people with modern appliances like washers and dryers, there were a handful of supermarkets and shopping malls, there were pizza joints (no delivery though) and they were just starting the reconstruction of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior. But the social and psychological changes seem striking to me.

Politeness?  I'm almost sad to see the elbowing and sneering go!  

But it is good to know the average citizen can expect basic services.  Not so long ago things were so bad one simply didn't even bother asking for them.  Plus the mafia was running everything.  Has that improved?  


Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 12:48:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I think that the streets are as safe as any other major city, and we did not hear any complaints about crime from our friends.  However, there is plenty of vice in the city, especially gambling, and that always attracts criminal elements.  
by corncam on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 01:12:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, 3 presidential mafias are fighting it out...
The curse of Russia is that government has always been the first "mafia" of the country.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 01:50:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]

But I really did mean the Mafia.  Like, Designer LandRover full of big scary men in Armani suits who walk into a room and the hostess trembles in fear, like thugs who open fire on someone in the middle of a large Western restaurant a la The Godfather, like the guys who killed a member of my host family for not paying protection Mafia.  Wild, eh?

I'd tell people I was from Chicago and always the same response: "Al Capone!"  

But you are right too.  I remember asking someone what the Russian White House was for, and their answer was that it served as HQ for the "mafia"...

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 02:23:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I was deadly serious in my reply.

Like, Designer LandRover full of big scary men in Armani suits who walk into a room and the hostess trembles in fear, like thugs who open fire on someone in the middle of a large Western restaurant a la The Godfather, like the guys who killed a member of my host family for not paying protection Mafia. is EXACTLY how it goes.

Do you have any idea of how many senior politicians and journalists have been shot or bombed to death (or to sometimes miraculous survival) in the past 15 years?

btw, the designer LandRover is (one of) the escort vehicle(s), following the S-Class merc or the 7-Series BMW.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 05:22:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Please forgive me.  It is just that when I tell most people of this, they don't really get it that I do in fact mean the actual mafia and am not using the term loosely.  And yes, I am very aware of the killing of politicians and journalists.  And no, I am not trying to make light of the matter.  Like I said, a member of my host family was killed.  

I don't know for a fact how much connection there is between the self-styled neo-Al Capones who specialize in drugs, prostitutes and knocking people off, and the government. Or who is giving orders to whom. Or where the Oligarchs fit in to it all. I only know what I've heard and seen.  There is obviously some overlap, but are they one in the same?  How much is mythology and how much is fact?  I cannot say.

When you say "escort vehicle," that would be an escort for whom?

Anyway, my original point was that 10 years ago today Moscow was the wild wild west.  A lot of crime was of the organized sort.  And if Moscow is a safer, saner place now, what does that say about the people running the place?

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 05:42:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is Mrs. Corncam.  I thought the calm on the streets in Moscow was unreal - and unlikely to be the result of honestly elected civic authority asserting itself over the forces of evil.  I think that what has happened is that powerful conglomerates (most of which are run like organized crime organizations) have consolodated their power, and have divided up the city.
     Here is what I think is really important, though.  My friends who have never been shy about discussing politics were nothing but glad at the change.  They have been through so much.  The public support for whatever brings calm and order is obviously very great.  
     The large organized crime organizations will gradually act more like large corporations, send their children to study in France, and seek to control common thugs.  The day when civic authority elected by the people asserts power over these organizations will have to come later.  Isn't that battle being fought today in many other countries as well?
by corncam on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 07:00:30 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Fascinating, thanks for posting. I was wondering how much of this new prosperity has to do with increased revenue from oil.
by core halo on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 02:24:50 AM EST
Oil money is certainly a major factor in the city's prosperity.  Natural gas is also a big contributor, and Gazprom is the single largest company in Russia.  But there are other factors:  Moscow and St. Petersburg have a software industry that didn't exist before, and some manufacturing industries like steel and chemicals have had a few good years.  

In Moscow, many people were able to buy their formerly state-owned apartments very cheaply, so their housing costs are low.  Health care and education are also cheap by western standards, so there is a lot of disposable income.  People earning $1000/month are solidly middle-class in Moscow.

by corncam on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 09:55:12 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I've been thinking about your question some more, and a big part of the improvement is a change in the pattern of spending.  Back in the early 90s, a dollar earned from exports would be spent on a dollar of imports (or stashed into a foreign bank account).  But now, it is more likely to be spent on domestic production.  So the furniture, car and construction industries are all thriving, and driving a classic Keynesian multiplier effect that results in a broad-based prosperity.
by corncam on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 03:24:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Is $1000/month pretty average, in your estimation?  That's quite an improvement.  In fact, 10 years ago many people, professionals, just were not being paid at all.  Or were being paid in necessities but not $$.  Everything was outlandishly cheap but the "middle class" was still struggling just to get by.

And the pensioners, how are they doing?  They seemed to be the hardest hit by the economic crisis of the 90's.  Has the gov't addressed that situation?  I mean shopping malls and appliances are lovely, but how much of it is real change and how much of it is a bandaid?  I've also read that many Muskovites are living on crazy lines of credit.  Much like here, there is a lot of purchasing going on, but it is not reflective of the economic reality.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 04:00:17 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't know what the average income is in Moscow, but I'm pretty sure that it is less than $1000/month, especially for pensioners.  My point was that if you can get to $1000/month, then you can afford a western, middle-class lifestyle.
by corncam on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 09:50:59 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks corncam.

One thing to note is that you really have two Russias - Moscow, with a few of the large provincial cities, and the rest of the country, which is slowly drifting back into the 19th century. Moscow captures something like half or more of all the export wealth of the country, and has indeed become (mostly) a very lively European capital city, with amazing wealth but also a big middle class. But the picture elsewhere is much starker.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes

by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 04:43:27 AM EST
We heard the same thing from our Russian friends.  
by corncam on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 09:45:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Trivia: when Stalin blew up the previous Church on the site of CTS, he was planning on building the world's tallest skyscraper there, with a 10-story bust of him on top of it (or so goes the story).

As for the Church itself, I didn't go in. I found it was externall garish, overdone, and didn't go at all with the surrounding area, or for that matter, the bulk of Moscow.

by Scipio on Tue Aug 9th, 2005 at 10:27:35 PM EST
This is the problem with their mayor. Luzhkov has ruled Moscow like a Tsar in recent years. Many of the revival projects in the city have undergone his personal review, like that stupid monument to Peter the Great that makes no sense. There are some very strange combinations in Moscow. Alas, there are also beautiful areas. I guess we'll settle for this for now as long as the city keeps growing well and the living standards improve.

Mikhail from SF
by Tsarrio (dj_tsar@yahoo.com) on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 02:49:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
But that's Moscow.  Imposing Soviet Realist architecture, lovely old Orthodox churches, quaint 19th century neighborhoods, tacky western ads and shops and the over-the-top monuments and slogans paying homage to the megalomania of whomever was ruling during the era they were erected.

Garish is the aesthetic of the city.  I hate to make vast generalizations, but subtlety it not the city's strong point. :)  Fortunately there is more than enough wonderful art, class & culture within those garish structures.  The people of Moscow have cultivated taste.  The rulers, not so much.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Wed Aug 10th, 2005 at 11:06:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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