Moody Moscow

Posted by jswt | Posted in General, Russia - Moscow | Posted on 13-11-2011


For halloween night I dressed up as an “airline passenger” in my convincing costume complete with seat, luggage and Airbus A380 which found me waking up on the opposite side of sunrise in Moscow, Russia.

Chris had already been in Russia for 3 weeks when I arrived and had been having a very tough time in very remote locations like Kazan and Yekaterinburg, and was happy to get back to a “real city”. He got in Sunday night at 4am, and I was slayed by jetlag, so luckily we had a tour guide lined up to show us around on Monday – S is a friend of my sister’s who’s wife is working at an embassy in Moscow, and had been living here for 3 months out of their 2 year stay. He kept apologizing for his lack of knowing his way around the city, but it was much better than our own and he was a serious relief as we were in no state to be deciphering cyrillic and trying to navigate the metro lines. He took us to Red Square and the Kremlin and a great (cheap!) lunch at a cafeteria that spoke a little english, and really made us feel welcome in what was an obviously hard, cold place.

Moscow is a city of 20 million people that’s suffering some growing pains as the quick growth and influx has sent prices skyrocketing and has a traffic system that isn’t coming close to keeping up. There is some nice architecture, but the majority of the city is blocky, grey communist concrete structures that don’t exude much joy.

Lemme just say straight up that Russian men are *not* attractive, and the women tend to look amazing until they hit about 35, when apparently the businessmen just go out and get a mistress to throw new furs upon. The women *all* dress like campy prostitutes from 15 years ago, and even going to the grocery store requires fishnets and 6″ heels. There’s a huge need here to flash new money and to be seen on the scene. It’s crazy how much trashy shit people wear – it’s like they’ve skinned an 80s hooker and crawled right in.

The musical taste of the city can be summed up as “Camaro trance”.

The people do not smile, and they do not talk. There are roaming groups of police which you never know exactly who they are – police, military, security, or even just some guys in uniforms. If you make eye contact or draw their attention, they can ask you for your papers which is usually a gateway for a shakedown or some sort of payoff. It quickly comes clear that it’s just easier to blend in and be unnoticed than to draw any attention, especially if you’re an english speaker who doesn’t want to be made an easy target. Luckily I was let off easily the couple times I was asked for my passport – I’ve taken to carrying a photocopy and leaving my original in a safe spot in countries like this, so that they can’t take my passport and hold it ransom. Of course, it helps a lot that I’m travelling on a Canadian passport, as it was greeted with a neutral nod rather than what I might have expected on a US passport.

So it was *very* nice to have S there to show us around, speak english, and smile as we walked around the city… He had to go pick his daughter up for trick-or-treating, but definitely got us grounded and orientated, and was a fantastic tour guide.

The next few days were a blur of jetlag haze (I always forget how long it’s going to kick my ass — remember: 1 day per hour!), so I bunkered down and did some work since I was somewhat intimidated and uncomfortable wandering the city by myself.

On the Friday, a few people were going to do a walking tour, so I tagged along and got shown around the city by a nice political studies major from the university who gave us some insight into the history of the city, and frequently held his tongue whenever opinions or personal beliefs seemed to enter the tale. After his tour, we hopped the metro to find an outdoor market, but instead ended up at what we referred to as “the creepiest amusement park ever”, and then took an extreme shortcut through the woods to the next metro station, stopping along the way for homemade pickles from little old ladies at a market.

We were kind of kept to the sidelines on the tour, which I later learned was due to the nationalist rally going on that day. Russia is in the midst of a upsurging Nationalist movement – the same standard lowbrow politics that appeal to the disenfranchised, undereducated and angry everywhere that blames outsiders for all their problems and forgives the ruling class from resolving their actual problems. Political posters around the city feature an angry scowling candidate with the words “RUSSIA IS FOR RUSSIANS” (which I consider kind of funny, since having been here I can safely assure Russians that no one will be knocking down their door to take it – they can keep it all they like). Luckily we were clear of the gathering, as nothing much happened at the rally so the skinheads and angry youth descended into the metro system issuing some of the old ultraviolence upon anyone who didn’t speak russian or looked remotely foreign…

But to segue off politics and to try to keep this positive, the city has a *fantastic* metro system, with beautiful stations that are way down below ground, and have trains coming every 2 minutes that get you all over the city quickly. There is also rumors and rumblings about an entire second metro system under the metro system called Metro 2. There’s a story about the brown ring route that circles all the other routes – that Stalin had the plans to approve the metro lines, and put his coffee down on the paper. When he picked it up to sign off, he liked the brown coffee stain idea, and no one wanted to rock the boat, so the brown line ended up part of the system. The metro came in handy for a couple dinners out (sushi, shisha and first snow with S from S. Africa – oh yeah!), a quick lunch with S and his wife, and a bit of urban hiking, but overall the city isn’t laid out for pedestrian access and doesn’t have a lot to offer as far as wandering goes.

One of the highlights of our stay was an invitation on the tour’s day off to come visit the newly restored Bolshoi Theatre – Moscow’s flagship theatre that has just undergone a 6 year renovation and reopened 10 days before we got our tour. The building was *STUNNING* and easily one of the most beautiful performance rooms I’ve ever seen. Part of the renovation involved lifting the entire building up, carving out 6 stories of space underneath and building operations offices and ballrooms underneath, all of which were equally beautiful and jaw-droppingly beautiful. Getting the chance to stand on stage and tour backstage at the Bolshoi theatre was definitely a memorable treat.

On the last Saturday there, Chris had the day off and the promotion had organized with me to have him kidnapped so they could drive us out of town 40km to the Monino Aviation Museum – a crazy insane collection of old Russian military and experimental aircraft that was only recently opened to foreigners. We saw some really impressive aircraft, a lot of which were very similar to famous US planes, and released a couple years after the US planes thanks to the cold war spy effort. Other cool stuff was some sputniks, some mini-test shuttles that were dropped from outside the atmosphere, and some bizarre amphibious vertical takeoff planes. (Check the Wikipedia entry for more details). We followed the museum up with a drive through the Russian countryside, lunch at a really odd Kazakhstani restaurant, and then 3+ hours of insufferable Moscow traffic to make it the 40km back to the hotel.

That evening Chris’ had a work dinner with his team that I got to tag along on. They’d booked dinner on a 4 hour boat ride that cruised through the heart of Moscow past a lot of famous sites and was made extra cool by the snow that started to fall over the lit up city. Good company, good conversation, good food, good view, and a really nice night to wind up 2 weeks of Moscow.

I was doing my best to have a positive outlook on Moscow, especially as I didn’t have any other Russian cities to compare it to or understand how the Russian cultural aspects influenced the city. But, now that I’ve left and can put it in perspective, I can’t say the city worth visiting: it’s grey, bleak, the people are mean, the police are ever-present and unpredictable, and there just isn’t a lot of joy to be found.

I do definitely understand better the Russians I’ve met having been here though. I’ve always struggled to connect with what I’ve taken as a shifty darkness, but now I can’t consider it that… it’s hard to consider someone unethical when you realize that the ethics of a culture shift, especially in a post-communist country where people have spent hundreds of years surviving only by getting what they can, by whatever means possible.

Let me finish with an example, which is a story I heard while in Moscow: There was an opposition journalist and editor-in-chief of a local newspaper named Mikhail Beketov who exposed corruption in government and was severely beaten to be point of being left wheelchair bound and unable to speak as a result. When the US State Department pressed Russia about human rights violations and the case, the Russian government announced an award to encourage whistle blowing of government corruption. The first winner who was held up as an example? The now disabled journalist in his wheelchair.

I’m sure that message from the government was heard loud and clear.
And in Russia, that’s business as usual…