Moscow: A City of Contrasts

Posted on October 18, 2011

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Apologies for the complete and utter lack of posts recently. I’ve been fairly busy doing client work of one form or another for the past month solid (and it’s still unremitting, so this will be a shortish post). However, whilst I’ve been doing all this work, I’ve also found the time to read a few articles about one of the most interesting cities I’ve visited, Moscow.

It’s an incredible city of contrasts, where you find monied and poor cheek by jowl next to each other. It does, like most major world cities, have its own unique ecosystem which you have to fully buy into to survive (though I’ll admit that only New York, to my mind, had a more powerful demand that you submit to its way of life than Moscow). Two articles demonstrate the essence of the city really well.

The first is The New Moscow by Gary Shteyngart, which tells of the post-Soviet Union difference between rich and poor. As part of my recent client work, I’ve actually been writing about Russia and its young people, and pretty much came to the same conclusion. There are those who are about my age (22) who have pretty much always lived under a radically vibrant and youthful democratic Russia (or at least the pretence of it). Their childhood was filled with the Wild West outlaw landgrabbing which has made people like Roman Abramovich incredibly rich, and so they feel they can go out and do anything. Then there are those who had their formative years under Communism but really came of age after glasnost (they’d be about 30 now). They know the grey world of pre-modern Russia, and so have much the same attitude: go out there and do what the hell you want because you’re free.

Shteyngart is a great writer, and it’s well worth reading this. Take this section for example:

As I fly into Moscow from Rome, the New World order is clear: middle-class Italians gesticulating up a storm in economy, slick Muscovites up front, chatting in hip, sullen tones over their iPads, their luggage bearing tags from Rome’s Hotel Hassler. I’ve never seen a man in his thirties pout so effectively with his designer lips when told of the absence of his favorite wine. […] The center of the Snob universe is Moscow’s former Red October (Krasniy Oktyabr) chocolate factory on the Bersenevskaya Embankment of the Moscow River. A red-brick fixture of central Moscow for over a century, this enormous complex, crisscrossed by walkways that bring to mind the industrial glamour of New York’s Meatpacking District, once perfumed this gritty city with its sweet chocolaty smells. Today it is at the heart of Moscow’s media elite, home not just to Snob but to the influential Kommersant daily, not to mention oligarch-funded Internet ventures such as Digital October, and an endless array of clubs and restaurants with names like Progressive Daddy and Belka: The First Non-Smoking Bar.

Next is Miriam Elder’s story for The Guardian about Moscow’s annual battle with the snow, which shows the other side of Russia. Crippled with bureaucracy and leftovers from the Communist era, nothing gets done. For example, to get a driving license in Russia, all you need to do is bribe your instructor with a few roubles. How did I learn this? Russia Today, the country’s English language news channel. A sample:

The new mayor, a longtime ally of Vladimir Putin, remains a nonentity after one year in office. Despite his origins – born and raised in Khanty- Mansiysk, in the darkest depths of Siberia – he also appears to lack much- needed knowledge on the science of snow removal. Sobyanin’s one tangible move as mayor has been to dig up many of the tarmac-like pavements that line Moscow’s main roads and replace them with cobblestones. They make for lovely summer strolling. And will likely turn the city into even more of an icetrap once the snow settles into their cracks for good. Navigating Moscow’s traffic-crazed streets is a stressful experience at the best of times – in winter, it’s downright exhausting.

It’s an interesting country, if nothing else.

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