Julia Reed in Moscow -
Earlier in October, Moscow was in the middle of an Indian summer. Autumn is the time to be in the city.
I was sitting in a one-room Lebanese cafe a seven-minute walk away from the Kremlin, customers coming in and out for a cigarette and then back again for a delicious plate of meze and a hookah. This well-known place with a shabby sign between a theatre and a museum competes with a series of newly opened trendy places that offer cuisines of the world, Georgian being the current favorite.
One wouldn’t guess where this was – it could be anywhere in the world. Moscow has truly gone global.
With its still reasonably affluent and young population, this robust city seems to be unaffected by Western sanctions, collapsing oil prices, the fragile ruble and by the hidden wars with Ukraine and in Syria. So what are Muscovites busy with?
They work and study in parallel, go to free lectures on art, society and psychology after work. They do yoga, run marathons for charity and go to the gym on a regular basis. They go to St Petersburg and Sochi for the weekend. Instead of French, they now buy very expensive Swiss and Tunisian cheeses on the internet. They sit in newly opened tiny wine and tapas bars scattered around the centre, trim their beards every fortnight in trendy barber shops and browse new boutiques with young Russian designers. State-of-the-art shopping malls keep being built all around the city.
The Russian internet is now offering excellent service for next-day deliveries of a wide range of reasonably priced and domestically produced shoes, clothes, gifts, textile and leather accessories, home goods, and even organic and farmers food. There is a noticeable rise in small businesses offering local goods and services.
And I haven’t even described the beautifully organized and renovated parks and variety and richness of Moscow’s cultural scene...
One might think I’m silly or naïve for writing how good life in Moscow is amidst Russia’s economic crisis and political dictatorship. And yes, the quality of life of the middle class in Moscow with their reasonable disposable incomes is a far cry from that of the rest of the Russian population.
Just recently the Moscow City Duma suggested the passing of a law to oblige Russians to look after their elderly family members. That way, the state would free itself from the obligation to pay decent pensions that would make senior citizens self-supporting. There is constant talk about raising the pension age, again, to relieve the burden from the state, so it is free to engage in world affairs and pursue its global ambitions.
There is nothing in common between what the state does and wants, and between how people, rich or poor, live their lives.
Little change on horizon
Not a lot in today’s Russian political climate suggests any possibilities for change. The opposition remains fragile, scarce and fragmented. There does not seem to be a united opinion on any of the issues, especially when it comes to elections, local or national. The opposition fight between themselves and fail in elections – just like they did in the historic city of Kostroma in September. There is increasing talk that elections cannot be won in the current environment.
The population appears completely indifferent to global affairs and to the war in Syria. At least with Ukraine there is pain that it is a “brotherly nation” we are fighting, whereas Syria did not appear to touch any hearts. If anything, some people influenced by what they see on Russian TV are proud of the recent Russian air attacks on Syria. “It’s a much better result than the Americans could ever produce,” cheers Alexei Semenov, a 50-year-old taxi driver.
“When was the last time you had to visit your local hospital? Should you not be more concerned with the poor state of Moscow’s hospitals, kindergartens or your mother’s pension?” I ask. He goes quiet, probably searching for an appropriate line from a TV programme, but it doesn’t come to him and he doesn’t know what to say.
Removed from the possibility of making any decisions about their future, the future of the country and the cities where they live, their focus is drawn to stories of Russian exceptionalism and the bad state of affairs in other countries.
Even a topic as banal as paid parking that spreads out from the centre to the rest of Moscow, a policy widely unpopular with the masses, has gathered just 30 people in a recent protest.
And amidst the general apathy, two stories illustrate that little has changed behind the veneer. In one, a healthy five-month-old baby in St Petersburg was taken away by immigration services from a young Tajik family who did not have their papers in order and put into a social care where he died the same night while the parents awaited deportation. In the other, a man died in the tax office of a small regional town. While the corpse waited, covered, for an hour and half to be collected by the ambulance services, work continued with people queuing around it to make their payments. Yet as he struts the world stage, President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings keep climbing, now at an eye-popping 90%.
“I have got time but there is nothing to do”, went a popular 1990s Russian song. It is no surprise that those who decided not to leave Russia to seek new opportunities resolved to spend this ‘limbo’ time educating, entertaining and relaxing in street cafes lit with the last rays of the Indian summer.
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