Saturday, October 11, 2014

Moscow -- First Impressions

It's been more than a week since I arrived in Russia, finally. For the first time. Yes. Ever. I'd never been to Moscow before (except for agonizing hours in the airport transit area, that is). It is even more exciting and intriguing to be here at such a time, as the region undergoes massive and rapid changes (crashing and burning?) and as the Iron Curtain seems to be coming back down.

I'm here for work -- dissertation research. But given the circumstances, I have decided to undertake an exploration of the city, as well (which, I am told, is so different from the rest of the country that it should be considered an independent republic within the greater Federation). Participant observation, if you will.

St. Basil's Cathedral. Gorgeous at any time of the day. (All photos are my own)

It is funny how familiar Moscow seems sometimes. I don't know if it's all those stories I heard from my grandma's childhood, countless hours spent reading about Russia and Russians, or just the good ol' Soviet movies. But yes, now that my brain has finally switched back to speaking primarily Russian, the place doesn't seem alien at all.

But then, again, first impressions are often simplistic, if not wrong. Here are a few interesting, sad, amusing, and perhaps all too ordinary observations from these past ten days:

1. Humongous and fast-paced --  There are estimated 12 million people living here (city + the immediate area), and everyone is usually rushing somewhere. I have not been to the megalopolises of Asia, so my perspective might be too limited here... but one attempt of getting on the escalator during rush hour will assure you that the estimates of ~ 9 million people using the Moscow metro every day are not exaggerated. Not to mention that you might drive for two hours, and still be in the city.

2. Gorgeous -- It's interesting to see how much of the historical coziness and Soviet grandeur Moscow has managed to retain. Yes, the unabashed capitalism of the post-Soviet period has left its mark, but it is completely normal to stumble upon a little church in the backyard of a huge 'Khruschevka', or turn off a modernistic avenue to find yourself in a little cute street, with buildings dating back to the 19th century. Then, of course, there's all the Soviet symbolism, still alive and well (not just in the public discourse, but also) on buildings and in parks.

 The Red Square is actually much smaller than it seems on TV.. :)

3. Diverse -- It was (still is?) an imperial capital, after all. Perhaps, that is also why it's so easy to blend in here. You just have to speak the language. Preferably, with no accent. Because, latent (or not so latent) racism is a part of everyday life. The myth of "immigrants taking over our jobs" is very prominent. The picture might be getting a little more complex these days (with Ukraine and all), when political stereotypes are increasingly trumping racial ones. And yet, while on the individual level Muscovites are very friendly and welcoming regardless of background, one should not expect any smiles or helpful directions from random people on the street.

 An Armenian-owned restaurant, poking fun at the intolerance of immigrants. The grandma is priceless!

4. Expensive -- It is entirely possible to spend more than $100 on a meal (yes, per person) in a low-to-mid-range restaurant. Funny - and also, very sad - that some people may earn a little over that in a week, all within meters of each other. But, as a friend put it, if you get sufficiently far up, all the political, social, etc. problems and issues seem to be only minor inconveniences that you can either ignore, or avoid entirely by acquiring, say, an apartment in downtown Paris.

Iberian Gate to the Red Square.

5. Sanctions? What sanctions? -- During the first couple of days, I was going into stores half-expecting to see empty shelves and rotten produce. But Moscow would have none of that. The variety of salami and ham is dazzling, as is that of the cheeses, beers, wines... you name it. Yes, perhaps there are a few items that a few people might miss now and then, but this is to say that the situation is no where near dire enough for them to be out on the streets, protesting against the government. In any event, Moscow would probably be the last to feel any impact of the shortages -- if there really are any. Inflation, however, is a different matter. Over the past week alone, the dollar went up by a full ruble. Oil prices have plummeted. Economic forecasts have grown even more dire. It will probably take a while for the reality to fully sink in...

Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

More, later.

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