Thursday, March 23, 2006

Waiting for change in modern Russia

Waiting for change in modern Russia
The fact that I agree with much of reporter Bridget Kendall's observations in this opinion column about Moscow and modern Russia, probably says as much about me (westerner) as it does about Russia.

Still, I found this to be an interesting article with many of the same questions that I find myself filled with each time I am leaving Russia. When I see all the neon, glitz, Казино, slot-clubs, sex-clubs, etc. I find myself momentarily agreeing with Ilya Glazunov. And then I realize this isn't what the West has sold or forced upon Russia, but some sort of crazed parody of the worst aspects of western culture - wildly and loudly exaggerated and imitated. Almost like Texas, Russian culture often seems to encourage the largest version of anything ... Russian-style.

This contrast of the new money and ridiculously escalating prices, with the conditions of the more typical working-class Russian (particularly outside of Moscow) really gives me pause. Are there two countries being simultaneously built here? The young and the ambitious of Moscow don't hesitate to leave the rest of the country behind. The American BMW-driving, brie-chomping yuppies of the 1980's had nothing on their 2006 Russian successors.
As the snow blows harder, a friend takes me to a new bar, promising a magnificent view over the city. We step into the cathedral-sized lobby of a glistening new hotel. Under the space-age chandelier, fish-like females in tight black scaly sequin dresses eye my old down jacket and clumpy boots with cold derision.

We swoop up 30 floors, and emerge into a circular bar perched high above Moscow like a flying saucer.

In deep, suede armchairs, more Russian beauties sip garish cocktails. Male cohorts in ridiculously pointed shoes whisper business instructions into their mobiles. And outside, the swirling snow dissolves the city lights into white mist.

This is the new Moscow of the super-rich. And it is not only a weird contrast with the past. It is a strange counterpoint to the rest of the country.

Go just a few stops on the commuter train, and you will find the same sagging little wooden houses in the midst of forests that have always been there, and the same gnarled residents, bent double from years of hauling water and splitting logs every day.

You cannot help wondering: has the high price of oil and gas really empowered Russia and restored the global clout so many Russians hanker for? Or like those snowstorms, is it a mirage, a deceptive covering?


Lyndon said...

The columnist's bit about going to the 30th-floor bar is a classic example of seeing what you want to see. I went there with my wife and a couple of friends just before new year's, and found the experience to be entirely unpretentious. Granted, we didn't sip on the "garish" cocktails because they all cost $20 - we stuck to tea and wine, but even though we hung out longer than the size of our tab probably gave us a right to, we were treated well by the staff, even though we were a bit rowdier than most of their usual guests.

And I'm no fan of the "ridiculously pointed shoes" either, but it seems like a cheap shot. One might just as well pay a visit to London and write about the "ridiculous, aggressively pink (or other pastel) shirts" that businessmen wear in that city. "Whisper business instructions" - ? If they were whispering, how does she know they weren't just lining up their date for the following evening? I know this is an opinion piece and so liberties can be taken, but this just doesn't seem fair.

The lobby had a cute gingerbread house display, I didn't even notice the "space-age chandelier." And really, what new hotel is not "glistening"? I agree that the contrast with the Russia of 20 years ago (where I also lived for several years) is astounding and can be jarring, and the contrasts between the glitz of Moscow and the poverty of the rest of the country are tragic in a certain sense. However, there are wealth disparities everywhere - for example, it's easy to imagine someone writing a piece about similar contrasts visible in cities like New York or Shanghai within a range of several metro stops. My point about the blinginess of Moscow is that at this point it's no longer something to be remarked on, it's just a fact of life. Just like in any other world capital, some people will enjoy it and some people will turn up their noses and say it's vulgar.

But the real money line from that column is, "'The biggest threat is from within, not abroad,' they say."

W. Shedd said...

Yes, I agree and noticed all those points - I actually chuckled a little bit at the "ridiculously pointed shoes" as it has been remarked to me that current American shoes all look like boots and are too heavy (and therefore bad for your health).

I've always managed to avoid the pricier places in Moscow and Russia - somehow didn't seem realistic to me. I probably over-romanticize what life in Russia should be like. I've always enjoyed some rustic cafe or nicer restaurant in a smaller city, to anything too garish in Moscow. Plus Katja just chokes on the prices in those places (when I think a restaurant price is "normal" compared to the US, she generally finds it much too expensive).

I do notice the contrasts in Russia and Moscow more strongly than in other places that I have travelled. I qualified that to some extent by citing that I am an westerner. Even so, leaving Moscow by train, I am struck by the heavy contrast between expensive dachas and dingy shacks, quaint fields and dumped piles of garbard, collapsed empty factories and new gasoline stations.

It is a culture in change and I agree with your remark on that last statement. But I don't believe most Russians see it that way.

Megan Case said...

I agree with Lyndon that one can be astonished by the difference between rich and poor in most any major city, but the thing about Russia is that there isn't nearly as much in the middle. Or maybe it's that the middle class is developing in a weird way, like the poet with the premium cat food in the article. I have lots of friends who live in almost squalid conditions yet own expensive computers and mobile phones, and it's still hard for me to wrap my American middle-class mind around it.