A Dip into Moscow: Behind the Not-So-Iron Curtain

Moscow Walls

I chose to live in Moscow, Russia due to the compromise it allowed me: I did not have to go back to living in the US, but at the same time I would be in an environment I believed would be more familiar to my Western sensibilities. After the wild life and times of being in Putian, China, I felt myself in need of a breather.

As many Americans might, I had certain reservations about the country, ideas I had unconsciously assimilated into my opinion of the country, formed from news reports and YouTube dashcam videos. But I went for it, and am glad that I did. Two years later, I’m back in the comfort of the US, writing this amidst efforts of sorting out where I will fly off to next. Thus, a brief take on my years in the motherland while I am trying my damndest to escape my own.

Note: I don’t quite have photos to fit the themes of my post, so just enjoy some interspersed ones from my time over there, with no particular order to them)

Saint Petersburg Russia
Like this…in St. Petersburg

Life…Nonstop

Moscow is dense. And the action is constant. Millions of people from all over the world, packed into countless high-rises, every room occupied. Foot traffic is constant through the city center. Wheel traffic as well. Languages fly around in colorful variety. Advertisements for a new phone light up a building shaped like the very phone it is promoting. Museums. Businesses. Shop. Apothecary. Shop. Apothecary. Ad infinitum, or so it seems at times. Busses rattle their way from stop to stop. And the ground rumbles as the metro trains hurtle through the darkness beneath the streets.

Bolshoy Theater Moscow
                And a glowing Bolshoy Theater

New York may be considered the city that never sleeps, but it has never rubbed shoulders with Moscow, where bars are open all night, serving alcohol until you stagger over to the metro as it opens at 6:30 in the morning and ride your drunk ass home. Happy hours from 3-6am make sure the crowd doesn’t thin out too much.

No better place to chat with a balding, lonely expat over a beer as the sun comes up than at Papa’s on Nikolskaya. Feel your gut churn a bit as he eyes the Russian girls half his age at the table across the aisle. Sense the muted tap his toes make to the rhythm of a song that he’ll never have the guts to dance to. Leave him there and do what he can’t and try not to imagine if you’ll end up like that one day too.

Not yet though.

Life…Intensified

My first Russian winter got down to around -20C. That is 56 degrees of Celsius colder than a human body. Cold enough to kill, and indeed it does for those unfortunate enough to pass out drunk and be buried beneath the snows.

I was told this was a mild winter.

I was told that this air, searing my lungs with its frigidity, was…mild. I strapped on my layers and went with it.

My second winter there, I saw what they meant as the temperature shivered its way down to -30C.

Moscow Winter
           A somewhat less mild winter.

This is a people who have been living through this cycle of seasons for hundreds of years. And damn does it show.

In general, Russians are thought by Americans to be wild, crazy, intense, bear-riding, mad folk. While I did not see a bear, saddled or otherwise, I did see a people who trudge through a history interwoven with bloody wars, revolutions, and hardships and have emerged…intact.

For many of them, this seems to manifest in a begrudging acceptance of life. In others, resentment. In yet others, admirable persistence. There is not one set reaction, but in general, the Russian spirit feels one of intensity, though what direction that intensity may take can be divergent. There is a great deal of discontent and anger in the country, but there is also a not insignificant amount of loyalty and perseverance, and begrudged optimism.

Life…Unchecked

Another assumption that insinuated itself into my perceptions of Russia before living there was that the police force was corrupt, ready to take your money, and everywhere.

Turns out those are all true. Just not exactly in the way I had anticipated.

Is there corruption? Sure. So too in any police force. At least Russian cops don’t seem to be murdering, on a daily basis, the citizens they are meant to protect.

Can they be bribed? Yes. And from what I’m told it works out…somewhat well for both parties. Caught with drugs? Fork over your savings and avoid prison. Simple as that.

Everywhere? Yes. Their presence is felt all over the city. But, they don’t seem to do all that much. I saw occasional passport stops for those who look like foreigners. Shuffling the drunks out of metro entrances. Directing traffic in construction areas…maybe.

Russian Prison in Moscow
        Not putting me in a Russian prison.

But life in Moscow seemed to me mostly unchecked. We could go bungee jumping off an abandoned hospital and no sirens sound to kill the party. I could climb up the side of a building under construction in the city center and no one gives it a second look. Cars barely follow driving laws. Pedestrians cross streets, highways, interstates with no repercussions (so long as they understand the principles of Frogger). Drinking in public is common. And the list goes on. Yet the police patrol, and I never knew exactly what they were up to.

Been quite a change adapting to the police presence in the US for this past week. More on that some other time though.

Globalized…

With globalization, and from what I’ve seen in the places I’ve been, cities are becoming less of what makes them unique, and more just…well, another city. That is, unless you keep your eye on the right details.

A stroll through Moscow will show you Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, McDonalds and Burger King, H&M and Zara, billboards presenting Hollywood blockbusters, fixed gear bikes with mustachioed riders, walls, windows, and people.

The more I see of the world, the more I feel the immediate effects of global industries. Of these massive consumer complexes slowly blanketing the entirety of the market in lands as geographically removed from the source as possible.

But, people remain people. Just because the logo is familiar, does not mean it is the same thing as at home. The buildings, their colors, their shapes, their products matter much less than the people operating within them. People who make traveling worth doing.

That is the point of it all for me really: to see people and how you are the same and how you are different, and to just know that there are countless more out there going about their days, living in worlds that you could not begin to fathom…until you go live with them.

And so it was the case with Moscow, capital of the Russian Federation and place where I learned the dangers of skinny jeans in (a real) winter.

Moscow kindergarten
And the joys of traditional garments.