I managed to make it back to Moscow for a short stint. It has changed a lot and I am quite fascinated by its many contradictions. I also couldn’t help but notice that it’s been almost exactly 100 years since the October revolution, so it’s interesting to take snapshot of where this society is after its big experiment with socialism.
Of course, the Revolution actually happened in what we would call November, but all the same, there was nothing about it. No banners, no meetings, nothing on TV. Just the odd weathered sculpture of Lenin here and there.
1. People are surprisingly chilled out
Compared to 10 years ago, people on the street have an air of calm about them. It could be that I spent a lot of my time going to touristy places, but it seems to be more than that. One’s mind immediately goes to the economic situation as the explanation — but that just doesn’t add up.
In the naughties, with oil prices firmly above $100 and more favourable international politics, you had to always keep your guard up. As in, you had to watch what is going on around you or you would have to fight to get things done right. You would get skipped in the queue, you mightn’t get the right change, one of the apples in the bag you bought at the market would be gone off – minor stuff, but it’s very draining. I remember approaching a shop door as a 13 year old girl. It was a glass door, so I could see that on the other side a man was nearing it too, much faster than I was. Then he stopped and just stood there. I opened the door to go through and he nearly knocked me off my feet with the words “How can people be so slow!” What the actual fk?! Anyway, that’s just anecdote to illustrate what I mean when I say you have to keep your guard up.
The naughties, however, was a time when the country was swimming in money. Now, with the sanctions, the rock bottom oil prices, the exchange rate the way it is, with the last remnants of unreplaced Soviet industry disintegrating, it seems that the macro economic situation is very gloomy. Somehow the people don’t mind. Maybe there is less inequality among the people who have lived there for a long time? As in, everyone’s life is worse, but there is less flashiness that grates on people’s nerves? I don’t honestly know. Talking to taxi drivers is always a good way to guage what’s current, only in Russia they’re not very talkative…
2. The silent but telling taxi drivers
A 40 km ride cost me 15 euro.
40 km. 15 euro. That’s 24 miles for $17.
How?! In Ireland, it would cost at least 50 euro.
The answer is as follows.
1. Petrol is much cheaper. In Ireland, unleaded petrol is 1.36 euro. In Moscow, it’s 0.68 euro. That’s exactly half price. And it’s not just selling below market price, Irish prices attract duties and taxes and whatever else.
2. Labour is much cheaper. You know where this is going…
Russian demographics are very difficult to figure out. People don’t trust the census gatherers, so many just wouldn’t participate in the census. The 2010 official population of “natives” is 10.5 million. Plus 1.8 million legally resident immigrants. The estimated number of undocumented immigrants is a million.
My feeling (that’s very subjective, I know, but still) is that the number of people from the former Soviet republics has grown exponentially in the last two years. I have taken seven YandexTaxi rides and six times I had a driver who had clearly moved here within a year or two. They don’t really talk to you — they’re there to do a job. They visibly rely on the satnav lady. I fear to consider how much they are paid.
At one point we were passing a metro depot and there was an advert for the vacancy of a cleaner. The staring salary was 22,000 rubles a month. That’s 325 euro or $385. Per month. I asked my mam about it and she wasn’t even sure that people get paid the nominal amount even, which brings me onto accounting tricks…
3. Fine cuisine with a side of accounting tricks
If you happen upon a restaurant in Moscow and it’s in any way decent, chances are it belongs to a man by the name of Arkadi Novikov. It’s actually scary how many restaurants he holds. They are all themed and well decorated. The food is generally very good. And for what they are, they are very cheap.
Characteristically, about half of the floor staff strike me as recent additions to Moscow’s population, coming from those same couple of countries.
The accounting trick isn’t really a trick at all, it’s just stealing. We were brought a bill for 2000 roubles and got a receipt for 500 roubles. The super friendly central Asian man must have been counting on our tiredness and fondness for beer to not notice. Mr Novikov, I am sure, will notice. I guess if you are attracting clients with low prices and that comes from low extremely low labour costs, you have to expect this kind of thing to go on. A far cry from socialism…
4. Zaryadye Park: 350 million euro gone where exactly?
The most recent addition to the Kremlin area is a park. It has a pretty cool floating bridge. A bridge that brings you where you came from – you can reflect on the metaphor…
There used to be an old hotel where the park is now. The original budget for the park was approximately 90 million euro, but it ended up costing 350 million (converted based on the Russian Wikipedia page). I am not much of an architect or developer, but I really struggle to see how they spent so much money on a park… More accounting tricks? It did, of course, underwhelm me given the amount of publicity it got. I also heard that the translations are all wrong. The sign for Red Square is in Russian, English and Chinese. The Chinese translation apparently reads Red Sausage. Oh well.
On the other hand, I was very impressed with this feat of Russian design and engineering (not in Zaryadye, it’s in a park called Neskuchnii Sad):
You wouldn’t want to have poor depth perception walking down this stairs and I am not sure how functional it would be when it’s covered in ice in winter, but the idea is pretty cool. And then there are hardy Russian roses that manage to blossom in cold October:
5. There is a wake boarding station right off the Red Square
The wake boarders do impressive stuff to blasting rap music a few hundred metres from comrade Lenin’s tomb. Interesting changes.
6. Red squirrels are doing well
They come over and ask for food. How cute. People must be treating them kindly then. I didn’t see any of this 10 years ago. Red squirrels are native to Ireland, but were outcompeted by the more adapted Grey squirrel. Most Irish people won’t have seen a red squirrel, but if they can do well in the middle of Moscow, I am reassured they will do just fine.
7. Cosmonauts are still in high esteem
A random children’s playground. There was a little banner to say that this was built after a “mini-referendum”: as in people voted on the theme of their local playground.
8. There is no fresh juice anywhere
I really struggled to find not from concentrate juice anywhere. I struggled to find this bottle and it had a security tag on it in the shop! I wanted orange juice, but could only get apple or pineapple. You can get actual fresh juice, but bottled fresh juice is a rare find. A business opportunity for any busy beavers, though I do recall Tropicana being available some years ago. I wonder what made them leave.
Ostrich eggs and escargot, on the other hand, are an occupied niche:
What to make of it all?
As we can see, capitalism is hard at work despite the socialist dream. The most disadvantaged people of 1917 were the native peasants and factory workers. In 2017, they are more ethnically diverse and still powering the economy.
I have also travelled out towards the Volga and saw some interesting things I will describe soon!