Moscow is a masculine city. It has muscle. It is an exploding powerhouse of opportunity held together by threads of personal energy and ambition.
It is a cocoon of lives stacked twenty stories high, living the happiness and sins of people anywhere, only at the extremes Russians are so capable of. Moscow hardly sleeps. It has a burly aggressiveness unique in Europe. In time, Moscow is destined to be one of the great cities of Europe. The one word that describes Moscow is power.
Moscow is a city of dogs. There are traditionally two classes. One can be seen in vagabond packs or stalking alone, scheming to survive, begging, much like the city’s underclass inhabitants. This disenfranchised class lurks around the apartment blocks sniffing the garbage for anything to swallow. The other is the canine elite, who walk their masters, regardless of rank, in the parks each morning and evening. But today, like with the human citizens of that great city, there is a growing middle class. We have seen and heard all about the independent canine entrepreneurs who ride the Moscow subway to do their shopping and other business. It’s like that with the people, too.
The pace of Moscow, with its speed, ambition, and noise, frightens the regional dweller. Moscow is so big that even its power politics get lost in the complex den of interests and desires. For that reason it may be the easiest city in which to succeed. Because so much is going on, a newcomer can gain a respectable level of success before anyone notices and tries to pull him down.
People who know Russian today speak of “Moscow” and “Russia.” Moscow is one thing, and all the rest is lumped into “Russia.” It’s important to know the difference between Moscow, St. Petersburg (it’s like the difference between dogs and cats), the regional cities, and the much loved countryside with it dachas and shashlik.
With an energy unmatched anywhere else in Russia, Moscow is a sprawling, brawling, dynamic throng of eleven million people embracing dozens of races, speaking scores of different tongues and struggling to make enough rubles to survive. Not only are there two Russias, there are two Moscows, one whose people thrive and one whose people strive to survive. With the recent demise of the long-time Mayor Luzhkov the city may change some now, but the momentum is continual. Luzhkov, a troll of a man, bald, but with a hundred caps and never a smile, ran the city with a toughness that Chicago’s Mayor Daly would have envied. While in the squares stand great poets and composers, Luzhkov erected wild sci-fi images of Russian heroes.
Architecturally, Moscow is not exactly the gray place I had imagined when I first arrived. It lacks elegant 18th-century landmarks because Peter the Great ordered all the architects and the nobility of that period to restrict their skills to his new St. Petersburg. But Moscow is still filled with 14th-17th-century buildings, walls, and churches. Of the 19th century, there is evidence of the nobility of that time in its palaces and gardens. In the Silver Age of Russian Art (1894-1917), Feodor Shekhtel designed some of the most graceful of Art Nouveau buildings, or Art Moderne as the Russians call it. Yes, there are also the Stalin skyscrapers, I suggest, to replace the spires of the churches he destroyed. You get used to them, and they become a symbol in a sense Stalin did not foresee.
While the old is preserved in the center, the city is expanding outward and upward at an astonishing rate. Costs have skyrocketed, too. Moscow is repeatedly listed as the most expensive city in the world for the foreign resident.
But Moscow is not just a city of power, politics, and with one of the world’s best subway lines. It also is a city of great art. There is the Bolshoi, and while it has slipped from its legendary fame, it is still world class. In addition, the new orchestras, ballet troupes, and opera houses give the cultured Muscovites a growing choice. There is no shortage of artistic talent in this country. Plays by Valery Fokin and Konstantin Raiken or their protégés are unforgettable. There are concerts by the big orchestras and the excitement of smaller ones, like the Chamber Orchestra Kremlin, on whose board I have the honor and fun to serve.
Then there is the other Moscow, a tough, sometimes violent cauldron of aggressive competition, of men betting their lives on being cleverer than the next guy and hauling their dollars into offshore banks. The traffic jams astound even those of us from Los Angeles. Moscow drivers surely are ex-MIG pilots or self-important bureaucrats with blue flashing lights on the roofs of their Mercedes. It is a city not built for cars, and more families today have two cars to park on the sidewalks at night.
Moscow is the heart of Muscovy and the center of Orthodoxy. The Kremlin in the center of Moscow is where for centuries the contestants for power have battled like gladiators, before Peter the Great moved the throne to St. Petersburg. While Moscow is located relatively far from the edge of European influences, the thousands of foreigners living and working there now, and the daily ties to the world centers via the Internet, the airlines, television and personal visits, are dragging it into the modern age. And it is not a reluctant traveler. In spite of all the forces that try to pull it back into Muscovy of old, Moscow strives to be not just a part of, but a leader in the real world: on its own terms to be sure. As the center of Eurasia, it is the place to be. The comments below apply only more so today.
“Moscow, breathing fire like a human volcano with its smoldering lava of passion, ambition and politics, its hurly-burly of meetings and entertainment. Moscow seethes and bubbles and gasps for air. It’s always thirsting for something new, the newest events, the latest sensation. Everyone wants to be the first to know. It’s the rhythm of life today.”
Svetlana Alliluevya (b. 1925), Russian writer. Twenty Letters to a Friend, “Introduction” (1967; first published 1963).
The column is about the ideas and stories generated from the 20 years the author spent living and doing business in Russia. Often about conflict and resolution, these tales at times reveal the “third side of the Russian coin.” Based on direct involvement and from observations at a safe distance, the author relates his experiences with respect, satire and humor.
Frederick Andresen is an international businessman and writer with a lifetime of intercultural experience in Asia and for the last twenty years in Russia. He now lives in California and is President of the Los Angeles/St. Petersburg Sister City. While still involved in Russian business, he also devotes time to the arts and his writing, being author of “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia” and historical novellas.