Random Thoughts from Moscow (1)

Having recently returned from my first trip back to Moscow for a while, it is interesting to see how much has changed and what has not. With no particular order or claims to special wisdom, here are an initial couple of thoughts…

Police reform will take a long time. The new uniforms may be on their way and I saw the first handful of trucks and Fiat vans with Politsiya instead of Militsiya on the side, but there is little evidence of a more professional, public-service attitude, even amongst the myriad cadets deployed through Moscow around the Victory Day celebrations. Furthermore, for all the regular toll of senior officers sacked, tales abound of bribes being demanded precisely to ensure that officers get a clean bill of health and keep their jobs as well as the use of this process as a handy tool to purge officers seen as too close to local interests. To a considerable extent this is a purge to re-assert central control more than a cull of the egregiously incompetent or corrupt (although to be fair, a goodly number of greedy and stupid officers are being trimmed). Whereas security in Sheremetevo was much more efficient and punctilious than I had expected and was actually pretty impressive, elsewhere the usual Russian vice of form over function was too often in evidence: trios of cops in metro stations doing nothing but chat, metal detectors at entrance points to central Moscow but no one paying attention when they went off (maybe if I had looked more North Caucasian then someone might have bothered?), guards who feel that photographing government buildings is a greater threat than battered cars abandoned haphazardly on their corner (presumably the prospect of my photographic the GenProkuratura building was more alarming than a possible car bomb?)…

Corruption is alive and well. No one seems to have anything positive to say about the new rhetoric on fighting corruption, and certainly no one says that it is having any kind of impact. The opposition — such as it is — really misses a trick by concentrating on Putin and co, rather than the extent to which the level of institutionalized corruption is contributing to the high prices you pay for almost anything in Moscow. Grumble at the cost of a (rather nice, admittedly) hot chocolate and bliny at Shokoladnitsa? Think about how many rubles of that cover price go into keeping all kinds of bureaucrats and predators as sweet as the drinks.

How do you live in Moscow? It is ridiculously expensive in the main, and while there is a distinct class of ultra-rich (I’ve never seen so many Bentleys) as well as a growing well-to-do upper-middle class, it does raise the question of how ‘ordinary’ Muscovites cope. One answer is that they don’t eat out, shop a lot and the like, but to be honest there seemed to be a fairly democratic spread of conspicuous consumption, and even heading out into the working-class suburbs revealed crumbling apartment blocks but also consumer goods stores and cafes. Another, I suppose, is that they live with parents and take bribes. That’s the same irony as drove the underground economy in later Soviet times: to get anything you wanted you needed blat (personal connections and favors) and/or lots of cash, ideally hard currency. So you exploited the goods, services or access at your disposal for income to be able to afford to live; in the process you forced others to pay bribes, and they in turn had to make money from their positions to be able to afford that, forcing their clients/victims to play the same games, and so on…

But for all that, Moscow is more liveable now than ever. It’s expensive, it’s corrupt, it still has a raw edge that is very Moscow and driving still seems a competitive martial art, but nonetheless the city feels a lot more happy, more comfortable with itself than ever in my memory. There are green spaces and even a few benches, there are hipsterish loft-and-art-bar developments like the Red October factory make-over, and although it may reflect a Den Pobedy clear-out, there seemed fewer beggars and homeless bomzhy than in the past. It may be an artificial boom driven by hydrocarbons, a still-burstable bubble (how many of those massive new skyscrapers are occupied?), an anomaly or the result of Muscovites spending while they can and not worrying about the future when those oil prices fall, but regardless, it felt a lot more fun and welcoming than in the past.

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