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Russia: A Reporter Returns To Moscow

  • Robert Parsons --> The Moskva Hotel being dismantled last summer (ITAR-TASS) RFE/RL correspondent Rob Parsons, who lived in Moscow throughout the 1990s, returns to find a city that is nearly unrecognizable to the one he last saw three years ago. An economy turbo-charged by rising oil prices has brought prosperity and growing confidence, but has it made Russia a more open society?

MOSCOW, June 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- There's a swagger in the step of Muscovites, heads held high and chests puffed out. It feels again like the metropolis of a powerful state, with a rising middle class and renewed civic pride. The city looks smarter, cleaner -- and in the midst of a property boom that is showing no signs of letting up.

Moscow is filled with the sound of construction -- buildings going up and buildings coming down.

The city is refashioning itself -- shedding the shabby remnants of its recent Soviet past.

Transformation Evident

Whatever his faults, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is transforming his city: the potholes that crater most post-Soviet cities are all but gone, gleaming shopping malls are sprouting up all over the city, fountains glisten in the sunshine, on downtown Kamergersky Pereulok there are so many sidewalk cafes you could imagine yourself in Paris, a new ring road has eased some of the city's catastrophic traffic problems and a new one is planned.

Across the road from the State Duma on Okhotny Ryad, where once stood the stolid facade of the Moskva Hotel, there is now an empty space, filled by cranes and the relentless rattle and roar of digging machines.

The beginning of demolition work at the Rossia Hotel on Red Square in March (TASS)

This was once the meeting place of the Communist Party and government elite from the far-flung republics of the Soviet Union. I was once treated to lunch in the hotel's more-than-passable restaurant by the Georgian finance minister -- a man who certainly understood the value of money.

And outside on the pavement -- whatever the weather and whatever the time of year -- prostitutes plied their trade in full view of the deputies gathering just across the street.

Now the Moskva has gone and with it the girls and their minders. In their place -- a giant technicolor poster that stretches fully 60 meters and advertises the miraculous wonders of a Japanese camera.

Just around the corner at the foot of Tverskaya Ulitsa, the glass front of another monument to Soviet bad taste has also disappeared. The Intourist Hotel had few redeeming graces beyond a spectacular rooftop view of the Kremlin and Red Square.

And now, across the other side of Red Square, the hideous and monumental Rossia Hotel is wrapped up in its demolition clothes and about to meet the same fate.

Built in 1964-67, in the early years of Leonid Brezhnev's interminable reign, the Rossia was described recently by Mayor Luzhkov as "a dull, faceless box of steel and concrete."

In truth that does not do full justice to the horrors of a building that had more than 2,700 cockroach-infested rooms, occupied a space the size of 20 soccer fields, and was until recently the biggest hotel in the world. To my embarrassment, I once got lost in its labyrinthine corridors when I stayed there as a guide for Scottish tourists in the 1980s.

In its place, Luzhkov intends to erect an upmarket complex of hotels, shops, and offices -- yet another temple to the Muscovite Mammon. The Russian capital has become not just a city of consumption but of conspicuous consumption.

Rich Playground

A loudspeaker outside a restaurant in a central Moscow street summons the ravenous legions of the city to gorge their stomachs: "Sushi, sushi, and then another 45 dishes, including exquisite desserts. An ocean of beer, borne by a fresh wave: Zhigulovskoye, Baltiiskoye, and Kharkovskoye beer and, once again, food! Lots of food, a sea of food. Eat! Eat! And eat some more!"

An exhibition of luxury goods in Moscow (TASS file photo)

The unctuous tones did nothing for my appetite but were clearly effective. Lured by a promise to eat until they dropped, customers were queuing at the door.

It's only a few years since Moscow was a culinary desert, but today eating out is becoming part of the lifestyle.

For all the institutional and constitutional reforms of the last 15 years, it is not a country either that appears consumed by a desire for greater democratization.

But for the rich, at least, restaurants and clubs are as much about personal display as the quality of the food.

I sat in a restaurant with a friend one night and watched a succession of young, expensively dressed men, dripping jewelry and handbags, gather like peacocks for an evening's display. Behind them, at a distance of a few paces, lurked their bodyguards. At their sides, but excluded from all conversation, their startlingly beautiful women.

The growing self-confidence is pumped up by a massive oil-fueled economic surge. After years of feeling powerless and unwanted, Russians know that they count for something again. The world can't function without their oil and gas.

The Russian Resurgence

This suggests the new Russia will be a prickly partner. There is still a boiling resentment left over from the long years of post-Soviet collapse and humiliation.

The new Russia is not at all what the West had hoped to see emerge from the debris of the Soviet Union.

For all the institutional and constitutional reforms of the last 15 years, it is not a country either that appears consumed by a desire for greater democratization. Western critics may rail at atrocities carried out by Russia's armed forces in Chechnya, at suppression of human rights, at the stifling of the media and NGOs -- but these are issues that appear to leave most Russians largely unmoved.

In Moscow, I attended a conference of mostly young Russian journalists on the question of defending journalists' rights. I expected a chorus of discontent but did not find it. Of course, there were complaints about the difficulties they faced in carrying out their profession -- among them censorship and threats of violence -- but there was also an acceptance of the Putin model of governance.

I asked one who he thought had been responsible for the chain of apartment bombings just before Vladimir Putin's election as prime minister in 1999. "The FSB, of course," he told me, without a moment's hesitation, referring to the Federal Security Service, the successors of the KGB.

"Sometimes," he went on, "the state has to do such things to protect itself. It was a smart move."

The message he and his colleagues seemed intent on making was that the state had to come first. And if in the process the flow of information had to suffer, well, so be it.

Different Priorities

Oleg Panfilov is the director of the Center for Extreme Journalism, an organization devoted to defending journalists' rights in Russia. He told me that most of the journalists he met still held to the traditional notion that strong state control was necessary for Russia to function normally. In this context, he explained, the rights of journalists figured low on their list of priorities.

Oleg Panfilov (RFE/RL file photo)

"I think Russian journalists have always put their rights as journalists third or fourth place in their list of priorities," Panfilov said. "The main thing is money. So, now, when state policy is changing and with all these bans, many journalists don't care what they write or for whom they write, just so long as they get paid."

And if Nikolai Svanidze, one of Russia's best-known television presenters, is to be believed, the public doesn't care much either. During a debate to mark the start of the annual conference of the World Association of Newspapers, held earlier this month in Moscow, he claimed the public had grown weary of pluralism.

The growing self-confidence is pumped up by a massive oil-fueled economic surge. After years of feeling powerless and unwanted, Russians know that they count for something again. The world can't function without their oil and gas.

Russians, he said, found it tiring to have a choice. "They don't want either/or," he said, in justification for the bland, homogenous news output on Russian television, "they want to know exactly what's going on and what to do about it."

The same cynicism seems to follow you everywhere. I got a lift one day with a middle-aged man with a penchant for Beatles songs. "Close your eyes and I'll miss you, tomorrow I'll kiss you, remember I'll always be true," he crooned. And this was just the start.

As he cruised the streets in his unlicensed taxi, he told me that his was the generation of love, but now he was disaffected and disillusioned. All he was interested in was making a living.

And, in truth, there seems little place for the sort of innocence he was singing about in today's bristling, prickly new Russia.

Turn on the television or flick through the DVDs on sale in Moscow's underground kiosks and you're overwhelmed by images of violence and muscular revenge.

"Devyataya Rota," or "9th Company," is one of the biggest box-office earners of all time in Russia. Directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk, himself the son of a famous Soviet film director, "9th Company" was such a success last year that Putin himself arranged for a private screening at his Moscow residence.

It's set in the final months of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan and follows the fortunes of a group of conscripts.

The film preaches the tough, unsentimental, no-compromise patriotic values that young Russians now seem to hold so high -- even if, as in the film, that means torching an entire Afghan village because one Soviet soldier gets shot there.

Reclusive Russia

Manana Aslamazyan is the director of Internews Russia, one of the country's most successful NGOs and a respected figure in Russian television. She describes herself as an optimist and argues that, for all the setbacks of recent years, civil society in Russia is vibrant and growing. But she is disturbed by what she sees as Russians' growing introversion.

A Russian NGO conducts a needle-exchange program (courtesy photo)

"Even though we feel more sure of ourselves and wanted, apparently, to integrate into the overall world community as a free and equal partner, we are retreating even more into ourselves," Aslamazyan said. "It's as if we have some sort of strange policy of isolation. We say we are strong and by that constantly seek to insult the countries around us. Unfortunately, wealth has not made us more open. We've become rich but we've also become more petty in our relations with others. That's sad."

More petty and more intolerant. Institutionalized racism is one of the more ugly offshoots of the in-your-face patriotism of the new Russia. A report published in Moscow this month said blacks, Asians, and dark-skinned peoples from the Northern Caucasus region of Russia were 21 times more likely to be stopped by the police in the capital than whites.

When I was in Moscow, seven Tajik students were beaten up in their hostel by men it is suspected have links to the police. Violent attacks on foreigners have become a disturbing commonplace of Russian life.

The image Russia projects to the world appears increasingly contradictory. On the one hand vibrant, dynamic, determined to play a leading role on the world stage. Yet on the other, remote, inward-looking, suspicious of others' motives, and quick to take offence. The confidence of the state, like that of its people, is still no more than skin deep.

Russia And The West


COOPERATION, CONFLICT, CONFRONTATION: Relations between Russia and the West are notoriously volatile. "To see the kind of relationship that presidents Bush and Putin have developed and to see Russia firmly anchored in the West, that's really a dream of 300 years, not just of the post-Cold War era," then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said in May 2002.
But observers have increasingly called into question the extent of the shared values between Russia and the West, particularly on issues relating to the transformations going on in other former Soviet countries.


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