Aug 26, 2014

Третий Рим (Welcome to Moscow)

Moscow - the city that never sleeps!  That is to say, the city in which I never sleep.   As on previous trips, my flight across the Atlantic condensed the whole night into a few hours, which I spent wondering if I was sleeping or not and, after some time, wondering how long I'd been wondering that. My best guess is that I fell asleep right after sunset, woke up an hour later, right before sunrise, ate dinner, and then ate breakfast.  Then I landed in Frankfurt somewhere between 2:00 and 10:00 a.m., depending on who you asked - me, or a clock.  I'm writing now in Moscow, two days later, somewhere between 4 a.m. and noon.  In time, I will write a thorough and authoritative guide to the city as I have for Irkutsk and Maikop; this post is just to relay my first impression. And because I haven't slept, boy am I impressionable!


To understand the section of Moscow that I've seen, a single number will suffice - 75%  That's how much of Russia's total wealth is concentrated in the city of Moscow.  Of course, statistics can be deceiving, especially when I make them up.  But 75% feels true, and if somebody told me that, I would believe them.  It's not far off anyway, as you'll see in this mercifully brief tour of the downtown.

Moscow is arranged in a series of concentric rings, with Red Square and the Kremlin at the very center.

 


That second picture is from New Years 2008, but doesn't contradict what I said.  The Kremlin and Red Square lie at the very center of Moscow, and thus, the very center of Russia.  Swirling around this center is a terrible hyper-capitalist vortex; that's all I've really seen so far.  The rest of the country is organized in concentric rings, each one more remote, backwards and irrelevant, if you ask a Muscovite. The rings terminate roughly in Irkutsk to the East and Maikop to the South.  How far this blog has come!

This first jaunt around Moscow was also organized in concentric rings, though Red Square wasn't the center - even in my current state, I found the medieval cobblestone too unforgiving to sleep.  Instead, I slept as everybody sleeps in an ultra-rich future-land - in an LED-illuminated plastic sleeping-tube:



When I woke up, it was already somewhere between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m., so I went to check out the neighborhood at work.  By far the most notable feature of the block surrounding my tube was the concentration of banks, banks of every variety.

There were acronym banks - BBR, OTP, and MBA Moscow:

 

Half-name banks - Forabank, Sberbank, Rosbank, and Alfabank:

 
 





And full-name banks - Bank of Moscow and Russian Standard Bank:










Of at least a dozen banks on the block, only one seemed to have fallen on hard times - the unfortunately-named Masterbank:


Those signs are advertising space for rent, if that wasn't clear.

Banks, of course, are just one horseman of socialism's apocalypse - the other three are traffic, Papa John's, and Russian men in tracksuits, about my age, break-dancing to remixes of the Spice Girls in historic Gorky Park.  I photographed all of them, but they're not much to look at.  The terrible truth is, you all can see them back home, with perhaps one exception.

On the surface, Moscow's center seems to be a remix writ large - catchy Western hooks, chopped to pieces, sped up and played louder, and marketed to an audience that, for a time, doesn't know any better.   It also boasts the comforts and conveniences of any major Western city - crowds of babukshki are no longer the most convenient source for directions.  My tube had wi-fi.  There's enough money to tear down defunct buildings, remove the debris, and build more banks.

Destination: Irkutsk!

All of this reduced my shock/stress levels some, but also left me doubtful about maintaing an interesting blog for nine months.  The question quickly arose - has the original blog met its end, smothered by the pillow of capitalist modernity like its short-lived Finnish spin-off?

Probably not.  As it turns out, you can't drink a $20 cocktail on Red Square and stumble three steps outward without face-planting back into Russia.  I am renting a room well outside the inner rings, and it's the same as all past rooms - it even has my old sleepin' couch!

Maikop
Moscow
One needn't go all the way to Maikop to escape the vortex.  At home here, there's much I recognize, and with each passing hour, I'm even warming up to the center.  Like Russia itself, the blog will struggle to its feet.

My apologies for a half-formed post, there is more to come.  Please subscribe for email updates in the right sidebar.  As always, if you are already subscribed and would like to be removed from the list, you can simply change your email address.

Aug 20, 2014

Пролог (Prologue)

From the Associated Press:

"Aug 7, 2014 - MOSCOW - Dmitri A. Medvedev announced that Russia would ban all beef, pork, fruit, vegetables and dairy products from the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia and Norway for one year. 
'We hoped until the very last that our foreign colleagues would realize that sanctions are a dead end and that nobody needs them,' Mr. Medvedev said. 'Things have turned out in such a way that we have to implement retaliatory measures.' 
Russia depends heavily on imported foodstuffs — most of it from the West — particularly in the largest and most prosperous cities such as Moscow. In 2013 the EU's agricultural exports to Russia totaled 11.8 billion euros ($15.8 billion), while the U.S. Department of Agriculture says food and agricultural imports from the U.S. amounted to $1.3 billion. 
Medvedev argued that the ban would give Russian farmers, who have struggled to compete with Western products, a good chance to increase their market share. 
But experts said that local producers will find it hard to fill the gap left by the ban, as the nation's agricultural sector has continued to suffer from poor efficiency and shortage of funds."


Emphasis mine.