Moscow: Beautiful Architecture, Grumpy People

by francine Hardaway on June 20, 2014

Like everywhere else I’ve been, Moscow is full of surprises, the more so for me because I grew up in the Stalinist era when propaganda from both sides of the Cold War depicted Russia as a communist country in which no one was allowed to be rich and  starving people queued up for bread in the winter.  Today, judging from the number of shopping malls and high end shops I visited or passed on the streets, at least some people have enough money to buy Ermengildo  Zegna, Dior and Chanel. Sure I’d heard Russia had changed, but I was a bit unprepared for the amount of new high rise construction, the incredible historic restoration of old buildings like the Cafe Pushkin, the carefully preserved Stalinist art in the Metro stations, and the number of Bentleys and Mercedes in the streets. It’s one thing to read about oligarchs in the news and another to see them at the next table.

Walking through the streets of Moscow today is like walking through the streets of any well-tended Western city, except perhaps for the number of smokers.  Moscow still smokes, although a new law went into effect June 1 that prohibits smoking in bars and restaurants. The government is also considering a law that will ban canvas shoes, high heels, and ballerina flats because 40% of the population of Russia is also flat-footed. For the first time this year the military had to conscript flat-footed men because there weren’t enough able-footed recruits.

Trying to acclimate myself to the city, I walked through the streets of the Europa district past the Kievskaya Metro Station, which is faced with white marble and elaborately patterned ceramic tile, and whose plastered ceiling is decorated with frescoes by various artists depicting life in Ukraine.  A large mosaic at the end of the subway platform commemorates the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Russia and Ukraine, an especially poignant  touch today. Directly across from the station is a high end mall with six floors of clothing, an IMAX theatre, all the major European brands, a dozen cafes, bars, and restaurants, and a supermarket. The American big brands too — the GAP, Banana Republic, Levis, and even a premium Apple reseller, were there. And after a bit, I  even found the Starbucks.

A walking tour of Red Square, the Kremlin, the GUM (huge formerly state-owned department store turned into a mall), the KGB building and the Alexander Gardens convinced me that Moscow is indeed beautiful, especially its public statues, historic restorations and the ornate mid-century public buildings Stalin created to show the world that Russia was equal to Europe. The people may have been starving, but their environment was surely lavish.

That’s the problem with Moscow:  the people. Because they’ve repeatedly been sacrificed to political ambitions and showy infrastructure creations designed to impress the outside world  but not help them,  like the Moscow subway system and the Sochi Olympics,  they’re angry, and they’re rude. Even our  tour guide, a college grad who studied international relations, admitted that Muscovites really don’t care if they knock you over coming off the subway, or bump into you in the street. If you get in their way they scream at you, as they did at me when I was too slow getting off an escalator, and if they’re walking toward you and they walk into you, they’re unapologetic. You have to move over; they won’t. It’s as if they were all defending their personal spaces against centuries of interlopers, or proving their superior strength against civilian enemies.  But then they wonder why they are sanctioned during the World Cup and distrusted by much of the world.

They just don’t seem happy. They fight awful traffic,  inclement weather, and whimsical laws, so they must make up for it by being grumpy. I realize I’m drawing conclusions on incomplete evidence and stereotyping on the basis of four days. But I’ve been all over the world, and  usually when I visit places, I’m stunned by the lengths to which local people go to be nice to tourists and visitors. Rich with literary, theatrical, and political history, Moscow could be a top tourist destination if the people cared more about visitors.  No worries. Unlike, say, the Vietnamese, Muscovites won’t make you feel guilty with their hospitality.




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