Two weeks in Russia

Part of the Kremlin wall and Spassky Tower, Moscow, March 2019. This photo, and all others in this post, are by the author.

I have just returned from a two week trip to Russia, my first visit to the country since 2009, when I finished my posting there as BBC correspondent. It was also my longest time away from Russia since I first worked in Moscow as a TV news producer in 1991. On this trip, in addition to meetings with academic colleagues, and giving two lectures, I went to places which will feature in my next book, Assignment Moscow: Reporting Russia from Lenin to Putin. I am extremely grateful to the Society of Authors for the grant which funded my travel. This is a longer piece than I usually post here. It covers change in Russia, history, journalism, and personal reflection. This is part one of two. I will post part two tomorrow.

MOSCOW LOOKS CONFIDENT. It welcomes the visitor now with the self-assurance of a capital proud of how it looks and what it has. Arriving at Sheremetyevo Airport I was as impressed as I was obviously supposed to be. I first landed there in the summer of 1991 — the last summer of the Soviet Union — and the contrast could not be greater. In almost every way, that was another country. Gone was the drab lighting, the air tinged with the scent of boiled cabbage and the distinct, if distant, smell of Soviet cigarette smoke. Now the arrivals hall shone: spotless floors, sparklingly clean windows, quick and efficient passport control. There were more signs than ever in English – and in Chinese, too.

If there were any signs of the old days, they were rare enough to suggest that I was witnessing the end of trends from the last century. The taxi driver took pleasure in removing his seat belt as soon as we had passed the traffic policeman at the exit from the airport. He even had a spare seat-belt buckle which he attached in order to stop the irritating and noisy ticking and flickering of the car’s safety warning. The old Russian belief that a seat belt is a restrictive annoyance which can actually impede the driver still had its adherents.

The war memorial at Khimki – in the shape of three huge tank traps – was harder to spot by the road than once it had been. Since the end of socialism in Russia, this symbol of the Soviet Union’s greatest victory (marking the furthest point which the German invaders reached as they closed on Moscow in the fall of 1941) has been overshadowed by the symbols of consumerism – superstore sign after hypermarket sign—which now tower behind it.

I stayed in the Moscow hotel where I stayed during my first ever assignment in the summer of 1991. Its name had long since changed – from the ‘October’ (named for the 1917 revolution, when the Bolsheviks seized power) to the ‘Arbat’, but some of the rooms – and I got one, having requested their cheapest – still have the Soviet-era wood floors and furniture. I was especially pleased to get a room at the front of the hotel – as I had in 1991 – with a view of the foreign ministry from the window.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow, March 2019.

The shine of Sheremetyevo spread to the city centre. Moscow’s Mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, has made the Russian capital smart and clean. A burning rubbish bin outside Smolenskaya metro station made me wonder if that was still a common sight. It was not. In the late Soviet period, cigarette ends – discarded as their owners entered the public transport system – smouldered and smoked in the trash. This was the only time I saw it on this visit. There was not a single tiny piece of litter in the metro. Cleaners rode the escalators in pairs, polishing as they went. New trains and carriages carried Moscow’s millions of passengers quickly and punctually. Station names were also written in the Latin alphabet, that was new since I lived here; announcements made in English.

New Markets, New Words

The sweeping political changes of the last quarter century have been reflected in the Russian language. In the 1990s, ‘biznesmen’ (businessman) and ‘killer’ (hired assassin) were two additions. The first new word I noticed this time was ‘food court’: the English word transliterated into Cyrillic; the concept introduced in Moscow’s increasingly gentrified food markets. From 2006-2009, I lived near one such, Danilovsky Market, south of the city centre. I went back during this visit to see how it had changed.

The charming chaos of a Russian market had been swept away. I was reminded of the taunt opposing football fans flung at supporters of Chelsea and Manchester City when new, wealthy, owners changed their club’s fortunes on the field, and, supposedly, character too: ‘You’re not Chelsea anymore’. Danilovsky market was not Danilovsky market any more. A few of the stallholders looked like they might have made the transition, but they had been squeezed into corners by the advance of globalized good taste. Potatoes, still with the soil of mother Russia clinging to their skins, spilling out of sacks, and bloodied chopping blocks for butchering fowl and fish – all this was gone. Although any property this close to the city centre would – as in so many global capitals today – be eye-wateringly expensive, that did not mean its inhabitants were necessarily well-heeled. The prices in the market were London prices; Moscow’s salaries are not London ones. I cannot imagine this gentrification, good though it may look to a visitor like me, has been given an unadulterated welcome.

A coffee stall at Danilovsky Market, Moscow, March 2019.

Messages from History

Some things were reassuringly similar. The radio tower built nearby in the early Soviet period still dominates the area. Philip Jordan, in Moscow as correspondent of the News Chronicle during the Second World War, described in his 1942 memoir Russian Glory, ‘the great lattice tower of the Comintern Radio that hangs above the city like a minaret of the twentieth century’. He would recognize it today.

The Radio Tower, designed by Vladimir Gregorievich Shukhov, Shabolovka St., Moscow, March 2019.

Then, the radio tower was a beacon sending socialist propaganda to the world. The correspondents of that era were frustrated by the fact that often they were not permitted to file news until it had been on Radio Moscow – meaning that their home news desks had the story before they were allowed to offer it, and raising questions as to the value of their presence. Today, Moscow still sends its views out over the airwaves and internet connections: Russia Today (or RT as it now calls itself) and Sputnik have become symbols of a country which feels it has regained some of the status it lost when the superpower that was the Soviet Union fell apart – but the correspondents are at least allowed to compete.

Yet for all the ‘food courts’ with their sushi and espressos, for all the beer bars where bearded hipsters show off their inked arms as they serve craft ales, the appearance of internationalism is deceptive. Russia wants to be part of this global society, but only to an extent. The shining new streets of Moscow may impress the visitor, but if outsiders are the target audience at all, they are the secondary one. Muscovites and their fellow Russians are the people who are really supposed to be impressed – reassured that Russia is back where it belongs, and that Russia is best.

Every country has its patriotic pride, but in Russia this seems to have become a principle characteristic of official policy. The new metro trains are proudly made in Russia. During my visit, a televised competition ‘Leaders of Russia’ was followed nightly on the main TV news bulletin, Vremya (‘Time’). Prominent members of Russia’s political and business establishment (Mr Sobyanin among them) offered advice to young people seeking to become the country’s future elite. The prize was a million roubles (about $15,300; €13,500 or £11,600) to be spent on education, but only in Russia, not abroad. Vremya also offered news reports on how good Russian weapons were, even including the range of missiles imposed on a map of Europe, in case you didn’t get the idea.

A mural on a Moscow building. The writing says, ‘I defend my Motherland. 23rd February, Day of the Defender of the Fatherland’. Moscow, March 2019

Crimea Five Years On – No Regrets

Vremya also aired reports about the building of rail links between southern Russia, and Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. A very excited correspondent breathlessly described the construction of a rail link alongside the bridge for motor traffic, which was already open. My visit to Russia coincided with the fifth anniversary of the annexation. Political leaders lined up to express their enthusiasm: an event in Crimea on Friday 15th March drew the leaders of all the main factions in the Russian parliament, the State Duma.

Foreign guests were few, although television pictures showed the French politician, Thierry Mariani, offering, in broken Russian, a message of solidarity and support. It was warmly applauded. There was even more the next evening, when about half the 30-minute bulletin was devoted to celebrations of the welcoming (annexing) of Crimea as part of the Russian Federation: a long piece of public relations about infrastructure was followed by a another report on the visiting French politicians. Their presence may have impressed some sections of the domestic TV audience; to an outsider, the fact that the guests were not of a higher profile served as a reminder of the price that Russia has paid internationally for Crimea. That, though, was not an angle I saw addressed in any of the coverage.

The newsreader said that celebrations had been taking place across the country. I was in Volgograd that weekend. I arrived at the place where the event was happening about an hour after it had started. By then, the crowds were already dispersing. I could not say how many people had been there, but for a city of a million people, it seemed few. Opinion polls suggest that Russians still strongly support the annexation of Crimea, but, in Volgograd at least, normal weekend activities seemed to have proved a stronger draw than a political rally.

For Russian TV news, though, this was pretty much the only story for days – and there was more to come.

You can read part II here

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