The overwhelming impression I get of Moscow is that it is normal: advertizing, traffic, people, dress, customs, manners, commerce (lots and lots of commerce), shopping, monuments, museums. People are behaving as if they were not afraid. People are behaving like big city people do in Munich, Toronto and Sao Paulo. Getting on the tube and getting on home. Browsing in malls. Going to and from the gym.
The visa requirements are stringent. The Russian officials are sticklers for paperwork, but they seem to be human if there is an error. My visa had an erroneous entry, and I was sent to sit on a bench while they worked it out. Visions of being sent back to Ottawa without getting through the border went through my head. Also of being taken to mysterious places for long interrogations. Nothing is more disturbing than to be without one’s passport while foreign officials do unexplained things with it. In the end the bossman at the airport inspection station simply filled in a new visa for me. Note to visitors: read your visa carefully and check twice for errors. I thanked him and we parted with a smile and and a thank you: spasibo.
They are ripping up a large section of the sidewalks on Tsverskaya Boulevard, which leas into Red Square, to replace them with something grander and more suitable for pedestrians: flower beds, wider walkways, paving bricks. The upgrade involves massive amounts of machinery, most of it apparently German, lots of workers, and total disruption, so that everyone is walking on boards between fences decorated with pictures of writers and scientists from Russian history. Unlike Canada, the project will be done in four months this summer, and not be spread over two years.
Another sign of normality is The Moscow Times, where you can learn lessons in Russian etiquette, or read criticism of Putin, corruption, and ostentatious rich kids. I realize it is an English language publication, but it is good journalism.
The conference I attended was filled with Russian geeks and businessmen acting exactly like their European and American counterparts in the IT and Internet industries, looking for business, passing out cards, listening to lectures on how they handle denial of service attacks, transition to IPv6, and peer with one another’s networks.
I may have cause to change my mind by the time I leave, but my impression, superficial though it be, is that Russia has passed out of Communist fear-driven behaviour decisively. It must always be remembered, as Solzhenitsyn said, that the first and most serious victims of Communism were the Russians themselves. The rebound from that dark age continues. They need a hundred years more of peace and prosperity. I hope they get it.
I thought this quote from him to be particularly apt:
Today when we say the West we are already referring to the West and to Russia. We could use the word ‘modernity’ if we exclude Africa, and the Islamic world, and partially China.