Moscow. Being in Russia’s capital provides a perspective impossible to acquire through the news. Contrary to popular belief, the Internet doesn’t bring us closer together. Instead, via the Internet Russia exists as mystified, mediated through the ghastly stories that both the Russian and Western media are obsessed with. It is only after being here a few days do the images of the culture industry, pounded so forcefully into an observer’s consciousness begin to disperse like a fog. Granted, Russia still doesn’t appear in total focus–that is impossible for any one individual to achieve. The mediations conjured in the Internet’s ether are nevertheless replaced with those recorded by one’s senses. Having the soil under your feet, those familiar, yet uncanny smells–the dry, hot bursts of metallic air from the entrance to the Metro or the moldy scent of apartment vestibules, along with rubbing shoulders with others on the screeching metro cars, gives a vantage no journalist, no matter how talented, can portray. The two dimensional flicker of the computer screen littered with the foreboding text of tragedy after tragedy can never replace the human senses even with all their limitations.
The power of place also gives simple reminders, if not lessons, that a dead lawyer, a murdered priest (though 2000 people did show up to his funeral), and certainly a slain antifa activist, are far from most Moscovites’ daily concerns. Talking with Russians about their lives makes events in the news sound like reports from an alien planet.
I realized how much most issues the Russian and Western press miss daily life when I happened to walk past the infamous Anti-Sovetskii cafe last week with A., the woman from the university that registered Maya and I. As we walked past chatting, I happened to notice the Hotel Sovetskii across the street. “Isn’t that cafe Anti-Sovetskii somewhere around here?” I asked. She didn’t know what I was talking about. “I read about it in the news about a month ago. The restaurant was named Anti-Sovetskii but the district head made them take their sign down.” Then I noticed the red awning draping above the entrance to a restaurant a few meters in front of us. “I think that is it,” I said, pointing ahead. It was difficult to be sure at first glance because the eatery’s name was conspicuously missing save a few nails which made no discernible outline. It was only after examining the display in front on entrance was I able to confirm that it was indeed Anti-Sovetskii. After I explained the scandal to A., she repeated that she had never heard of it.
And why the hell would she have? After all, when she enters work everyday, she doesn’t see Stalin, but large photos of Petr Stolypin and Sergei Witte on one end, and Gorbachev, George Bush I, and Yeltsin on the other. All the stories the media pounds about the rehabilitation of Stalin has nothing to do with daily life. His image is mostly where it belongs–in museums.
Several minutes later we’re talking about her position at the university. She just started working there a few months before. The last company she worked for went belly up. She says the work in the university is fine but the pay is low. She tells us that the average salary in Moscow is about $1000 a month and she is making well below that. “Is it hard to find work?” Maya asks. It is, she reports, especially work that pays enough to afford life in Moscow.
There has been one word I have heard repeatedly since I’ve been here: Krizis. (The only word I’ve heard more is probka, or traffic jam, and indeed Moscow’s streets are a traffic nightmare.) Usually “crisis” is proceeded with “after” or “since.” Its impact on people and their families seems to vary. “None of my friends or myself have felt any crisis,” says I., our driver from Domodedovo airport. I.’s part-time gig is transporting foreign academics to and from the airport. The job is through a friend of a friend who helps get foreign scholars visas and apartments in Moscow. “Look,” I. says pointing at one of the many construction sites outside Moscow. “Where is the crisis?” He tells me that his work hasn’t suffered in the last several months. Apparently shuttling academics is steady work. “Most of my friends aren’t officially employed,” he explains. I. discards all official unemployment statistics as worthless. “They (i.e. the powers that be) don’t know how we live.” This ignorance on the part of the state does have some advantages. “Neither I or any of my friends pay taxes,” he tells me.
The conversation then turns to race relations in Russia and the US. “Aren’t almost all African-Americans Muslim?” I. asks. Very, very few, I tell him. “What about Michael Jackson?” “I think he converted,” I say. “But you could never really know about Jackson. I’m not sure he was even human” “Mike Tyson?” he interjects. “I think he converted in prison, but I’m not sure,” I tell him. I. seemed to think that naming two potentially black Muslims proved his point. The reason why I. was so curious about American blacks and Islam was he was convinced by TV reports that Muslims were encircling Russia–from America and Europe in the West, the Caucasus, the Stans, and the Middle East to the south. He probably thinks that the Uyghurs were on the verge of taking over China, but I didn’t think to ask.
I. then entertained us with his views on Russian domestic politics. “Russians need a dictatorship,” he explained. “It’s part of our mentality.” He then went on to equate democracy with chaos and praise Putin as a wise mafia don. When I mention Medvedev and how the media likes to make like there is a conflict between he and Putin, he assures me that they are part of one “team.”
“It used to be a team, but now it’s just Putin,” says our rental agent, M. Clearly more liberal than I., which wasn’t too difficult, M. lamented Putin’s grip on power. Yet despite his more amicable political views, M., like I. asked us strange questions about the United States. “Is it true that Americans are using different currencies instead of the dollar?” No way, I tell him. Most Americans don’t even know that there are other currencies. The fact that we were paying him in dollars for his services didn’t seem to strike him as ironic. Apparently, Russian TV is reporting some wild things. If not, then someone is.
Work has been sporadic for M. since the crisis. Apartment rentals aren’t what they used to be, though it appears that rents haven’t fallen. No matter how bad things are in Moscow, he says, they aren’t even close to what they are in the provinces. He has the impression (as does our landlords) that there are whole regions where almost everyone is unemployed.
Of all the things that I’ve heard so far, it is I.’s statement that “They don’t know how we live.” that haunts me. I don’t know how most Russians live in this city either. Prices are high. Rents are high. Pay for the vast majority is low. Granted, most Moscovites don’t pay rent–they are lucky enough to own their apartments. Still, daily life here is not cheap. The metro is up to 19 rubles. I’ve see more and more people jumping fare as a result. Newspapers have gone up. Four years ago, Kommersant was 5 rubles, now it is 15, even 20 if you buy it from a kiosk instead of the newspaper machines in the Metro. A loaf a black bread I bought two days ago was 19 rubles. Restaurants are mostly out of reach for many Russians like I., who claims he never goes to them.
The difference from four years ago is quite palatable. A Saturday night stroll through the center of the city was like walking through a ghost town. Four years ago the clubs, bars, and restaurants were buzzing. Now the city’s nightlife seems asleep. Most restaurants and clubs appear empty. There are more shops closed early or simply closed down. Many boutiques have more workers than shoppers The places I have seen people, and especially young people are the street, McDonald’s, and Starbucks (I’ve counted at least 5 so far). Places that are cheap enough and they won’t throw you out.
Yet, some are doing well. Really well. Just who they are exactly, I don’t know. I imagine they are people like Telman Ismailov, whose son sliced a Volkswagen in half severely injuring its 70-year old driver with his Lamborghini Murcielago last week in Geneva. You might also see some of them shopping at the new shopping center at the Letto hotel near Smolenskaya. There you can buy shoes for $500. Or visit TsUM, near Kuznetsky Most where shoes are $1000 and children’s pants are $200. Even the local children’s clothing store around the corner from my apartment has outrageous prices. Moscow is shrouded in a veneer of excess only comparable to Beverly Hills. The Rolls-Royce dealer down the street from the Lenin Library mocks passersby as do the Bentley, Ferrari, and Lamborghini dealers down the street from Lubyanka. The glistening windows of Catier, Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Bosco Family serve as Lenin’s nightlight.
Perhaps this is why when I read editorials in Novaya gazeta like “Russian Business: Either in a suitcase or in prison,” I can’t help but shake my head in disgust. It makes me want to stop reading the newspaper completely. It is no wonder that most Russians don’t care about the death of Magnitsky or believe that a jailed or exiled oligarch is simply just desserts. After all, in the public consciousness few have made an honest living in the first place. So I can’t really imagine many average Russians on the daily hustle and bustle, having to navigate through the packed roads or metro cars to get to and from work getting too emotional about a dead lawyer tied up in an alleged $3.25 million in tax evasion scheme which ran afoul with MVD officers who allegedly skimmed $230 million from the state budget. They probably think that you reap what you sow when mixing that kind of money with those kinds of people. Is it right? No. Is it tragic? Yes. But that is the reality the perspective of being in Russia gives you.
Mutilated Volkswagen photo is from Novaya gazeta.