Who can really learn anything about a country over the weekend? I can say that Moscow was not what I expected, and, because of this, I have become more aware of how “mass media” influences our views of other countries and peoples.
How was Moscow not what I expected? First, it is not the boom town it has been made out to be in Western media. The Western narrative since Putin took power is that Moscow is just vibrating with petrodollars, swimming in cash, and everybody is just rolling in it, cappuccinos in the morning, premium vodka at night, wall-to-wall swank.
Hmm. Sure, Moscow has its shiny skyscrapers and enormous shopping centers. I bet it looks a thousand times better than it did 10 years ago. But, coming from Estonia, I’m not tremendously impressed by this. My impressions though may be biased by a) the fact that I spent my time with local journalists, not the most lucrative business to be in; and b) I just managed to avoid these oases of over-consumption. Maybe the journalists who are typically dispatched by big money Western media to cover Moscow are put in touch with local handlers who make sure to show off the city’s most tantalizing parts.
Here, I can say I had the same preconceptions about Moscow’s people. I expected them all to be fabulously wealthy, dressed in flamboyant colors, sporting designer everything, white iPod headphones hanging from their ears. Maybe I’ve seen too many music videos, but I don’t remember seeing one person listening to music in public. In all honesty, the Muscovites I saw on the trains look tired, wore dark colors, and avoided eye contact. “Why does everyone look so tired here?” I asked my Estonian friend. “Moscow is an exhausting city,” he said. “Everyone I know spends every spare minute asleep.”
We talked a lot about Estonia. From Moscow, Estonia seems peripheral. It barely manages a blip on the national radar. Moscow is still the imperial capital of the post-Soviet world. It’s streets are packed with diverse nationalities: Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Azeris, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Moldovans, not to mention internal minorities from the south and north and east. The Russian border is very long and the country has a very long list of neighbors. Because of this Russians are probably more interested in their place among the world’s so-called great powers than any little nation state perched on its northwestern border.
And there are big differences between Moscow and Tallinn. This was another surprise. I expected that Moscow, while having a, how should we say it, different style of administration from Tallinn, would essentially consist of the same mix of crumbling Soviet architecture and glitzy shopping malls. But the key difference is that Estonia has de-Sovietized itself. Perhaps it was easier because Estonia was only under Soviet rule for 50 years versus 70. It’s not easy to erase 70 years, especially when the regime was homegrown. Whatever the reason, Lenin is still everywhere in Moscow. He’s in the park. He’s in the subway. He’s on that guy’s t-shirt. Lying in that mausoleum. No one did away with that scheming Bolshie. No one knows really what to do with him.
And what should they do? Tear up all the enormous monuments? Paint over the frescoes? Chip away the elaborate mosaics? And then what are you left with? And with whom do you replace him on the pedestals? Yeltsin? Putin? Ronald McDonald? Or bring back Nicholas II? That doesn’t seem right either. There is no easy answer here. Still, while the “post-Soviet” nature of Moscow seems indestructible to any mere mortal tourist, the old monuments give off a moldy air. Soviet Communism’s been dead for 20 years. The May 9 rallies and the pointy Red Army hats they sell in the kiosks are starting to look like the trappings of American Civil War reenactments. So how do you de-Sovietize Moscow?
It would be like trying to de-Catholicize Rome.