Moscow: then and now

Tim Stanley, Senior Partner, Moscow

There’s something about autumn that makes us prone to nostalgia. This autumn I was particularly susceptible, as it marked 25 years – a quarter century - since I first came to the city as a university student learning Russian. The Moscow of autumn 1991 was a very different place from the city I live in today. 

Signs of a society in the throes of change were everywhere. The last Soviet troops had returned from Afghanistan two years earlier, while (still) the world’s largest McDonald’s had opened the previous year. We arrived a couple of weeks after the failed August putsch, an attempt by KGB hardliners to overturn Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberal reforms of glasnost (political transparency) and perestroika (economic restructuring). A trolleybus used to block one of the main Moscow arteries and crushed by tanks had been moved to the forecourt of the Museum of Revolutions. Just three people died over the three days in which the country held its breath as the instability that had plagued the periphery reached the heart of the nation’s capital.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was a Black Swan event long before we thought in those terms. In retrospect, it is hard to understand how no one foresaw it (perhaps one day we’ll be saying the same about Brexit and President Trump). But the country was so monolithic, so non-transparent, so poorly understood, and had been such a feature of 20th century global history, that its demise was literally unthinkable. Journalists, commentators, government intelligence agencies, academics – all assumed that past was prologue, and based their analytical assumptions not on the signs of imminent collapse all around them, but on the orthodoxy of their professions. Over the previous few years, distant cities of the vast federation - Baku, Vilnius, Almaty, Osh, Tbilisi, Kishinev, Dushanbe - had been wracked by nationalist violence, often roughly supressed. Ethnic-based civil wars were breaking out at the farthest reaches of the empire, which Moscow struggled to contain. A forested one-time industrial powerhouse could no longer supply its own population with toilet paper.

We lived in a Soviet student hostel, a 14-storey block in a grey, monolithic suburb. The cafeteria served a depressingly regular diet of thin soup, black bread, and hunks of unidentified grey meat served with instant mashed potatoes or grechka, the Russian staple of buckwheat. News of an occasional, irregular delivery of hot-dog sausages would spread like wildfire round the hostel, causing the usually-empty cafes to be mobbed in minutes. Electricity supply was haphazard, and getting stuck in the lifts an occupational hazard. Without explanation, the water would suddenly go off for days on end, leading to clogged toilets and creative washing habits. Cockroaches were endemic.

Some students from fellow socialist countries had been living there for years, registered on courses they didn’t attend and no one was teaching. A whole sub-economy had developed, with the Libyans the go-to black market foreign exchange dealers. When I was in Leningrad earlier that same year, the rouble had been fixed at an official exchange rate of 60 kopecks to 1 US Dollar, a rate that had varied little since the 1960s. By autumn, the official exchange rate started to be relaxed, leading to rumours, speculation, and wild overnight fluctuations in the black market rate. Initially the Libyans would offer 2 to 3 roubles per US Dollar, depending on your bargaining skills, amount to exchange, and whether there was anything you could offer them in return. By the time we left late in January 1992, the black market rate was in the hundreds. More than one student was caught short, changing all their dollars at a rate that seemed too good to last before the rouble collapsed still further and runaway inflation took hold. 

The rules and regulations that had held together an empire were gradually falling into disuse, through weariness, apathy and a kind of enormous nationwide collective shrug. For us one benefit of this was the freedom to travel. The concept of independent travel in the Soviet Union barely existed, due to internal restrictions on movement and a government travel monopoly, Intourist. Our student visa formally restricted us to remain within the city of Moscow. But we soon discovered that, armed with little more than our Soviet student cards, a few US dollars and youthful chutzpah, we could buy rail and air tickets and no one would stop us. Initially we took trains to Voronezh, Kiev, and Vilnius. But before long we were booking flights to far-flung cities in distant republics. My round trip ticket to Ashkhabad, in Turkmenistan, cost me $5. My friend flew to Vladivostok – a 17 hour round trip flight, and still, at that time, a city closed to foreigners – for $10.

We were the lucky ones, and we knew it. With dollars in our pockets, we were always able to find something to eat and somewhere to drink. Life was immeasurably tougher for ordinary citizens without access to hard currency (or valyuta). Wages went unpaid for months, basic products such as soap or toilet paper became luxury items, queues at milk, meat and bread stores grew ever longer. The obscene inequalities that would characterize the rest of the decade were only just starting to be felt. Ordinary people would be forced to rely on a system of barter to survive.

Moscow was dark and poorly illuminated. What traffic there was – a few Eastern bloc private cars, heavy military and delivery trucks, the occasional official Zil – passed unhindered along the wide, empty, rutted avenues. International calls were possible from the Central Telegraph Office on Gorky Street, but only after a booking a specific time – inevitably the early hours of the morning were the only times available. To communicate with friends in other cities, or even other parts of Moscow, we would send telegrams – a novelty for us that somehow recalled an earlier, more glamorous era.

A form of economic apartheid operated in which access to special government-controlled shops stocked with western FMCG staples (Beryozka) was reserved for those few who had valyuta, which at that time meant exclusively foreigners. Western outlets such as McDonalds and Pizza Hut had two entrances depending on whether you were paying in roubles or hard currency. The queues outside the rouble entrance could stretch for hundreds of meters round the block. By contrast, you could walk straight in through the valyuta entrance, where the first question would inevitably be to confirm that you were indeed paying in hard currency. One of the most popular songs of that year described an Afghan vet returning home to find his girlfriend selling herself in the western hotels for a few glasses of wine and toiletries. The refrain went ‘Who is to blame? The hotel lights shine so brightly’. It summed up the general sense of hopelessness.

On December 25th – then, as now, a working day – we watched on television as Gorbachev solemnly announced the end of the Soviet Union would take effect the following week. On December 31st we joined the thousands of Soviet, soon to be Russian citizens, in a cold and snowy Red Square. As the Spassky Tower marked midnight, we watched as the Soviet flag was slowly lowered over the Kremlin, to be replaced by the tricolour of the newly-independent Russian Federation. The Soviet experiment was over, and a new era was dawning.

We left at the end of January 1992, before the turmoil that characterised the rest of the decade really took hold. Society was turned on its head overnight, former elites were reduced to penury, former criminals and dropouts became millionaires and the country became one big neo-liberal economic experiment. Gangsterism, organized crime and lawlessness took root on a scale more akin to Latin America than Europe. Society reverted to a form of Manichaeism that would have been familiar to Dostoevsky. It would take another decade and a half, consolidation of the levers of political and economic power, and the windfall revenues of $100 a barrel oil before the city started to recover.

The journey of the past quarter century has been one of sharp decline and equally sudden rejuvenation. Urban regeneration investments have started to have a notable impact. Traffic is improving as the mayor’s parking controls are extended and, remarkably, increasingly adhered to. Public transport infrastructure continues to improve, with an ambitious programme of metro construction well underway and facilities such as the recently-opened overland ring railway designed to ease congestion. There are cycle lanes, and flashmobs; summertime concerts in the parks, and funky street architecture; the free wifi is ubiquitous; ATMs offer multiple currencies, and money transfers can be made via mobile phone apps in seconds. There are experimental theatres and modern art venues, pop-up restaurants and hipster craft beer bars. Muscovite optimism is palpable.

Russia today faces multiple challenges: of economic weakness, decreasing educational attainment, inadequate health provision, increasing social differentiation, insufficient employment opportunities, thinly-spread demographic pockets, and climate change. But for the first time in decades, it finally has a capital city worthy of being described as a great world city. And I feel privileged to have been along for the ride.

See Also

  • Happy New Year, Uzbekistan

    An unusual event on New Year’s Eve causes Response Senior Analyst, Nicola White, to reflect on a visit she made to Uzbekistan.

  • A foreigner, once again

    In this Control Risks Blog, Charles Hecker, born American but now a British citizen, reflects on how Brexit has changed the meaning of his treasured UK passport.