Moscow 25 Years On: Do I Still Recognise The City?

Wi-Fi on the metro. Startups in the suburbs. Glass towers in the business parks and rollerbladers on the embankment. What happened to Moscow? It used to be so gloriously haggard, like it was nursing the mother of all hangovers from 200 years of heavy history.

Not any more. Now lovers canoodle by fountains that dance to Tchaikovsky. Middle classes murmur in al fresco restaurants to a bossa nova soundtrack. There are marble malls and 24-hour supermarkets and lots of children’s playgrounds. Grass and pedestrian walkways and public conveniences. And still the facelift goes on.

It is 25 years since this correspondent first set foot in Europe’s largest city. In those days, the air was thick with cheap gasoline, cars were all Zhigulis (Ladas) and ZiLs – or else dodgy, paperless German saloons driven by men with thick necks and leather jackets. A chic lunch was a kebab at the Baku restaurant on Gorky street; a trip to Pizza Hut was a big day out. The colours people wore really were 50 shades of grey, only not so much EL James as LI Brezhnev. And no one smiled.

The question for someone who lived here through the 1990s but hasn’t been back for a decade is this: is it for the better? The answer has to be yes.

More liveable? Yes. More civilised? Perhaps. More vulgar? In places, yes

There are some things that jar. The first thing you notice is the traffic. In 1990, there were less than a million cars on Moscow’s roads. Now there are at least 4 million. Sometimes it feels as if all of them are stuck on the road in front of you.

The authorities appear to have decided that the solution is more roads, so a flurry of construction creates further hold-ups. Eventually there will be four ring roads, which might help. Or it might just bring even more drivers out on to the roads.

The thoroughfares and side streets are infinitely better than 20 years ago, however, when they were so uneven that sometimes it was a smoother ride to drive down the tramlines (trams have now been axed). There are also car parks and designated spaces instead of people just dumping their cars on the sidewalk, and digital departure boards for (new) buses and trolleys – plus an app that shows their current location.

Shopping is a very different experience too. In the late Soviet period, shops were named bluntly after the products that were supposed to be on sale inside but often weren’t: Bread, Milk, Products, Clothes, Flowers. In time these gave way to “kiosk capitalism”: a messy array of shacks and “pavilions” selling everything from Mars bars to medicine, and shoes to sunflower seeds. Impromptu markets sprang up everywhere: fruit, vegetables, and the sad sight of pensioners selling old radios, flowers, car parts – anything to supplement their income.

Now all that has gone. Instead, Moscow offers a retail experience every capitalist metropolis will recognise. Supermarkets and malls, nail parlours and jewellers, banks and car showrooms – oh, and lots of dentists, for some reason.

Moscow then and now Then-and-now images looking west from central Moscow. 1994: Novy Arbat avenue with the Ukraine hotel in the distance. 2015: lots more traffic, and the Ukraine hotel is now dwarfed by Moscow City behind it. Photographs: Mark Rice-Oxley

If there is an objection here, it’s that the architectural charm of old Moscow is being bludgeoned by neon and new monoliths; glass and steel is smothering history and nostalgia. More liveable? Yes. More civilised? Perhaps. More vulgar? In places, yes – although a leafy proliferation of green covers a multitude of sins.

The other notable change is the love affair with English. Twenty-five years ago, there were few clues for non-Russian speakers. Now, though, you can have a pedikyur after a biznes lanch at Coffee Khaus, while checking your gadzhet. This correspondent was directed by a volyunteer to a shattle (shuttle bus) for a meeting with a prshik (P-R-shik, or PR official).

Lifestyles and attitudes seem to have been transformed too – a collective lifting of mood. I’m not the only to notice: Ilya and Svetlana, expatriate Russians living in Germany who are back in Moscow for the first time in six years, say they are so pleasantly surprised that they might consider moving back. “Everyone seems to be free and moving about happily,” says Svetlana. “I’ve never seen the city like this before. It’s full of art and culture and just a different atmosphere.”

Things I have seen for the first time in Moscow this week include: unicyclists, parking meters, kids on trikes, open-air table tennis tables and slot machines. But not everything has changed. A concrete spray of high-rise buildings still fans out into endless suburbs – though even here, modernity is encroaching. One of my old apartment blocks (a typical 1960s, five-storey affair) is now dwarfed on all sides by high-rise office blocks in a style that new Moscow seems to like: terracotta redbrick punctuated by black glass.

Because everyone lives up in the air there are huge open reaches that nobody seems to know quite what to do with

Out in the suburbs, the first thing that strikes you is the space. Because everyone lives up in the air, not cheek-by-jowl on the ground, there are huge open reaches that nobody seems to quite know what to do with. Old Moscow is still very visible out here: kiosks selling fruit and newspapers, old ladies peddling books, shoes, lengths of old cable.

And while the bulldozers and diggers are coming, with manifold signs of reconstruction everywhere you go, perhaps the old tower blocks aren’t really all that bad. They may look ugly and tired in places, but they are energy efficient (important in a city which must keep 11 million people warm for six sub-zero months of the year). They also encourage neighbourliness and a community spirit, and deter loneliness. And they have these great rubbish chutes you can use to dump your trash 22 storeys down to the ground.

Related: Celebrate the Moscow metro's 80th birthday with a journey through the city's history - in pictures

Other aspects of Moscow remain eternal. This must, for example, be one of the greenest metropolises in the world – there are more trees than ever here. And one of the whitest too, with very, very few black or ethnic faces on the streets. It may also be one of the thinnest – obesity is not something Russia has to worry about – and one of the most musical: there is always a soundtrack playing in the city’s public spaces – from tango to techno, Sinatra to Stevie Wonder, plus the full range of Russian favourites: pop, punk and folk.

And then there’s the metro, of course. A delicious waft of ancient air, biscuity with notes of damp greatcoats, hits you as you enter. A ride is 60p, less if you bulk buy. Trains every minute. There are more stops than 20 years ago, one or two new lines even, but everything else is remarkably unchanged.

It’s easy to imagine you’re in a film down here. Deep tunnels, marble and chandeliers. Escalators that plunge further than the eye can see. And that same solicitous female voice (has it ever been changed?) that asks you to be careful when the doors shut, and not to forget your things when you get off.

If anywhere sums up Moscow’s transformation, though, it is the city’s epicentre: cranes, smart upcycled buildings almost Hanseatic in style, vast pedestrian areas, and a stage in construction for Moscow’s next big party: Friday’s Russia Day. At the centre of it all is Red Square. And it still isn’t red.

Is the ‘Moscow experiment’ over?

  
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