As a child of the Cold War, I was curious to see the two great cities of communist and post-communist Russia, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Moscow struck me as a city of contrasts, struggling to come to terms with its dual role as the capital of the old communism and the new capitalism. Two million of its twelve million inhabitants are, in fact, millionaires.
The grey, uniform architecture of the régime remains unchanged, creating an anonymous atmosphere, though ostentatious signs of the new capitalism are evident, particularly on the three enormous ring-roads busy day and night with twelve lanes of endless traffic, for the most part luxury vehicles: Mercs, BMWs and SUVs. Moscow is a city which works twenty-four hours non-stop. For me it was a city without a soul, whether as a result of its communist past or capitalist present, I couldn’t say.
I first saw the Red Square and the Cremlin on a tour of Moscow-by-night. The Red Square, once the heart of communist Russia, was dominated by the big department store, GUM, now a mall of luxurious designer boutiques for the new rich, lit up with fairy lights along its whole façade, as if trying to outdo the brightly-coloured, illuminated cupolas of St. Basil’s cathedral next to it. Instead of standing in one of the historic squares of the world, I felt as if I was in Disneyland.
My trip to Russia coincided with the hottest summer in 100 years – two weeks later Moscow was threatened by the forest fires which plagued the country and hit world headlines. Our party trailed round with a temp of 36° in the shade – and hardly any shade – not helped by the fact that in spite of the unusual heatwave, restaurants insisted on serving the traditional menu at lunch: hot soup for starters. A bowl of boiling consommé with bits of beetroot floating on top is not the most refreshing dish when it’s almost 40 degrees!
We were told that 70% of Russians are nostalgic for the old régime because in those days they had very little but it was guaranteed, whereas today life has become very precarious for all except the new rich, who owe their fortunes to privatized ex-state industries, sold to them for a song in return for political support. Men retire at 60, but very few live to draw their pension. This is due in part to the stress caused by the fall of communism and the transition to capitalism making life and work extremely uncertain, but also to the fact that the health service has been privatized and there are no longer campaigns of prevention and screening on a large scale as in the past. If you want decent medical aid, you have to pay for it, and very few can.
After three days of suffering in the heat, we were ready for the next part of our journey: a 700 kilometre train journey and St.Petersburg.