Moscow: An Island?

That’s how a Reuters journalist, who was kind enough to take me out for some drinks last night, described the city which I’m slowly starting to get my head around.

That observation surprised me because I’d always understood Moscow as more closely resembling the ‘proper’ Russia. Compared with St Petersburg, whose character seems far more cosmopolitan and European, Moscow is grimier and more abrasive. Its distance inland gives it a provincial feel even though, of course, it is very much the centre of Russian life.

The obvious retort, I suppose, is that Russia is a country so large and varied – in its climate, architecture, ethnicity and outlook – that the ‘real’ Russia is inevitably an elusive concept, and consequently that the attempt to pin down that concept to precise features is a fatuous exercise.

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But she’s right. When commuting around Moscow – at least its centre – and frequenting the city’s offices, shops and bars, you’d be forgiven for understanding modern Russia as a successful Westernised economy.

It isn’t. We were sipping imported beers and munching on a delicious garlicky rye-bread (that I thought was called ‘greenky’ but after google-searching just now for confirmation I must’ve misheard the waiter). A small jazz troupe were chundling away in the corner. The other people in the bar – on an educated guess – were just like us: young, educated and in professional occupations. It was nice. And this is what she meant: that Moscow is detached. The Russian male life expectancy is 64. 14,000 women die every year through domestic violence, a grim statistic predictably correlative with the terrifying rate of alcoholism. But these are problems of the periphery; it’s incredibly easy not to think about them.

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