Digging for Russia’s soul, part 1

So you thought Moscow was basically a vast collection of concrete highrise towers, occupied by orthodox, capitalism-fearing Christians? You were right, but also incredibly wrong. Because Moscow is what you want it to be. If you only look at the monotonous concrete buildings everywhere, it’s an almost dystopian urban nightmare. If you dig deeper, you will find fifty shades of grey.

You have to dig really deep though. Where Berlin is basically a young naked woman with her legs spread open, waiting to be examined and used, Russia’s character is vastly more complex and hidden. Even after a week there, I haven’t even started to scratch the outer shield of people’s characters and the country’s soul.

For westerners it starts with a basic communication problem. Everything is in cyrillic, the English or Roman translations are rarely provided (CTAPƂAKC KOɸE, anyone? It’s an American coffee chain you might know). The younger generation speaks a couple of English words and is willing to help you out, but eating food is already a challenge, let alone have an intellectual discussion.

But it’s not only a language barrier. Secrecy and not talking about uncomfortable subjects are also a part of Russian mentality. There are many episodes of history that have literally been locked in vaults. It is telling enough that the Gulag museum, which explains the story of the mass executions and forced labor camps for government opponents under the Stalin rule (1935-1955, is almost hidden in a narrow street in a residential district.

There is plenty though in the city that is much easier to see, discover and experience. And it is worlds away from the authoritarian image most people have of the country, caused by Vladimir Putin.

Yes, he does have a crippling effect on some parts of societies (more about that later). His geopolitical fascinations (Crimea, Syria, Serbia) can only be explained as a desire to play a role on the world stage again, to do everything that the West does not like (and vice versa) and as an attempt to please the influential Orthodox Christians in his own country.

But let’s not forget that only a very small percentage of the orthodox population is hard-line religious (and unfortunately disproportianately influential, taking the rest of society as a hostage). But modern-day Moscow is a sprawling metropolis, a spectacular clash between Soviet architecture and hypercapitalist skyscrapers. And it is developing at a dazzling speed, thrust by the ambitions of its mayor Sergey Sobyanin.

Not only is the city preparing for the World Cup 2018 (an event which most people won’t even notice probably in this 12 million metropolis), it is also expanding its already impressive metro network with a second ring line.

To become less dependent on oil money, they are investing massive amounts in technology-heavy sectors. In the southeast the Technopolis area is the home of many smaller technology firms. Skolkovo, 40 kilometres from the centre, is set to be the Silicon Valley of Russia. And we haven’t even talked about the ZilArt project at the former limousine car factory, now being converted into an area for expensive residential buildings and the Moscow branch of the Hermitage museum. And Moscow City, the business district with insane skyscrapers, has had its (financial and infrastructural) problems, but is slowly coming together as something that looks almost finished.

Free expression
And even though Putin and his aides still have strong control over big media (they have their own explanation for the scandalous shooting down of flight MH17…), there seems to be more space for free expression than twenty years ago. And who reads newspapers or sees television programmes anyway in the under-30 category?

So Moscow features a nice art scene. The Garage, a museum run and owned by oligarch Roman Abramovich’ girlfriend, has great temporary exhibitions, this time showing the incredible charcoal drawings of Robert Longo. The Gogol Center is apparently a great place for contemporary theatre, and the Tretyakov gallery and surrounding park were absolutely buzzing.

Street art was much harder to find, and in general the youth seemed to be more subdued than in Western Europe. No punks and hardly any skaters here. There are a couple of vibrant places though, which are of course difficult to find. Winzavod is a former factory turned cultural district, behind Kursk station. Around the corner is the much bigger Artplay, full of designer stores. Still not a lot for such a big city, but it is at least something, and remember: I have only just started scratching.

Gay life
So what about that? Because that was of course the reason why literally EVERYONE warned me not to go to Russia. Especially since Putin allowed anti-gay legislation in 2013, the local scene has been suppressed into oblivion.
Which is, of course, the outsiders perspective. And it is true it is pretty much impossible for gay couples to walk hand in hand. But let’s not forget it is by far not the onliest country in Europe where that’s the case.

Apparently the older generation has chosen to recluse itself into their apartments. But younger crowds do take their options for going out and there is a gay scene in Moscow. The Central Station club was an impressively huge place, with friendly staff to make you feel secure. The venue is hidden in a dark street close to the ridiculously lavish new Riviera shopping mall. Its owners also have a gay sauna and another venue, Boyz Club.

And then there is apparently the less visible part of gay life, the bars that are not ‘officially’ gay but the people who know, know. As I said: I just started scratching, and I might discover that part of Moscow life on a next visit. Because the usually expensive city has become really cheap, thanks to Putin’s annexation of Crimea and the western sanctions that followed and led the Rubel to an all-time low…

Practical tips:
– visa: you need an invitation letter for every place you’re staying. That is the reason I chose a hotel over an AirBnB. You also need a valid health insurance and a fresh photograph, and around 50-100 euro. After a week of waiting you can pick up your visa and passport (you need to leave it at the visa office…) and you’re good to go. Inside Russia you need a registration form if you stay somewhere for seven days or longer. If you’re in a hotel, it is a one minute thing
– public transport: buy a multi-day metro pass. I don’t know if it is also valid for bus and tram, but it saves you the time of queueing for the ticket machines. The metro is incredibly efficient: it runs between 5am and 1am every day and you can basically expect a train every two minutes
– cash: you don’t need it. You can literally pay everywhere with your cards
– wifi: a pain in the ass when you’re outside the hotel. You have to register with your phone number and most hotspots don’t accept non- Russian phone numbers