The highway from Moscow airport to the city, about 20 miles away, is the world’s most expensive parking lot — thousands of idling Rolls Royces, Bentleys, BMWs, Porsches, Lexuses, Mercedes—Benzes, Ferraris, Volvos and fully—tricked out SUVs with tinted windows. Miles of precious metal. So many fancy wheels there’s not enough road to get them out of first gear. Even at a near standstill, it’s ride heaven, a car buff’s wet dream, and a metaphor of Moscow itself — an orgy of pent—up overindulgence resulting from years of frustration and austerity.
But it’s nothing like the rest of Russia. Outside the city limits, it’s still the 19th century. In the deep countryside, you can still see ox carts and unpaved roads. Some villages still do not have reliable electricity or running water.
From the air, you can see the green fields marching all the way to the horizon from both sides of the plane.
But the moment you hit Moscow, you are in another world. Russia is Russia. But Moscow is Europe. Moscow is like a city—state. To many, Moscow IS Russia. Moscow is where the power is and Moscow is where the money is. The rest of Russia — the other 99.9 percent, doesn’t count.
And Moscow is definitely where the action is.
So naturally, it is now also the world’s most expensive city (everybody here sneers at the dollar — and in an exhilerating schadenfreude payback moment that’s been years coming, they love watching Americans recoil in shock at the power of the ruble). To my chagrin, at a fancy restaurant I discover too late that I am billed the equivalent of $38 for a tiny pour of cheap California white wine that disappears in one gulp.
“We are still learning about wine in Russia,” the waiter explains, a little sheepishly. But I still have to cough up the crazy cost.
The meal, for two, and not so great, is $325, not including tip. Happily I’m on a business trip and my Russian client is picking up the expenses (which, by the way, they do not regard as extravagant).
It’s late May, season of the storied Russian white nights. A peek out the window tells you how far north you really are. From Our fifth floor room at the old Metropole, the Communist-era pile bordering Red Square, it’s 11 p.m. and we can look out on all the young lovers strolling in the park below. The sidewalk cafes are full of kids and tourists drinking Russian beer, which is good, and relatively cheap (though in Moscow nothing is really cheap). Of course, outside Moscow, costs plummet. The beer in Moscow might go for about $8 US. But a hundred miles away, that same beer might sell for $2.
At midnight, the square starts to thin out. It still looks like about 8 p.m. in summer back home. But on the boulevard just 100 yards away, fast cars and motorcycles make a racket like angry hornets tearing through the gathering gloam. It sounds like a racetrack.
Over in Red Square, about a quarter mile away, in daytime they’re having a youth sports expo. Young athletes from all over Russia — budding tennis champs and gymnasts strutting their stuff in front of Lenin’s Tomb and St Basil’s Cathedral. In the crowd are licensed impersonators of Lenin, Stalin and Putin, who will pose with you for a small fee.
Old timers from the Soviet area shuffle around, joyless, glowering in disapproval. But crowds of young Russians are happy. They dress in fashion jeans and they like what they see.
Black is everywhere. In fancy hotel lobbies, behind the wheels of window-tinted black SUVs, at parties, discos, restaurants, theaters, events of all kinds, and on every street, you see Moscow’s ubiquitous shadow army of black suits, black shades and shaved heads. These are private and government security people, former Russian soldiers and commandos from the bankrupt USSR armed forces who were sucked up into private security battalions after glasnost and perestroika, in part to give all those unemployed warriors something to do, and in part to create insurance against a possible insurrection and coup by the military.
You see them standing guard outside hotel rooms of VIPs and in chic stores, protecting rich wives of oligarchs on shopping binges.
I have an al fresco lunch on Red Square with one of these legendary billionaires, who as a group carved up the country’s assets and wealth in the early 1990s when the communist Soviet Union switched almost overnight to capitalist Russia.
He arrives at the curb in an enormous white Mercedes Benz with a driver and a bodyguard, and steps out of the car with his jacket hung over his shoulder like an old-time Don.
But this is no Mafia boss. This man is the first Russian to graduate from the Harvard Business School, in the 1970s. He has a home in Boston and an apartment in New York. He runs one of Russia’s biggest investment funds, and he’s a friend of Putin.
We drink Russian draft beer (no wine or vodka) and have a nice time. He tells me his thinks America has lost its soul, gone soft, gotten fat and stupid and out of touch with itself. After lunch, we take a walk in a park. Suddenly I notice the bodyguard has disappeared. I’m thinking, this can’t be good. When the bodyguard disappears, the bad guys step in for the hit or the kidnap.
I ask him, “Where’s the bodyguard?”
Without missing a beat, and without turning, he says, “Fifteen meters over your left shoulder, off the path, in the trees.” I look over my shoulder. In the shadows, I can see the bodyguard, slipping quietly through the dappled shade, totally unobtrusive, almost invisible.
“I see him,” I say. “But I wonder what would happen if somebody who wasn’t your friend paid him more than you pay him?”
He smiles a little smile, a dangerous smile.
“I know everyone in his family,” he says. He slides back into the rear seat of the big beluga Mercedes and lowers the window a couple of inches.
“I like you,” he says, and the car pulls away.
Inside the Kremlin, we see the archived glories of Russia’s epic past in the Kremlin Museum. Peter the Great’s boots and robes. Catherine the Great’s gowns, fur ribes, crowns and other glittering regalia. Catherine’s huge, glass-windowed, 18th-century sled carriage, the size of a bungalow, in which she rode every winter from the Winter Palace to Moscow, a brutal three-day, 441-mile trek across vast and empty expanses of snow and ice requiring a change of fresh horses every 30 miles (the same trip, of course, would have been impossible if she had waited until the snows melted and the mud season set in).
Down in the famed Moscow subway, chandeliers light the train platforms. Stalin—era art depicting happy peasants and soldiers from the 1930s decorate arches and ceilings.
A 20-minute subway ride takes us to the State Museum of the Great Patriotic War. The museum is closed, but it’s Border Guards Day. Russia has the world’s longest borders — 12,577 miles bordering 14 countries — and the Russians, forever paranoid about outsiders, pay homage annually to the soldiers who stand vigil at the outermost frontiers. Today the huge plaza is crowded with gangs of happy, drunk former Russian border guards marching around saluting everybody, serenading passing girls, posing for photos, and waving flags. For an army of drunks, they are remarkably well behaved.
The Russians take their wars seriously. And they never forget. They talk about Napoleon’s doomed march on Moscow as if it happened just last week. World War Two was the day before yesterday. Get into a conversation about the Nazi siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and you may see an elderly Russian weep right before your eyes.
And this is how I will remember Moscow — celebrating madly, as if the party could end any minute, having its day in the sun, partying all day and right into the night, fiercely patriotic, paranoid, embracing new prosperity and the mysteries of capitalism, and yearning to join the First World, but anchored in — and haunted by — its troubled past.