Moscow is undergoing a major transformation, and it is great. The city is now so pleasant to be in, and walking around its streets you feel safer, freer, happier.
So much that I’ve had to remind myself: what is it that I actually enjoyed about Moscow 5-10 years ago?
Moscow was wild and crazy; really wild, and really crazy.
It’s a giant city with so many people. It can get so crowded. I’ve always been impressed by the hordes of beautiful girls from the entire Federation who invade Moscow looking for a job and a decent boyfriend.
Moscow is a city that never sleeps, with coffeeshops and sushi bars open 24 hours everywhere (and they all do serve alcohol in Russia).
At the time, everything looked like this in Moscow: roadworks, inconvenient passage for pedestrians, messy streets. Today, all of this has disappeared and given room for a livable urban space.At the time, you couldn’t see more than 2 meters away in Moscow, because there was always something in the way: a kiosk, a wasteland or building site that had been there forever, or any other, abandoned-looking mess.
And whilst I like much better the new airy Moscow, I did enjoy the sense of mystery and discovery that old Moscow provided. Nothing was every acquired there, you had to go and look for it.
Wandering around Moscow was somewhat a challenge, and challenges excite me. Navigation was difficult, everything was in Cyrillic, you would struggle finding things, you would get lost and constantly have to figure things out.
I enjoyed the process of figuring out, and I enjoyed creating my workarounds, and I enjoyed feeling initiated. Sometimes I was showing international travellers around, and I enjoyed sharing my experience and initiating others to Moscow’s wildness.
I also enjoyed that I didn’t always figure out. For example I’ve never known where and how to buy a tram ticket. Every time I’ve used a tram in old Moscow, I’ve crawled under the gate and travelled without paying. (In new, transformed Moscow, there’s a unified system for public transportation which you can use with a digital card called Troika. I finally can pay for my tram rides!)
In old Moscow, everything was a fight or a struggle, and I admit I kind of like that; at least when I travel…
And what I liked most in old Moscow, which luckily so far has been untouched by the transformation, is the sensorial exoticism.
Exoticism of the language. More and more people speak English in Moscow, but Russian will remain the dominant language for a long time.
Exoticism of the dresses in winter. I have spent hours sitting in the metro just to observe the parade of Russians in their winter costumes, with the furs, and the assorted hats; it is priceless.
Exoticism of the materials. Sensorially, Moscow is extreme, full of contrasts, and rich of sensations that one doesn’t often have the opportunity to experience so intensely. All Russia is like this, but Moscow is a concentration of these sensations.
The fur of a coat;
the rusty metal of a door and the polished one of a gas pipe;
the sturdy stone of the Stalin-era skyscrapers and the delicate glass of the new capitalistic ones;
the shiny golden dome of a church;
the pastel colour of an old house;
the grey of the Brejnevkas and the little irritating music that plays when you open their front doors;
the whisper of a feminine voice that says hello in a hiss;
the sensorial pleasures of Russian banya;
the sweet sensation of Soviet ice cream melting on the tongue;
the shivers when visiting the Gulag museum;
the extreme temperatures of course;
and how I’ve never understood how Russian girls keep beautiful straight hair in winter whilst mine is all electrical and untidy.
The imaginativeness of the snow-removing machines in winter. The parade of the water-spraying trucks in summer.
Finally, wandering around Moscow is like a treasure hunt, with Soviet symbols hidden and scattered throughout the city. Hammers and sickles, Lenin heads, Soviet statues, can be found everywhere and add a surrealistic touch to the overall urban landscape.
Oh, I loved these things 8 years ago; they’ve made Moscow so intriguing to me and an endless discovery. And luckily, most of them stay true even in transformed Moscow, making it such a wonderful place to visit today.
Do me a favour: if you’ve visited Moscow in the past 15 years and hated it, do reconsider and give it a new chance.