The weekend before last I went to Moscow with a young Russian employee of mine*, to do what is sometimes known as “business development”. The purpose of the trip was to meet representatives of Gazprom and Rosneft, and see if they were interested in the services we offer.
I had not been to Moscow properly since August 2004, and in the three and a half years that have passed I have noticed a huge change in the place. Everything looks much newer, cleaner, smarter, and more modern. Or maybe everywhere looks like this after 15 months in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Partly out of convenience, partly out of interest, I stayed in the Belgrad Hotel on Smolenskaya Ploschad’, where I stayed during my first ever trip to Moscow in February 2004. The first change in the hotel was observed from my desk in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, which was the price: the rate had gone from $120 per night to $250 per night, for an unrefurbished room. Yeah, knocking down the Moskva and the Rossiya and depriving central Moscow of a couple of thousand hotel rooms was a really smart idea. The room itself hadn’t changed a bit from the one I stayed in almost four years ago: very narrow bed, inch-thick mattress, furniture which would interest a curator from a museum of Soviet interior styling, and TV which worked, but you had to adjust the aerial yourself to get a picture. But it was warm, and there was plenty of hot water, and they had upgraded the towels so you could no longer watch yourself in the mirror as you dried your face. They’d also decorated the front of the lifts with purple velvet padding, making it look as though you were entering a brothel instead of, erm, a high-class central Moscow sleeping establishment. The service had improved greatly, I think I even spotted one of the staff smile for a fraction of a second, although they did the usual Russian hotel trick of closing the only hotel restaurant for a private party on a Saturday night and putting a notice on the door politely telling the guests to sod off and eat elsewhere. Room service was available, cash only, and the bloke who brought it didn’t have any change. Still, for $250 per night, who can complain?
So that was the hotel. The rest of Moscow seemed to have followed suit in refurbishing itself, becoming more expensive, but still falling hopelessly short in areas. Unlike four years ago, Moscow was obviously undergoing a building boom. New buildings were either going up or had gone up everywhere, and most buildings looked as though they had been refurbished. In many places it looked like any modern, western city. Looking around Smolenskaya Ploschad’, there were far more places to eat than there used to be, but sadly the Italian place where I once got a decent pizza has now become a sushi restaurant. The little window which sells the kebabs is still going though, and the McDonalds** over on the Starii Arbat is still doing a roaring trade and can provide you with a reliable breakfast, lunch, or dinner. However, any such progress Moscow has seen was marred by the type of things which always have and always will hold Russia back: the woman behind the counter at the Domodedovo Express terminal deliberately short changed me, my friend had a load of stuff nicked from his check-in baggage, and there is still in place the idiotic requirement that all visitors must register their presence with the local authorities within three days of arrival.
The Moscow traffic has turned from very bad to unbelievably awful. It took us three hours to get from Domodedovo airport to the hotel. The entire city now seems to each own a car, and they all drive it at once. Until you get on the Metro, where you find what is really the entire city all using it at the same time. You walk from your hotel in a down jacket to stave off the cold (which is warm compared to Sakhalin), then find yourself crushed into a Metro packed with eleven million people generating enough heat to power half the city lights. You want a cause for global warming? Consider mass immigration into Moscow. Sweating heavily, you get ejaculated onto the street at the exit doors, and instantly freeze. Yet it’s not cold enough to freeze everything underfoot and keep the ground nice and clean like in Sakhalin, the city generates enough heat to melt the snow and provide four inches of brown, oily, slush to stand in. I spoke to some friends about the Moscow commute, and 2 hours each way is the norm regardless of which mode of transport you take. As a way of life, I don’t fancy it much. I think I’ll stay on my small, frozen little island for a while yet.
*Of course, no trip from Sakhalin to Moscow would be complete for a local without him being lumbered with half a dozen bags belonging to friends and friends of friends containing Japanese imports and local delicacies to be passed to relatives in Moscow; and the return journey would not be complete without being lumbered with half a dozen orders for electronics and other items which can be bought at half the Sakhalin price in Moscow. So it was this time.
**Incidentally, McDonalds is so highly thought of in Sakhalin that a few people we know there asked us to bring back a few McDonalds meals for them. At first I thought they were joking, but it turned out they genuinely wanted us to stick a load of McDonalds in the overhead locker for nine hours so they could reheat it and eat it on arrival. Madness.