Seen through the prism of the European media, Moscow is the murky reflection of a troubled geopolitical context where the opposition between the benevolent West and backwards Russia is a systematic element in the history of this ancient continent. Russia is the country of the Skrypal Affair, the war in Syria, and the intervention in the Ukraine. Russia is the nation of the suppression of personal freedoms, and sexual and ethnic minorities. I hope you will allow me to nuance these clichés, not through blind chauvinism but from personal pride.
Moscow society oozes a certain opulence, a joie de vivre and affluence that a lot of Westerners are unaware of.
From a personal perspective, I retain a cosmopolitan vision of the world. My intellectual construction is firmly rooted in a profound liking for universality. That said, I cannot renounce the social, national and moral idiosyncrasies that have kept me firmly anchored to my own Russian fatherland. No one can escape, I believe, what Maurice Barrès termed “assimilation” by evoking the corporeal and spiritual relationship that every being has with his native land.
The mental landscape of Westerners remains, most likely subconsciously, imprinted with the memory of Soviet Russia. Perhaps even Tintin in the Land of the Soviets fed the imaginations of the older ones among you?
Make no mistake about it, Moscow is a capitalist paradise, a dream-come-true for every consumer. The city embraced the market economy like it did the socialist ideal before it.
Market enthusiasm flows through its streets. French customs surrounding work on Sundays, weekends and bank holidays are non-existent. And, supporter of the free-market economy as I am, I believe it’s a better system as much for workers as it is for consumers. It’s not unusual to find shops open all year long, 24/7. This Muscovite inclination for life after dark is ingrained in its habitus.
Unlike in Europe, department stores springing up everywhere is more or less agreed to be a good thing. Any woman who wants to have a manicure in the middle of the night will find a beauty parlour still open. Whoever wants to buy a Harley Davidson or eat in a gastronomic restaurant at midnight can do just that. In Moscow there is a great lust for life, a relentless quest for pleasure. The absence of regulations places our capital, for good or bad, completely out of the framework of time. This heritage is stems from the post-Soviet economic freedom, which was a period of capitalist and liberal profusion. Far from being distasteful to me, this frenetic way of life and pursuit of material pleasure are widely recognised by my numerous Western friends living in Moscow. Take me at my word, they all think that the Muscovite night life is far better than that in New York or London. I’ll leave it up to the night owls to judge.
For some, Moscow can also make you think of ‘A Feast in the Time of Plague’, as Pushkin wrote. If living costs in Moscow remain relatively competitive compared to other European capitals, especially after the collapse of the rouble and if the city today enjoys a standard of living comparable to other European capitals, then its opulence reflects the paradoxical situation of contemporary Russia. Having trained as a doctor, my Cartesian spirit cannot resist the urgent need to provide you with statistics. Salaries in Moscow $10,000 (USD) per month in the banking sector after five years’ experience and $8,000 (USD) in consultancy. The average salary is $1,600 (USD). Across the rest of the country, the average salary struggles to reach $700 (USD) per month and is more like $300-400 (USD) in average-sized towns like Oulianovsk. After six years in the job, a sales manager in Ekaterinbourg can hope to reach the maximum of $1000 (USD) per month. These figures from the bank VTM (the second biggest financial institution in the country) suggest a brilliant economic situation for some, but worrying for others. 25% of Russians live below the poverty line, whereas 75% of workers are employed by 1% of the population. Consequently, Moscow and its 12 million inhabitants are perfectly reflect Russian socio-economic inequalities.
Where capitalist abundance might only have benefitted the middle and upper classes (admittedly very numerous in Moscow), the Russian working classes got moral freedom and post-Soviet joie de vivre which replaced stark Marxist integrity.
The fall of the Wall and collapse of the USSR led to an extraordinary liberation of mind and moral excess among the urban Russian population that bordered on May 1968. It’s as an Epicurean that I notice with concern the imposition of new mores following this prosperous period. Bolshevik rigorism is giving way to the religious. Orthodox morality is pervading all strata of society with its rules enshrined in law.
It was when being woken up by the bells of the Muscovite churches the day after my visit to the White Rabbit that I was aware of the end of an era characterised by moral freedom in Russia. Believe me when I tell you, that was a difficult morning.