New dawn rising

1 Apr 2005 by business traveller

Visiting the Soviet Union in the 1980s, I used to feel rich, even though I was travelling on a shoestring. I could stay at the most expensive hotels, dine in the most exclusive restaurants, take taxis on a whim, visit the Bolshoi or the Kirov, and hardly ever think about the cost. Although prices for foreign visitors were inflated, they were still vastly cheaper than in the West.

Returning to Moscow recently for the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wonders of glasnost, I had quite a shock. Initially all seemed pretty much as before. Meeting the steely eyes of the airport immigration officer, who took an age to ponder my passport and visa, brought back vivid memories of the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of the Soviet era. But as I was driving into town it became clear just how much this city has changed.

The broad streets of Moscow used to be half-empty, treated as race-tracks by taxis, lumbering Ladas and occasional black Volga limousines, which roared through the Kremlin gates, blinds drawn, escorted by police sirens.

But now my taxi was crawling towards the centre through a long, tortuously slow traffic jam, wedged in by BMWs, Range Rovers and Audis. In little more than a decade the city has been catapulted from the empty, grey but free-flowing uniformity of the Eastern Communist Bloc to the multi-coloured grind of a Western-style traffic block. Russians, it seems, can now buy cars, but it's doubtful they enjoy the experience of using them – in Moscow at least.

Of course, it is too easy to get sentimental about the old days, when it was great to feel rich and privileged as a visiting foreigner, always knowing that I could go back to the comforts of the West. But it was also easy to forget just how grim it was to be a Russian trapped in a system that left them unable to travel beyond the Iron Curtain, and without most of the basic freedoms and consumer goods the rest of the world enjoyed.

In the 1980s I visited several ordinary Muscovites in their apartments and was sobered by how cramped and basic their living conditions were, even for those with decent jobs. But it was the little things that made the biggest impression on me. In a train compartment on the Trans-Siberian Express one day, I took out an orange that I had brought with me from West Germany. I was quietly peeling it when I noticed that everyone in the compartment had stopped talking or reading and was staring at me intently. It took a moment before I realised that oranges were a rare delicacy in the Soviet Union. I handed out the remaining oranges I had stashed in my bag, to be rewarded with warm handshakes and murmurs of appreciation.

In those days, the epitome of luxury shopping was a visit to the GUM department store, which lined one side of Red Square. It still is, as I discovered on my first foray for souvenirs. The stunning, iron-framed arcades were built in the 1890s as one of Europe's grandest shopping centres. Since then it has had a mixed history. Stalin's wife lay in state here after her suicide in 1932. In the 1950s, it became GUM, the official state department store.

The only problem was there was little of interest to buy. The stalls were drab, the shelves often empty.

I bought caviar and vodka and Russian dolls, but there was little else of interest even to a wealthy foreigner. Only a handful of senior party officials had access to the secret Section 100 on the top floor, where they could buy Western clothes and goods.

Today, as I discovered, any Russian can walk into the beautiful, re-vamped arcades, wander along the walkways, and admire an astonishing range of goods. Virtually all the designer names are there.
The problem is only a wafer-thin tier of society can afford to buy them.

And this is the tension that now bedevils this extraordinary city. The divide between rich and poor has always been huge – it was precisely those inequalities which spawned the revolution. Even after 1917, you could still spot the privileged elite, eating in the top hotel restaurants, enjoying the first class compartments on the Trans-Siberian Express and attending the ballet. I remember a bizarre relic of tsarist times at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. The audience in the privileged seats – mostly in military uniforms and ball gowns – spent the interval walking around a grand withdrawing room in pairs looking, for all the world, like guests at a performance in the 1900s. But for the most part, the privileged lives of the elite were conducted behind closed doors. Now they are flaunted in enormous 4x4s by fur-coated glamour girls who patrol the boutiques of the new GUM.
Leaving GUM, still in shock from the price tags, I retreated to my hotel. But after glancing at the price list in the minibar and forking out higher than London prices for a boeuf stroganoff in the brasserie, I began thinking about the old days again. I remembered a nervous venture onto the black market when I got 10 times more roubles for my dollars than the official rate. In fact, I became so worried about the mismatch between my official foreign currency record and the ridiculously thick wad of cash that I had no hope of spending, I hid most of it on top of a hotel wardrobe before I left the country. Now I began to wonder if my hidden stash of cash was still there.

Fat chance. Most of Moscow's grand hotels were long ago gutted and refitted. My money had been hidden in the National, just opposite Red Square. Now it's run by Royal Meridian, and the old wardrobes deemed surplus to requirements. At least it's still standing. But in the rush to accommodate the demand for top-end visitors to the city, the Hotel Moskva, just opposite, has been razed to the ground and is being completely rebuilt.
The glamorising of the shopping and hotels is, I suppose, a mixed blessing for visitors to modern Russia. It's more expensive, but more enticing. But with it comes a major downside – the lack of security. In the 1980s, this was one of the safest places anywhere. You could wander around virtually anywhere in Moscow at any time of day or night without even a hint of threat or intimidation.

Just how tightly the place was policed came home to me one evening during my only brush with a Soviet officer. He blew his whistle, waved his baton and called me over before giving me a severe dressing down for crossing the road on a red pedestrian light.

Things are radically different today. It's difficult to get accurate figures on crime levels, but it is clear from anecdotal information that you need to be careful walking the streets by night or day. Before my visit I was warned of several scams ranging from the risk of kidnap if you take a taxi from the airport (highly unlikely) to the much more prevalent examples of confidence tricksters preying on tourists. One reliable source who had been travelling with a tour group last September told me that three of his party of 50 were mugged during their two-day stay in the city.

The most colourful example took place in Red Square. Trickster number one stood near the intended victim and, apparently without realising it, let a roll of cash fall out of his pocket in such a way that the tourist couldn't fail to notice it. Another trickster, also standing nearby, quickly picked up the money, silently indicating to the tourist to keep quiet and say nothing.

At that point the first conman suddenly notices the money is no longer in his pocket and spins around. Conman two points accusingly at the tourist, whom conman one immediately frisks. Meanwhile conman two makes off, conman one sees him run and apparently putting two and two together, gives chase. Only as they disappear into the crowd does the tourist realise that the frisking relieved him of his own wallet.
But enough of the negatives. Moscow may be expensive, may have a spectacular divide between rich and poor, and an unenviable reputation for crime. But it is also one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, and perhaps the most neglected by tourists.

Even Stalin's stark 1950s Gothic skyscrapers have an exotic appeal, while the skyline of Red Square is dominated by the extraordinary multi-coloured 16th century onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral which survived demolition plans by both Napoleon (he wanted to rebuild it in Paris) and Stalin (he wanted to enlarge the entrance to the square). Beyond it are the 15th century swallowtail crenellations of the Kremlin's 60ft high walls. This is the beautiful, if historically dark, heart of the city, the powerhouse of most of Russia's harshest rulers, which owes much of its imposing grandeur to the most brutal of them all: Ivan the Terrible, tsar in the 16th century. He did much to embellish and beautify the Kremlin's cathedrals (there are now four in all – their gold-leaf domes glittering above the fortifications.) The green copper roofed palaces were built mostly by his successors, though Russia's more enlightened rulers steered clear of the Kremlin after Peter the Great built St Petersburg as his seat of government 200 years ago. The fortress only regained its status when Lenin moved the capital back to Moscow in 1918.

Beyond the Kremlin, the Moskva River curves gracefully past a bank lined with smart 18th and 19th century villas. Sure, you don't have to step far off the main streets to find crumbling, grimy neglect. But then there are wonderful surprises too, like the extraordinary, cathedral-like interiors of the metro stations, and my favourite sight of all: the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.

I spent a whole day here, enjoying what is one of the greatest art collections anywhere. Its Impressionist and post-Impressionist works alone rival those at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. It has Picassos, Van Goghs, Gauguins, Monets and Chagalls of the highest quality. The fabulous Troy treasure (c2,500 BC) is there – it was excavated by the German archaeologist Schliemann in the 19th century and looted from Berlin by the Soviets in 1945. There is also an outstanding collection of Rembrandts and other great Flemish and French art from the 17th and 18th centuries. And I hardly saw another foreigner.

Forget about the high prices, the petty theft and the clogged streets. Moscow is a great city and it is much neglected by business travellers and tourists alike.


London-Moscow Served by British Airways and Aeroflot from Heathrow and by Transaero from Gatwick. Flights by BA and Transaero arrive at Domodedovo (www.domodedovo.ru) located 40 km out of town; Aeroflot services use the main Sheremetyevo (www.sheremetyevo-airport.ru) airport, 26 km from the city centre. Return fares with BA:  Club Europe £1,512, economy class from £255.
NY-Moscow round trip fares: First class varies $9,444 to $4,614; business class varies $8,914 to $3,040; full coach $3,648 to $1,750; 21-day apex fare $541-low season; $795-shoulder; $1,068-high; recent sale $410.  To Sheremetyevo airport both Delta and Aeroflot operate a daily non-stop. Best daily connections are Helsinki, Frankfurt, Paris, London, Prague, Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Stockholm. To Domodedovo airport use London, Zurich or Brussels.

LA-Moscow round trip fares: First class varies $12,851 to $5,510; business class varies $10,946 to $5,158; full coach $5,273 to $4,156; 21-day apex fare $716-low season; $970-shoulder; $1,429-high; recent sale $600.
Aeroflot operates a non-stop on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Daily morning connections exist via JFK. Best daily connections Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam. Toronto works except on Thursday. To Domodedovo airport use London, Zurich or Frankfurt.

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