Letter from Moscow


Much has changed in Moscow’s capital, where feelings about Vladimir Putin are more mixed than you’d think.

Jeremy Kinsman


With most of the Russia-generated headlines these days focused on President Vladimir Putin’s relationship with Donald Trump — and for years before that on Putin’s relationship with himself — we haven’t heard much about what life is like on the streets and in the squares of Moscow lately.

More than 25 years after my wife, Hana, and I arrived in the city where I would be Canada’s ambassador from 1992-96, we made one of our return visits, this time with an assignment to report back on our sense of the place and the people for Policy. 

Cities, especially the great ones, change constantly. Some dramatic change seems to alter everything, skyline, streets, and even spirit — think of Shanghai, and how the world’s largest city has transformed over a quarter-century from China’s sleepy second city into the futuristic financial hub it is today.

Over that same quarter-century, Moscow has evolved from the epicentre of Soviet mismanagement and then post-Soviet chaos to a stunning example of restorative change that has reinforced the stature of its great landmarks and enhanced everything else. 

We recently walked for miles through restored and tidied streets, amazed by the way the modernization and openness of the gigantic city had softened it. Muscovites seem themselves to have become softer and more open versions of their former edgy and often sullen selves. 

Red Square’s brooding vastness is as impressive today as ever. It always projected incalculable power as the showcase centre of a vast empire. It seems no less compelling as the hub now of a single nation, albeit the world’s largest, though its aura is less fateful than when the USSR was a secretive police state and Cold War enemy.

Today, carefree tourists and residents taking selfies against the colours and gold cupolas of St. Basil’s Cathedral present a playful holiday picture so different from the intimidating emptiness under stern and suspicious communist rule. In winter, pop music wafts over the Square from the nearby skating rink. Summer concerts showcase the world’s greatest artists, from Anna Netrebko and Placido Domingo to Paul McCartney. 

A sense of dark history still looms over the Square, with Lenin’s tomb providing a melancholy reminder of Russia’s horrendous convulsions, though the man himself has been removed to an undisclosed location for some restorative work to his corpse ahead of the 2024 centenary of his death. The massive brick walls of the Kremlin fortress still speak from the ages, placing in diminuendo the 800-metre long romantic facade of the former GUM department store, now a luxury goods shopping mall.

Standing on the Square’s cobblestones, it remains easy to visualize one’s stored images of the parades of stern soldiers, deadly missiles, and shuffling columns of workers and party faithful who came regularly to commemorate the suffering, sacrifice, and wartime valour of Russia’s catastrophic twentieth century. 

Fifty years ago, the Square’s atmosphere of malevolence extended into surrounding dark lanes and out through vast boulevards, where harsh secrets hid behind silent walls. Their customary drabness was interrupted from time to time by the rewarding discovery of down-at-heel but still affecting Orthodox churches, and by stunning-if-shabby art deco architecture commissioned by merchants before the Bolsheviks tried to re-engineer society forever. 

In Soviet Moscow, the city’s inaccessible inhabitants walked silently stone-faced to and from the Metro, with its temple-like stations and marbled walls, aimed to convince the capital’s residents their civic amenities were up to world standards (which in the case of the Metro, they were).

Eventually, Mikhail Gorbachev forced the Soviet Union to face up to its crippling legacy of violent repression and chronic dysfunction. In ending the Cold War, he seemed to have changed our lives as much as theirs. The sense of freedom his glasnost ushered in was at first euphoric, and then devastatingly confusing and chaotic for the many who were unprepared. 

Living in Moscow in the 1990s, we saw firsthand the effects of perestroika’s unprecedented political, economic, and social upheavals as Gorbachev launched his reform project into the unknown. After the break-up of the USSR in 1991, Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s attempted follow-through on economic reforms convulsed society.

But it also ushered in dramatic change for Moscow and city life. As top-down command economics were thrown away, a  wide-open and chaotic urban economy emerged. In the scramble, certainties of Soviet life went under. With no viable social safety net in place, many citizens had to face destabilizing existential changes. Everyday life became helter-skelter. 

By contrast, the fledgling new economy brought material rewards for opportunistic insiders and winners. Their new cars competed with trucks and front-end loaders on raucous backed-up boulevards. The city seemed to be choking under a discernible mist of blue, toxic exhaust.

The once-dark facades of the city discovered neon as garish casinos and nightclubs opened for new moneyed “businessmen” with their Maseratis and Hugo Boss suits, showgirl companions, and body-guards. McDonald’s (of Canada, actually) offered whatever McDonald’s offers everywhere, but also an impressive new norm in public restroom standards. 

Moscow under ragged transition wasn’t pretty and didn’t seem fair but there was energy and initiative, including in the first efforts to clean and colour the gigantic city, now brightly lit, as storefronts proliferated and apartments became the property of their inhabitants, changing personal outlooks perhaps more than anything else did.

As Yeltsin’s Russia tried to re-tool its finances and set the foundation for the country’s economic future — a task of complexity that had no precedent as a guide and less Western assistance of significance than we had promised — the head of the International Monetary Fund casually observed that perhaps a generation would have to be sacrificed to the transition.

The oil and gas industry and rising commodity values finessed the inevitability of the anticipated sacrifice by providing sufficient finance to permit transition to a somewhat free-for-all market economy. In due course, it permitted a changed city to emerge from under the heavy hand of 70 years of increasingly stagnating communist administration.

It took a combination of infrastructure investment and a massive renovation. There were actually many beautiful apartments and offices that dated from the tsarist era, and some stone ones that had survived the great fire of 1812, but for seventy years some sort of official obligation to make everything look proletarian had imposed dullness upon them. 

Over the last two or three decades, their original elegance has been recaptured. Now, the streets that form spokes of the great wheel of inner Moscow, from the Garden Ring Boulevard as the wheel, with Red Square as the hub, to a depth of about a mile in all directions, join up mostly residential neighbourhoods as attractive as any in Europe. Gone are broken concrete sidewalks, replaced by wide-tiled walkways, shaded by trees, many of which were planted in the 1990s under legendary Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, a political boss in the style of LaGuardia with the instincts of an oligarch. But he got the recuperation of Moscow started, and not just in now-privatized elegant apartment areas, but all over the gigantic city of everyday workers and commuters.

From the beautiful park around Patriarch’s Pond, streets are lined with the summertime awnings of cafes and restaurants of all kinds, most with cushions spread over the wide open windowsills for those who want to relax with a coffee and their iPhone to watch passers-by.

Locals are indistinguishable in dress from Viennese or Lyonnais. Unemployment is low in Moscow. People are generally doing pretty well. It was believed that sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea would be crippling. Far from it, partly because Russians have been very successful in substituting home-grown and regional produce for European cheese and other imported foodstuffs. 

Fruit and berry sidewalk sellers who are mostly from the Caucasian republics proudly tick off that the blackberries are from Azerbaijan, the cherries and peaches from Georgia, the plums from Ingushetia, the strawberries from Armenia, and so on, reminiscent of the USSR itself, multi-ethnicity being a frequently recalled feature of the old Union among the nostalgically-minded. 

The Soviet Union was 50 per cent ethnic Russian; Russia is 80 per cent and Putin’s nationalist rhetoric emphasizes Russian values, traditional virtues and their alleged superiority to the decadence of the liberal West. He doesn’t, however, stigmatize ethnic or racial minorities. Yet, African immigrants seem consigned to being dispensers of promotional flyers in the parks and streets, while Central Asians and Caucasians drive taxis and deliver food.

Everybody’s on the phone, just like here, and the internet is pretty open. A couple of newspapers are good, though the regime owns and edits regime-friendly TV news with cynical manipulation. It’s not what democracy activists had hoped for but it’s freer than what older Russians have ever known. The big cities — Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny — where professionals are tired of being treated like political infants, remain expectant of some kind of change, at some time, though there isn’t much organization to produce it. But in late July, more than 20,000 Muscovites protested on Andrei Sakharov Avenue to rescind the ban on opposition candidates participating in a crucial city election. Meanwhile, young reformers are going into local issues, especially environmental, which is a top concern of women especially.

A surprising number of women are pregnant, and/or pushing prams. I read that demographically, deaths are exceeding births in Russia, but it isn’t apparent in Moscow. It’s good news. Young moms want the best for their kids, parks, clean and safe streets, and clean air.

They’re getting them. The sidewalks and streets are alive with cleaning machines. The boulevards channel traffic that actually flows, aided by unusually long 75-second traffic lights (that pedestrians patiently wait out). Where have all the gasping truck-wrecks and erratic Ladas gone? Late-model Camrys and BMWs roll silently in disciplined order.

Amazingly, car horns seem a distant memory. One hardly hears even a siren in Moscow.

Most impressive to us was the relative openness of people. Because everybody now dresses alike, more or less, even visiting Canadians get asked directions, including from Russians unfamiliar with their capital city, which for  Russian-fluent Hana frequently turned into impromptu discussions.

Residents and experts attribute the openness to the effect of the enormously successful World Cup host-country experience last year. Having been told for generations that Westerners were deceitful adversaries, Russians then found the tens and tens of thousand visitors to be not so different from themselves. Everybody got along, most nearly everything worked in all the locales across Russia, and there was hardly any crime.

It’s a dichotomy. While North American pundits inveigh against a Mafia state run by a KGB kingpin, expatriate mothers of teenagers tell us that at night they never worry about the safety of their kids. 

This isn’t the place for profound political analysis, but the one thing most people agree western comment has wrong is our prevailing belief that Putin decides everything as a top-down dictator, mostly concerned with his own power. In Russia, he is generally seen as the guy who pulled the country up off the floor. We call him right-wing and autocratic. Most Russians would peg him as a relative liberal because they know there are more lethal potential tyrants in the wings that Putin fends off. 

Most see Putin as an arbiter of various competing and diverse interests. His job has been to restore Russia’s stature, pride, and performance and a large majority of Russians credit him with a good job on those. He oversees, fairly loosely, an increasingly professional and technocratic administration that is almost apolitical. It isn’t a vision of inclusive and participatory democracy but it delivers. 

Again, contrary to Western sentiment about Russia, Putin’s external adventures get mixed reviews domestically. Russians I know are tired of the extended conflict with Ukraine (though they see the Crimea annexation as a justified retroactive adjustment to the way the USSR broke up in haste). They don’t view the alliance with Bashar al-Assad as a trophy to cherish. Russians now travel abroad a lot; they get that there is resentment over Russian meddling in other peoples’ politics. On these issues, Putin’s nationalist populism may be out of step with European-inclined Muscovites. People are proud when he plays the statesman and mediator, especially when compared to Trump the disruptor. They like it when he pushes back against US unilateralism but they like it best when Russia succeeds in strengthening international cooperation among regional allies like the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Council, and on disarmament. 

Russian grievances linger over the last 30 years, but they are less prominent now. Our grievances about Russian behaviour are more recent and mock the spirit of partnership we had envisaged only twenty years ago.

Among Russians, Canada is still spoken of with affection and a sense that we share something important and durable. Officially, and in substance, our relationship is in the cellar. Did Russian actions in Ukraine put it there? Or is it driven by our diaspora-driven electoral politics? The question is what is to be done. We haven’t had an ambassador for over a year but we have top-flight officers in our reduced representation.

At the French Embassy’s National Day reception, their ambassador, a top international performer who had been ambassador in London and Beijing, Sylvie Bermann, put the duality dilemma boldly in her speech to guests. She told them that the historic friendship between France and Russia has been real and profound for centuries (skipping lightly over Napoleon’s 1812 visit, I suppose). France wants the friendship to intensify. On the basis that it is an obligation of friends to speak frankly to each other, it needs to be understood that relations between the two countries cannot be normal until a) Russia stops meddling in Ukraine; and b) treats its best friends better. 

The message was delivered with warmth and affection that is genuine. Canada hasn’t been able to do that for a decade now and we pay a price.

Being “normal” has been a hope and prayer for many, many Russians for a long time. “Why can’t we be normal?” was the lament on multiple TV panels after the failed coups against first Gorbachev, and then in 1993 against Yeltsin. In many ways, by whatever norms apply, life in Moscow is increasingly “normalizing” to fairly wide satisfaction. In rural Russia though, the norms are way behind, and that remains a huge challenge.

But can Russia pull back and reach out a little more? Can Western erstwhile partners re-connect? Based on what you hear in Moscow these days, that outcome could be more popular in Russia than we think.


Policy Magazine contributing writer Jeremy Kinsman is a former Canadian ambassador to Russia, the UK and the EU. He is affiliated with University of California, Berkeley, and is a distinguished fellow of the Canadian International Council.