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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 March 2006, 09:16 GMT
Waiting for change in modern Russia
Bridget Kendall
By Bridget Kendall
BBC diplomatic correspondent

In Russia, preparations are under way for the G8 summit, which will be held later this year. At the top of the agenda will be energy security. Russia is the second largest exporter of oil after Saudi Arabia and is beginning to re-assess its relationship with other countries.

A street vendor cleans snow in front of his stall swelling Russian souvenirs in Moscow. (Photo: Natalia Kolensnikova/AFP/Getty Images)

It has been a hard winter and a late spring in Moscow.

With new efficiency these days, invisible workers clear roads and pavements overnight. But hip-high snow banks on either side reveal how much has fallen this season.

I love the snow in Russia. It blankets the city in soft, clean silence, but it also erases the familiar.

On this visit I find myself more than usually disorientated.

Driving along the same ring road I once lived on, I lose my bearings almost immediately.

My memory of 15 years ago is of a dark, wide boulevard, where from my bedroom window I could count four separate repair shops that offered to mend broken typewriters, shoes, umbrellas, even dolls.

Now Moscow has joined the modern throwaway world.

BBC TV political debate as Russia prepares to host the G8
Thursday 30 March, BBC One
Sunday 2 April, BBC World

Instead there is a riotous rainbow-coloured stream of bars, restaurants and casinos and luxury fashion shops, all lit up in neon lights, hiding anything I might recognise.

Super-rich city

As the snow blows harder, a friend takes me to a new bar, promising a magnificent view over the city.

We step into the cathedral-sized lobby of a glistening new hotel. Under the space-age chandelier, fish-like females in tight black scaly sequin dresses eye my old down jacket and clumpy boots with cold derision.

We swoop up 30 floors, and emerge into a circular bar perched high above Moscow like a flying saucer.

In deep, suede armchairs, more Russian beauties sip garish cocktails. Male cohorts in ridiculously pointed shoes whisper business instructions into their mobiles. And outside, the swirling snow dissolves the city lights into white mist.

This is the new Moscow of the super-rich. And it is not only a weird contrast with the past. It is a strange counterpoint to the rest of the country.

Map of Russia showing Moscow
Go just a few stops on the commuter train, and you will find the same sagging little wooden houses in the midst of forests that have always been there, and the same gnarled residents, bent double from years of hauling water and splitting logs every day.

You cannot help wondering: has the high price of oil and gas really empowered Russia and restored the global clout so many Russians hanker for? Or like those snowstorms, is it a mirage, a deceptive covering?

Wealth creation

The next night I travel to the last stop on one of the metro lines to find an old friend of nearly 30 years standing.

A penniless poet, she has always hovered somewhere on the breadline. Now her stressful existence, crammed into one room with her mother in a dusty communal flat in the centre, has been replaced by a modern three-bedroomed flat on the city's outskirts.

A pushy estate agent moved her out, aiming to refit her old building and make a fortune on it.

My friend plies me with wine and food and new poetry.

Her 90-year-old mother lies on the bed in her old coat and leggings, dozing in near oblivion.

The geriatric cat hobbles in to smell the unexpected guest. And I notice a bag of high-quality cat food, the expensive sort vets proscribe for aging felines. Regal style in these meagre surroundings.

Perhaps there is some trickle down of wealth from those oil rich billionaires? Perhaps in some ways Russian poverty is lessening?

Public opinions

A few days later we gather a local audience to debate their country and its place in the world:

"So are you surprised at Russia's new found wealth and new self confidence after those years of turmoil?" I ask them.

Some say that it is no surprise and high time Russia reasserted itself globally. But others disagree:

"Russia is not really wealthy, it is poor," they say, "And high oil prices do us no favours.

"They make reforms less likely, reinforce the state's instinct for control, and delay the country's economic transformation."

I ask how they see the rest of the world, who - these days - are Russia's friends and who are the enemies?

You can never second-guess this place. It is wrapped in too many layers to take for granted.
Does the main threat come from Nato in the West, or the Chinese in the East, hungrily eyeing empty Siberia, or is the main threat from the turbulent Middle East, uncomfortably close to southern borders?

The answer from some, again, is not what I had anticipated: "The biggest threat is from within, not abroad," they say.

"The bureaucracy and corrupt administration that stifles everything. That's what endangers us more than anything."

This is only one point of view, and hardly in keeping with the new trend to trumpet Russian interests above everything else, to show Russia is strong and no longer needs to rely on foreign handouts or lectures on values.

But it is a reminder you can never second guess this place. It is wrapped in too many layers to take for granted.

When Moscow was the capital of the Soviet Union, I used to joke it was like visiting the moon: every aspect of life seemed so alien, no assumption was certain.

Those days have gone. But getting to the bottom of what is "Russia" is just as difficult.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 18 March, 2006 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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