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Moscow Diary: A warming economy

The BBC's James Rodgers says that recent claims of "sabre rattling" by Russia do not mean a return to the Cold War. He does however discover a throw-back to the past when walking in the country's shrinking green belt. His diary is published fortnightly.

FLYING AWAY FROM THE COLD WAR

I felt nervous as the customs officer opened my suitcase.

Everyone I knew had warned me that this was not a country which tolerated dissent. The discovery of any banned book could land me in deep trouble.

A cruise ship signifies Russia's increasing wealth
A cruise ship in the Pacific port of Vladivostok, Russia

It was OK. There was even the hint of an approving nod as the officer found a volume of poetry which had been printed by a state publishing house.

It was 1987, and the city where I had just landed was called Leningrad. I was studying Russian. I had come to the Soviet Union for a language course.

The Cold War had begun to warm. Those who thought its end was in sight would be proved correct a few years later.

Now some people say that it is coming back. The doomsayers point to the deterioration of relations between Russia and the West in general, and Britain in particular, to back up their case.

It is not the full story. Russia's resumption of Cold War era military flights on the edge of Nato airspace has led to talk of sabre-rattling.

Taking a commercial flight from London to Moscow is actually more illuminating if you want to understand the way things are.

For one thing, they are frequently full. Business between the two countries is booming - oilmen, lawyers, bankers and retailers are packed onto the planes.

Where once there were sometimes no Russian passengers at all, they are often in the majority.

In the early 1990s, it was not unusual to be able to stretch across three seats to yourself. It was the same when the economic crisis of 1998 led many westerners to flee what had come to be known as the "Wild East".

Nodding Donkeys in a Russian oil field
Oil has helped the Russian economy

Now that is a picture which is almost as outdated as the Cold War cliche of a Russia where everyone dresses drably, and queues up to buy rotting cabbage because it's the only food available.

Russia's big cities now boast shopping centres where western retailers have arrived in force.

It works both ways. British educational institutions come to Russia to recruit students. Russian companies are floating on the London Stock Exchange. Wealthy oligarchs have bought up large parts of London's prime property.

Recent visitors from Scotland told me of an estate agent bemoaning the fact that he couldn't find enough castles to sell to Russia's modern-day rich.

At the end of the Cold War, some in the West expected that Russia would become a democracy along Western lines. Others spoke of a return to communism.

Neither has come to pass. At the same time, the euphoria and optimism which accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in Western, and even some Russian, circles, has gone.

The profits being made on both sides keep the economic relations healthy. There is an underlying unease, too.

"They just can't understand that something can be good for both of us," I overheard one businessman complain of his Russian partners.

It echoed the sentiments of Western diplomats I have heard describing Russia's negotiating tactics as "zero sum".

A trip through Heathrow departures is no longer a desperate dash to stock up on Western goodies. You do not need to worry about what books you've got in your bag.

But any Westerner wandering around the shopping centres of modern Moscow would do well to remember the words a Russian colleague. She used them to calm exasperated foreigners perplexed by unexplained delays or bureaucratic inconsistencies.

"It may look like Europe," she would say. "But it isn't."

The 1990s idea that we would all be the same, and great friends, has faded into history along with the Cold War.

HARVEST TIME

At the time of the Russian revolution, the vast majority of the population lived in the country.

Ninety years later, the situation is very different. Cities are swelling; villages are shrinking.

Apple sellers on Moscow streets
Apple gatherers in Moscow

Even over the decades of change, many Muscovites seem to have stayed close to the countryside in a way some big-city dwellers have not.

I recently went for a walk in Kolomenskoye. It used to be summer residence of the tsars.

Its wooded slopes and green fields reach down to the Moscow River.

In autumn, it draws the apple pickers. The orchards here may once have been the reserve of royalty. Now they're much more democratic.

You just needed a plastic bottle and a broom handle. Stick the broom handle into the neck of the bottle, cut the other end off to make an apple-catching cup, and you are ready to claim your share of the harvest.

In the markets, my fellow shoppers seem to have a keen eye for varieties of home-grown produce. They seem to know what is in season, what is past its best. It is a pleasure to watch and learn.


Your comments:

The attitude of the article and some of the comments shows well why the West has problems with Soviet Union, Islamic world, Russia, etc. A country can be trusted only if it is willing to westernise in both image and soul, eat KFC, shop in supermarkets, and vote for pro-NATO politicians. Either you look and think like us, or you are a dangerous villain! The West has become well used to the idea that everybody embraces its culture and economic might. Well, there are bound to be some who will resist this process. I wish you could accept their right to be different, but no.
Kolio, Nottingham, UK / Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Russia has changed because it has had to change to become part of the World Organisation which will help its economic power. If it didn't, the privileged in Russia would not have accumulated as much money as they have today. Russia is getting bolder with its petro-dollars in world affairs again. Let us wait and see if Russia remains paranoid and really seeks freedom for its people, which they were suppose to do as communist, or Putin or others in Russia are no different than all people who seek power.
Dave, Manchester, UK

In a country like Russia, there must be a certain authoritarianism. The problem is, there is no other country like Russia, so from the outside, it is difficult to understand. The Russians have their own way of doing things. So, a new Cold War fuelled by gas and oil? Please. Change takes time. The West must watch and learn because the Russians are enjoying life to the full and taking advantage of everything which we have always taken for granted. And in reference to the shopping malls looking European - they're actually much better, far cleaner, and in many respects, safer than those in the UK.
Expat, Moscow, Russia

As a Brit with a Yugoslav father, I was made to feel very welcome in Russia from 1992 to 2004, and now during my annual Christmas / New Year visits. I have lived through the changes - late eighties perestroika moved to a chaotic, inflation rife nineties ending in the 1998 finance crash; then moved to financial stabilisation under Putin; and since two or three years ago has moved back from experiments with democracy. Read the history over the last 1,000 years and you won't be surprised at what for us is back to a controlled political state - for Russia it is business as usual. This is all it is - the present sabre rattling is part of the build-up to elections and I have no doubt is temporary, not back to the cold war and not a threat to the West. The Russians are now part of the western economy and whatever their politics that will not change.
Dimitri Ilic, Windsor, UK

Not a bad article, even upbeat. What is strange is the ending. Who says we are not great friends? Rather we could be if only the morbidly biased media would pull its socks up! Show positive and normal images from modern Russian life. Show the middle classes washing their Ford Focuses on a Sunday or shopping at Ashan. We can find bad things in every country or do I need to take my Russian friends to the UK to show them its seedy underbelly of alcohol abuse and drugs? I wouldn't because that would be unfair.
Michael Hockney, Moscow, Russia

Much of what the author says is true. The depth of Russia's confrontation with the West has been exaggerated. Business interests of course mitigate conflict. On the other hand, what is this fabled third way between democracy and authoritarianism? I used to think you can either be a democratic country or an authoritarian one. According to this author, you can also be Russia. A new phenomenon? More like old wine in new bottles.
Sergey Radchenko, Korsakov, Sakhalin, Russia

If James's view of Russia is a combination of the two main cities plus Heathrow airport then, frankly, it's naive. He should drive about 150km into the small towns and villages, travel on the main highway to Smolensk or take a flight to Vorkuta and there he will find examples of the real Russia. Moscow and St Petersburg are just large "shopfronts" showing the extreme wealth of the tiny minority of newly rich. For the mass of the population post-Soviet Russia has brought little benefit in their daily lives.

A winter spent in the drab Moscow suburbs will show reality. Certainly democracy has failed which is why Putin's authoritarian regime (headed by ex-KGB officers) is so popular. As to the "Cold War", the rhetoric is returning but the new weapon is largely energy supplies (natural gas and petroleum). However, that is a double edged sword as "imperial" Russia's only real market is the EU, which is now taking measures against very aggressive, State-owned monopolistic Russian energy companies.
Mike, Warsaw, Poland

I lived and studied in Moscow in the late 70s and visited the USSR on several occasions in the early 80s. A throw-back in time just makes me think of the days I spent as foreign student and part-time announcer at Radio Moscow in my native language, one of the oldest among the African tongues. What I learned from your article confirmed my perception that most Russians are getting poorer while few are getting richer by the minute.

What a waste of an opportunity to convert that great country with enormous natural resource into a democratic nation with equitable distribution of that wealth. It's safe to imagine what the old generation desires. But time and tide wait for no man and desire is just a desire. Me? I wish the majority of the Russians' age old dreams would come true.
Taye Abayre, Silver Spring, MD, USA

The West always wants it 100% their way. Russia is a European country with a rich culture and tradition. However, the West wants only Russia's mineral wealth and oil but does not want to address Russian concerns. In fact, the West has reduced Russia from global power to just an arms seller. The West forgets that in the scenario of the rising power of China and Islamic nations - it is the West that needs Russia more than the other way round. So the Cold War mentality of the West, like the writer's, is to be shed first before any progress can be made in the Western - Russian relationship.
Sid Iyer, Sydney, Australia

How refreshing James Rodgers' Moscow Diary was. It appeared to be something genuine for a change. In this world of propaganda, let's have more of this diary type of article. Congrats to James and the BBC.
Henry Cossey, Tweed Heads, Australia

I beg to disagree with your correspondent. The enriched, consumerist lifestyle of the new Russia by no means precludes a return to confrontational foreign policies on the part of Kremlin. One only needs to realise that the old Cold War was conditioned by circumstances that were entirely different from the current dynamics, be it economic, social or political. Having lived in Russia myself, I say it is too early to predict the course Russia will follow in the coming months and years.
Mustafa, Toronto, Canada

I went to Moscow two years ago to learn Russian, and it is unbelievable the things you find. It has western traits, but is not entirely western, and it is not either Asian, it is just plain Russian. Another thing I noted when I returned home was that people still have the image of Soviet Russia, even almost 20 years after it ceased to exist. Wherever I go now and share my Moscow experience, I usually encounter the same old comments - Soviets, communists, etc. But the times have changed and for one to understand Russia one needs to visit that magnificent country.
Alejandro, Mexico City, Mexico

I was so pleased reading this article. So rare to find an unbiased report about Russia in local media nowadays.
Gennadii, London, UK

JAMES RODGERS IN MOSCOW

James Rodgers Leaving for good
Our correspondent's valedictory entry before departing Moscow


MAY - OCT 2008
 

SEPT 2007 - APRIL 2008
 

FEBRUARY - AUGUST 2007
 

IN DEPTH


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