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The Blog

Today's Moscow: Golden Domes and Golden Arches

When I lived in Moscow for a couple of years in the mid-1960s as a journalist (for the now defunct Toronto Telegram), it was amazingly inexpensive if you used foreign currency.

No longer.

Today Moscow is the most expensive city in the world -- more costly than Tokyo, London and Paris. At our hotel, the Marriott Aurora (hardly the Four Seasons) a cup of tea cost $14.

My wife Yvonne and I were on a Volga river cruise, stopping off at historic sites, museums and churches, and ended up in Moscow -- my old stamping grounds where, as a 1960s journalist, I was forever irritating Soviet authorities with off-beat reportage.

Moscow today bears no resemblance to the drab, colourless, deprived and paranoid Moscow I remember from 1965. In those days, traffic jams were mostly trucks and Russian cars that resembled the 1940s. Queues of shoppers lined up at stores, where goods often ran out.

Today, Moscow is a perpetual traffic jam, but this time with Mercedes, Peugots, Nissans and Toyotas. The gigantic apartment blocks are still there, but the ground floors are brightly lit shops, plate glass windows, screaming ads for Paris fashions, movies houses and restaurants and people jostling for a good time.

When I was there, Moscow had one Chinese restaurant and maybe three of four others that were considered mildly posh. Today every sort of restaurant begs for clients, as do McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway and Starbucks.

To be frank, the only aspects of Moscow that were familiar to me were Red Square, St. Basil's Cathedral and the Gothic, wedding cake style Ukraina hotel from Stalin's time, were I lived for a year ($15 a day for a suite with two bathrooms), which is now a Radisson Hotel.

Apart from that, I was a stranger in the city which, I should add, is a hell of a lot more exciting and lively than it used to be, regardless of the extortion-like costs of living there or visiting.

Back to Moscow's extravagant costs for a moment: On reaching our hotel Yvonne opted for a light lunch in the hotel's café off the main lobby -- not the costly grand dining hall. A bowl of borscht, a croque monsieur (glorified ham-cheese sandwich) and two cups of tea, plus tip, cost the equivalent of $100. If we'd ordered caviar, it would have cost another $800! Even a hamburger was $34, fishburger $45, omelette $30, banana split $23.

Small wonder if the Canadian ambassador's Moscow bill hits the stratosphere.

And yet Moscow is bustling.

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Apparently, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was chaos in Moscow. Apartments were turned over to residents, free of charge, and then the "oligarchies" comprised of speculators and what's loosely called the "Russian mafia" moved in on the economy.

Apartments were purchased from the new owners at what seemed irresistibly exorbitant prices -- and then the ruble tanked. The new owners charged huge rents, and the elite moved in.

Even while we were in Russia the ruble (which used to be worth $1) fluctuated between 27 and 31 to the dollar.

One could argue that today's cosmopolitan, or urban, Russia is divided into three classes: Older people remember with fear and revulsion the days of Stalin and midnight arrests and disappearances into the Gulag, and want no return.

Middle-aged people tend to be nostalgic for "Soviet" times, when there was job security, no was ever fired, health care was free, education was good, apartments were free or cheap. Goods were scarce, food choice was limited and sub-standard, KGB informers proliferated. But if one was careful, the nanny-state offered security and comfort.

Today's young people are different. They never knew Stalinist times, and Sovietism is a distant memory. Youths seem anxious to be emulate Western culture, be it music, morals, dress codes, behaviour. They protest, demonstrate, but there is little fear. Progress.

Tourists are encouraged -- in fact are led and herded -- into a succession of churches that have been restored from being museums, and are now replete with icons that were taboo under Sovietism. Russians -- and their media -- dare criticize politicians and openly discuss previously forbidden subjects like Stalin, the Gulag, the KGB, racism.

Perhaps this is an overreaction to some 70 years of being afraid to talk about certain subjects. Now they go overboard the other way, and discuss historical figures like Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, and even Ivan the Terrible with some admiration and respect. The Romanovs too.

It's a different Russia today -- one with domestic problems but one that no longer lusts for world domination and seeks to subvert and dominate friends and foes alike.

In Moscow's Novodevichy cemetery, famous Russian names are buried, including Chekhov, Molotov, Khrushchev, Stalin's wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva who comitted suicide.

Next, I'll discuss Russia's looming election, and its on-going problem with Islamic terrorism.

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