Putin’s Moscow is anxious, gilded and hollow

October 25, 2014

Putin chairs a meeting with members of the presidential council for civil society and human rights at the Kremlin in Moscow

The last time I saw Maria Baronova on Nikolskaya Street in Moscow, she was taking part in a silent anti-government demonstration before being bundled into a police bus with a half dozen other protesters. Now, almost three years later, we meet for a beer in an English pub on that same ancient street near the Kremlin. So much has changed. The Moscow protest movement fizzled out after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency; activists like Baronova were prosecuted, and a blanket of repression is muffling the last voices of dissent.

When I first met Baronova in December 2011, I took an instant liking to her because she was unpretentious and smart, with a zany sense of humor. She embodied the contradictions of Russians who love their country, warts and all, and seek to reconcile it with the rest of the world. Today she sounds resigned, using the psychological term “learned helplessness” to describe Muscovites’ acceptance of the status quo – including, perhaps, her own.

Charges against Baronova of inciting a riot at a May 2012 rally were dropped in a pre-Olympic amnesty in December, which also freed Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of Pussy Riot from prison. But while the former oil tycoon and punk-rock performance artists tour the world as celebrities, Baronova can’t even get a European Union visa because her name appears in a Russian police database as a result of her legal case. She fought for “Western values,” Baronova says, and now the West is punishing her for it. Without any irony, Baronova, 30, posits that it may be better to accept Putin as a leader for another 15 years than to squander the rest of her youth in the turmoil that would likely follow his departure.

Moscow is always a surprising kind of place. As a journalist who worked in the Russian capital for more than eight years, I expected Putin’s us-against-them nationalism to be more strident than ever. But flying in from Ukraine, which I have been covering for most of this year, I find the city uncharacteristically subdued and anxious about the future.

Vessels sail along the Moskva river near the Ukraine Hotel and buildings of the Moscow International Business Centre in MoscowThe most striking difference in the Moscow I left two summers ago is the new look of its city center. Historic buildings have been given fresh facades, handsomely paved pedestrian zones have replaced traffic-clogged streets, and bike-sharing stations dot downtown. Moscow, always bigger and brasher than other European capitals, seems strangely tamed. Even the city’s famous nightlife has been cleaned up: Shops are prohibited from selling alcohol after 11 p.m. and a smoking ban is strictly enforced.

Moscow’s facelift is not without political undertones. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a staunch Putin loyalist, was tasked with giving middle-class Muscovites the level of civilization they have become accustomed to during trips abroad. Young, educated professionals like Baronova made up the core of the anti-government protests that broke out at the end of 2011, presenting the most serious challenge to Putin’s rule yet. Nobody is complaining about Sobyanin’s bread and circuses.

The great Russian metropolis goes about its worldly ways. Despite the much-publicized closure of a couple of McDonald’s restaurants–presumably in a pin-prick response to U.S. sanctions–the outlets I pass are packed with teenagers. A sushi chain is even advertising a new “American menu” with cheeseburger and fries.

What bothers people are ominous signs that not all is well under Moscow’s shiny surface. The ruble has been sliding against the dollar, losing almost a quarter of its value since June. Friends who own property and have started families in Moscow wonder whether they want to live in a Russia that sees itself in conflict with the rest of the world. Some of my Russian colleagues aren’t taking any chances, selling their apartments and moving abroad. The expectation is that things will get much worse before they get any better.

Putin’s dangerous entanglement in Ukraine, which brought on Western sanctions and falling foreign investment, has also had domestic political ramifications. The government is inventing legal pretexts to threaten the existence of the last remaining islands of dissent, including Dozhd, a feisty independent TV broadcaster, and Memorial, the human rights group that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov helped found. Vedomosti, the quality daily that Russia’s business elite relies on, will have to find new owners because of a recent law restricting its foreign ownership to 20 percent. On the day I visit friends at the Dozhd studios, they have just received notice to vacate the premises in a month.

Cars drive past the Bolshoi Theatre in central MoscowI know a couple of Russian journalists who have moved to Kiev, where much of the media is in Russian, not Ukrainian. After almost a year of political upheaval, the Ukrainian capital is the polar opposite of Moscow: unstable, anarchic, and the most anti-Putin place on the planet. While Muscovites are oblivious to the fate of Ukraine in their daily lives, people in Kiev consider Putin to have declared an unofficial war on them. Some fear Russian airstrikes on their city before the winter is out.

As hard as Kiev may try to cut its ties to Moscow, the two cities are inextricably linked because Putin has made his own future dependent on what happens in Ukraine. His support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has less to do with territorial gain than wrecking the chances of the pro-Western leaders who came to power after the rebellion on the Maidan. Putin, who considers Kiev the cradle of Russian civilization, is acutely aware of the city’s continuing influence on Moscow.

Following the Orange Revolution, Kiev’s first exercise in people power a decade ago, Putin did his best to prevent a repeat in Moscow. When tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets seven years later, he blamed the U.S. State Department and cracked down even harder on Russian civil society. After the Maidan protest ended in bloodshed and the fall of his client, Viktor Yanukovych, in February, Putin decided he might be next. In his imagined battle for survival, any means were justified, including the annexation of Crimea and fomenting an insurrection in eastern Ukraine.

Repressive tools may forestall the impending instability, but they can’t stop it forever. Muscovites aren’t any less angry about corruption and unfair elections than people in Kiev. Separatism and a lack of economic opportunity aren’t exclusively Ukrainian issues. Moscow’s placidness feels like the calm before the storm.


TOP PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) chairs a meeting with members of the presidential council for civil society and human rights at the Kremlin in Moscow, Oct. 14, 2014. REUTERS/Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool

INSET PHOTO 1: Cars drive past the Bolshoi Theatre in central Moscow, Sept. 18, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev

INSET PHOTO 2: The Ukraine Hotel (center), also known as the “Ukraina Hotel”, and buildings of the Moscow International Business Centre (right, back) are seen through a window in Moscow, Sept. 17, 2014. REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev


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Putin is driving Russia into the toilet. In this post-soviet era, he could have built Russia up in the world. Formed good trade alliances and supply chains, boosted investments from abroad.

Instead…. he just HAD to have Chernobyl back. So important to this little man. Attacking Ukraine to make some frat point that no one cares about. He had his shot at world greatness, and wasted it on local squabbles with the farmers next door. Ho hum.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

The whole article is laced with propaganda, and no time do you address the issues that are forcing Russia down the path it is taking. The opportunity the west had to build good economic relations with Russia have been wasted by an America that will do anything to keep its financial hegemony. A case in point is the unrest caused by the west to destabilise Ukraine for its own ends rather than work democratically to win the votes of Ukrainians in the east and prevent the bloodshed that has been spilt. But that was not the aim of the US and Nato

Posted by Moties001 | Report as abusive

Sit down for a beer in an English pub with a former street protester in the country’s capital – how much further can you get from mainstream Russian society? Like nearly all Western reporting on Russia, this article is about a journalist out to find the story he/she already wants to write, disregarding information that doesn’t support the story.

Regarding Dozhd TV, their problems this year began when they started a poll about the WWII siege of Leningrad – offended many people – and were taken off the air in St. Petersburg by cable operators. Putin later promised to defend the station from unfair attacks and scrutiny. The station was already planning to move to a new location in January, but have been asked to vacate the current studio earlier than expected. Where they will operate from until January is still unknown, but they have been offered temporary space by radio station Echo Moscow – which is owned by Gazprom Media.

Posted by charles73 | Report as abusive

Kim wrote, “Repressive tools may forestall the impending instability, but they can’t stop it forever.”

By my reading of history, repression magnifies, and even causes, instability. A society with functioning democratic institutions — openness being their necessary core — offers “relief valves” for popular discontent.

Welding a relief valve shut may stop “blowing off steam,” but also risks a violent explosion at some later time.

Though Putin and his policies are now widely approved among Russians, it is hard to deny that today, part of the fruit of these policies (whether or not one agrees with them) is substantial harm to tens of millions of people, including the majority of ordinary Russian citizens.

Since he first took power nearly 15 years ago, Putin has relentlessly narrowed the space for dissent in the Russian Federation. Now Russia has returned to the “strong man” style of leadership. Number One (as Putin’s lackeys sometimes call him) has become identified with the State. The the citizenry are steeped in the myth that Russia is surrounded by implacable foes who want to destroy it out of unreasoning animosity. In this environment, criticism of Putin automatically becomes equivalent to treason.

The space for dissent is now very small indeed.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

“.. anxious, gilded and hollow..”

Nice try.

They are doing just fine.

But we had to foment the crisis and the negative PR as above – all to support the EU/US trade lobby.

Journalism lobby can buy?

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

“Today she sounds resigned, using the psychological term “learned helplessness” to describe Muscovites’ acceptance of the status quo – including, perhaps, her own.”

For those of us who enjoy the West one of the most depressing trends since Watergate has been the intermixing of two very bad trends to yield a toxic brew full of ill effects: Journalists abandoned straight reporting in favor of propagandizing their favorite causes while at the same time the horrific decline in education and common sense has created a Western population that laps up dogfood like this article and thinks it gourmet fare. Reuters could not stay in business publishing such one-sided idiocy like this article were it not for a gruesomely weak-minded readership.

In every big city almost anywhere in the world you can find plenty of vocal, leftist idiots devoted to hating their society and their government, no matter how much common sense and patriotism other citizens may have. In one of the world’s ten largest cities, Moscow, this author had no problems finding leftist fellow travelers and just as obviously made not the slightest effort to seek out one of the 92% of Russians who do not hold what in Russia are leftist kook opinions.

The author apparently is either so badly educated, so weak-minded or so bent on writing propaganda that it never occurred to him to try to find some of those 92% of Russians who disagree with his friends to learn why they love living in Russia and wouldn’t think of living in the West. It has not apparently dawned on this author that when tens of thousands of people sharing his opinions turn out for a demonstration in a city with a population over 16 million that those demonstrators reflect a fringe element, not what people in Russia really think or care about, not even in an urban area like Moscow that tends to trend more to the left of a very conservative population in the rest of Russia.

What’s also tiresome about this article is the weak-minded attempts to mouth off in a negative way about those positive developments which adults have striven hard to accomplish. For example, the profound reduction in alcohol consumption achieved by measures such as banning late night alcohol sales from stores is a very good thing.

Yes, Moscow is indeed far calmer than it was in Yeltsin’s day, when alcoholics staggered around in the evenings and rival Mafia gangs would shoot out their differences using automatic weapons on the front lawn of the Cosmos hotel. We Russians thank Putin for getting crime under control, a necessary step to keep evolving forward from the horrors of Communism.

But just like you will not find a foaming-at-the-mouth liberal in Manhattan who thanks Rudy Giuliani for cleaning up crime in New York, you won’t find a liberal like this author giving any credit to Putin or the vastly more professionalized government he patiently built to replace the unfathomably corrupt and incompetent structures inherited from the Soviets and from Yeltsin.

For that matter, all of those “boring” improvements to Moscow like European-style regard for sensible parking (no more wild parking on the sidewalks or in the middle of active streets) are exactly the sorts of improvements we Russians would like to see spread to other large cities in Russia, as indeed they are spreading.

Did we pick up such notions of the value of improved government, order and services from our travels throughout the world? Of course. Russians are some of the most fanatic tourists out there and we’ve seen it all overseas. We’ve also benefited from over 20 years of free markets that have brought the International world here into Russia. Inevitably our standards are the higher for it.

For all the wealth of Moscow, is there malaise in Moscow these days compared to the hyperkinetic, go-go days before the crisis in 2008? Of course there is, and only a fool would not recognize that malaise as an extension of the financial gloom that has enveloped the entire world. You’d have to be utterly stupid anywhere in the world not to be concerned about the turn of the US to Ponzi scheme socialism and a Western Europe drawing ever closer to an inevitable collapse when their welfare states finally do run out of other people’s money.

Visit the US and you find a similar malaise, with a thin slice of the top 1% making out very well in a stock market propelled by Obaman Ponzi schemes such as flooding investors with trillions of printed dollars and zero interest loans, but with everyone else decidedly unhappy about a recession that goes on and on. Visit Western Europe and you’ll see not just malaise but strike after strike gripping the continent as people express their rage at economies that are either going nowhere or are on the verge of collapse.

We Russians have long benefited from having multiple irons in the fire to power our economy, with Asia providing an ever-increasing share of consumption to support our resource-extraction economy. But with malaise abounding in the West and an ever more financially irrelevant Europe unable to pull itself out of a funk, we would have to be complete imbeciles not to know that when the entire rest of the world has lowered economic output that will affect us as well.

Posted by Donskoi | Report as abusive

“But we had to foment the crisis and the negative PR as above – all to support the EU/US trade lobby.
Journalism lobby can buy?”

I could say the same about pro-Russian media. They may not be doing as bad as everyone thinks, but they are/never have been angels. Stop being an apologist

Posted by Dehumanist | Report as abusive

Dictators or “Presidents for Life” never work out for the good of the country. There’s plenty of misery awaiting Russia.

Posted by VNats | Report as abusive

“After the Maidan protest ended in bloodshed and the fall of his client, Viktor Yanukovych, in February, Putin decided he might be next. In his imagined battle for survival…”

Nice mind-reading, Mr. Kim. Can you also communicate with spirits?

“Repressive tools may forestall the impending instability,”

What “repressive tools”? They just have a 20,000 strong anti-Putin protest in Moscow – a peaceful one this time – a few weeks ago. No one has been “repressed”.

“Separatism and a lack of economic opportunity aren’t exclusively Ukrainian issues.”

They certainly aren’t. I hear there are strong secession movements in places like Texas and Vermont. Not to mention Scotland and Catalonia. What of it?

“Moscow’s placidness feels like the calm before the storm.”

Why don’t you write about something you know?

Posted by Mao_Cheng_Ji | Report as abusive

Just read history of all dictatorships starting from, let’s say, pharaohs…

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

putin has a propaganda army of trolls cruising cyberspace. their job is to post disparaging, disingenuous, dishonest dispatches posing as individuals. they’re not. putin is a little person. i’ve seen the pictures. he has personal issues. he is driving russia into a confrontation, not with the west, but with china. the trolls will say everything is fine just like baghdad bob did – the day before the tanks rolled in. some russians think he’s a hero because they need a reason to act tough. some russians wish he’d stop embarrassing their country by picking fights like a hood. most, though, would like to live better in peace. the trolls? they have a job to do. keep stirring the pot. the chinese smile. just a little while longer. we can wait. giveit a couple years.

Posted by lastcurmudgeon | Report as abusive

With gasoline prices going down things are going to get tighter and tighter for Putin.

Posted by Mandingo | Report as abusive

Ah, again, the impending doom of Putin. The west just gave him $5B for Ukraine’s past due gas bill, and he is getting $100 more per 1kcf than he was, selling the same quantity, and won’t have to haggle over payment. He also is now assured that Ukraine won’t default on its bonds, mostly held by Russia. Sanctions are having minimal impact on Russia, increasing impact on Germany, Poland, and Slovakia, while he’s signing new deals with China and the ‘Stans. France is now asking him to send his sailors back, and take delivery of his ship. His home popularity was twice Obama’s, before Obama’s slipped some more.

Yes, I can sure see how he’s feeling anxious.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive