En Route: Moscow

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 Photo by Erin O’Brien.

Twenty five years ago, Moscow hid behind a crumbling Iron curtain, famed, but elusive. The Soviet capital the world imagined, idealized even, but never thought they would see. Or at least not without thousands of dollars, several bribes, and layers upon layers of bureaucracy.

And then, 1989.

Today, Moscow is but a shadow of its legendary self. Commuters flow through subways to capitalist jobs, plugged into their iPods, sporting the latest fashions (mostly crop tops). Restaurants around the city boast “Takos” (yes, spelled with a k), “Pizza!”, or “Sushi”. Night clubs clustered in the city center blare Western pop songs until seven in the morning, much to the dismay of their sleepy neighbors, and the organic food trend has begun to catch on, in small-plates and ethnic restaurants around the city.

Every Sunday of the summer, in what might be called the “hipster” neighborhood of Moscow, a little island called Red October right in the center of the city, there is an open air market at the local art institute, the Strelka. Hordes of hip twenty-somethings crowd into a re-functioned park under a bridge, and pore over wares that their equally hip twenty-something peers may or may not have made themselves. Space out for a moment, and you might think you’re in Brooklyn, or San Francisco, fighting away the urge to spend the equivalent of $6.50 on a cupcake.

And then you come across one table, tucked away behind an outdoor boutique. The woman manning the shop is impossibly small, with impossibly red lips, and smokes a very thin, black cigarette. Her table is covered in faux fur and Navajo-style blankets (the presence of which took me aback for a moment), but what makes you stop is what sits atop her fabric mélange. Tucked in the folds of the fur are Soviet-era coins and badges, boasting a solemn Stalin’s face, or that red and white hammer and sickle. You stare for a second. She sees you staring, so you ask why. Why these?

She replies simply, “People are into vintage these days.”

They want a piece of their past.

You stare, confused. But the H&M? And the Zara? And the Benetton? A hammer and sickle pin — isn’t that so…regressive?

And then you rewind, remembering the perfectly preserved Soviet architecture; the Metro stations, built in the 1930s, stuffed with statues and edifices glorifying Stalin’s Russia; the red star that dots the cocktail napkin you hold in your hands. Even the gleam in that old man’s eye as he talked about the “good old days.”

Moscow is a city in limbo, a city caught between worlds. It boasts well-groomed parks and very tiny street food, but soldiers still stand in the streets, still very much armed. Tourism centers around that Soviet past: flasks adorned with the hammer and sickle, coins bearing various Soviets’ countenances, and yet, it’s just as much centered on the over-pricing and over-selling of these objects. On Kapital. It’s a city of contradictions, between East and West, between Communism and Capitalism, between old and new, and for 15 years, it has existed in that balance, made it work.

But back in the metro, on your way to the airport, you can’t help but feel that balance tipping. Yes, it’s a city that boasts as many hipsters as Brooklyn, and a burgeoning restaurant scene, but its also one in the ever tightening grip of Vladimir Putin. In the last few years, as markets and boutiques have popped up, the administration has grown ever steelier, even going to far as to praise Joseph Stalin. No matter how modern it may feel, Moscow is a city entrenched in authoritarianism, past, present, and maybe even future. And so, as the girl sitting across from you on the high speed train puts in her iPod, you wonder which way it will go – to Stalin’s past or the West’s future? Because, after a week of metros, used coins, and over-armed guards, it’s undeniable that something’s got to give.

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