This month I undertook one of my increasingly frequent visits to Moscow, which now take place on a fairly regular basis several times a year, and which have been ongoing since I revisited Moscow for the first time in a decade in April 2014.
At the time of my visit in April 2014 Crimea had just rejoined Russia, the Maidan coup in Ukraine had happened only a few weeks before, the popular uprising in the Donbass against the Maidan regime was gaining momentum, and the first Western sanctions on Russia had just been imposed, with a widespread and correct expectation that more would follow.
Since 2004 when I was last there Moscow looked transformed, having become immeasurably richer and more orderly than it was then.
However despite all the euphoria caused by the reunification with Crimea, the mood was nervous, with uncertainty as to the direction events were taking and concern as relations with the West were deteriorating.
One sensed a stiffening of the mood, with a determination to see things through, but also a sense that difficult times lay ahead.
Coming to Moscow three years later the overriding feeling – over and above the sustained improvement in material conditions about which more below – is of an almost bewildered sense of surprise – and relief – that the difficult times have come and gone and have not proved so difficult after all.
That may sound complacent – after all the country did experience a significant fall in living standards during the worst period of the recession and the inflation hike in 2015 – but compared to what many were expecting in 2014 – and what had happened to the country only a short time before – this all seems relatively minor.
Importantly nearly everybody seems to have kept their jobs.
One very obvious consequence of this – probably one more visible to an outsider and occasional visitor like me than to a long term resident – is of a sharp growth in confidence and self-esteem. I even saw a Rolls Royce (Moscow has many) proudly bearing the St. George’s ribbon, something inconceivable just a few years ago.
No longer does the West seem quite so powerful and so menacing as it did previously – this despite the deployment of NATO forces on Russia’s borders – or (for some Russians) quite so impressive and so attractive as it did just a short time ago.
Putting aside questions of public mood – where my impressions are personal and are obviously open to challenge – Moscow is now self-evidently coming fast out of recession. This is clear from the fast pace of economic activity with shops and eating establishments now definitely attracting many more customers than before.
However the single most obviously visible fact about Moscow – already obvious from my trips there last year – is the extent to which the city is going through a makeover.
Though this was already going on with a vengeance when I was in Moscow last summer the pace has if anything cranked up still more, with roads being relaid, pavements widened, buildings cleaned and refurbished, and parks laid out at what by sedate London standards looks like a frenetic pace. Much of the centre of the city is now an extremely busy building site.
Though this does have its inconveniences, refurbishment of a city on this scale – something I have never seen anywhere else before – is also undeniably impressive.
Undoubtedly some of this is connected to the fact that Russia next year will be hosting the World Cup. However this process has been ongoing for some time, and I was assured that the World Cup is only a part of it.
Possibly the most striking refurbishment works of all – at least that I saw – are those being carried out at VDNKh – Stalin’s grandiose exhibition area in northern Moscow – where the art deco pavilions, the fountains and the gardens are being refurbished with military precision.
Still more impressive is the transformation of Gorky Park, scene of an (in my opinion) bad Cold War thriller and a worse film based on it.
This was my first opportunity to see Gorky Park properly following its complete restoration on a warm Saturday in July marked by occasional showers but still filled with people of all ages enjoying themselves. Muscovites are justifiably very proud of it.
However for anyone who remembers Moscow in the 1990s the great change – one which continues to impress me – is still what an orderly, pleasant and law abiding place it has become. The streets are free of litter, the buildings are free of graffiti, and the city at all times feels completely safe.
So much so in fact that for the first time in many years I decided to take a stab at experiencing the city’s famous nightlife.
I chose the nearest possible locale – the Time Out Bar at the top of Peking Hotel on a Saturday night – but quickly decided that I was way too old to be there even though it is a bar and not a dance club. As a result I left after about 40 minutes.
The setting – in an extraordinary rectangular art deco room high up on the thirteenth floor of a Stalin era skyscraper with open air terraces on either side where dancing takes place – was however remarkable, though I felt it could benefit from a facelift.
The scene was far more relaxed than I remember it. Important I left the bar entirely unsolicited, which would have been inconceivable for a Western man however grey his hair in a Moscow bar just a few years ago.
With more money spent on it the venue could be made to look like a set from Metropolis.
It is a commonplace to say of some great city that it is always changing. In the case of Moscow however it is actually true.
Indeed the speed of change is dizzying, something which incidentally has been true of most of Moscow’s history since the start of the twentieth century.
It is not however true of most cities – and was certainly not always true of Moscow – that change when it takes place is for the better. I can think of several cities now where that is definitely not the case at all.
In the case of Moscow today however it is, and it is hugely exciting to be a part of it if only in a minor way and to watch it happen.