Moscow is not Russia, Part I

The purpose of this trip is to learn new things, not to confirm what we think we know. Nonetheless, the visible prosperity in Moscow was starting to freak me out.

A political scientist wants to think she knows a few basic facts about the world’s major countries, and It was hard to square what I saw there with what I thought I knew.

Prices in Moscow are very high. Groceries and restaurant meals are comparable to the US; drinks start at about $7 and go up from there. Most buildings on the main boulevards have been restored, at least on the outside, and there are many new buildings. An entire neighborhood of skyscrapers is under construction (reminds me of Shanghai’s Pudong district).

An alumna we spoke to told me a studio apartment in the center of town would rent for $1200-$2000, while small apartments on the outskirts, far from metro stations, cost $300,000 or more. Meanwhile, the streets are clogged with Mercedes, Range Rovers, and Audis. We even saw a Bentley, as well as a Maserati dealership.

Part of the explanation may be that there is an invisible (to us) parallel economy.┬áIn first-tier Chinese cities it’s possible to pay US prices (and above), but it’s also possible to pay much less. (You can pay $500 or $5 for a delicious, satisfying dinner, for example.) If that’s the case in Moscow, however, we saw no evidence of it. Moscow doesn’t have the carts, stalls, and low-end restaurants that make life affordable in China.

A better explanation is the one offered by an alumna who works for an US-based consulting firm. She said two things that stuck with me: Moscow is sucking all of Russia’s wealth into itself, and all this wealth derives from oil exports.

Now that we’re out of Moscow, the picture is coming into better focus. More on that in Part 2.

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