Victory Day is not far off, and soon we will hear the warbling of birds from the treetops and the cacophony of jackhammers in the streets of Moscow. At night we can listen to the soft summer breezes commingling with the raucous grind and gasp of bulldozers and cranes. The days remain gray, but summer reconstruction has already begun.
Last summer I found myself having to devise strategies every Sunday to circumvent the closing of various metro stations for remont. One weekend the red line, the next the orange one, etc. Probably there will be more of the same this time around, but the emphasis has clearly shifted to the outer panorama of the city. And though the springtime songs of the winged flocks are perennial; the relentless gutting of the old streets and squares for the purpose of fashioning a bold new Moscow has been the obsession of our present mayor Sergei Sobyanin for only a few years. Still, the results have been staggering. There is no question that the mass overhaul (in part stimulated by the nearing World Cup extravaganza) has given the capitol a wonderfully reinvigorated look in many areas. It has also caused problems, expecially among motorists, many of whom have apparently been howling for the mayor's scalp. But the remorseless drilling, digging, planting and paving will go on all summer whether some folks like it or not. The boys with the blue lights glowing atop their sedans don't care about you and your probka, Sergei and Dima.. Understood?
The astonishing thing -- at least to me -- is the ferocious speed of the construction and refurbishment onslaught. The walled off exits and entrances to certain metros may remain in a lasting state of inertia, the city's drainage system may suck -- that is, it sucks up everything but rainwater -- many people are living on pensions that wouldn't pay for good meal for four at a mid-level restaurant (if you throw in a bottle or two of wine), and the cost of food in supermarkets has almost doubled, YET there is enough in the governmental treasure chest to spend billions of rubles on projects that, when all is said and done, remain largely cosmetic. So while everyone else languishes, the builders are in a state of euphoric frenzy, darting about like a cast of actors frantically changing costumes back stage in time for the next Act. Long-term, the colossal alterations may prove to have been worth the effort and expenditure. (After all, the French hated the Eiffel Tower at first, didn't they?.) But the questions remain: couldn't some of this money be channeled into spheres that might serve the public in a more practical and immediate way? Isn't it true that government spending on such trifles as Healthcare and Education has been slashed to make room for the "modernization" of the city?
Well, the correct answer to that question, I'm afraid, is No, it couldn't be. Whether they used the money to build giant statues of all members of the Duma (what a nightmarish Disneyland THAT would be!), theme parks for extreme sport fanatics, or a Stairway to Heaven, one thing is sure: the money would NEVER go where it is most needed.
Moreover, this prodigious facelift is being done as fast as the Titantic went heading for the iceberg -- that is, as fast as the captain could steer it. And the captain of THIS Ship, our mayor, is jumping for joy. Will history prove him right? Will the Good Ship Sobyanin manage to dodge the iceberg and reach a glorious destination? Or will it finally crash and sink us all?
So fast. So relentless. So indifferent to public opinion.
This is one of the amazing things I find about Russia (re: Moscow) compared to the USA. The Americans like to hem-and-haw over things; everyone has an opinion -- usually rendered in a loud voice --, and a million dramas and melodramas play themselves out (as well as the signing, sealing, and delivering of a gazillion documents) before the work actually begins. But the Yanks always at least pretend to be busy. In Russia it is the opposite effect. For months on end nothing happens, often giving the impression that nothing will EVER happen, and then, suddenly, usually in the dead of night, Darth Vader lowers his Doomsday Visor and whole city blocks collapse into rubble. I 've seen it many times. Once I even got lost, convinced that I had come the wrong way out of the metro, looking for landmark buildings that were no longer there but which had been upright and full of people the day before.
It seems to me that the mayor is a great lover of the open spaces. In this sense he probably would have been happy as a cowboy running a ranch in Montana. I have recently seen a copy of the grand design for opening the center up more and more for pedestrians and shutting it down for the horn-blowing motorists. (There is a joke that asks, "What is a Russian nano-second? Answer: the length of time between when a traffic light turns green and the Russian driver behind you starts blasting on his horn!). There is no question that large parts of the great city will be more calm and pleasant and picturesque. And safe. And, as a guy who goes everywhere in the metro, am I allowed to be selfish and say that I really don't care what the poor souls in the traffic jams do to resolve their dilemma? Excuse me, I do care.
I was among those screaming bloody murder when so many of the small shops and kiosks got put out of business. I still feel that way. To me it eliminated many necessary conveniences for the hordes of old people in this city, and -- all governmental lies and bullshit about 'legality' to the side -- it represented nothing more than a greedy power play by officials who wish to direct business toward venues that are likely to benefit them and put money in their own pockets. In time, many of these little businesses will probably find a way to creep back into existence, but for now its Auschan, Schokoladnitsa or nothing. But I do like the idea of a city where you can walk around and smell something besides exhaust emisison from automobiles. This model has caught on everywhere else, so why not in Russia?
The problem -- a very deep and insidious problem, if you ask me -- is that much of the remodelling is perhaps just to dress the city up for the foreign invasion in sumnmer, 2018. I can give you an example. Back in the Cold War, whenever the Soviets gave us a glimpse of their achievements, be it beautiful buildings or emblems of the highest technology of the day -- we thought it was like that all across Russia. That's why Americans were scared of the Russians -- they thought that the Soviet Union was a replica of the USA, only full of godless commmunists instead of good Christians. The reality was that the Soviet Union was a facade and ultimately a fraud. The lives of most people was at best stagnant and uneventful and, at worst, full of the ongoing hell of constant deprivation. Even then, the Soviets could doll up the city for the Olympics. But they were doing it with mirrors and finally it just didn't work.
Maybe the same is true today? We know, for example, that a lot of the material that is being used for both new construction and repair of what seemed 'new' last year is shoddy, inferior; this is why the roads are always in need of fixing. Many people here are convinced it is by design. Constant repair means constant flow of money...into selected pockets. Sounds a lot like Russia to me. (But not only Russia.) The ancient Romans would sneer at such incompetent engineering and porous fabric. What they might think of the morality behind it remains a mystery. But we can be sure that all this creative civic majesty will look brilliant in the summer of 2018.
How will future generations judge the dreams and works of Mayor Sobyanin? Peter the Great didn't gave a damn how many lives were sacrificed in the building of St. Petersburg. Many perished, but who cares about them now?. The final result was what we have: the Russian Venezia.. In time, the spanking new and sparkling bright showcase city of Moscow will stand before the world -- and people will admire it. Sure, the Western media will find fault everywhere they can when they come pouring in again, but the grandeur of the capitol will overwhelm their frail bleatings. Rome is Rome, and Caesar is Caesar. Will it matter then that many citizens were inconvenienced a bit in the process of the building.?.
Frankly, I don't know. Apparently there is an appartus in effect whereby the citizens are able to voice their opinions. You can check this out on the following link: http://info-android.com/post-5117-an-active-citizen-is-the-app-for-those-who-do-care/#.WP64FGqlbbM
. By this means, Mayor Sobyanin can argue that he is indeed listening to the voice of the people and following their commands. And yet, I find that when I ask my Russian friends why such-and-such happened, why things are this-way-or-that-way,they simply shrug their shoulders. Always I feel a sense of powerlessness, a sense that they are kept perpetually in the dark while the great powers above and beyond them unveil their machinations in the night. The Russian way is the way of secrecy. But always there is a stroke of cunning involved, which strives to make it all look legit. So the question remains: does the mayor really heed the will of the people or has he merely set up an apparatus to make it appear so?.
I would like to believe that Mayor Sobyanin, when he is not busy squirreling away the chestnuts for his own purposes (like all those in power everywhere seem to do), is actually -- in part at least -- a true idealist and dreamer. I ask myself why men (and women) with this much clout almost inevitably become corrupt. . I mean, do any of them just reach a point where it's the legacy, not the money, which counts?. As a lifelong sports fan, I have seen many athletes do this, playing smply for pride and to see how far they can push their bodies. There comes a time when it's not about the money; it's about a place in history.
Will the Mayor of Moscow rise to become a great statesman? Will he become the President of the Russian Federation some day? Recently I rode for the first time on the МЦК. And I thought, you know, this is pretty good. In fact, it's damned magnificent. Moscow is changing before our eyes and maybe, amid our grunts of frustration and under-the-breath swear-words that we so often punctuate our days with, we should give Sobyanin a round of applause for dragging Moscow headlong into the 21th century.
===Eric Richard Le Roy===