The Western image of Moscow and Russia as violent and impoverished is a fantasy. Moscow is actually a very safe, well run and orderly city, which compares very well with the great cities of the West.
Three weeks ago I flew from New York’s JFK airport to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. I wondered what was in store for me. In his 2015 State of the Union address President Obama had told us:
“Today it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters.”
Sheremetyevo airport was a pleasant surprise. Unlike the turmoil at JFK, it was quiet and efficient. My bags arrived promptly, there was only one person in front of me in the customs line and there was no inspection of my baggage. Best of all there were no TSA-like agents yelling commands as in American airports.
Using the airport’s free Wi-Fi, I opened my Uber app and a sleek BMW arrived with something I had never experienced–free Wi-Fi. So this is Russia, I thought as we zoomed past birch forests and factories. Soon we were in typical slow metropolitan traffic. My eyes scanned the road and I noticed something very different from New York – – there were no potholes. Driving to JFK a day earlier was the usual exercise of dodging holes and lumpy asphalt. Yet this supposedly tattered economy didn’t present one pothole on the entire ride into town.
Traveling around Moscow for the next three weeks was an eye-opener.While strolling down wide and clean pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, original art suddenly appeared decorating the side of buildings. The parks are clean and green, statues of literary figures are sprinkled around town and the mayor has erected whimsical archways featuring a happy sun’s face alongside the word: Moscow.
This supposed tattered economy looks pretty healthy from its capital. On my first evening I walked into one restaurant to be told I would have to wait an hour. I went to a restaurant down the street and they said one and a half hours. The people on the street are well-dressed and walking briskly to jobs and appointments as sturdy Skoda, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi cars whisk by.
One day I walked into a hair salon for a haircut. The receptionist asked, “Now?” “Yes,” I answered. He studied his computer screen with a furrowed brow. Even though there were seven hairstylists working, he said the wait would be one and a half hours. I said fine, gave him my name and said I’ll take a walk around the block. I then came across another hair salon with five stylists. They said the wait would be one hour.
I was in Moscow to interview a wide variety of Russians: academics, writers, TV personalities, business people and others. They lived and worked all over the city and I spent hours in taxis. I became obsessed in my search for potholes. Over the last two years I had spent over $1,200 repairing my car’s tires and rims after violent encounters with New York’s pockmarked roads. I kept my eyes peeled, but from residential areas to industrial parks to the city center to the suburban fringes, I failed to find a single pothole. In New York the excuse for the cratered roads is the terrible winters. Moscow’s winters are more brutal but their roads are as smooth as silk.
An economy in tatters? It’s true that Moscow doesn’t represent all of Russia, but neither does New York represent all of the United States.I grew up reading inaccurate over-the-top Soviet propaganda about the United States. Now I wonder about American propaganda regarding Russia. Maybe America’s big city transportation authorities should take a trip to Moscow and text photos from Wi-Fi enabled taxis back to their co-workers about how a rough-winter-city maintains their excellent infrastructure. And maybe we Americans should start challenging our leaders’ constant drumbeat of erroneous and negative views of Russia.