Thursday, November 06, 2003

From Evil Empire to Emerging Economy

I can't describe accurately the excitement I felt my entire five days that I spent in Moscow. Like many of us, I was born in the midst of the Cold War. To me, Russia was always that cold far away land that was run by misguided ideologs who were hell-bent on seeing that Communism goose stepped across the world. The U.S. and The U.S.S.R. were polar opposites living in bizzaro realities. Ours was right and there's was wrong. These Superpower counterbalances dominated world affairs for the better part of 50 years, but on the 8th of December, 1991, The Soviet Union ceased to exist. America woke up that day and found itself the only player still on the court. Russians woke up that day and wondered what their own future would bring.

I have no doubt that the one word that summarizes the Russian people's future is: opportunity. It was a word that my Russian co-worker, Alexei, and I used again and again throughout my stay. Moscow has seen dramatic social, economical, and financial change since the blinders of Communism were thrown off over 10 years ago. The most dramatic of these changes has come in the last five years according to Alexei.

Most people cannot imagine the thought of not being able to travel freely, or to start your own business, or to choose from several brands at the grocery store. But this was a very real situation throughout Russia. Today there is an excitement that permeates this city of over 12 million people. They are now playing catch-up to the rest of the world, and the pace is at break-neck speed.

Capitalism is putting down roots in Russia and a growing number of ambitious young Muscovites are joining the expanding wealthy class. Unfortunately, the traditional middle class has yet to keep pace and is now only slowly emerging. There is still a dramatic disparity between the haves and the have nots.

Consumerism is thriving for those who can afford it. I would challenge anyone to tell the difference between the up-scale retail shops of Moscow and those of Paris, London, or San Francisco. Designer products are in hot demand and foreign companies are swarming to attract Moscow's spend-free upper class that possess masses of disposable income.

Moscow also has some of the most posh restaurants I have ever seen. Admittedly I was concerned that my diet when visiting Moscow would consist mainly of borsch (cabbage soup), but to my utter astonishment I had the most delicious food I have ever eaten while at a traditional Russian restaurant in Moscow. The meal consisted of several appetizers ranging from smoked salmon to small little pastries that were stuffed with either minced lamb or mushrooms. Freshly baked Russian rye bread was a mainstay. Then came the main course which was black tuna on a bed of pasta shells, which were stuffed with crawfish meat. For dessert, it was a three berry delight swimming in cream. The finest of French wines were available, along with the most traditional of all Russian beverages, the shot of vodka. The price tag for this meal was equivalent to what the average teacher in Moscow makes in six months sadly to say. This is just one small reason why Moscow is easily the most expensive city in all of Europe. But the wealthy Russians and foreign businessmen who dine there are truly sampling one of the world's greatest cuisines.

What makes the emerging market of Russia so interesting and different is the fact that its population is extremely well educated, especially in science and engineering. While education is always a bedrock component of any country who hopes to pull themselves up by the boot straps, Russia already has this line item under its belt. Along with traditional scientific disciplines, hospitality and tourism should be strong future industries for young Russians to enter into as more foreigners learn and want to visit this rich historical and cultural land.

When one thinks of Moscow, the Kremlin and Red Square come to mind. The Kremlin, which essentially translates into fortress, is the center of Moscow and it is from where the city began back in 1147. In the Medieval period, cities would build a fortress wall to protect its most sacred churches, ordained leaders, and thrones of rule. Although today's Kremlin walls mark the first such defense for the city, these city walls were expanded three separate times throughout history as the city grew and expanded. Today there are still remnants of this second wall, however the final wall has been torn down long ago.

The Kremlin to most outsiders represents the seat of power for Russia. It is here from which the great Tsars ruled with ambition and grandeur and sometimes great fear and intimidation. This is also the place were Soviet leaders ruled and from where today President Putin conducts his administration. When you first enter the main gate you quickly ascertain that the Kremlin is like a city within a city. Inside the outer walled defenses, one can find holy Russian Orthodox churches were many Tsars are now lying in their final resting place. A grand museum is there as well which displays some of the most lavish and ornate possessions of the Russian Tsars. The Kremlin can also be viewed from different angles around Moscow, and when the sun is out, the marvelous structures twinkle with their golden colors.

Abutting one entire side of the Kremlin is the infamous and imposing Red Square. Here you will find a massive cobblestone courtyard as well as Lenin's Mausoleum. It was from atop this mausoleum that Soviet Leaders such as Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev watched as their massive war machine would parade across Red Square for their approval and admiration. A person truly feels tiny and insignificant in this place, and the entire area takes on an even greater sense of eeriness and night.

Moscow at night is a feast for the eyes. The once menacing Red Stars shine brightly atop the towers of the Kremlin just as they have done for the better part of a century, except during World War II, when they were camouflaged so as not to reveal the Kremlin's location to Nazi war planes. Saint Basil's Cathedral looks as if it was snatched directly out of Santa's workshop, with its brightly colored domes. Its magnificence in the day can only be matched by its hypnotizing powers at night. Originally constructed from 1555 - 1561, this concoction of contorting colors has survived and become a true symbol of Moscow around the world.

Religion has always played a strong role within Russian history. The Russian Orthodox Church forms the foundation of Moscow's traditional faith. The Church of Jesus Christ represents classic orthodox architectural elements found on many other places of worship throughout Moscow. Although grand in appearance, this church was only (re)constructed three years ago. The original church was ordered destroyed by Stalin to make room for his spectacular vision of a monument to Lenin. This fantasy tribute would have had a gigantic Lenin with outstretched hands that would have been used as a helicopter landing pad. The Soviets ran low of funding for such a project and the plans were scrapped, but the original church was already in rubble. Several years ago, local citizens and businesses went on a private fundraising exercise which raised enough money to re-build the church in its original grandeur. Today, it stands as a testament to Russian ambition to find solutions with their own propensity and hard work, rather than waiting for the government to respond.

When Stalin wasn't tearing down historically significant structures or sending perceived oppositional threats to Siberia or to an early grave, he was constructing massive monuments to Soviet might. Stalin suffered from an inferiority complex, and because of this he was always trying to demonstrate the Soviet Union's strength. Feeling inadequate about the Moscow skyline and its lack of skyscrapers as compared to western cities, Stalin ordered his chief architects to erect seven massive structures that would show the world that Moscow was a city on the move. These colossus structures were dubbed "Stalin's Seven Sisters" and were constructed strategically around the city. One of these Sisters is the home of Moscow State University, while others are used today as condos and office buildings. At night time, these structures give off the impression of a waiting rocket ship waiting for its orders to blast off into space.

One of my most favorite places that I visited while in Moscow was the Novodevichy Convent. This serene place, located on the Moscow River, was founded in 1524. The oldest and most dominant building in the grounds is the white Smolensk Cathedral. Its beautifully proportioned domes were added in the 17th century. The bell tower was completed in 1690 and is regarded as Moscow's finest. Although stunningly beautiful, this convent, like many in Moscow, has a long list of tragic guests among their ranks. When Peter the Great was just 17, he imprisoned his half-sister Sofia to the convent in 1698, so that she would not be a threat to his right to the thrown. Peter is said to have had several of Sofia's supporters hanged outside her window to remind her not to meddle. Great visual cue, eh? Ole Pete was quite the classy guy it appears, since he later imprisoned his first wife Yevdokia there when he became disillusioned with her and came to the realization that she was a nag.

Beyond the Tsarist domestic strife that is represented at the convent, it also contains a cemetery that holds some of Russia's most well-known people. Khrushchev is buried here, since he wasn't able to cut the mustard and be buried behind the Kremlin Wall with other Soviet heavyweights, like Stalin, Brezhnev, and the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin. Stalin's second wife, Nadezhda, is buried here after she committed suicide. Life at home with Stalin must have been as bad as it was for his detractors. The latest addition to the ranks was Raisa Gorbachev, the sophisticated and highly visible wife of the last Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Leaving Moscow was somewhat hard to do. First and foremost because I really enjoyed my stay and I wished that I could discover even more about what this special place has to offer. Secondarily because Moscow traffic is so bad that I missed my first flight back to Munich and almost missed a second. All the way through my co-worker and now friend, Alexei was there to help. We had time to learn even more about each other and he tended to loosen up even more when he was back on his home turf. Alexei is a young, vibrant, and wickedly smart person. I know that he will be a shining example of the New Russia and what its people are truly capable of.

Opportunity is how Alexei and I began our conversations in Moscow and opportunity is still on our lips after returning back to Munich. We both had a great time brainstorming business ideas together and what might make us both rich in the momentous Moscow economy. Who would have ever thought ten years ago that an American and a Russian could sit together and talk about ways to make the engines of Capitalism work for both of them in a partnership?

In closing, I'll leave you with my question to Alexei and his corresponding answer which gave me the most excitement and pride while in Moscow. I think it speaks volumes as to why the Cold War, although long and bitterly fought, was in the end worth while.

David: Alexei, what has been the greatest change that you have witnessed in the last 15 years here in Moscow?

Alexei: The biggest change has not been physical, although there has been plenty of that around here. The biggest change that I have noticed has been the attitudes of Moscow People. Right after Communism ceased, Moscow People were looking around in a daze wondering when the new government would come rushing in to save them from the mess and improve their lives. They had worked their entire life you see in a system that in the end did not work. Can you imagine what it must have been like to awaken from this life and realize that it was for not and in the end felt just like a terribly bad dream? While most people waited for their government to save them, a few ambitious Russians knew that it was their own battle to win for themselves. Capitalism is best utilized by those who invest in themselves to make a difference. People slowly started to realize that it is up to them as individuals to seek out the skills, to take the risks of executing an idea, to stand up for themselves to provide a better life for their families. These people took those chances and many of them succeeded. They became role models for others. Today this vast shift in attitude is the biggest change that has taken hold in Moscow. People believe in themselves and they believe in self-determination to achieve one's goals.

David: Amen!

If you would like to see all the photos from Moscow, please click on the following link.


Post a Comment

<< Home