13 May A Mysterious Russian Soul, a Story by Mathilde
ExploRussia is publishing more stories from our travelers. This one is a true masterpiece from Mathilde Menusier, she is not typical French, journalism is her calling, she sees the deeper side of things. And I was not surprised when she told me, that her great-grandparents are from Russia. Welcome her very sincere and full of love story about Moscow, Russian life-style, new Russian generation and her understanding of the mysterious Russian soul.
“I love cities; their rumble and dynamics, their architecture, their streets, and urbanism; people’s faces and styles, their stories, their passion; the energy, the inspiration you get from it. Moscow, with 12 million inhabitants who set the example to follow for a country twice the size of the U.S. felt especially intriguing because it is at a turning point. A century after the Russian revolution that imposed Lenin’s Soviet Federated Socialist Republic followed by 2 decades of fierce capitalism (and the growing inequalities between the classes that come with it), it is easy to wonder: what is going on? How does this culture cope with its dilution into the Western way of life, and how is the new generation taking the helm? I was curious.
You get there your head full of clichés – the multi-coloured meringues of St Basil’s Cathedral, wide avenues lined with Stalin buildings, the Kremlin, oil billionaires, Tolstoy, Bulgakov, Chekhov, Grossman, Shostakovich, vodka cheaper than water… yet as blasé as you can be, you’ll hold your breath when, at dusk, you slowly penetrate the Red Square for the first time. The sun is going down, tourists are leaving, lights enlighten the square little by little and it’s magical. Mystical.
Mid-April, the snow had not entirely melted yet although it was over 20°C.
As soon as you step out of the airport, Moscow grasps you as quickly as taxi drivers. You dive into this megalopolis through the Metro’s breathtakingly deep escalators, plunging into a History that you find out, is always weighty there. I mean, the Metro is named Lenin, that sets the tone. It is decked in marble, granite, sculptures of athletes and workers, mosaics, stained-glass, it fulfills its mythical role of “jewel of the Soviet regime” to perfection: stunning, cheap, safe, easy and amazingly efficient, so one tends to use it a lot, among the 6,8 million Muscovites who ride it every day… Overcrowded, yes, but hey, just follow the flow. Moscow’s Metro was bombed four times over the last decade.
By the exits, you meet babushkas, older women, humble, who carry on their faces the harshness of the former regime, and look with disapproval at the young people who have decided to make up for the lost time.
Girls who might as well all be models: tall and slim and gorgeous, incredibly elegant, impeccable hair and make-up, hopping in Louboutin stilettos they paid twice the price for; distinguished men in tuxedos hurry past, loudly pressing their Porsche’s accelerator.
Luxury hotels, shopping malls, a booming restaurant scene and fashion industry, over-the-top bars and nightclubs competing for glitz and glamour… All the excesses of capitalism seem joyfully embraced.
Yet the new generation appears to already step back from it. The impression I had was that they are open and tech-savvy, they travel, they blog, they speak English – they know what’s going on and they know what’s going wrong. They are detached from the Soviet years they never knew, instead they are resolutely turned towards Russia’s future. But it’s not all about Russian soul.
Moscow ranks amongst the most expensive cities in the world, while 16% of its population live under the poverty line and the minimum wage is about 113 EUR/month. Corrupt officials and powerful oligarchs are hampering the country’s development.
The President, a former KGB officer in East Germany, does not sound too excited about undertaking democratic reforms. Opposition activists are intimidated when not jailed, demonstration organisers are taken to trial, freedom of expression is curtailed, repression, murders… See, Russia doesn’t exactly stand as the country of Human Rights.
Democracy takes time to build, and everything here seems yet to be done. Perhaps most Russians remain apolitical and apathetic, I don’t know. My own experience was a feeling of strength, of optimism, great creativity, a will for change in a place where everything is in construction – and probably will continue if the plans to double the size of the capital go ahead.
Moscow boasts an extraordinary artistic scene The Calvert Journal, Winzavod, The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, the New Tretyakov Gallery, just to name a few, enchanting nights at the Bolshoi Theatre admiring what might be the world’s best ballet, wandering in centuries of history and literature, enjoying magnificent Russian and Georgian cuisines, basking in banyas…
…and meeting the kindest Russian people. Here I’m getting closer to understanding what Russian soul is. I loved their pride, their solemnity, their intensity, how you have to scratch the surface a bit to get a smile… but once you do, everything that spills from them comes from the heart with utter sincerity and passion. They embrace life, as bitchy as it can be, and are not afraid to stare at it straight in the eyes. The dizzying transformation of their country, for better or for worse, and at the same time, deep down you can sense the vigor and dignity of the Russian soul.
They are much, much smarter, too. Yes, I am standing by this statement even though Putin, having “himself photographed riding horses bare-chested, tracking tigers, shooting a whale with a crossbow, piloting a firefighting jet, swimming a Siberian river, steering a Formula One race car, befriending Jean-Claude Van Damme, and riding with a motorcycle gang*”, still won the last election with over 60% of the vote…
Moscow, such a weird, excessive and crazy place, and that’s what makes it so fascinating and exciting to me. A city of depth and poetry, tangible at all levels.
*”The Civil Archipelago – How far can the resistance to Vladimir Putin go?”, The New Yorker, December 2011″