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Red Square Revisited

Nearly 30 years after his first visit, Barry Stewart finds Moscow dramatically changed – and asks whether it’s been wholly for the better

THE LAST time I visited Moscow, it was in the middle of a bitter winter nearly 30 years ago, as the first stirrings of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost presaged the looming collapse of the Soviet system.

This time it was at the height of summer, with temperatures around 30°C – and the Russian capital’s Western-style shopping streets could have been in Manchester or Minneapolis, apart from the Cyrillic store signs.

The contrast between the late Eighties and the second decade of the 21st century couldn’t have been more marked. Unlike the grey, austere city of the Soviet era, Moscow is now a glitzy European capital, with designer shops in neon-lit malls, fast-food restaurants and the conspicuous consumption of the West.

However, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find the similarities are often superficial. Under the not-so-benign eye of President Vladimir Putin, modern Russia to some extent experiences the worst of both worlds: combining the authoritarianism of the Soviet years with the excesses of Eighties-style rampant Western capitalism.

Parts of Moscow are simply exquisite. Red Square epitomises the mystique of the city’s long and turbulent history. The Kremlin’s cathedrals, onion-domed St Basil’s and the astonishingly ornate Metro system make up some of the finest architecture in the world. Even the ‘Stalin Gothic’ skyscrapers of the Soviet era have a certain grandiose charm.

Yet in this city of more than 12 million people post-Communist plutocrats and bribable local officials live the high life while bleak housing estates of tower blocks stretch almost as far as the main airport, nearly 25 miles away. Limousines ferry the great and good to hedonist hotspots while head-covered babushkas seek spiritual solace in the awe-inspiring Orthodox churches.

During our visit, more than 50 city centre streets were being torn up in the massive ‘My Streets’ pavement-widening project, the biggest road reconstruction work in Moscow’s history. It’s a laudable aim but has led to footpaths being replaced by a labyrinth of temporary wooden walkways that wouldn’t survive a health and safety inspection over here.

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