“Please, be careful!” The parting words from a 90-year-old Russian woman I met on the metro this week. This may come across initially as nothing more than friendly advice, but it was not the first time in the conversation that she had expressed concern over my safety in Moscow. As the train pulled away I got to thinking, what is she so scared of? I have been living in Moscow for three months now and it is not vastly different to any other European capital, with a Starbucks on every street corner and arguably one of the best metro systems in the world. Furthermore, their crime index is not especially high, ranking lower than that of London, Paris and Brussels just to name a few and if that wasn’t enough to put my mind at ease the police presence is excellent. You’d struggle to go more than a few hundred metres without passing a police officer. However, as I continued on my commute to college, I began to look past my brief experience of life in Moscow and think about just how much this elderly woman has seen and lived through.
From being born in Moscow in 1927 she has lived through some of the most turbulent years of Russia’s fascinating history, experiencing life in both Stalin’s Russia and Putin’s and all those who ruled in between. The childhood of a great number of the elderly population of Moscow was one filled with fear. Even for those who showed loyalty to Stalin could never be sure if they were safe, due to the system of informing and the ruthlessness of the Great Terror. Between 1937 and 1938 an estimated 30,000 Muscovites were shot. Furthermore, having always been a very religious country the Soviet authorities abolished it all together, destroying a great many churches with the Church of Christ the Saviour being turned into an outdoor swimming pool.
Moscow is effectively still trying to recover from the world’s worst hangover.
The 1920s and 30s were therefore a period of great upheaval and terror but, come 1940, life for the ordinary Russian didn’t get any easier as they then faced a tough battle for victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. It was a war that left the country in ruins, with over 20 million deaths on Soviet soil, two-thirds of which were civilians. In the years that followed it was Stalin’s Five Year Plans that picked the country back up and, ultimately, made it the dominant world power that it is today. Arguably a period of rest and recovery, in relative terms, for the civilians of Moscow and the reason why a surprising number of Russians today believe the dictator should be honoured for what he did to help the country.
Unfortunately it was not long before the country was once again trying to cope with political instability and economic decline. In the years that followed Stalin’s death Russia worked its way through a number of rulers with the steadily worsening instability culminating in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the emergence of the oligarchs but, while these elite few were living the high life, ordinary Russian civilians were queuing for bread and losing loved ones to war once again, this time in Chechnya. Furthermore, all the lifting of censorship did was to enable them to see just how much better life was in the West. Based on this turbulent past it is actually not hard to see why, in a Moscow of 2017, Putin enjoys such high approval ratings with the older generation. If you walk into a supermarket there’s food on shelves which just twenty years ago, were bare.
In restaurants the menus still have grams next to the prices, a reminder of the days when customers needed to be assured that they were getting enough for their money.
With a rise in incomes and living standards and a population that is now growing having been in decline for decades, things are looking up for the residents of Moscow. However, that sweet elderly woman I met on the metro is just one example of how the city still bears the scars of its chaotic past. In the centre, the man who brought communism to Russia is embalmed in a tomb on Red Square. In the outskirts, babushkas sit in underpasses selling anything from socks and slippers to photo frames and opera glasses, trying to make back the savings lost in the 90s. In restaurants the menus still have grams next to the prices, a reminder of the days when customers needed to be assured that they were getting enough for their money.
Moscow is effectively still trying to recover from the world’s worst hangover. 90 years of turmoil are not easily forgotten, particularly not by those who have lived through the worst of it. The Muscovites who lost their lives will, rightfully, always be remembered and the new generation should be grateful for the price they paid. However, it is now time for the city to look forward, appreciate the progress that has been made and stop living in fear.