COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado. If you didn’t know where you were, you would be hard pressed to know you were in Moscow as opposed to any other European capital. Certainly, the signs in Cyrillic lettering would be a dead give-away that you’re in Russia today. But many signs are sub-titled in English as well. That’s a legacy from the 2018 FIFA World Cup Championships that were staged here.
People-watching in Russia today
In Russia today, you still see the same groups of tourists gawking at the architectural and cultural sights, the same streets crowded with shoppers and commuters, and the same traffic snarls.
One difference, though, is that you rarely see traffic cops.
The road signs are the familiar European style, and the stop lights are the familiar green, yellow and red. There’s even a helpful sign that says “Stop.” In Cyrillic characters, of course. At crosswalks the Green Man tells you it is safe to cross. One difference is that in many places, electronic numbers now count down those green and red lights to tell you how many seconds remain until the light changes.
You’d better not be in the street when it does. Russian drivers will zoom off in their expensive cars. Too bad if you’re in the way.
Ladas, Volgas… and VWs
In the Soviet era, the government produced just two car models: the Lada and the Volga. Getting a Lada was mostly a matter of waiting to be able to buy one while the Volga was out of reach for all but the party elite.
Lada is manufactured today by AvtoVAZ, a Russian company now owned by the French Groupe Renault. You can sometimes see classic models still clunking along on the streets, especially in smaller towns. One night in St. Petersburg, we saw a group of young men admiring two examples of the older models whose owners, presumably, went to some trouble to keep on the road.
That said, more modern Ladas are still among the most popular cars in Russia. But the VW Polo currently tops the list of popular cars in Russia. (Volgas are no longer produced.)
No more babushkas on the streets of Moscow
Despite the busy traffic, many people walk along the streets with their noses buried in their cell phones, just like everywhere else in the world. They dress like other Europeans in jeans and t-shirts, often with English phrases on them. One wonders whether the wearers know what the phrases actually mean. But if people-watchers expect to see frumpy old women loaded down with bags or men in ill-fitting non-descript suits, they’ll be disappointed. They departed decades ago along with the Soviet era.
Anyone who studied the USSR—and that likely excludes everyone under 30—is aware the more country known today simply as “Russia” was a drab place indeed. Anyone who visited Russia prior to the mid-1990s would hardly recognize Russia today.
Visiting the GUM department store in Russia today
Russians have embraced capitalism. Nowhere is this more obvious than at Red Square in Moscow, where the famous GUM department store has long dominated part of that landscape.
With a façade extending for 794 ft (242 m) along the eastern side of Red Square, the Upper Trading Rows—as the building was originally known—were built between 1890 and 1893.
By the time of the Russian Revolution, the building complex contained some 1,200 stores. After the Revolution, however, the building was nationalized. GUM, by the way, is an abbreviation for the Russian words meaning State Department Store. But most stores in the Soviet era were famous for having empty shelves with long lines whenever something—anything—became available.
Russia today continues to experience considerable change and updating. One prime example: GUM was privatized as a modern shopping mall. This still vast emporium is now full of luxury goods stores and restaurants. And shoppers. It even has a website. At night it is fully illuminated, giving it something of a gingerbread house look. There were no night lights here during the Soviet era.
A better architectural look for Russian apartment blocks
More than just department stores have changed in Russia today. True, Muscovites still live in apartment buildings, but the buildings are modern. The old drab concrete buildings remain in places. But newer ones boast a modern look. Both types are limited, however, by zoning laws to about 24 floors.
Déja vu: Nostalgia for the former USSR?
A certain segment of the Russian population still actually longs for the good old days. One tour guide—a teacher—openly told us she preferred the Soviet system. In those days, she said, everything was free. And the price of eggs and milk was the same everywhere, in Moscow as well as in Siberia.
What she didn’t say, though, was that eggs and milk were almost impossible to buy.
On a recent river cruise between Moscow and St. Petersburg, on-board guides described what the Russian economy is like today. In response to a question, one offered an intriguing definition of socialism, the base of the former Soviet system. “Socialism,” he said, “is the longest and most painful way to get to capitalism.”
The Russian sense of humor hasn’t changed.
— Headline image: GUM, Main (former State) Department Store, Moscow, Russia.
Image via Wikipedia entry on GUM Russia, CC 2.0 license.