Skyscrapers such as these speak of a resurgent Moscow — a more beautiful and confident version of its earlier self Image Credit: AP

Russia’s capital city has worn many outfits since the fall of the Soviet Union.

There was the tattered but hopeful garb of the first years, threadbare and full of possibility. Then came the leopard print fur of the 1990s, an era of stomach-churning economic collapse when the rich roared around in Mercedes sedans and everyone else suffered through the endless steeplechase of life under uncontrolled capitalism.

More recently, however, the city has donned a beautiful summer dress. There is a bike share programme, Wi-Fi on the subway and free tango lessons in Gorky Park. Express trains now zip past traffic snarls to the airports and Uber taxis have replaced wheezing Soviet-era gypsy cabs. Cars park in real parking spaces and tow trucks haul them away if they do not.

But while Moscow looks ever more like an elegant European capital, its political life is marching steadily in the opposite direction. Last month, Russia’s powerful state investigation committee proposed removing the principles of international human rights from the constitution. The regional government in Sverdlovsk recently ordered schools to remove books by a British historian for what it said were inaccurate portrayals of Russian soldiers. Two American charities announced plans to close offices, citing the hostile environment.

For an outsider, the disconnect is dizzying. Which is the real Russia? The one besieged by foreign agents or the one where tattooed hipsters glide around on skateboards? And when — if ever — will those two worlds collide?

In many ways, Moscow is resurgent: a more beautiful, confident version of itself. Over the top has given way to casual elegance. On a recent afternoon at Uilliam’s on Malaya Bronnaya Street, where duck ravioli with oranges was on the menu, patrons sat on small pillows near open windows, chatting and people-watching. In the park nearby, tired mothers slumped in beanbag chairs while their children screeched and climbed in an inflatable house.

But the rich are not the only beneficiaries. Russians are substantially better off since President Vladimir Putin first came to power in 2000. The average salary has roughly tripled, after inflation, and poverty has declined sharply, bringing a feeling of stability and well-being that was lacking in the 1990s. More Russians can now plan life in advance (where will I go on vacation this year?) instead of snatching it a day at a time (what will I eat for dinner tomorrow?).

“It’s so much more comfortable in the city now,” said Denis Lebedev, a construction company worker, 33, sitting with his baby daughter on his lap near a pond in Tsarytsino, a meticulously planted park in southern Moscow. Traffic is tamed, mostly, and salaries are better.

“Now there are flowers,” his wife, Anya Lebedeva, said of the city parks as she adjusted a plate of pickles on their picnic blanket.

Even the old seems new. Backstage at the Bolshoi Theatre on a recent night, dozens of dancers, jubilant and sweaty, mingled with adoring members of Moscow’s high society after the premiere of a new Russian ballet. It was a sumptuous display, blending modern and classical ballet with the 19th century Russian novel “A Hero of Our Time”, which had never been adapted for dance before.

“Magnificent, just magnificent,” a man in a dark blue suit who stepped onto the stage said to Ilya Demutsky, the young composer from St Petersburg who wrote the score.

The pomp can also signal something darker, however. On a recent Sunday morning, Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, was blessing the newly restored St Vladimir Church in central Moscow. Priests swung incense from silver censers that tinkled like bells underneath the soaring ceilings and gilded chandeliers, the glittering pageantry captured by a long line of television cameras. A day later, Putin came for a private showing. The patriarch’s sermon included fiery comments on Ukraine.

“And when we are told today that someone from outside has destroyed the unity of the Ukrainian people,” he said, referring to the criticism of Russia’s military action in Ukraine, “we answer, ‘Be quiet!’” He went on to explain that hundreds of years of discord imposed by the West had divided Ukraine, and only church unity could save it.

Another projector of Russian patriotism is a surgeon-turned-motorcycle enthusiast named Alexander Zaldostanov. His nationalist motorcycle gang, the Night Wolves, last year performed a garish reconstruction of the war in Ukraine that featured Nazis with torches representing Ukrainian nationalists manipulated by a giant set of American hands.

In stuffy room packed with journalists last month, Zaldostanov, soaking up attention like a seal in the sun, announced plans for a new motorcycle show.

“I’m not a showman,” said Zaldostanov, wearing a leather biker vest and a large medallion with the head of a wolf set in sparkly stones arranged to look like flames. “For me it’s a war. This is a fight for the motherland.” He accused the US of “bombing the consciousness” of the world.

Among intellectuals, the mood is dark. In recent weeks, newspaper articles have attacked the journalism department at Moscow State University for teaching liberal ideas. Several professors at St Petersburg State University have been fired for what their colleagues say are their liberal views.

Many are leaving. The number of Russians emigrating to Israel was up by about two-thirds in the first five months of this year, compared with the same period last year, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Temporary teaching positions become permanent and graduate programmes turn into extended stays.

“It’s a very narrow circle but for those it touches, it is very painful,” said Lyubov Borusyak, a sociologist at the Higher School of Economics, whose son, studying at Harvard, is an example of someone with no immediate plans to return. “It’s like an icicle that is melting.”

There are optimists. Vladimir Milov, an opposition politician, said Russians care far more about the economy than foreign politics, and that the aggressive and nationalistic language only goes skin deep. “There’s 5 to 10 per cent of people who are really charged up with this imperialist rhetoric,” he said. “But over 90 per cent just don’t care. Of course they watch TV, of course they get the messages, but this is all on the surface, like foam that can be washed away quickly.”

Just off Old Arbat Street recently, a human rights activist who often serves as the country’s conscience, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, 88, was sunk deeply into a dark blue couch. Her Moscow Helsinki Group has shrunk to seven employees, down from 17 in 2013. It stopped taking funding from outside Russia to avoid being labelled a foreign agent. On a recent radio call-in show, the first question put to her was from a man asking her view on “the predatory snarl of American imperialism”.

She explained that America was far away and she was more interested in Russia, but he was implacable. There was a vote at the end. About 80 per cent of the callers sided against her. “What has surprised me and saddened me most was that after these 20 years of being connected to the world, of media, of freedoms, we still have not learnt to think for ourselves,” she said.

“I hope it will pass,” she added, and pointed out that 20 per cent had taken her side. “It can’t go on like this forever.”

–New York Times News Service

At home

On a recent Friday on Maroseyka Street, city workers were painting bike stands, set into the spacious new stone sidewalk. Ivan Ilin was walking back to work after having a bowl of onion soup at the Jean-Jacques café. Ilin, 33, from southern Russia, has a business in the new field of human resources.

“I love this discrimination against drivers,” he declared brightly, gesturing at the narrowed road.

He usually travels to Europe twice a year, to Italy, Latvia and Lithuania, and to Lisbon to practise his Portuguese. He does not like the imagery of a Russia under siege, or the fact that the news media are not independent, but he feels there is little he can do to change it. “I distance myself from it,” he said.

Still, he has no plans to leave. “Go to the US and work in McDonald’s?” he said. “No, I’m not going to do that. I want to stay where I’m needed.”