Every time I used to return to Moscow after some time abroad, I'd feel that mix of violent emotions that I can only describe as something similar to fear. It was a good fear -- the fear of having something unexpected happen to you.
Now that fear of the unknown is gone, as is the Moscow of the 1990s. It doesn't exist anymore, as if it was all a gory, wet dream. That fear- upon-arrival has been replaced by something else. Not quite dread, but something close to dread and weariness -- the dread you feel when you DO know what will happen next in your life.
If there's one unexpected change that has taken place between the time I last left Moscow in April and returned a couple of weeks ago, it 's that nothing much has changed at all. What was slowly becoming stable and bourgeois when I left became only more stable, more solid and more bourgeois in the time that I was gone. That is the biggest change -- the surprising sameness of it all, and how solid and entrenched that same- ness feels. Some people seem to be pleased with how many new Western-style restaurants and sushi bars you can find here now. Why, there are cafes everywhere, just like Seattle -- only worse! Yippee!
Tool-for-whoever's-in-power Thomas Friedman, for example, is popping McChubbies left and right because he can finally recognize Moscow as something that confirms his own narrow, boot-sucking, American-propaganda-fed imagination as "good ". This is progress to him. And Friedman's right about the new Moscow:there are sushi bars everywhere. Not very good sushi bars. But that's not the point. Hell, most American sushi bars suck too. There are sushi bars on every corner, and that's all that matters. That's familiar enough. It finally FEELS safe here;Moscow no longer threatens the American paradigm. Russia (to the extent that central Moscow IS Russia to most Westerners) has been conquered. The wild, unpredictable, unknown, unfamiliar has been paved over before our eyes and replaced with everything that makes Thomas Friedman feel safe. What's left is a lot of restaurants and cafes with pseudo-upscale interiors and ridiculously gauche menu covers, all pleasing to the nouveaux riches eyes, and comforting to the fearful Western spines.
There is no Slavic Garcia-Marquez to put this Paradise-Lost tragedy into some comprehensible aesthetic/spiritual context. Instead, all we've got is Thomas Friedman to drag us by the neck to celebrate Moscow's belated entry into overcrowded yuppie hell, to tell us how much better Moscow is today than it was a few years ago, when it didn't feel or look enough like Denver;when in fact, Moscow's very existence threatened Denver.
So now Moscow has capitulated... What's left? And an even more rele- vant, personal question:does Moscow need me any more?
No, and it probably never did, except in my mind. The difference now is that even I can tell I have little or no place in the new Friedman-friendly Moscow.
Most Russians have been at least as eager as the Thomas Friedmans to see Moscow -- and eventually Russia -- become stable, predictable, and even boring. It reminds me of the presidential campaign in Serbia between Vojislav Kostunica and Slobodan Milosevic last year. Kostunica promised that he would make Serbia "boring " again -- he was being ironic of course, but only partly so. Milosevic had brought a decade of slaughter and decline to the Serbs. He made sure that the world paid attention to that nearly-extinct tribe of mountain warriors. The payoff wasn't worth it;the warrior instinct faded as the consumerist instinct grew. Kostunica promised four years of "boredom " -- that is to say, the only thing left that could possibly shock the Serbs. And he won.
Of course Kostunica is anything but boring, and Serbia is still a land of explosive politics and crazed crackers. But the promise was there, and the will:Serbia is lining up for all the Friedman welfare benefits, including a seat on the Council of Europe, loans from the World Bank and the IMF, entrance into NATO's Partnership for Peace program. It's only a matter of months before arti- cles appear in every English-lan- guage newspapers celebrating "the new Belgrade " and its joyous sushi bars on every block.