All the spoonfed stories in the Western press about Russia's remarkable economic boom share one thing: dateline MOSCOW.
Just last week, the second anniversary of President Putin's "election" victory offered Western-amenities-wowed journalists yet another ripe opportunity to pitch the same rah-rah story they've been pitching here ever since sushi bars spread like crabweed, and Putin signed over the last vestiges of the Russian empire in exchange for a few dinner dates with Real Live White People like Dzhyordzh Booish and Tohnee Blyehr.
And they're not necessarily wrong, either. Moscow has become unmistakably bourgeois, and its bourgeoizification all took place under Putin's watch. Young Russians now prefer to sit for hours in newly-opened cafes which, although they look almost Western and offer all the familiar pretentious choices of coffee and milk with Italian names, nevertheless have a distinct leaky-vagina-like aftertaste. I swear, every last Moscow cafe has a leaky vagina filter in its milk steamer.
But that doesn't matter either. It's the veneer that counts. Don't underestimate the surface.
The surface here has definitely changed, and by some kind of McFaulian algebra, a change in the surface has led to a change in the soul. Young Muscovites, who once stuffed their heads with more chemicals than an Iraqi Kurd could take and dragged their bodies around without sleep from party to orgy day after day, disfiguring an entire generation, are now just as aggressively pursuing lives sober and sedate. The popular tusovka Kult, not far from my apartment, is packed with rats who once would have been gnawing on their jaws or nodding off in bathrooms... today, they sit in IKEA-artsy tables, sipping exotic tea and playing Monopoly, backgammon, or whatever shitty game is offered on the menu, while a DJ plays techno music tamer than the Carpenters.
To every Western journalist and Russia watcher, from Thomas Friedman's mustache to Rob Cottrell's doe-eyes (see his account of his sushi date with Anatoly Chubais in The Financial Times) to last week's USA Today feature, Moscow has finally come around. It looks and feels far less alien. It looks and feels far less threatening. It's finally how we'd hoped it would be: sushi and Starbuck's only with a view of St. Basil's instead of the Space Needle.
Which isn't necessarily bad. I mean the last thing Russia needs is to be the living incarnation of this newspaper's fantasies. I want these people to crawl out of their tragedy. They've already given me a decade of memories "you people can't imagine."
I am grateful and willing to support your new penchant for flavorless fresh-frozen sushi, leaky lattes and weekends at the Monopoly board, because frankly, I couldn't handle another ten years of the old feral Russia even if you'd offered it to me.
Or has Russia really changed that much?
Last week, Sex Machine Jake Rudntisky and I took a road trip to Tver to make a fraudulent attempt to get to the bottom of it all. We know that that the glowing press Russia has been receiving is due to the fact that the Western press corps never ventures beyond Russia's ring road. Inside this medieval gated fortress called Moscow, it's almost, say, Central Europe. But outside, it's the same polnaya zhopa I saw eight years ago when I worked at an investment fund, traveling the miserable provinces in Yak-40s or Latvian mini-buses, chasing my boss as he hunted relentlessly for marginally-viable factories to snap up on the cheap.
The ocean-floor drop between Moscow and the not-Moscow was great enough then to make Moscow feel like Geneva every time I'd get back from a freezing three-day stint at sub-Intourist hotels in hopeless shitholes like Voronezh, Izhevsk, Perm... Moscow had heating that worked, and a Patio Pizza. It was the First World.
What about now? Although it is logically impossible to imagine that non-Moscow Russia can have made a surface change even remotely like Moscow's, I didn't exclude the possibility. After all, we went out last December in search of sovoks, only to find that Putin's Moscow had nearly wiped them out. Better not jump to conclusions.