“You think this bad neighborhood?”
There is a part of Russia that loves being the tough guy, and there is a part of each of us that also loves the machismo of the Siberian. There is an aura of romanticism that surrounds bears, bread lines, the taiga, and the ever present Hollywood mafia villain.
This sense of danger and bravado has a mysterious magnetic effect for some more adventurous folk, who eventually find their way to Moscow for work or pleasure. Well, I should say, not all of these folks are intrepid daredevils, many of them are just living the expat career lifestyle which led them to Russia’s capital city.
I would suggest that the latter will find themselves less disappointed with their time in Russia. I find these newcomers often ask me questions like “will I be safe in this neighborhood?”. And, because it’s fun, and because it’s what everyone seems to love about Russia, I’m often tempted to answer something like this:
“You think this bad neighborhood?” is everything we expect and somehow love about Russia. And so I somehow feel embarrassed to admit that Moscow is safe, and assuming you aren’t being ignorant and drunk in the early morning hours, walking around with dollar bills hanging out of your pockets, you should be more than fine.
I began thinking about this subject more seriously when I recently had coffee with a former client of Expat Flat, whom I will call Marcell. He is from Europe and has been living in Moscow for a few months now. And as I like to ask in such situations, I inquired as to what has surprised him the most about life in Moscow so far. His answer was both surprising and thoughtful. Marcell replied, “Russia needs a new brand manager!”.
He then began to list the reasons:
-Safety: He said he felt as safe here as in any city he’s lived in anywhere in the world. Of course, no one is saying that nothing bad can happen. Bad things can happen in Moscow, just like anywhere else. But one thing that is interesting about Moscow, and Russian cities in general, is that there are no bad neighborhoods. At least, I have never seen blocks and blocks of urban decay, coupled with a sense of danger, like what can be found in many American cities. Certainly there are some that are better than others, but this is generally surrounding the idea of one neighborhood being a bit more prestigious than others. But in an apartment building, you can often have a millionaire, an elderly couple that is struggling financially, and a flat full of students, all living in close proximity. And all of these folks have one thing in common: they want to live in peace and safety. And if there is a “bad apple” or two in the building, usually the residents, regardless of their economic class, will make a little effort to take care of it.
-Internet speed: “The internet speed here in Moscow is faster than what I had when I lived in Singapore!”, Marcell exclaimed. He then went on to share that it was a bit of a pain waiting some hours for the internet to be installed, but the result was fantastic. And it’s true, getting internet speed of up to 100 mbps will cost you about 750 rubles per month. Now, at times, I have been very aware that the key words in the previous phrase are “up to”, but in any case, that’s just a little over $10 (USD) for some blazing speed.
-Cleanliness: I agreed with Marcell that Moscow is one of the cleanest cities that we have seen in the world. I am not saying that this level of cleanliness is uniform across Russia, or even outside of the center of any major city, but I will say that, after living in Moscow for some years, one of the main things I am shocked by when visiting Europe or America is how dirty it can be.
-Christmas decorations: This might seem trivial, but I think we all agree that these sort of details make life more enjoyable. These decorations, New Year’s decorations to be more exact, by Marcell’s estimation are the most beautiful of any that he has seen anywhere in the world. I would probably agree. There is something powerful about an urban area in common celebration, and Moscow knows how to celebrate with lights, ice skating, blini stands, and performances.
-Hipster Capital?: Marcell then went on to say that Moscow should be one of the world’s hipster capitals. He said, “it combines the artsiness, the great food and coffee in many places with the raw unpretentiousness of a post-soviet city, which is something I believe hipsters would dig”. Indeed, Moscow could be one of the world’s cities where hipsters are bicycling to meet and drink coffee and exchange ideas. With wide sidewalks and broad avenues, Gorky Park, endless museums, riverboat cruises, “anti-cafes”, and an astonishing amount of green mixed in with the concrete, I think my friend Marcell has a point. He did go on to mention that the hipsters might be disappointed on how difficult it is to run a small independent business. I mostly disagree with that point, so I expect that Marcell and I can debate on the ease of running a small business in Russia over coffee sometime soon.
-Retail Service (!): Yes, this is an area where much of Russia is ahead of much of the West. If the last time you visited Russia was in the 90’s, you might kindly suggest that I be tested for use of a controlled substance. But the truth is, I have become so used to the service in recent years that I no longer noticed it until Marcell brought it up. There are the obvious points: after shopping in Moscow, 90% of malls in America will seem small and plain. But the working hours are quite impressive and make it possible for a busy professional to also take care of their personal business with ease. I can remember being in a medium-sized German town some years ago. Hoping to go out for coffee with friends in the evening, I was surprised to learn that they roll up the sidewalks at 5 p.m. Also, in most major cities in Russia, a surprising amount of retail products can be ordered online and delivered promptly, and many repair services will make house visits, providing a high level service at a very reasonable cost.
There are certainly more items that could be added to this list. But what hit me the most was the phrase that “Russia needs a new brand manager”.
I threw out this idea to some Russian friends. They seemed concerned that I was proposing that there be one person who becomes Russia’s brand manager- perhaps I explained a subject poorly as I am still learning about it. Indeed, Marcell did open up a whole new world to me: nation branding. And as I learned from Marcell, you can learn much about nation branding from a man by the name of Simon Anholt as he tackles big questions such as “Which country does the most good for the world?”.
But after these conversations, I understood this idea a bit differently from my Russian friends: The truth is, we are all Russia’s brand manager. And I know that we all would like to say that our time in Russia was something like this:
So, as disappointing as it might seem to share with friends back home after your trip to Moscow, unless your name is Tom Cruise, be sure to mention that you felt safe, drank some great coffee, visited the Cosmonaut Museum, perhaps made some money, went for a river boat cruise, and had some fascinating conversation with some locals that influenced the way you view the world.
Yes, I could sit with you and any babushka on a park bench and discuss the struggles and negative aspects of Russia… or America. And although there are many less than positive areas we could discuss, since you will be expecting them when you arrive, you might not notice or mind them so much. But with Russia today, I see a future with potential that is perhaps unmatched by any other nation in the world. We just need the world to find out about this new brand. And perhaps we need the Russians to discover it as well.
What positive things have surprised you in your time in Russia? Comment below!
Also read: “Can Russia Change?”