Modernising Moscow

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A square in one of central Moscow’s many new office districts. The Starbucks on the left, a foreign restaurant on the right, and standing between them – a reflection of an Orthodox church. Photo taken by I.Wade, 11 September 2013.

I’m spending most of March 2014 in Moscow for a new job in a university. I’ve noticed several things which are so different from the first time I came to Moscow in January 2001.

Take a trip to a supermarket. It’s a small example but insightful. In 2001, the only supermarkets were for the ultra wealthy in the centre of Moscow. For ‘ordinary’ Russians, the choice was a market or a small(ish) grocery shop in their neighbourhood, where the security guards made sure you keep your bags in a locker before entering the shop and the shop assistants scowled at you.

Fast forward to 2014, and Muscovites (residents of Moscow) have seemingly endless choices of places to buy their food and drink (and clothes, stationery, and household goods) at pretty much any time of day or night. Big supermarkets, including foreign-owned ones such as a French-owned supermarket that starts with A, have been very successful in winning over large segments of the Russian consumer market. Now you can enter a supermarket (or small grocery shop) with however large a bag and not get shouted at by a security guard who suspects you are going to steal everything. Now you can buy durable, re-usable shopping bags and boxes. You can borrow a trolley if you put in a 10 rouble coin (about 20 pence) which you get back when you return the trolley. The range of products for sale is as large – if not bigger – as what you’d see in any supermarket in the USA or Western Europe. You can get store discount cards and pay for your purchases by card after queueing up in an orderly fashion and waiting your turn.

Is this an example of what Dr Sam Greene, Director of the Russia Institute at King’s College London, meant when he said at an event at the LSE in February 2014 that Russia is modernising through individual citizens re-shaping the space they live in, making the most of new opportunities to travel, and have a better quality of life? Perhaps. Of course, Moscow is not Russia and a quarter of the population live in rural areas where life is very different from Moscow. And I still believe in the primacy of institutions (the ‘rules of the game’) in governing peoples’ everyday lives and behaviour and the country’s long-term development.

This is the first post on my blog. I aim to add a new post each month about my impressions of Russia based on my travels around the country in the last 14 years, about modernisation, and about science and innovation in Russia.

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