Photograph by Gerd Ludwig, National Geographic
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The most famous landmarks in Moscow—like Red Square (above), the Kremlin, Lenin’s mausoleum—all stand for the might of the state, and form the heart of the city.

Photograph by Gerd Ludwig, National Geographic
My Town

Moscow: Opulent, Overwhelming, and Pulsing With Power

Living in Moscow can be terrifying and mesmerizing, says author.

Next stop for My Town: Next Sunday, Kennedy Warne, the founding editor of New Zealand Geographic, hears the call of the wild in his hometown, Auckland.

If Carl Sandburg’s Chicago was “stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders,” Moscow is “City of the Big Automobile”: tempestuous, loud-horned, insanely hurried, and engorged on wealth—only New York has more billionaires—highlighting Russia’s status as a hydrocarbon-endowed erstwhile empire of fantastical dimensions. (You can jet eastward from Moscow nine and a half hours nonstop without leaving Russia.)

In a land where many acquired their apartments from the state, cars billboard social rank like nothing else. There is nothing subtle about this. Rich Muscovites shove their opulent rolling stock in your face. Drivers lord it over lesser beings plodding about on foot. For a long time, cars would honk as they approached intersections, rarely slowing down, and scattering pedestrians like chickens—or even, to bypass bottlenecks, swerving up onto the pavement. (In recent years, with stricter laws and higher fines, the roads and sidewalks have become safer, but barreling down streets the wrong way is still distressingly common.)

Drivers suffer, too: With all the traffic jams, getting from one end of the city to the other by car can take hours.

I’ve called Moscow home for the past 22 years. Even with the crisis in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin’s ever more authoritarian rule, I haven’t seriously thought of leaving. I came of age here, started writing here, met my wife here, wrote three books about Russia here (and four others as well), witnessed armed conflict here, was robbed here (twice), and have been terrified here and mesmerized here.

In short, I found my life here and have few regrets. I visited first as a tourist in 1985 but settled for good in July 1993, fresh from the peripatetic adventure I’d undertaken for Siberian Dawn (my first book)—an 8,325-mile (13,398-kilometer) trek by truck, train, boat, and taxi from Magadan, on the frozen Sea of Okhotsk, across Siberia, southern Russia, and Ukraine to Poland.

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Sunday night is gay night at Propaganda, one of the city’s most popular clubs. Western economic sanctions haven’t slowed Muscovites down much.

Exhausted from my months-long wanderings, but enamored of Russian history, literature, and language, I settled in the capital at a chaotic time of anti-Yeltsin demonstrations, mass impoverishment (aka “free-market reforms”), mafiya shootouts, and, above all, threats of civil war that would end with the Kremlin sending tanks to shell reactionary opponents holed up in the parliament.

Power Statement

Moscow, I sensed then, was as it is now: pulsing with power and anarchic energy, always on the qui vive, the one place in Russia that mattered for the rest of the world. It’s no coincidence that its most famous landmarks—the Kremlin, Red Square, Lenin’s mausoleum—all stand for the might of the state, and form the heart of the city.

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The main thoroughfares leading to them were conceived not for Ferraris and dolce vita–style frolicking but for T-90 tanks and military parades. Such parades embodied ambitions rooted in more than a thousand years of Eastern Christianity (and later transmuted into a zeal for messianic communism).

For centuries, after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, Orthodox believers, having lost their spiritual capital, looked to Moscow, as the sayings go, as “Guardian of the Faith” and as the “Third Rome, and a fourth there shall never be.” Russia’s sense of destiny has always intrigued me and anchored me here.

So in 1993 I rented, for just $150 a month, a cramped, one-room flat just off Novocheryomushkinskaya Street in a decent area in Moscow’s gritty, semi-industrialized southeast. The city was still mostly Soviet in exterior, dark in spirit, peopled by young and old angered by the collapse of the Soviet Union, by limitless ranks of corrupt police and officials, by grifters and fortune-seekers and woebegone pensioners.

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Friday night rush hour as seen from the top of the Pekin Hotel demonstrates the truth of Jeffrey Tayler’s opinion that Moscow is the “City of the Big Automobile”: tempestuous, loud-horned, insanely hurried, and engorged on wealth.

Lonely, I wrote all day, consoling myself by gazing out my picture window onto a birch- and poplar-studded park, where leaves began turning gold in already chilly mid-August. (Summers were shorter then.)

The first anti-Yeltsin violence began in late September, and the shelling of the Supreme Soviet (the parliament left over from communist decades) came in early October, followed by a two-week, dusk-to-dawn curfew, automatic gunfire in the night, snipers haunting rooftops, cries to halt, and screams in the blackness outside my window. No sign yet of the transformative, glittering bacchanalia to come.

I kept my head down and worked on my book. Adjusting was difficult. I was born in Washington, D.C.; the often menacing, rawhide environs of Moscow intimidated me. Even without the threat of tank fire, the city can still have this effect, at least on newcomers.

Pride of the City

At rush hour, to enter the cheap but majestic, efficiently run metro in the center, you pass through the turnstile and are swept into a crowd thronging toward one of the three rapidly moving escalators. You ride down into an arch-ceilinged tunnel so long and deep that stations served as bomb shelters during WWII. Uniformed attendants at the bottom hector passengers through loudspeakers—“Take that purse off the handrail! You there, no running!” Until recent years, bloodied street bums and scar-faced drunks would take refuge from the weather on station platforms.

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Russians launched the first satellite, dog, and man into space, but ask Muscovites what they take the most pride in, Tayler writes, and chances are they’ll say the metro.

Yet the metro cars were, and still are, broader and cleaner than anywhere else I’ve been. Trains run every minute or two and rarely break down. Russians launched the first satellite, dog, and man into space, but ask Muscovites what they take the most pride in, and chances are they’ll say the metro.

Street life in Moscow has never been for the faint of heart. Construction work at times diverts pedestrians off the sidewalks into traffic. Speeding, honking motorcades carrying the president and other officials may disrupt traffic, with officers in accompanying police escort cars shouting at drivers through loudspeakers to clear the way, and fast! (Putin has taken to moving about by helicopter, or working at his residence outside the city, so this problem is diminishing.)

In times past, brigades of ill-tempered, scarved old women swept courtyards with stick brooms. Nowadays, this duty is performed by (generally cheerful) young immigrant Uzbeks and Tadzhiks, living reminders of the devastating invasions from the east seven centuries ago, and refugees from the poverty and repression still reigning in formerly Soviet Central Asia.

The migration has not gone down well with many Muscovites, and ethnically motivated riots have occasionally broken out. “Ponayekhali tut” (people have poured in from everywhere), Muscovites love to say. Once, they meant folks from the provinces, but now from almost anywhere in the old U.S.S.R.

Moscow’s north-central districts are more prosperous and habitable, so I eventually moved there, to an apartment between Belorussky Station and the Mayakovskaya metro station. Here, tranquil parks and playgrounds and Soviet-era buildings predominate, once prestigious but now outshined by new edifices elsewhere in town. (The Rublyovka area in Moscow’s west boasts some of the world’s highest-priced real estate.)

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Army guards in Tverskaya Street stand ready to oversee the crowds at the Kremlin Zorya, the international military band performances on Red Square.

My change of address put me in close proximity to power: The Kremlin’s red-brick ramparts are just a half-hour walk down Tverskaya Street, which was once stately and imposing but these days is lined with trendy shops and tony restaurants.

Being in the center has had its downsides, though. The protests that erupted in 2011 after tainted elections to the State Duma hit my neighborhood hard. Riot troops arrived in transport trucks and parked just north of Triumfal’naya Square, where for several frigid December nights they clashed with furious crowds. I could hear sirens from my windows.

Until not long ago, destitute homeless folk from the provinces managed to break open our building’s coded entrance door and pass the night in our stairwell. One day, just across the street, I passed a corpse in rags lying in the middle of the parking lot. No one paid it much mind.

The demonstrations have died out, but one day a year is anything but quiet here. On May 9, the Victory Day parade passes near my building, proceeds down Tverskaya Street, and crosses Red Square, featuring nuclear missiles on trailers and rumbling tanks and goose-stepping platoons, just as in Soviet times. From my balcony I’ve watched jet fighters and bombers roar past in formation just above the rooftops. Muscovites hardly notice them. Fireworks, always spectacular, come in the evening; these, Muscovites do notice.

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Volunteer Tatyana Sveshnikova tends to a homeless man. Hundreds of the homeless freeze to death on city streets in the winter.

Cycle of the Seasons

The seasons dramatically affect life in the city. Fall and winter are now more clement, but they still can be rough on Muscovites, breeding a sort of cabin fever. But, in any case, summers always compensate.

Then, during the pink-orange gloaming of the lingering northern evenings, Moscow’s central boulevards become impromptu fashion runways, with wasp-waisted women on high heels striding along gracefully but assertively, often in the company of hulking young men. Groups of teens take advantage of the warmth and stand around in courtyards, drinking beer or vodka and smoking, shouting, and laughing, often until late.

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In the Turandot restaurant, musicians playing Mozart add a touch of tone to the glitzy scene. Conspicuous consumption has fueled Moscow's ascent into the ranks of the world's most expensive cities.

In my neighborhood, in the 1990s and 2000s, they were Russians; these days, they’re mostly Central Asians. Bars and restaurants, once frequently disturbed by drunken carousers, are now as civil as anywhere (and, with the ruble’s devaluation vis-à-vis the dollar, much less expensive, at least for hard-currency holders), and many offer dining outside on verandas.

Nevertheless, one of my steady haunts throughout the year is a friendly café restaurant many blocks south, Mayak, a favorite with actors, journalists, and the intelligentsia. No balcony there, but inside peals of laughter and moderate prices.

Whatever one thinks of Putin, Moscow has evolved and progressed during his 15 years at Russia’s helm. The 1990s phantasms of cataclysm and revolt have receded; even the Ukraine crisis has hardly ruffled the city.

More and more, in public places once dour Muscovites smile and treat one another with a politesse that was rare a decade ago. A new generation is growing up studying English and traveling abroad. The formerly ubiquitous rude Russian salesclerk is mostly gone, with affable warmth toward customers increasingly the rule.

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A shopper scythes through bitter cold to get to a boutique on Red Square. Tayler, who has called Moscow home for 22 years, says the seasons dramatically affect life in the city.

Yet images from my trans-Russian odyssey of 1993 remain embedded in my mind, reminding me that Moscow is at once Russian yet not entirely representative of the rural, conservative hinterland beyond its bounds that stretches from the borders of Europe all the way to the Bering Strait.

To get a taste of this other Russia, I often visit the Tret’yakov Gallery. There, I lose myself in wonder before the paintings of Ilya Repin (in particular “A Religious Procession in the Province of Kursk”) and Isaak Levitan, whose landscapes (including “Above the Eternal Peace” and “Golden Autumn”) take me back to pastoral realms of soft light and slow-moving rivers, of onion-domed churches rising above birches and pines, of timeless peace.

But alongside these works hang others depicting the epochal tragedy of Russian history that has been, and remains, autocracy’s true legacy. Vasily Surikov’s “Morning of the Streltsy Execution” and “Boyarynya Morozova” come to mind. Both canvases show events relating to the rise of Peter the Great, the Moscow-born ruler who turned Russia from an obscure regional power into a continental power the world still has difficulty understanding and reckoning with. Winston Churchill summed up Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”

If anyone, foreign or Russian, ever solves the enigma, he or she will do so in Moscow. Hence, I stay.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor at the Atlantic. His seventh book, Topless Jihadis—Inside Femen, the World's Most Provocative Activist Group, is an Atlantic e-book. Follow Jeffrey Tayler on Twitter.