I arrive in Moscow after a 10 hour flight from Washington, D.C.. After presenting our passports to customs and collecting our baggage, we step out of Sheremetyevo Airport and are greeted with a blast of air that is more reminiscent of winter than spring. Although the sun is shining, purple snow-laden clouds hung in the distance. Snow still covered some of the cars from an earlier snowfall during the week. We load into an embassy van and begin the drive into downtown Moscow. Throughout the ride, I'm reminded of the last time I was here...22 years ago...in October, 1985.
It was a different time: at the height of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan was the U.S President and Mikhail Gorbachev was the Soviet Premier. Perestroika and Glasnost still hadn't fully taken hold. East and West were still staring one another down across an Iron Curtain. Powerful nuclear arsenals were expanding dramatically...our armies were training to fight one another to the death on a European battlefield. The tensions were so pronounced that my entry visa presented me as student rather than as a U.S. Army officer.
Moscow is the same city I remember: the same buildings... the same streets and wide boulevards...the same grand tsarist and Stalinesque architecture...the same parks enclosed by wrought-iron hammer-and-sickle adorned gates. And yet, everything has changed. The realization comes gradually to me...almost imperceptibly: there's more traffic, more congestion-- and soon our van is struggling through a traffic jam of almost biblical proportions. To our right, a public bus driver works his crossword puzzle intently as he continues to drive, barely looking up each time he lurches forward, braking and stopping behind an Audi 300 just in time, with only inches to spare. To the left, a beautiful young woman driving a new BMW 740i takes her time applying her makeup and brushing her hair as if she's planned the drive for just such a purpose. And then--the bill boards: massive, imposing, modern. Ubiquitous. Rolex...Lexus...Toyota...Gazprom..Pamela Anderson..... They accost you, announcing the full commercialization of the city in the boldest terms.
On its surface, Moscow appears much like any European city: the unique blend of old and new-- at once in harmony and in dissonance with the other, but here there's a generally accepted recognition that such tension is also irrelevant, because it's all part of a complex, often troubled evolving metropolitan identity. Indeed, Moscow has evolved... beyond what any of us could have dreamed 22 years ago.
The next morning, still plagued with jet lag, I find myself wide awake at 3am. I put on some sweats and go for a run along the Kremlin Wall, through the World War II Memorial, past the statue of General Zhukov riding triumphantly on horseback. Turning the corner of a cobblestone street, I find myself alone in Red Square, staring down at a lit-up St. Basil's Cathedral--looking exactly as I'd left it over two decades ago. At that moment I feel as if I'd been locked in a time capsule, but outside the Kremlin Walls, I now recognize that everything has, in fact, dramatically changed....