Moving to Moscow is rarely done by accident. Ask any western expat how they ended up here, and they will have a story of how they became enamoured with Russia. They might have been intrigued by the Soviet Union in the time of the cold war, or hoped to make a break in the freewheeling 1990s, or simply have been fascinated by the history and literature.
In my case it was the third. I spent my school and university years in the US, holed up with Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky. I learnt the language and bought a plane ticket. And while there are some days when today’s Moscow seems far away from the 19th-century Russia I fell in love with, most of the time it feels like home.
I first arrived in the summer of 2008, a time of year when work and news are meant to grind to a halt, but never actually do. Two weeks in and Bob Dudley, now chief executive of BP, was kicked out of the country in one of Russia’s biggest corporate conflicts, followed shortly by Russia’s five-day war with Georgia. A few weeks later Lehman Brothers collapsed, causing the rouble to go into free-fall.
Russia’s extremes are part of the country’s charm. Although Muscovites can be perceived as cold and hostile – like the capital itself – with a little effort, the tough exterior begins to peel away. If invited into someone’s home, you are treated as family and presented with more courses of food than you can stomach, plus a never-ending supply of champagne, vodka and tea, and you are showered with flowers on your birthday, New Year’s day and International Women’s Day.
Since arriving I have gradually seen my standard of living improve. At first I rented a bed from a Russian-American couple who had already rented out the room’s pullout couch for good money. When the tenant’s girlfriend slept over, we were three in the room; when the landlord and his wife argued, we were four.
Five Moscow flats and seven flatmates later, I finally have a place of my own in Belorusskaya, a neighbourhood that has seen upgrades of its own over the past few years. Gone are the shawarma stands, beer kiosks and street hawkers selling cigarettes. Now you find gourmet burgers and cupcakes, and upscale restaurants serving dishes such as foie gras and beetroot-flavoured ice cream; Starbucks and Le Pain Quotidien bakeries abound.
It is sometimes hard to reconcile the desire for a frappuccino with the realisation that corners of the old Moscow are disappearing, but there are exceptions. Red October, a Soviet-era chocolate factory, was going to be converted into luxury condominiums when the global financial crisis hit, forcing its developers to rent out the space to a new generation of galleries, restaurants and bars.
No longer is it de rigueur for restaurants to offer the “Moscow Menu” – Caesar salad, pasta carbonara and sushi – or to drown diners in opulent decor and techno music. “Face control” – the door policy that keeps the underdressed out of elite clubs and restaurants – is starting to peter out.
The mayor’s office has caught up with the times too. Municipal funds with the backing of oligarchs have turned Gorky Park into a bourgeois paradise with free WiFi, beanbag chairs and bocce. A free cycling programme has been rolled out and other public spaces are also being updated. A new park next to the Kremlin is due to open by the end of 2015.
Winter weekends can be spent at the banya, or bath house, where Russians will beat you with dried birch tree branches, or cross-country skiing in the wooded parks of Moscow’s outskirts. Closer to the city centre there is VDNKh, a former all-Soviet exhibition site that remains a curious monument to the lofty ambitions of the USSR. Rent bikes and you can travel past the modern-day carnival rides and fast-food stands to the sanctuary of Moscow’s Botanical Gardens.
A significant gap still exits between the city’s rich and poor – something that’s not always apparent inside the capital’s Garden Ring. Migrant labourers from Central Asia live in squalor and are increasingly under threat by Russian authorities as well as locals.
Under Vladimir Putin’s third term as president, the Kremlin is cracking down on dissidents and human rights groups. A new law has made anything deemed to be “gay propaganda” illegal and punishable by fines.
Polling shows that the Kremlin’s new policies reflect the views of most of the population, if not in Moscow, then at least in the country. At times it is disheartening. But you would also be surprised what common ground you can find with the diehard communist babushka, the rightwing conspiracy theorist or the low-level bureaucrat from Chelyabinsk. When all else fails, vodka is a great equaliser.
In August Moscow welcomed its most famous new expat, the NSA whistlebower Edward Snowden. A clear exception to the earlier-stated rule that few move to Moscow by accident, Snowden might just find that he too can make this city home.
● 24-hour service culture: dining out, grocery shopping and even haircuts can be enjoyed 24/7
● Expect to wait less than 30 seconds for your metro during rush hour
● Long winters bring ice skating and cross-country skiing, while warm summer days allow for rooftop terraces and outdoor dining
● Winter temperatures can drop as low as -30C annually
● Although international cuisine has become more widely available, local fare is an acquired taste
● Russian is a difficult language to master, and there are few English speakers or signs in English
What you can buy for …
$100,000: A two-storey townhouse with sauna 30km from Moscow’s city centre
$1m: A two-bedroom flat with balcony on fashionable city-centre streets such as Arbat or Petrovka
Contacts: Evans Property Service, +7 (495) 232 6703