by Alexander Mercouris
As everyone by now knows I have been a week in Moscow.
It was an extraordinary, wonderful visit packed with productive work and meetings with good friends. There is so much to say and I will try to say it when I can. But first a quick general impression about the economic and security situation unrelated to specific political news or to the Nemtsov murder (of which more soon).
Briefly, there is no doubt the inflation is hurting. I saw more beggars – overwhelmingly old and poor people – precisely the sort of people on low fixed incomes who get hurt most when inflation takes off. Their numbers are still far below those in London and compared to Athens there is simply no comparison.
In all other respects there were none of the visible signs of distress that I am familiar with from London and Athens during periods of economic crisis: no boarded up shops, no empty shelves in food stores (claims to that effect in the British press at least in relation to central Moscow are entirely untrue), no visible slack in business in bars, restaurants or cafes, no sale signs on shop windows, no litter in the streets, which compared to London and of course Athens are exceptionally clean.
Until news came through of the Nemtsov murder, which shocked everyone of every political persuasion including both supporters and opponents of the government (I know because I spoke with both) the situation in the city appeared entirely calm. The police were not tense until news of the Nemtsov murder came through and there was none of the palpable sense of tension I always now feel when I am in Athens and which I have also at various times felt in London, Paris and New York.
In the days following the Nemtsov murder security was significantly tightened up but the police never appeared as threatening as they do in comparable situations in London and Athens. The police became far more visible including on the metro but they never openly brandished firearms in the extravagant way they do in London or Paris or Athens. On Sunday (the day of the protest) my belongings were carefully checked by the police when I was travelling on the metro and I was also asked to pass through an X ray machine but I was treated with courtesy and the policemen afterwards apologised for putting me to the trouble – something I have never known the police to do in any comparable situation in any other city.
There was no obvious sign of a country at war: no profusion of flags, patriotic posters, martial music etc as I have experienced in Athens and (surprisingly) in New York.
Overall the strong impression was of a city at peace. Certainly Moscow did not appear anything like as tense and edgy as I remember it from my first visit in 1998 or when I visited it again in 2004. It is also much, much richer than it was at the time of either of those visits in a way that the statistics do not fully capture.
Let me stress, this was a strictly surface impression. No doubt all sorts of things – some no doubt very ugly – are happening below the surface that as a non-Russian speaker on a brief visit I could not be aware of. The very fact of Nemtsov’s murder shows that this is so. However surface impressions can be a guide to important truths and for what they are worth I pass mine on.