The outdoor cafés are joyful, the metro is expanding and the city is becoming more modern. A visit to the Russian capital finds citizens trying to keep the war as far away as possible — even as it creeps closer.
MOSCOW – A few days ago, unusual explosions woke several southwestern suburbs of Moscow up. "Ukrainian" drones targeted residences in upscale neighborhoods. For months, the consequences of Western sanctions have been visible on the Russian economy, disrupting its resilience. Prices are rising, and some European products are off the shelves.
"But life is beautiful!" says Piotr, a typical representative of the Moscow middle class, who has become accustomed to living while ignoring the conflict in Ukraine. The young and dynamic man in his thirties – a sales executive in an agricultural company – does not hide his care-free attitude as he sits on a terrace at one of the city center's trendy cafés.
"There is a war over there, and the Western sanctions against us," Piotr says, sipping his cocktail. "The most essential thing is to continue living and working," He is vaguely aware of the recent Ukrainian offensives in Belgorod, well inside Russian territory.
These unprecedented attacks, as well as the drones on Moscow buildings, are usually met with a mix of stoicism and apathy. What most now openly refer to as "the war," without really questioning its causes – or even less its objectives – is coming back, like a boomerang, to Russian territory.
"But that's not our life. Our economy and our society are resilient," the young man continues, with a dismissive wave of his hand and a gaze that is both fatalistic and mocking. "Just look around you,” he says.
In the center of Moscow, as summer arrives, the conflict in Ukraine seems far from everyday life. With the sunshine returning, short dresses and low-cut tops have reemerged. The café terraces are livelier than ever. Public gardens have never been so beautiful and blooming. Stores and markets are filled with products. The traditional strawberry stalls, freshly arrived from southern regions, have just made their appearance.
Ostrov Mechty ("Dream Island," a kind of miniature Disneyland) is constantly bustling with visitors. Everywhere, construction sites are busy. The old 1980 Olympic stadium is being rebuilt from scratch, and neighborhood squares and playgrounds are being renovated.
Shopping malls are packed. Western brands that had disappeared, like Zara, have reappeared under different names. Everywhere, there are queues at Vkusno i tochka, the name given to McDonald's locations that were closed, but bought out and reopened by a local franchise. Some trendy restaurants have closed down, but new ones have opened — sometimes extravagant, and often with hefty pricetags exceeding 10,000 rubles per person (around $120 USD), twice the monthly pension.
"Paradoxically, despite, or rather thanks to, all these Western sanctions against our country, there is plenty of cash in Moscow right now!" Piotr smiles, cocktail in hand. "Due to these measures, Russians cannot take their money abroad. So we spend and invest it here," he says, challenging the sanctions.
On a larger scale, the Moscow city government also continues to spend and invest. Its budget is significant, and the results are enough to make European capitals pale in comparison. One example among many is the city's metro network, which keeps expanding with a new 70-kilometer circular line and dozens of stylishly designed stations. The bus network is equally impressive, as the fleet is now almost entirely equipped with new electric vehicles. The contrast is striking compared to the old and polluting public transportation systems in small countryside towns.
People at a sidewalk cafe in Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street.
Just like old times
Muscovites can take pride in living in an increasingly modern and digital city. All municipal services are available online, but they are also provided in-person with remarkable efficiency at centers open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, including weekends.
Moreover, the city government is organizing street festivals, reminiscent of the good old days before the COVID-19 pandemic. These festivals cover various themes, such as a history week, a fish-themed week, a music week, and more. They maintain an atmosphere of well-being and momentarily distract from the repressive political climate, especially on the eve of the municipal elections in September. The current mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, who is close to the Kremlin but surprisingly discreet about the conflict in Ukraine, is heavily favored to be re-elected.
The conflict in Ukraine regularly comes back to everyone's attention. Since drones started attacking Moscow, the hunt is on, and some officials are zealous in their response. Internet networks are disrupted, causing inconvenience to taxi drivers and regular motorists who rely heavily on their GPS systems.
On May 9, during festivities and a military parade commemorating the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany, posters recruiting volunteers for the front line were omnipresent. They remain highly visible in the streets with slogans such as "Our Profession: Defending the Nation." They have become part of the urban landscape.
Taking advantage of the prevailing apathy, the authorities and state media have successfully portrayed the drone attacks on Moscow and border skirmishes as "non-events," or minor incidents in the face of the greater struggle against "Ukrainian fascism," the standoff with NATO and the clash of civilizations against a "decadent West."
Nothing seems to cause as much concern as the military mobilization. Last September, the sudden recruitment of 300,000 soldiers brought the conflict directly into the lives of Muscovites. Today, the military is not the only one mobilizing. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the mercenary Wagner group, which is fighting in Ukraine and has a presence in Moscow, has launched an extensive advertising campaign. "A fighter, a true one!" says Mikhail, a fervent Kremlin supporter and an average Muscovite, who views the growing popularity of the foul-mouthed militia leader in a positive light.
He is not really concerned about the drones over Moscow or attacks in the border regions. "Of course, these are bad news stories. They are aimed at creating media hype and spreading anxiety among the population. But on the military front, it changes nothing, especially after our success in Bakhmut, a real turning point in the conflict," he assures, with one eye on his mobile phone and the results of the French Open tennis tournament.
It seems as though Moscow is living above the sanctions. But despite waiting for the eleventh package of European measures, Russia recently experienced a 1.9% decline in growth in the first quarter of 2023. Still, this is far from the catastrophic predictions made last year. After 30 years of repeated economic crises since the fall of the USSR and eight years of Western sanctions, Russia has learned to adapt. One sign among many of an economic recovery promised for next year is the resurgence of commercial advertisements.
A couple dancing in the streets of Moscow.
The showbiz elite of Moscow
Cultural life is also getting back into full swing. For the latest feature film by Karen Shakhnazarov, director of Mosfilm studios, the showbiz elite of Moscow gathered in glamorous fashion on the steps of the premiere evening. The Bolshoi Theatre, too, is hosting a series of premieres, including operas and ballets. "We must carry on, the show goes on," people whisper behind the scenes. Tickets for the next weeks are fully booked.
In cultural circles, many voices, albeit increasingly cautious, express unease in the face of the prevailing repression, which recently led to the arrest of a renowned anti-Kremlin director from a small independent theater. "But we must adapt to the situation," they confide, suppressing their political positions and their taste for exchanges with the West.
A significant symbol: the Chekhov Festival, a theatrical gem accustomed to hosting European troupes for years, has just opened in Moscow. This year's lineup features guests from "friendly" countries, including Armenia, Argentina, China, and South Africa.
"Who said that Russia was isolated?" says Varvara, a Kremlin critic who is determined to stay in Russia. "Many were opposed to the war. But now that it has started, you have to see it through. All these sanctions imposed against us tend to validate the authorities' propaganda: fundamentally, the West is against us," she says, citing the measures that have ultimately instilled doubt.
The sanctions, which prohibit Russians from obtaining visas, making bank transfers and traveling by air, have not affected the poor or the wealthy. Caught in between, those in Moscow's middle class, directly targeted by these sanctions, find themselves trapped, silent, and making the most of life as best they can.
A state of "schizophrenia"
"We are living in a state of schizophrenia," says Sergei, a psychologist. Most of his patients have opposed the military offensive since the beginning. "But after phases of internalized opposition and depression, they now primarily feel powerless. It's a form of paralysis."
Between fear and anxiety, most people have grown accustomed to navigating through various realities. For instance, they admit to hiding their anti-Kremlin views when surrounded by an increasing number of posters displaying the faces of young soldiers — "Our heroes" — while waiting for the bus.
"In the face of war, we tell ourselves: 'I don't belong to this reality,'" says Yuri, another typical representative of the Moscow middle class. He ignores the posters, and wants to live as if nothing is happening. "What I see above all is that our economy is holding up well, and that Moscow continues to modernize," he says.