Living in Moscow – Perception vs Reality

I guess many of you reading this will have been interested in the things we have been doing over here, but if you are like me you are also wondering “what is it actually like to live in Moscow ?”  Well we have been here 2 months now, so think I have enough perspective to be able to provide you a reasonably informed overview of Moscow.

The Perception

If you are like me and grew up during the cold war and witnessed from afar the fall of Communism in the 1980’s and the subsequent transformation of the Soviet Union from an isolated giant ready to wreck nuclear havoc on us to a free market economy, you will probably have some perceptions of what Russia is like, and they are probably something like these;
  1. Border control are a nightmare to deal with and you will be lucky to get in.   We have all heard the stories of people trying to get into Russia with correct visas, etc, and being denied entry due to lack of a return ticket or some similar reason.
  2. The country is run by the Mafia.   In the change over from Communism to capitalism, we all heard the stories that the country was basically controlled by the Mafia and that nothing could be done without protection from them.
  3. You will be harrassed by policemen looking to supplement their income with bribes.   It is law here that you carry your identification papers with you at all times, and upon request you have to produce this documentation to a police officer, often leading to a bribe being paid to get out of a situation where you don’t have the right papers, or even if you do to save being taken down to the local station.
  4. The city is unsafe, beware of pick pockets, thugs, drunks, etc and be especially careful when getting on the trains.   This one speaks for itself
  5. Everyone speaks a little English, so you will be able get around reasonably easy.  Yes everyone says this reassuringly as you wonder how you will survive and be able to find your way around a strange city.
  6. Moscow if full of hot chicks.   Yes, every one of my (married) mates who upon hearing we were heading to Moscow have asked if I can find them a Russian wife (I think this is in addition to you existing wives, so don’t worry too much girls…), as our image of Russia is that it is full of Anna Kournikova’s and Maria Sharipova’s.
  7. Moscow is now a pretty modern city.   After 20 odd years of capitalism and some of the richest men (and women) in the world living here plenty of new buildings have been built.  It is currently home to the tallest office building in Europe, which will be outdone soon by another one close by.
  8. Moscow is the most expensive city in the world to live.  You can’t argue with the proof, Moscow was named most expensive city in the world to live in 2012 based on a standard monthly spend on a set basket of goods and services by some number crunching outfit.

 The Reality

Typical state of repair for a public building in Moscow
  1. Border control couldn’t have been easier, sure the lady on passport check made sure to check that we did match our photos, and that I signed all the right bits of paper, but getting through there was a breeze.   Customs was even easier, we never filled in a declaration form of any sort, never showed our bags to anyone, just walked out the door, couldn’t have been easier.
  2. So far we have seen no evidence of mafia exerting their control on everything, although not understanding a word anyone says may mean we are missing out on verbal clues.  Sure there are plenty of shifty looking dudes around, but that is no different to home where gangs are now involved in a lot of business and roam the streets of once safe towns like Blenheim.
  3. In fact I am surprised by how few policemen there are around considering this was once pretty much a police state, and of those I have seen not once have we been questioned for our papers, even when we were lost and I had to resort reluctantly to asking one for directions.  Sure they can pack a lot of riot police in to the metros when there is a soccer match on, but they are only to stop the idiots who support soccer here from causing too much trouble, they always seem to be doing something stupid at matches here.
  4. Ironically in 2 months so far, heading out and about, on the metro at various times of the day and week, walking around our neighbourhood and the city, we have not had a single instance of being worried about our personal safety, in fact we fell a hell of a lot safer walking the streets here than we ever have in Auckland or Wellington.   The only time you feel unsafe here is when you are crossing the road, that is not for the faint hearted.   I am not sure if this is a hangover from years of communism, but generally Russians on the street keep to themselves, they don’t acknowledge you (or anyone for that matter), you don’t see them bump into someone and have a chat or a laugh like you might see walking the streets at home, or talk to a stranger other than to ask directions, no one seems to make eye contact with anyone else.  It is very much a city on the move, which just goes about its business.  One thing I have noticed though is that if we get on a busy train with the kids and there are no seats, someone will always offer their seat for the kids and Angela
  5. English ?, might as well be Martian, don’t ever believe this statement from anyone, no matter how well intentioned they are…   Hardly anyone speaks English and apart from some road name markers, there is no English used on any signage anywhere in the city, maybe even the country….   luckily though Cyrillic is a reasonably easy language to start reading once you work out the code and which of their letters sound like which of ours.   Then it is a case of sounding out their words, and you will often find that it translates directly to an English word or one very similar to ours and you can work out what it says.  We are now able to find our way to any train station, jump on unknown buses, and work out what most shops are by reading the signs, so it doesn’t take long to sort out, but that doesn’t really help the conversation though…   We have also enjoyed the sounds of the first English language radio station in Russia for the last 2 weeks, although their play list is dictated by the government and is pretty limited (it does include a bit of Crowded House and Bic Runga), but is painful listening to expat Yanks spewing the usual excrement they are known for and thinking they are cool at the same time….
  6. Well, yes, when you have 12,000,000 human beings in one place you are bound to find a reasonable number of good looking girls around, but realistically on a day to day basis, you will see 1 really good looking girl about every 2nd or 3rd day if you are lucky, although I have noticed that the closer to the city centre you get on a work day, the shorter the skirts get and generally the more good looking girls there are proportionately, not that I am looking of course.   When you are out and about you generally see a huge number of Babushkas (grandmothers) going about their daily business.   Realistically you probably have just as much chance of finding a hot chick in Blenheim, although I can’t comment on what it is like at the clubs here which generally have “Face Control”, (so us country bumpkins probably wouldn’t get in….)
  7. Again, yes there are some pretty modern buildings here, but generally they are limited to some small areas of the city, with the remainder of the city consisting of a range of buildings in various states of disrepair built between 1300 and the 1960’s.   The state of most buildings here is pretty sad really, many of them are just falling apart, and there is no money spent on maintaining them or upgrading them.   So many buildings are those Soviet style buildings that we imagined Moscow being full of during the Cold War days.   The roads are rough, and footpaths even rougher, most stairs will have loose tiles and treads, and a disabled access consists of a couple of  PFC channels bolted down on the stairs at roughly wheel width apart.   I wouldn’t want to be elderly or disabled living here.   That said though, there is a noticeable programme in place to modernise the city, with a huge number of Metro stations slated for redevelopment including new movie theatres and shopping centres, and a number of new living precincts being developed, in areas recently swallowed up by the megalopolis that is Moscow City.
  8. The most expensive things in Moscow for your average person are accommodation and schooling.   If your job takes care of either or both of these you are pretty well sorted.   While our accommodation is included in the job, we are responsible for the kids schooling which when we agreed on a salary we were told would cost around $US1,000 / month each, but is actually closer to $US1,800 each, even taking into account that our budget is now $US 1,600 / month down on what we worked on to start it is still reasonably easy to survive.  Admittedly we are a bit pissed that we now have to watch what we spend our money on, and haven’t got as much to spend on extras as we had hoped, but buying groceries here is a lot cheaper than at home, travelling by public transport is so cheap it is not funny, and even big ticket items like clothing and footwear are around 33% cheaper than same brands/models in New Zealand.  Of course you can shop at the boutique fashion houses and upmarket malls and pay through the nose for name brands, but there are also plenty of little Warehouse and $2 Shop style places and markets where you can pick up some real bargains.  Most importantly, you can still buy chocolate bars and beer here for $1 a bar or bottle, and you can even pick up Vodka in the supermarkets for $6 a bottle…   Most sightseeing activities are pretty cheap so you can do a lot with a family with $100 in your pocket and come out with change, something that is very rare back home….
So as you can see the reality of Moscow is quite different from our Western perceptions.   It is modernising all the time, and it can be as expensive or affordable as you want it to be, and really safety wise you can’t beat it.

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Tony Fitzpatrick
Architect, Dad, Traveller & Head Rover at Around Rock 3
After a brief flirtation with Japan in the early '90's, and some occasional trips to Australia since, I have had an unrequited love affair with Japan and general desire to explore the world for the next 20 years while reality prevailed and I found myself pretty much stuck in my home country of New Zealand (not that is an entirely bad thing...).After a chance opportunity arose in mid 2012 to relocate our family to Moscow, Russian Federation I finally set off on my OE with my family in tow. It has been an amazing journey that has seen us experience life in Russia, Japan and now Finland, as well as visiting around a dozen countries so far in our adventure to date.While my family situation has changed along the way, I am continuing to explore the world with my tri-lingual son and enjoy sharing the adventures we have had with my followers.

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