St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow
It's hard to get a Big Mac in Moscow these days. The city's McDonald's are closing in quick succession, though nobody seems to know exactly why. Both the driver who picked us up from the airport and the receptionist in our hotel mentioned cutting trade ties with the West, but the official from the propagandist organization that flew us out to Russia said it was due to "sanitation reasons, which I'm sure will be resolved soon," and wouldn't be drawn into a longer conversation.
It's true that some of the McCafés, as they're called in mainland Europe, are clearly still doing a steady business. But many others—too many for it to be sanitation-related coincidence—stand in symbolic darkness. Twenty-three years ago, the first Russian McDonald's—its "window to the world"—opened in central Moscow, with five-hour lines for a Happy Meal snaking through Pushkin Square. Ever since the US and EU publicly condemned pro-Russia rebels' actions in Ukraine, however, McNuggets have been leaving a bad taste in Muscovites' mouths.
Backing up for a moment: When I first accepted an invitation onto a press trip to Moscow from a somewhat mysterious organization called Rossotrudnichestvo, I did so with a raised eyebrow. Nobody I knew had heard of the company before and I only got hold of the invitation through a Facebook message from a person I didn't know. When I turned up at their large office in London to inquire about the trip there were seemingly only two people working in the entire building, surrounded by darkened rooms that clearly hadn't been inhabited for months.
Standing in the middle of this weird half-lit maze, the woman helping me with a last-minute visa application could only tell me that the trip was being run to "foster relations between influential young journalists," and couldn't be tempted to expand on that. Hours of googling and questioning other journalists drew a blank. No one could say exactly what Rossotrudnichestvo was doing, or why. The only conclusion I could draw was that it was affiliated strongly but mysteriously with the Russian government and the country's most powerful media agencies.
Two weeks before I left for Moscow, a Malaysian Airlines flight had just come down in flames over Donetsk, EU sanctions had recently been imposed, and the Russian government had responded with an embargo on imported Western food. Some of my journalist friends were talking about a "new Cold War," which struck me as hyperbolic. Anyway, I'd already made my decision that I wanted to join the trip, mostly because the whole thing was confusingly but delightfully weird—no other media trip in the history of my short career had invited me through Facebook, failed to tell me what I was supposed to cover, or invited journalists out for what I assumed to be a propaganda tour right in the middle of a political crisis.
I'd done the Trans-Siberian Railway from Saint Petersburg to Beijing, via Moscow and Siberia, six years before with minimal culture shock, and felt then like Russia wasn't half as dangerous as everyone suddenly wanted it to be. It had seemed to me then that Russia was just another European country.
But in 2014, that no longer feels like the case. In fact, things have rapidly begun to go backwards, USSR-style. Take the case of Russia's massive news agency ITAR-TASS, which has 74 domestic offices and 65 bureaus throughout the world. During the Soviet era, this agency was known only as TASS (the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union). It was renamed by decree from Boris Yeltsin in 1992 after the dissolution of the USSR and the creation of the Russian Federation, thus gaining the prefix ITAR (Information Telegraph Agency of Russia). This is how it was known for the following two decades.
And then, recently and unexpectedly, Putin effectively reversed this decree and turned ITAR-TASS back into the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union. It's hard not to read political intent into symbolic actions as pointed as that.
I found out about ITAR-TASS and the other playgrounds of Moscow's media elite because our time in Russia was strictly structured, though our trip had no clear overall objective. The mornings would begin with monologues from impeccably dressed middle-aged men wearing sunglasses indoors. They were the heads of the government's most cherished publications and broadcast networks, and would usually cover a small amount of necessary information about their own organizations before casually mentioning that the "regathering of Russian lands" was imminent.
"The Western media lies," we were informed, again and again: a strange thing to tell people who are there as representatives of the Western media.
Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, where members of Pussy Riot played the show that led to their arrest in 2012
Ask a member of the All-Russia State Television and Broadcasting Company why they have never featured Alexei Navalny-Moscow mayoral candidate, leader of mass protests against the Kremlin in 2011 and 2012, and the only Russian to be named in Time magazine's 2012 list of the 100 most influential people in the world—on national TV or radio even once, and they will tell you that he's "unimportant to Russians," a self-involved egotist with "a face for the Western media."
Ask anyone in the mainstream Russian media what they think of their Western counterparts and they will answer you with one word: "propagandists." Again and again, we were told in this exact phraseology that Russia was aiming to "win the information war." There is no objective truth, we were informed by one official; there is only narrative. A teenager studying journalism at Moscow State University told us that "democracy is an illusion."
Outside of the media agencies, Moscow has been transformed. During my visit, lush new parklands sprung up in front of my eyes where abandoned car parks had stood 24 hours before. The streets were newly paved, the polished stones literally shining, and many were lined with charity tents asking people to give money to the soldiers in Ukraine. Public memorials to Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine were a common sight; they were being hailed as the heroes of a new Russian struggle to take back land—and people—who rightfully belonged to Moscow.
That weekend, people came out for Moscow City Day in droves, swarming into open spaces like the Park of the Fallen Idols (or, depending upon your perspective, Park of the Heroes), which was once a place for abandoned Soviet statues and quiet reflection and now is a manicured space where free yoga classes are held and complimentary orange juice is given out among figures of Lenin, Krushchev, Brezhnev, and Stalin.
Some of the T-shirts on sale in Moscow's Red Square
T-shirts were on sale in Red Square that featured images of Putin and Medvedev walking arm-in-arm with the caption: "THEY ARE PATRIOTS, YOU?" and reproductions of the infamous "Putin topless on a horse" photo. The faces of the vendors told me that none of this was intended ironically. A member of our group spotted a man whose young son was proudly sporting one of these garments—a T-shirt featuring Putin staring into the middle distance, his abs decorated with the Olympic rings.
Later, traversing the ridiculously beautiful Moscow Metro, a fellow journalist and I experienced one unexpected effect of this rejuvenated patriotism: We were grabbed by a local man who had overheard us having a conversation in English. "This is Russia. Speak Russian!" he demanded, before adding, eloquently, "In fact, if you're American, I'll punch you."
(My colleague—who, luckily enough, was fluent in Russian himself—managed to persuade the man that we were Serbians on holiday, at which point the man threw his arms around him and proclaimed that they were "brothers.")
This escalating sense of national pride had reached levels of hysteria; it was touching the drunk man on the subway as much as it was Putin—who openly sobbed during a rendition of the Russian national anthem while we were there—and the news agency heads, who were provoked into slamming their fists on the tables in rage when told that most of us saw the Ukrainian crisis as a Russian invasion rather than a humanitarian expedition.
The design on one of the many Putin T-shirts being sold in and around Moscow's Red Square
At each bar and restaurant I visited, I spoke with as many Muscovites as I could under the watchful gaze of the Rossotrudnichestvo staff. Each one had the same story: Russia is a fantastic nation, Putin is popular, the West unfairly persecutes their media and their government.
"There is censorship here," some conceded, "but we are only 25 years into the Russian Federation. We need time to grow."
What's strange, though, I suggested, was the fact that no passing Muscovite will criticize Russian media or politics in any way, shape, or form. That isn't the case with any other European country, especially the UK, where it's basically compulsory to hate the government.
"We have a duty to represent Russia positively," I was told. "The West spreads so many lies among its citizens that we have to respond this way."
No airing your dirty laundry in public, keep your mouth shut, watch for foreigners, do what's right for your country. It was what you might call a war mentality.
After five or six days in Moscow, everyone within our small group began to feel the invisible strain of what was happening internationally. On the evenings we sat in the dining hall of our small hotel—ordering expensive beer, following the rolling news reports of Russians killed on Ukrainian battlefields, watching the buffet slowly change its produce from French to Russian cheeses as supply ran out—we speculated about why we had been accepted onto the trip. Some of us were food critics, or theater writers. Only one of us was a Russian correspondent. What did they want with us? How much were they watching us? What was the point of these back-to-back meetings, where we were expected to sit through three-hour-long diatribes about why and how our countries supposedly lied about Russia?
The Moscow Metro
One of the delegates started sleeping with his lights on. I began checking through my cupboards and behind the shower curtain every time I went back to my hotel room, half-convinced that I'd find an actual Russian agent curled up in between my dresses, holding up a machine to record the tiny noises that the spy devices surely installed in my smoke alarm might miss.
Whether or not we were being tailed as we navigated Moscow remains a mystery. We could have been distinctly significant or wholly unimportant to the people who brought us to the place and then left us, disheveled and bemused, back in London's Heathrow Airport after seven days of what had felt suspiciously like attempted indoctrination. We'd been told that we could return to Russia any time, that their doors were open to us and that the organization would happily pay for us to learn Russian and complete a PhD in the country if we so chose. I suppose it's an option if I ever plan to disappear after a particularly bad breakup or come across a situation that calls for faking my own death. Outside of those circumstances, however, I no longer see myself returning to Moscow any time soon.
In a city that only Vladimir Putin and his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev are allowed to fly above—no commercial airliners; no tourist organizations; not so much as a traffic helicopter—everybody looks up when the night sky is lit by the single red light of one of these impenetrable politicians' helicopters. Putin reportedly hates Moscow and spends most of his time in a house outside the city, so it's not unusual to see him airborne between governmental buildings and the suburbs. Still, it feels strange to be enjoying a cocktail in a riverside bar and to spot that physical manifestation, however small, of his existence and his influence over this metropolis and the sprawling reality of Siberia beyond.
When that red light becomes visible, the people in Moscow—especially in Red October, home to many of the diminishing liberal elite—do the same as what anyone in the Western world does right now. You feel it most acutely when you're in Russia, but its diluted remnants are alive and well in London, New York, Paris, or Tallinn. We stand on the ground, looking up at the faintest proof of a man who none of us can quite make out. And we wonder what on earth he's going to do next.