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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

What's it like to live in Moscow?

The first point to make is that subject to a number of peculiarities that this essay explains, Moscow is much like living in any other large European capital. It is not a huge culture shock. Like London, it has a pretty centre and then endless miles of more or less shabby suburbs in every direction. Like London, there is postcode snobbery. Like London, there is a relaxed air towards immigrants - as long as they are wealthy.

Like London, the traffic is horrible. Like London, the middle classes tend to dress well. Like London, the weather is often bad. People are rude, much as in London. The food is similar to that in London: fancy and expensive. Like London, there are multiple airports and railway stations, all of which are extremely confusing. Like London, there is a massive metro system that can often be very confusing and heavily used.

The proportion of people who speak English is far lower than in most European capitals, and that may deter visitors. But this is just a detail. Russian is not that difficult to learn to a conversational level, and professional people speak English. You can actually live in Moscow without speaking a word of Russian, and many people do.

Since 2014, when the absurdly overvalued Ruble dropped from less than 30 to the US Dollar to over 70 (and is currently approximately 68), Moscow has been quite a financially pleasant place to live. Before then, Moscow (and all of Russia) suffered from what economists call 'Dutch Disease': a grossly overvalued currency making it impossible for normal people to live, by reason of the country's principal export being hydrocarbons.

The reason why a hydrocarbon economy generates an over-valued currency is because speculators buying up hydrocarbon stock market derivatives also start buying up the underlying currency in order to meet their future derivatives obligations when they come to pass. So the world's stock markets start buying Rubles. The net result is that Russians all start going abroad for extended vacations, drinking French champagne and buying foreign cars. But they can't afford anything domestically produced (e.g. domestic agricultural products or domestic hotels). As a result, all areas of the domestic economy not based on hydrocarbons whither, which turns out to be a big problem if at some future point the currency loses value at a time when everyone is relying upon imports.

The typically Russian solution to this problem was to invade a foreign country in 2014, i.e. Crimea and the Donbas region of Ukraine. They did this in the anticipation that these conflicts would devalue their currency as foreign capital fled in response to Russia's internationally outrageous actions. That brought the Ruble to within sensible parameters, so that the Russian economy could spend more time focused upon domestic production. In particular, Russia could spend more time producing military equipment, which is what the Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted, so that he could engage in another 'anti-overvaluatory' exercise in macroeconomics in 2022 by invading the rest of Ukraine. International sanctions helped Russia in this regard as well.

There is no point in getting too upset with Russian macroeconomics; it is totally bizarre, like everything else in Russia. Suffice it to say that once your national balance sheet has reached a level which is threatening secondary industry because oil is making so much money that nobody can be bothered to do anything else, you invade a neighbour - because you can afford to and there's really nothing else that can be done with all that excess money.

Russians have always been like this and we imagine they always will be. It is an extremely bloody way of managing one's fiscal and monetary policies; but it does seem to be the method favoured by the Russians.

How does all of this impact upon living in Moscow? With exchange rates at 68 Rubles to the US Dollar, Moscow turns out to be a reasonably priced and pleasant city to live in. It has loads of accommodation, a lot of it renovated Soviet stock and really of quite high quality (in particular, large spaces). Russians are used to giving privilege to consumption, as they are a petro-state. Therefore Moscow is packed with bars, restaurants, nightclubs and other forms of entertainment. The principal premise of almost all Russian entertainment is getting drunk; but a city of 12 million people that can spend most of their time getting drunk is arguably quite well off. The other thing Muscovites like to do is to have sex, with lots of different people, an activity they have commoditised in the colossal level of prostitution.

It is impossible to explain meaningfully to anyone who has not spent a significant amount of time in Moscow just how prevalent prostitution is. It attaches no social stigma whatsoever. Everyone is up to it, with the obvious consequences that marital and other relationships suffer from a lot of problems (particularly when combined with the drunkenness) and the rates of sexually transmitted diseases are high. One of the very few formalities for obtaining a Russian residence permit (beyond paying a spurious amount of money to a corrupt government official or proxy agency) is to have an HIV test. (The reason it has to be taken at a specific government hospital is because otherwise you would just pay a bribe to receive a fake test certificate.)

Although prostitution has been normalised, beware of thefts, druggings and rip-offs. There is a weekly prostitution magazine that circulates for free around Moscow (you will find it under the windscreen wipers of any parked car or copies are available on request in hotel lobbies) but be wary of using these services, particularly if you are a foreigner. The FSB runs a number of government-sanctioned prostitution telephone / online services where English is spoken. They are not hard to find although they are more expensive. However this way you will know that the girl is not likely to rob you; your passport details will be taken from the hotel and recorded by the FSB; you may be videoed; and so on and so forth. All these measures are naturally for your personal safety, not to compromise you in any way.

Public transport is excellent in Moscow. It has arguably the best metro in the world, dug by slaves on the orders of Stalin and paved with gold and other fancies. The city works 24 hours. You can get a hair cut or buy a new laptop at 4am. The roads are very good, although the traffic can be appalling at certain times of the day which is why you should use public transport to the extent possible. The streets are safe, 24 hours a day. The police are efficient if crude: there are a lot of them, and if they see any disorderly behaviour they start beating everyone up with long sticks. Hence there is little to no street violence (the same cannot be said for all parts of the rest of Russia).

The weather is simply a given - it's very cold in winter but manageable the rest of the year - but Moscow is well accommodated to deal with cold weather, as one would expect. Every building entrance has enormous heaters; very warm coats are sold everywhere; aeroplane ailerons are routinely de-frozen with boiling water; if you really don't want to then you only rarely have to go outside.

One of the biggest problems in Moscow was always getting a taxi. Thankfully the government solved that problem by nationalising the taxis. Now Moscow taxis for the most part are operated by Yandex, a company owned by a friend of the Russian President, and they have a good mobile 'phone App. They are reasonably priced and reliable 24 hours a day.

It is good practice to assume that offices and public spaces such as hotel lobbies and hotel bedrooms are bugged, particularly if they are upmarket.

Most problems in Moscow derive from interactions with the government, which does not work as we might wish governments to work. Rather than provide services in the sense we might understand, the Russian government exists to steal from citizens and enterprises. Any Russian person knows to minimize their relationships with the Russian government, and living in Moscow this principle is a necessity. To give you some examples of how far this extends, let us provide you with a list of apartment qualities in Moscow that attract a premium.

  1. Having no street number

  2. Having no apartment number

  3. Having no mailbox

  4. Having no road address at all (some buildings are on complex corners and manage to have not even a street, never mind a number)

  5. Not being registered in the cadaster

  6. Not having a security guard

  7. Having an impenetrable steel door that cannot easily be breached by the security forces

  8. Having no elevator (elevators might break down, requiring fixing; or you might fall down elevator shafts)

  9. Containing a hidden walk-in safe not obviously visible to the casual visitor

  10. Having no utility bills (they are wrapped into someone else's bills to which you pay a cash contribution without paperwork)

  11. Having communal heating that cannot be turned off without turning off the heating of others; ditto electricity; ditto water

The reason these various curious things attract a premium should be obvious: they are all ways of insulating you from the fact that the government might be able to work out where you live. Because if they do find out, then the Russian government may come round to your house, prepared to smash in your door, for all sorts of different reasons but they all end up the same way: your paying whatever bribe this particular branch of the Russian government decided that you must pay if you do not want to follow various routes all of which lead to your eventual death (police stations, courts, FSB offices, penal colonies, etcetera). The Russian government has two businesses: collecting money and killing people. Therefore to the extent that your life in Moscow is organised to prevent them from doing either of those things, you are living pretty well.

Obviously there are a number of activities, living in Moscow, that are out of the question:

  1. Any sort of political, NGO or civil society meeting or other activity to which the FSB have not been invited and/or which they have not approved.

  2. Any sort of street demonstration.

  3. Any expression of a political opinion, in public or private.

  4. Court applications for judicial review of government actions.

  5. Participating in any conceivable way with a newspaper or other media source that is not de facto or de jure owned by the government.

  6. Be extremely careful about publishing websites. This is generally ill-advised. If you must do it, set it all up outside Russia. If you use a Russian contractor, you are just looking for trouble.

  7. All forms of drugs. The Russian government takes an extremely dim view of drug use. Drug users can expect long prison sentences; drug dealers will probably not survive the 'process' of being arrested.

  8. Use of any email address hosted in Russia, unless your intention is to reveal your email contents to the Russian government. Even then it's a bad idea, as they may simply take over your email address and start sending messages on your behalf without your knowing about it - or even locking you out of your own email address because they want to make some point that may never be clear.

  9. Do not be a diplomat or travel on a diplomatic passport of any country; or you will be constantly harassed (this is virtually a matter of principle).

  10. Shouting or arguing in a public place (this creates very bad reactions; it's the sort of thing the Police might get involved in and we don't want that because it'll be expensive as well as very unpleasant).

  11. Mentioning other people's names in conversation (casually or to show off). You never know who is compiling a file on you, so don't mention other people's names.

  12. Unless you really trust the people involved, any sort of homosexual encounter.

  13. Apply for asylum or undertake any interaction with the Russian government beyond the bare minimum (i.e. visa / residence permit).

  14. Breach the immigration laws. They are one of the few areas of Russian law that are enforced, efficiently, by the FSB. They keep files tracking every single person's movements across the country and in and out of the country, and it is all done automatically. Don't ask whether you are being followed; we promise you that you are being followed, absolutely everywhere. The penalties for even the most minor immigration infraction are all very unpleasant.

In Moscow, do things the Russians do. Drink excessively; have sex; go out socially; go to friends' homes for dinner; go to offices that are doing strange and impenetrable things without getting too involved in these things yourself; go to cultural events (of which there are many); go shopping (Russians love this); do not draw attention to yourself.

Provided you follow all the precepts in this article; and you pay any bribes required of you immediately and in full, it is unlikely that anything bad will happen to you in Moscow. They are not hostile against certain nationalities, even amidst war. American and British passport holders will receive a warm welcome if some curiosity. This is harmless and you should enjoy it. Everyone will want to meet you and ask you strange questions you should not answer.

The worst thing that can currently happen is that you are conscripted into the Russian Armed Forces or the Wagner Group - the difference between the two becoming decreasingly clear as time goes on. This is admittedly very bad, but it should not happen to you unless you have done something very wrong.

In conclusion, Moscow really is a nice city to live in. There is lots of fun and entertainment, but keep a low profile, like all Russians do.


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