The Moscow I remember most is cinematographic.
It’s the Moscow of The Khrushchev Thaw, the Moscow of black-and-white deserted promenades. It’s the brief moment in the 1950s where there was something (for once) beautifully optimistic about the city. It’s a Moscow that no longer exists, but it doesn’t hurt to dream, right?
I’m away from Shanghai for a week, embracing the wide promenades and the cold, red walls of the Capital. Moscow is picturesque, but at the same time it’s harsh. It’s uninviting. It’s not a city that embraces its foreigners, or even its citizens (which is such a change from Shanghai). Each time I visit Russia it’s difficult – I am at once a part of the city and so far outside of it. I am expected to behave like both a Russian and a foreigner. But by this time, I’ve forgotten how to carry myself in public: I smile a little too wide, I stare at people in grocery stores because I don’t quite know the brand of sour cream to buy (but at 20% fat, does it really matter?) It’s only my third time in this city and between bouts of babysitting my 3-year-old and 6-year-old cousin, I’m slowly re-discovering the city, touring the usual sights, the cathedrals, and the museums, finally reunited with my college roommate.
To me, life in Russia is:
- Sweet. Now, don’t get me wrong, the lifestyle isn’t sweet, but sweets are everywhere. Every meal ends with tea, punctuated with jam, honey, chocolates, candy, and two kinds of prune or honey cake (at the very least)
- On that note, I’ve seen far more ways to eat cottage cheese (called творог) in Russian than I ever thought possible.
- It’s black rye bread with every meal
- It’s an overabundance of dairy, of caffeine, of sugar, of everything you can think of to survive the Russian -30ºC frosts.
- It’s seeing every woman on the street with fried, dry hair because the Russian climate is so unforgiving.
- It’s being transported back to 2003, when thin arched eyebrows and harsh lip-liner were in vogue.
- It’s being told that my coat needs to be lint rolled (to be fair, it does) by a supermarket security guard.
- It’s dealing with a culture of confrontation, if not politeness. China is a culture of personal space. Russia is the exact opposite. Every shopkeeper, every person you end up talking on the street is nosy. They will however, go out of their way to be polite, helping women carry bags, opening seats, and most importantly making little catty remarks.
- It’s the constant barrage of comments from relatives and strangers. My grandma persistently comments on my cheeks (too fat), my dresses (not bright enough), my legs (finally not fat), my glasses (too nerdy).
- But most importantly, living in Russia (permanently, because me , well I’m just passing by) means losing my freedom and my independence. It’s startling how many (seemingly simple) things we take for granted in the US. Living in Russia means being the weaker sex, being told to clear the dishes and tend to the male relatives, despite having an Ivy League education and an advanced degree, because those things hardly matter for a woman. It’s not being able to be ‘one of the boys’ because to my aunts, having a beer and some peanuts is a high moral offense. It means shutting down my willfulness, brashness, and my boldness. It means staying silent. And that, by itself, makes living in Russia – to me – almost unbearable.