I visited Moscow last week, my second visit to the Russian capital in seven months, and it is always an overwhelming experience. Moscow is a Moloch of a city, an unimaginably vast metropolis where everything is on a far greater scale than anywhere else in Europe. The buildings are massive, most streets have three lanes in each direction, the crowds are stupendous. The metro, which is famously the best in the world, transports teeming millions of people hither and thither; the escalators are constantly full as people flood up and down, and the trains are full even though they come every minute with the absolute regularity of a Swiss clock.
The sense of anarchy is increased by the city’s appalling traffic jams. Although the metro is so good, Muscovites take to their cars in their hundreds of thousands. Perhaps they regard it as a status symbol to drive rather than to use public transport. The distances are so large in Moscow that one can spend what seems like hours bowling along huge boulevards in what appears to be the centre of town; more frequently, however, one spends real hours sitting motionless as cars crawl, bumper to bumper, from one red light to the next.
The traffic jams are a symbol of the vibrancy of Russian life today, with all the good and bad which that implies. The economic dynamism of Russia displays the same good and bad sides. But the difference in prosperity between Moscow in 1988, when I first visited it, and now, could hardly be greater. Most of the cars in the traffic jams are 4x4s and the city (at least the centre) is replete with expensive shops and expensive hotels. With their nation’s characteristic proclivity for extremes, the Russians have gone from paupers to princes without seeming to pass through any intermediate stage: Russian immigrants in Western Europe are not, like Poles, cleaners and builders but instead multi-millionaires. In Russia itself, the middle class is burgeoning – against, at least in the urban centres – and you now seem to find more Russian tourists in fashionable beach resorts around the world than Germans. Any talk of political dictatorship in such conditions of vast economic expansion is simply ridiculous.
Russia, like England, is a European country which typically does not consider itself to be part of Europe. Russians use the word “Europe” to mean somewhere else. Of course Moscow is a European city. Indeed, it is racially homogenous, the few former Soviet citizens one sees from Central Asia or the Caucasus, and the numerous Chinese immigrants, representing a mere drop in the Slavic ocean. But, like Russia itself, Moscow is incommensurable with Europe. As you walk the streets of the capital, you somehow feel the presence of Russia’s still vast Asiatic empire beyond the city limits, for the country still stretches to the Pacific in spite of the severe territorial losses suffered by Russians when the Soviet Union was dismantled. ...
Russia’s size has also, however, represented a defensive strength. In the depths of the birch forests, Russian life – eternal Russia – continues much as before, in spite of the tumultuous changes inflicted on the country by two centuries of rapid economic and political change. That life, depicted in the Tretyakov Gallery’s countless portraits of the upper classes in their dachas, seems to remain essentially unchanged in a way that cannot be said of rural life in England or France. Russia is also one of the few countries in Europe where ordinary people retain a basic religious faith. ...
Whatever the truth, Russia’s size certainly does mean that she cannot be easily integrated into any European system. She reached the height of her geopolitical presence during the Cold War, when she was one half of a bipolar world. Now, Russia is a little more like Canada than the United States, but she is still far too large to be an ordinary European state. Her size frightens people and makes it difficult for the rest of Europe to treat her as an ordinary country.
Russia, indeed, can never be an ordinary country. She will always be a world unto herself. That is why Europe and the West must work hard to develop a respectful attitude towards her. In the past, Western hostility towards Russia has translated into enmity towards “Tsarism”, “imperialism” and Communism: these are ultimately all ways of projecting one’s own evils onto the feared “other”. The division of Europe between East and West dates from the foundation of Constantinople and the division of the Roman Empire into East and West in the early 4th century A.D., Russia now being the principle inheritor of Byzantium. Such a long division is not going to be overcome easily. But it can come only when the two halves of Europe, Russia and the West, behave towards each other as two co-equal legatees of the same undivided Christian civilisation.
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