Russia Watch: Moscow – Turning Europe’s largest city into Eurasia’s world class city

Moscow is easily at its best in the summer – lots of green, less traffic, stylish clothes, plenty of energy, and constant cultural stimulation.

Last week, I attended a Moscow News round table on how to make Moscow a global city.

Judging by my Sunday, Moscow is already there.

The afternoon started with Canada Day reception in the embassy garden; then over to Red October for a Russian photo show at Lumiere Brothers, followed by sushi and expresso with the bilingual curator; then around the corner to a photo show of Sergey Bratkov, a cutting edge Ukrainian photographer; then to the Arbat to pick my way through Russian and Italian tourists in search of a rumored protest; then to the Dome Theater for a French movie, Intouchables, with Russian subtitles up top and English subtitles down below; and finally two hours in front of a big screen, watching the Spain-Italy final of the Euro 2012 football cup, broadcast live from Kyiv. All stops connected by a Russian friend’s German-made BMW. During down time, skype calls to US and Brazil.

Sounds pretty international to me.
But, after living in Moscow for six years, I offer five quick tips on how to make it Moscow world class.

ENGLISH – Like it or not, for the foreseeable future, English is the world language.
To visitors, Moscow is a challenging landscape. And all the clues are written in Cyrillic.
The joke goes: after the 1980 Summer Olympics were over, all English signs were pulled out of the Metro so the spies would get lost.

Now it is the 5 million foreign tourists and business visitors who come to Moscow every year who get lost. They count out stations by number, praying they will reach their destinations.

Russians are not the only people in the world who are uneasy about public signs in English.
Quebec, the majority French-speaking province of Canada, has adopted rules for signs that just might work in Russia. In Quebec, by provincial law, all the letters in French words on commercial signs have to be twice as large as the letters for English words.
This law provides endless groaning among Quebec’s anglophones.
Language Police — “tongue troopers” to some — actually drive around with tape measures, measuring letters, photographing offending signs, and fining offenders.
Bottom line: the sign law keeps a French face on Quebec, but gives enough information to visiting Americans to keep the tourist dollars flowing.

METRO – At one stage in my life, I was the Mass Transportation Correspondent for The New York Times – a fancy job description for spending my days in New York subways and buses, bridges and tunnels. Having lived in New York and Tokyo and having visited London, Seoul and Paris, I confidently state that Moscow’s Metro is the best in the world.
The busiest in Europe, the Moscow metro carried 2.4 billion riders last year, almost 50 percent more than New York’s subway system.
But Moscow’s Metro has to get better.

On weekdays, automobile congestion above ground is matched by people congestion below ground.
The metro system carries 7 million passengers every weekday, roughly twice its design capacity.
Headways – shoptalk for the time between trains – can be tightened from the current 90 seconds to 1 minute. More trains = more people moved through the same tunnels.
When crowds pool up in stations, attendants should encourage doubling up on the escalators. Health fanatics who want climbing lanes can go to yoga studios.
Embrace the middle class. Create convenient, low-priced car parks near suburban stations. Promote and advertise to middle class commuters — they are the drivers who clog city streets.
In Soviet Moscow, the red M stood out against a gray, dull landscape. Now it is lost, competing with a clutter of signs from pharmacies and fast food stores.
In Moscow of the future, the crimson M for Metro should be bigger than golden M for McDonald’s!

PARKING – Parking on sidewalks inside the Third Ring is Third World.

Sorry, but people in London, Paris, New York and Berlin do not park their cars on sidewalks.

Inside the Third Ring is Moscow’s historic center. It should be a pleasant place to walk.
Cities change. People change.
Last year, I was back in Rio de Janeiro after a 15-year absence. A friend was driving me to lunch, searching in vain for a Sunday afternoon parking space near Copacabana Beach. The Moscow gremlin inside me piped up and said: “Park on the sidewalk, park on the sidewalk.”
My Brazilian friend sighed: “We stopped doing that 10 years ago. Big fines.”
In Moscow, it will take time for underground parking to be built.
Meanwhile, an inventory of free spaces can be made. We all know where they are. To encourage their use, make surface parking a tax free business. Penalize people like my Kutuzovsky Prospect neighbors who flaunt their 20 empty spaces as some sort of weird status symbol, while pedestrians thread their way among cars covering the sidewalk.

DECENTRALIZE – OK, my recent proposal to move Russia’s capital to Novosibirsk went over like a lead balloon. But high speed internet and Skype conference calling allows for decentralization – a euphemism for moving ministries out of Moscow.

President Putin’s plan to move the Russian Navy’s headquarters to St. Petersburg this year is a great, first step.
Why not move Russian Railroads (the nation’s largest employer) to Khabarovsk?
Or the Asia departments of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and of Industry and Trade to Vladivostok?
Or Education and Science to Novosibirsk?
Or Energy to Khanty-Mansiysk, center for half of Russia’s oil production?
The population of Russia east of the Urals is aging and shrinking. Spreading the federal payroll would be win-win for bloated Moscow and cash-starved regions.

APPRECIATE – Take a deep breath — and thank your local Tajik.
Thanks to immigrant labor from Central Asia, Moscow streets, parks and courtyards are probably cleaner now than any time since that fabled day in 1147 when Yuri Dolgorukiy, founder of Moscow, dropped his first apple core on the ground.
Moscow is certainly far cleaner and brighter than when I first worked here in 1991, that ‘golden’ era of Socialist morality and Saturday voluntary cleanups.
Over the next 7 years, Russia’s working age population is to shrink by 7 million people. Unless Muscovites suddenly develop a passion for menial jobs (unlikely) or learn to stop littering (possible), the city will only stay clean thanks to Central Asia guest workers.
Bob Broadis, the Sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado, once told me that, were it not for the army of Central American workers changing sheets, washing dishes, and cleaning toilets in the ski town of Aspen, you would smell that chic fashionista resort 50 miles down the valley.
Give appreciation to the people who do the work you do not want to do.


(Photo: Vladimir Fofanov/



James Brooke VOA Moscow Bureau Chief

James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow last summer – the hottest on record. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.