The statue pictured above is often referred to as the perfect symbol of the Soviet era. The worker and kolkhoz woman (rabochiy i kolkhoznitsa in Russian) forming the statue hold up a sickle and a hammer – the Communist emblem known around the world. However, to me, it is more than that. Regardless of what this Communist pair is meant to represent, this sculpture fascinates me every time I see it because of its sense of determination, power, clear forward motion and motivation.
Such was my fascination that I trekked all the way to VDNKH (the all-Russian Exhibition Centre) on my only day off during a recent work trip to Moscow. It was a good visit – not just because I conducted interviews with senior Russian government officials for Global Government Forum, I was also struck by the lack of hostility directed towards me.
I had lived in Moscow in 2009 and couldn’t go anywhere without being stared at, shouted at or being made fun of as part of bad racist jokes. That form of racism was topped more recently by a more obvious, blunt and aggressive kind of behaviour which I encountered in the south-Russian city of Sochi, where I covered the Olympic Winter Games last year.
So when I travelled to Moscow last month, I braced myself for the worst and prepared to keep my head down. But, my expectations were not to be fulfilled.
One evening I went to the supermarket to pick up some milk and tea. It was late, and the cashier lady was serving a drunken man who wouldn’t stop talking long after she had given him back his change. I had found some chewing gum to stare at so as to not notice other people’s stares or block out racist comments from passers-by. So when the cashier woman threw me a smiley look and then rolled her eyes, I couldn’t quite believe it. “This man!,” she said to me in Russian. “He keeps coming in here, buys a bottle of beer, goes out, comes back and buys another – it’s constant!” I laughed and replied in Russian: “Does he not have a home?,” we both had a giggle, she served me, I said “goodbye” and so did she.
The trip to the shop was the first instance in which I became aware of how things had changed. Instead of looking at me in disbelief as if she’d never seen ‘my kind’ before, the woman behind the till didn’t seem to notice anything different in me. And instead of assuming that I don’t speak Russian – because of my obviously ‘foreign looks’, she addressed me in her native tongue. She didn’t treat me differently to anyone else. Injected with a portion of self-confidence I walked home past people who took no notice of me whatsoever. It was great.
Another evening, my friend and I went on the metro. She was wearing yellow trousers, which is pretty daring for Russian standards, whereas I was dressed more modestly. She was fiddling around with her rucksack, and eventually applied some lip balm, which caught the attention of about five surrounding passengers. No one looked at me. In the old days, she could have been dancing on the metro seat, or pulled a rabbit out of her sleeve, no one would have paid any attention to her. All eyes would have been on me. Not anymore. No one was interested. Again, I was pleasantly surprised.
I went into a few cafés to work or wait for people to arrive, and, again, the experience was wholly different compared to my time in Moscow six years ago. Instead of looking at me with their mouths open and serving me reluctantly, waiters and waitresses greeted me enthusiastically and made me feel welcome. What a delight!
Contrary to what I had anticipated, no one stared at me, no one shouted at me on the street, made silly jokes or did a funny impression of me. No one looked at me once, let alone twice. I just blended in with the crowd. Based on this experience, albeit it is purely subjective and anecdotal, I believe that Moscow has changed immensely. Its people seem to have become more open, more accepting of other cultures – more like citizens of a major capital city.
Hopefully, the whole country will – just like the worker and kolkhoz woman statue – keep moving forward. And hopefully soon, small-minded and ignorant attitudes prevalent in most smaller cities, towns and villages outside Moscow, will give way to a more cosmopolitan view which seems to have won over Muscovites.