Back in August of 2015, I first moved to Moscow to begin working as an English teacher. I didn't quite know what to expect or how long I would stay, but I decided to throw myself into as many experiences as possible and make the most of my time here. Now, two years later, I haven't left, and am ready to make a few conclusions about my overall time living in the city. I don't usually like to make lists, but I thought this time it would be fun. So, without further ado, here are the top five best and worst things about living in Moscow.
5. Marshrutkas (tie)
Some people like them, and others despise them, but I personally think they're so cool. As a little leftover from the Soviet era, Moscow is crawling with these vehicles called Marshrutkas (sort of like a cross between a van and a minibus) that shuttle you around places that aren't accessible by metro. They cost less than buses, just 35 rubles (about 55 cents), and are so much faster and more exciting. Because of their size, they easily whip through traffic, getting you from place to place nearly twice the speed of buses, and since this is how the drivers make money, they won't hesitate to pack it to the brim and floor the pedal, thus giving you that adrenaline rush needed to kickstart your day.
In some cities, like Irkutsk for example, they're the main form of public transportation, but in Moscow, they're not quite so easy to find. They don't appear in many areas close to the center, so if you come and visit as a tourist, you may not get the opportunity to encounter one, but if you stay on the outskirts as I did last year, you'll probably end up taking one daily, which I, being a rather odd individual, always found exciting. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the fact that they come to a screeching halt on the side of the road to pick you up and instantly speed of once you hand the change necessary for a ride. Maybe because it feels like communal ride sharing, or maybe because it is an experience so different from those I've ever had growing up in the West. Bottom line, a Russian visit isn't complete unless you ride one.
5. Lack of Obnoxious Tourists (tie)
Now, I'm not claiming that Moscow doesn't get tourists. It is the capital of the world's largest country and has 13 million inhabitants, so of course it does. But for some reason, you don't tend to get the screaming families, over-privleged 18 year-olds on gap year, belligerent British bachelor parties, or Americans shouting, "Do you speak English?!" Unlike nearly every other prominent European city, Moscow has somehow avoided these horrors that have afflicted places like Amsterdam, Paris, and Prague. Because of that, it maintains a pretty strong feel of authenticity. Even in the center, you don't feel like Moscow is being marketed out for the tourism industry, and it still feels genuinely Moscow pretty much everywhere you go.
I have been to hundreds of parks in cities of many different countries, and I can confidently say that none of them (including those of other Russian cities), come anywhere near Moscow. Despite containing 13 million residents, roughly 30% of the city remains as green space, meaning there are so many parks that all happen to be incredible in their own way. Take my favorite, Kolomenskoye, for example. There are hills and valleys as lush and green as the open country. Trees grow everywhere you look, and you can walk down to the shore to sit and relax along the river. The park has no city feel, and it is so big and open that it may seem like you're going on an adventure as you explore all the different sections. For example, if you know where to look, you'll even come across a giant orchard with apples fresh for the picking (season depending), and a ornate wooden palace that once belonged to the royal family.
3. Presentation/Look of the City
You may have mental images of a gray, Soviet-era industrial city with square, block buildings stretching as far as the eye can see. Moscow isn't like that. In fact, I'm willing to claim that it's one of the most gorgeous and unique cities I've ever been to. It really feels like quite an adventure going from block to block, especially in the center where. no two areas look alike whatsoever. The shapes, sizes and colors differ drastically, but everything seems to stand out, and it's all so much more vibrant than I could have ever imagined Russia being (after being raised around Western media). And everything is intermixed. Statues, parks, monuments, businesses, churches, historical sites, all clumped and mixed together while trees and green space sprout up intermittently.
On top of that, Moscow is always changing. Depending on the time of year, or if any exhibition is going on, the city is always decorated in some unique way. Last September, there were giant archways at the entrance-ways to all the pedestrian streets, while in December and January, the whole city was lit up in holiday lights. Even now, in the middle of June, there are so exhibitions about Russian history set up throughout the center, and in places like Pushkin Square, there are small shops set up where you can buy little souvenirs and sculptures made by different groups of people from throughout the country. Its just so dynamic, always changing, yet always so interesting.
2. Underground Music Scene
Moscow (and Russia in general) is not know for having a great music scene. When I first arrived, I struggled to find good venues that had something other than electronic music or generic pop. It was disappointing, but once I started getting the inside word and stumbled into the more discrete, less flashy places, my perception on Moscow music did a complete 180. I started hearing about punk bands at Китайский Летчик (Kitaisky Letchik), ska bands at Сады Вавилона (Gardens of Babylon), and recently just saw a Balkan-style brass band at the Serbian bar. And although the styles and performances were different, they all shared this energy and apparent passion for the music they were making and performance they were giving. Everything was so creative and seemingly spontaneous, as if these bands were getting a read from the crowd and playing accordingly. Maybe it's because the main stream music scene is that bad, the counterculture backlash so genuine and amazing. Whatever the reason, Moscow's underground music absolutely deserves it's place on the list.
1. The People*
This was pretty much a no-brainer for me. The best part of living in Moscow has been the people I've met along the way. I don't mean to sound cheesy, but it is true. I've made some of the best friends of my life while living here, and I can conclude that Russians (as a generalization) take friendship very seriously in the best way possible. The concept of an acquaintance that has gripped the Western business world has not really taken root here. If a Russian is your friend, you'll be welcomed and treated just like you're a member of the family. And, for me, this has made my whole experience in Moscow so much richer and fuller than I could have ever imagined. I don't feel as if I am an outsider as a result, and truly feel as if I have become a part of the society.
I guess the best way I can describe friendship in Russia is by this example. One time, I asked a friend why people never smile on the streets, and my friend replied, "Why should I? If I just walked around smiling at everyone, it would be fake and meaningless. I want my smiles to actually mean something."
*Special shout-out to Vagabond and Comrade Hostel.
5. Moscow's Coffee
I am a coffee addict. And I mean that literally, not figuratively. I get headaches and the chills if I don't get my fix for the day (yes I know it's a problem, but we've all got our little vices). Because of this, a good cup of coffee is one of the greatest pleasures in the world for me. In Russia, this became a problem, because about 90-95% of all coffee here sucks. It is almost exclusively instant coffee (shutters in disgust), and low grade instant coffee at that. Sadly, I admit that I do still drink it (as said, I have an addiction), but I garner no pleasure from it.
This is still a relic left over from the Soviet era, but one thing that truly aggravates me about living in Moscow is registration. By law, you have to register at every place you stay within three days of arrival, which may not seem as such a problem if you're just visiting for a week. Likewise, it wasn't so bad last year when I just lived at the same flat for the whole year, but this year, however, as I moves from place to place and hostel to hostel, it has become unbelievably frustrating. I need to take my previous registration to every new place I check into, and if I don't have it, there is usually a fee (it is just a small one, but still!)
Overall, I guess the main reason why this bothers me is the fact that it feels like Big Brother is keeping tabs on me wherever I go. It makes me feel a bit uneasy, but the one thing I can still take a bit of solace from is that it does not seem like anyone actually pays attention to this. After nearly two years, I still have yet to have a police officer stop me and ask to see my papers. Maybe it has just gotten too big and disorganized with all the data and paperwork for anyone to fully understand it. Anyway though, I still don't like it and therefore, it makes the list.
3. Security Guards/Personnel
Remember how I described above how pleasantly surprised I was about how helpful regular people in Moscow were? Well... I was just about as unpleasantly surprised by how unhelpful security guards and similar personnel turned out to be. Much more often than not, when you ask them questions, they'll either flat-out refuse to help or just send you to someone else. Case in point, I had a friend from Argentina (who didn't know Russian) who needed to take a train from Moscow to St. Petersburg. He was a bit confused in the station and wasn't sure where to go so he asked several people working there, including security, what he needed to do (showing the ticket and everything). None of these people, who's job it was to help, did anything. But thankfully, a few regular Russian people stepped in, started shouting at the security guards and threatened to take down their badge numbers unless they did their job. Eventually the regular people ended up walking my friend to the correct location. I'd like to say that this was just a freak occurrence, but unfortunately it is not. At least the regular people are incredibly helpful thought (something equally common).
2. Metro During Rush Hour
The Moscow metro is beautiful and usually enjoyable to ride... unless you take it during rush hour on a workday. Then it is quite literally a nightmare. Just like New York, Moscow is a huge city where millions of people from the outskirts and suburbs commute to and from the city center for work. Only Moscow's population is nearly double that of New York, and since Moscow's metro is many stories below ground, you need to take a long narrow escalator up and down. Normally, this is no problem, but during this time it becomes so stuck, like a ketchup bottle left in the freezer for a few days. And since Moscow's work schedules are a bit sporadic, rush hour lasts a long time: about 7:30-10 in the morning and 4:00-8:00 in the evening. When this happens, its like a dam has broken and swarms of people flood the streets. If you can, avoid this at all costs.
1. The Weather Winter
It feels so cliche to choose this as number one, but after this past year, it has to take my top spot. This is the one stereotype that actually holds true. The Russian winter is brutal, and lasts for what seems like forever. It started snowing in the beginning of October this year and continued until the middle of May. That's eight months of snow. Don't get me wrong, I like snow... for a month or two. But by eight, I'm ready to start pulling my hair out. It's so long that it hinders your ability to enjoy the summer because you know another long winter is just on the horizon.
Also, several days this year plunged below -30. I know that there are Russian cities that get even colder, but -30 just hurts, especially when there is wind and no sun. Thankfully the wind isn't so bad in Moscow, but the lack of sun in the winter is pretty depressing. Like the nation's stereotypical animal, the bear, the sun decides sometime in late November to go into hibernation and doesn't reveal its face again until late January. To help pass the time, we all play a game called 'Let's see who can become Vitamin-D deficient First.' My best finish so far is third place.
With all the pluses and minuses, was it worth it? YES!