04 January 2010

Moscow Never Sleeps

The title of this blog is a common refrain, often said proudly, in the city. I do not know the genesis of this phrase yet, but Andrey Shirman (aka DJ Smash) seems to have immortalized the phrase, or have capitalized on it, in a 2007 hit single that was remixed and re-released in 2008.
The Moscow News, an online news paper, published a namesake article just six weeks ago. The gist is that if you are bored, hungry, or in need of a sauna, there is a place for you somewhere in the city regardless of the hour. Ominously, the article's last section is "if you are in trouble ..."
I spent a year in Switzerland from fall of 1993 through the summer of 1994. As a student, I was always confused and confounded by the hours that the Swiss kept. Basically, the stores were open only when I was in school; to run errands, I needed to cut class. And I never figured out what the Swiss did in their homes. Whatever it was, it must have been mightily interesting as the streets become deserted after 6:00 p.m. The shops, and even most restaurants, were marooned under the Swiss order.
In the same timeframe, the Spanish had a referendum on whether they wanted the right to work on Sundays. The measure was soundly defeated. Obviously, the logic must have been either that a right leads to an obligation, and when the obligation is to work, I am enslaved; or for strong religious reasons, I refuse to work on the Sabbath. It is hard to pick between these two lines of reason because they are both so cogently compelling that they seem to have impenetrable logic. Just to have a frame of reference, on a July Sunday in 1993, I purchased my airline tickets to Switzerland at 3:00 a.m. and then went to do my groceries. I was in Texas, which is arguably more religious than Spain and has a strong streak of independence among its citizens.
A decade and half have gone by since my time in Western Europe; clearly, my experience is dated and things probably have changed significantly. But this much is true: Western Europe has deep cultural roots in its every corner and is a stable spot on the world map. Progress comes at a steady and slow pace. Tales of visitors to the Soviet Moscow describe empty streets after 6:00 p.m. similar to what I experienced in Switzerland. When perestroika was introduced in 1987, the average Muscovite had to stand in line for daily staples. When I visited Moscow for the first time in 1997, there was no visible shortage of anything, except there were fewer cars on the road than one would expect. It is now 2010 and "Moscow never sleeps" says it all. On 1 January at 4:30 a.m., my wife and I came home after making a trip to the local grocery store. Restaurants and bars were still going strong. Traffic jams are the norm and there are more Bentley cars in this city than in London. At the pace that Moscow is racing towards its future, many Western European cities may wake up and wonder why they spent so much time sleeping.

P. S. If you want to read a novelist's perspective on "Moscow Never Sleeps," read Martin Cruz Smith's account in the National Geographic. Martin's article is accompanied by nice photographs by Gerd Ludwig.

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