Thoughts from the Bolshoi Theater

I visited Moscow last month to catch up with some old friends and check in on the country which has played such a big role in both my professional and personal life, having lived and worked there for so many years. I also wanted to confirm or reject my thesis from March on my selfish reason for supporting Trump, based on the notion that Trump and Putin will be able to have a positive dialogue and perhaps finally really be able reset relations, as opposed to the meager attempt by Secretary Clinton in 2009 whose team couldn’t even figure out the right word for “reset” in Russian.

And while most people I spoke to did seem to confirm the belief that Russians in general respect Trump over Clinton and think he and Putin will be well-matched opponents in the grand game of international politics, I was more struck with how beautiful and civilized Moscow has become in recent years, while most residents did not seem very cognizant of all the positive changes.

Like the story of the frog in the pot getting slowly boiled, it is often hard to see or be fully aware of change as it is taking place. And it was clear in Moscow from talking with the likes of taxi drivers and even friends and relatives, that people who were living in the change didn’t really notice or necessarily appreciate the changes taking place around them.

My wife and I have visited Moscow once a year in April for the past 4 years and have had the chance to see how the city has changed, almost exclusively for the better, under the leadership of a new mayor appointed in 2013. The city’s notorious traffic jams have been eased, at least in the center, sidewalks have been enlarged and re-pathed, and parking is now civilized. Bike lanes have been added and sharing-economy style bike rentals are plentiful with payment by mobile phone. All standard stuff in Europe’s capital cities which Moscow had always lagged behind. But Moscow has now caught up if not overtaken European capitals in terms of really feeling like a livable and vibrant city. This is all of course somewhat ironic given the West’s deteriorating relations with Russia, and the fact that low oil prices have hurt the economy.  For example, pensioners now have to survive on less than a hundred dollars a month as pension payments have not been adjusted, despite high inflation and the ruble losing more than half its value in recent years.

I was reminded more than once that Moscow is not representative of the rest of Russia and that Moscow may well be another example of the growing gap between the world’s upper and lower classes, but by all accounts for most, with the exception of pensioners and other more vulnerable members of society whose well-being really is worse off, overall quality of life in Moscow is quite high and there is, in my opinion, a lot for Muscovites to be proud of. New restaurants continue to open, domestic food production is visibly on the rise thanks to sanctions banning things like cheese from Europe and, at least in dollar-terms, the city has become much more affordable.

But almost without exception, when talking with people about life in post-crisis Moscow I would hear complaints about how corrupt and wasteful the government was, a lack of public transportation (which I didn’t notice) and reduced ability to travel internationally (which is a fact for most Russians due to the ruble’s devaluation). That said, one very positive babushka put a great spin on things saying “things are looking so much better because they are stealing less”, said with a wonderful and accepting smile. Maybe by her age she had come to the realization that acceptance and looking for the positive in all situations is a better way to live.

I was quick, as an outsider, to point out the positives of the city to my friends and relatives, and invariably people agreed with me, which reminded me of our tendency as humans to complain and focus on what is wrong or negative versus what is going well.

I don’t have any scientific studies to point to, although I think there are some, but I believe that grateful and positive people live longer than complainers.  And somehow I think our tendency to complain is not something we are born with. My granddaughter turned four years old today. Her birthday party and horse-back riding were canceled due to floods in Houston and she spent hours in the car trying to get from one place to another. Once finally at home at 10 pm her time, my wife and I spoke with her on Skype.  And in spite of things not going to plan and missing out on a trail ride with her friends she was all smiles and didn’t have a single complaint to tell us about. I venture to say we were all that way at four years old before well-intentioned adults taught us otherwise.

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