From Moscow with Love
What comes to mind when you think of Moscow? Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral? Sure. Vodka and matryoshka dolls? I’ll let you have it. Frigid blizzards and unsolicited ice skating amid mounts of snow? You betcha. Yet, when I first set foot in the middle of 17 million people 10 years ago, the capital of my home country felt like a warm embrace.
There is a saying in Russia that there are two types of people: those who love Moscow and those who prefer St. Petersburg. The two largest cities in the largest country on Earth relate something like New York and New Orleans. St. Petersburg is artistic, past-oriented, and laid-back, while Moscow has twice as many people than New York and covers almost twice as much surface. It’s a brutal, fast-paced, trying metropolis; the home of the high stakes hustle with a backdrop of history. It immediately called my name.
I was 18 when an argument with a boyfriend propelled me 3000 miles away from my hometown in Siberia on a quest for “some room to breathe.” And what a deep breath it was, stepping out of the subway onto Tverskaya Street, the mainstay of all first-timers, spanning out from the Red Square. The massive buildings looked like—finally!—the full sized versions of my dollhouse hometown; the air was abundant, rarified from the cold but supercharged with some puzzling energy I haven’t yet grasped; the cars, the people, the speech, all was faster, somehow more determined.
I envisioned myself independent, powerful, in the middle of the things that mattered. I dreamed to be a part of something larger than me that radiated outwards.
I explored for days, sometimes taking a metro between two sites that were a five minutes walk away from each other because I didn’t know any better, and sometimes walking for miles because I couldn’t find an entrance to my metro stop and all I had was a map (yes, it was THAT time.) I fought the cold, the wind, the unfamiliarity. And yet, I never felt more welcome.
Growing up in a Siberian city of 600,000 people surrounded by hundreds of miles of frozen tundra, I spent the first 18 years of my life with a pre-defined outline of my personal topography. School, seasonal jobs, the latest hip coffee shop (the first one in the city!), then another one, the nightclub of choice. I lived there for 18 years but knew perhaps 30% of the city.
Moscow, for the lack of personal attributions, was a blank slate, full of risks and possibilities. And as I scratched off my meaningful places, connected the dots, and painted by numbers, the city started coming to life. For the first time, I was drawing the map. And with each stroke, I discovered a new part of myself.
All the years prior I had wished for these parts to show up. I envisioned myself independent, powerful, in the middle of the things that mattered. I dreamed to be a part of something larger than me that radiated outwards. Coincidentally, the whole city of Moscow is built radially, with the Kremlin right in the middle and three highways forming rings around it like circles on the water (the largest one, MKAD, is 67.67 miles long). Moscow turned out to be just the place that had been missing all my life.
It took a couple of years of careful tending to, but oh, did it bloom. In a few short years, everything became possible. My five years in the city outweighed the 18 years prior. My point of reference shifted. The new home base became a trampoline for further westward exploration, thanks to the dream job and the life Moscow gifted me. I felt accepted and welcome from my first steps, but the ongoing exchange of energies and my trust to and in the city was what sealed our unspoken contract.
The beauty, the vastness, the opportunity for greatness. The calm early mornings when the whole city holds its breath then lets it out in streams of dreams and sleepy people.
But beyond that, I have still to this day never lived in a city more beautiful. St. Basil’s Cathedral is breathtaking, especially at night when you missed the last train and are stuck downtown until dawn. The bridges are massive and the sunsets from them are some of the best you’ve ever seen. The Stalin-era architecture is powerful, intimidating, and stunning at the same time. The churches and buildings of times long past promise secrets and keep you in awe. And the futuristic Moscow City gives everything a new perspective.
But the best part is that you can walk everywhere so you experience the pulse of the city with your whole body. And with such backdrop, everything you do seem to matter.
As easy it was for me to arrive, it was also surprisingly simple to leave. When the time came, I packed my life of five years into three very large suitcases, said goodbye to my friends, and got on a plane to New York. And while my first long-haul relocation was for the love to the city, this one was for the love of my life, a person. I was never the one to shun a good adventure and figured that Moscow will still be happy to see me whenever I make my way back for a visit.
And happy it was! Two years later, a plane brought me back for a short trip. And when I walked through a still frozen Gorky Park, home of my first ever running streak against a glistening Moscow river, it hit me again. The beauty, the vastness, the opportunity for greatness. The calm early mornings when the whole city holds its breath then lets it out in streams of dreams and sleepy people. The history that here runs nose to nose with the future but gives everything a unique tint.
So perhaps this could have happened to me in New York, Berlin or some other city were I to move there at the excitable age of 18. But no other city has made me cry with joy again and again. I believe that each of us has the One — a place, big or small, fast or slow — that’s yours to the bone. And I’m thankful I have found mine.