Moscow had an unexpected, familiar feel from the moment our Aeroflot jet from Venice, Italy, touched down in the Russian capital.
The many shops and even a T.G.I. Fridays restaurant at the airport in this communist country had a particularly Western flair — what some would love to see at a new Kansas City International Airport. Our vacation on the Adriatic and Aegean seas with stops in Italy, Greece and Turkey last month was ending in Moscow.
American rock music played on the cab radio on the drive to the hotel. This city of 12 million is big, old, dirty and imposing like many in the U.S. Familiar things also came into view from the taxi, stuffed with luggage, me, my partner Bette, her mother, LaFrancine, and namesake aunt.
Billboards blared with ads of Tide detergent, Subway, Burger King and McDonald’s. Signs also advertised an Ikea store and Kia, Infiniti and Hyundai car dealers.
Such capitalism had been unimaginable in this communist, Cold War nemesis of the U.S. For baby boomers, duck-and-cover drills in school were a reality because of nuclear war threats from the Soviets. That faded in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 nations and multinational businesses became part of the streetscape.
At The Rooms Boutique Hotel, a Coke ad aired on the Apple TV. An ATM sat in the lobby eager for MasterCards and Visas. U.S. rap and R&B played as we checked in.
Moscow was among the places in our overseas travels that stayed in international news headlines. This city has felt economically squeezed by U.S. and European sanctions because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continuing military threat to Ukraine. But The Moscow Times’ slant on those and other stories was of U.S. aggression and reports that Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s approval rating was “unscathed.”
Greece faced the threat of its financial collapse and the possibly of it being kicked out of the European Union. But the driver who took us around Athens said people wanted to trash the euro and return to the drachma. Politically Greeks had had enough of the EU, the painful austerity, high unemployment and slashed benefits.
Turkey has felt the effects of the turmoil in the Middle East, the U.S. war in Afghanistan and fighting in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and other nations against the Islamic State. Italy, Turkey and other European countries also are being overrun with refugees fleeing their homelands.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported last week that worldwide displacement of people at the end of 2014 because of war, poverty and strife was at a record 59.5 million, compared with 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.
“The increase represents the biggest leap ever seen in a single year,” the report said, adding “the situation was likely to worsen still further.”
Refugees were crossing seas in unsafe boats, seeking safety, new homes and a better way of life, much like Central and South Americans illegally entering the U.S. from Mexico. Refugee numbers are up 51 percent in Europe, 31 percent in Asia and 12 percent in the Americas. Turkey was the world’s “top refugee-hosting nation, with 1.59 million Syrian refugees at year's end.” The displacement results in social, economic and political turmoil where we traveled and at home.
Touring the streets of Moscow in daylight, we saw more Western influence. It was in the latest Hollywood movies advertised and the clothing some people wore with English phrases on shirts saying “Smile” and “If found, please return to Europe.”
But it also was in the graffiti and homelessness, which looked very much like what we would see in any big city in the United States. Some of the buildings we toured in Moscow were iconic and hundreds of years old like those at the Red Square, which was a must see for us.
Other buildings clearly were from the Soviet era complete with the old hammer and sickle prominently displayed.
After Moscow, we boarded an Aeroflot jet to New York, happy to have vacationed in the protective bubble of tourists.