Putin’s Moscow is Anxious, Gilded and Hollow

The last time I saw Maria Baronova on Nikolskaya Street in Moscow, she was taking part in a silent anti-government demonstration before being bundled into a police bus with a half dozen other protesters. Now, almost three years later, we meet for a beer in an English pub on that same ancient street near the Kremlin. So much has changed. The Moscow protest movement fizzled out after Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency; activists like Baronova were prosecuted; and a blanket of repression is muffling the last voices of dissent.

When I first met Baronova in December 2011, I took an instant liking to her because unlike other protest leaders she was unpretentious and smart, with a zany sense of humor. She embodied the contradictions of Russians who love their country, warts and all, and seek to reconcile it with the rest of the world. Today she sounds resigned, using the psychological term “learned helplessness” to describe Muscovites’ acceptance of the status quo – including, perhaps, her own.

Charges against Baronova of inciting a riot at a May 2012 rally were dropped in a pre-Olympic amnesty in December, which also freed Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of Pussy Riot from prison. But while the former oil tycoon and punk-rock performance artists tour the world as celebrities, Baronova can’t even get a European Union visa because her name appears in a Russian police database as a result of her legal case. She fought for “Western values,” Baronova says, and now the West is punishing her for it. Without any irony, Baronova, 30, posits that it may be better to accept Putin as a leader for another 15 years than to squander the rest of her youth in the turmoil that would likely follow his departure.

Moscow is always a surprising kind of place. As a journalist who worked in the Russian capital for more than eight years, I expected Putin’s us-against-them nationalism to be more strident than ever. But flying in from Ukraine, which I have been covering for most of this year, I find the city uncharacteristically subdued and anxious about the future.

The most striking difference in the Moscow I left two summers ago is the new look of its city center. Historic buildings have been given fresh facades, handsomely paved pedestrian zones have replaced traffic-clogged streets, and bike-sharing stations dot downtown. Moscow, always bigger and brasher than other European capitals, seems strangely tamed. Even the city’s famous nightlife has been cleaned up: Shops are prohibited from selling alcohol after 11 p.m. and a smoking ban is strictly enforced.

Moscow’s facelift is not without political undertones. Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a staunch Putin loyalist, was tasked with giving middle-class Muscovites the level of civilization they have become accustomed to during trips abroad. Young, educated professionals like Baronova made up the core of the anti-government protests that broke out at the end of 2011, presenting the most serious challenge to Putin’s rule yet. Nobody is complaining about Sobyanin’s bread and circuses.

The great Russian metropolis goes about its worldly ways. Despite the much-publicized closure of a couple of McDonald’s restaurants–presumably in a pin-prick response to U.S. sanctions–the outlets I pass are packed with teenagers. A sushi chain is even advertising a new “American menu” with cheeseburger and fries.

What bothers people are ominous signs that not all is well under Moscow’s shiny surface. The ruble has been sliding against the dollar, losing almost a quarter of its value since June. Friends who own property and have started families in Moscow wonder whether they want to live in a Russia that sees itself in conflict with the rest of the world. Some of my Russian colleagues aren’t taking any chances, selling their apartments and moving abroad. The expectation is that things will get much worse before they get any better.

Putin’s dangerous entanglement in Ukraine, which brought on Western sanctions and falling foreign investment, has also had domestic political ramifications. The government is inventing legal pretexts to threaten the existence of the last remaining islands of dissent, including Dozhd, a feisty independent TV broadcaster, and Memorial, the human rights group that Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov helped found. Vedomosti, the quality daily that Russia’s business elite relies on, will have to find new owners because of a recent law restricting its foreign ownership to 20 percent. On the day I visit friends at the Dozhd studios, they have just received notice to vacate the premises in a month.

I know a couple of Russian journalists who have moved to Kiev, where much of the media is in Russian, not Ukrainian. After almost a year of political upheaval, the Ukrainian capital is the polar opposite of Moscow: unstable, anarchic, and the most anti-Putin place on the planet. While Muscovites are oblivious to the fate of Ukraine in their daily lives, people in Kiev consider Putin to have declared an unofficial war on them. Some fear Russian airstrikes on their city before the winter is out.

As hard as Kiev may try to cut its ties to Moscow, the two cities are inextricably linked because Putin has made his own future dependent on what happens in Ukraine. His support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has less to do with territorial gain than wrecking the chances of the pro-Western leaders who came to power after the rebellion on the Maidan. Putin, who considers Kiev the cradle of Russian civilization, is acutely aware of the city’s continuing influence on Moscow.

Following the Orange Revolution, Kiev’s first exercise in people power a decade ago, Putin did his best to prevent a repeat in Moscow. When tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets seven years later, he blamed the U.S. State Department and cracked down even harder on Russian civil society. After the Maidan protest ended in bloodshed and the fall of his client, Viktor Yanukovych, in February, Putin decided he might be next. In his imagined battle for survival, any means were justified, including the annexation of Crimea and fomenting an insurrection in eastern Ukraine.

Repressive tools may forestall the impending instability, but they can’t stop it forever. Muscovites aren’t any less angry about corruption and unfair elections than people in Kiev. Separatism and a lack of economic opportunity aren’t exclusively Ukrainian issues. Moscow’s placidness feels like the calm before the storm.