Bigger, brasher, deeper, where it’s all about money one way or another
Moscow Letter: Changes in Russia’s capital city are evident but a Putin ally is likely to be re-elected as mayor
Gorky Park: Large inflated cushions are dotted around the place for tired citizens to plop down on and relax after a strenuous afternoon at the new beach volleyball arena. Photograph: Séamus Martin
Moscow celebrates its 866th anniversary tomorrow and goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a mayor to run the biggest, brashest, most in-your- face city of the continent.
Five of the six tallest buildings in Europe are clustered together close to the Moscow river. The Mercury City Tower and its neighbour the Eurasia Tower are both taller than the much publicised Shard in London. Russia’s capital also boasts of more billionaires than any city on earth.
Nearby, the Hotel Ukraina, tallest of the downtown “Stalin skyscrapers” and built in 1955, has become the Radisson Royal and more than the name has changed. When I last stayed there nearly a decade ago as an international election observer, wall-to-wall prostitution was the main feature.
On arrival from a polling station at four in the morning, I was greeted by a scene worthy of Federico Fellini.
It was typical Moscow winter weather. The hotel’s lights beckoned as a haven of warmth from the raging blizzard outside. A strong pull on the huge door and I was shortly in the hotel’s copious lobby.
As I shook the snow from my winter coat and hat and banged my feet on the marble floor to restore the circulation, a lift door opened and a young woman emerged. She was in her working clothes: the briefest of brief bikinis.
The devki are now banished; the guests are no longer bothered by midnight phone calls asking: “You like to have a lovely Russian lady?” Everything is now above board but there are, of course, great temptations to spend your money in other ways.
There is caviar at prices way above the average while a quick nip across the lobby leads to a car salesroom where you can buy the latest Rolls Royce.
Moscow’s gigantism not only reaches for the skies. It also delves down into a vast and expanding metro system which, at 250 feet below ground level, makes the Park Pobedy station the third deepest in the world.
In every nook at cranny of Park Pobedy station, in every train that burrows its way under the Moscow river, passengers are guaranteed a mobile phone signal.
The incumbent mayor promises not only the deepest wifi in the world but also an internet shopping system that will allow passengers to purchase goods online in the train and pick them up at their arrival station.
A trial system is already in operation.
There is, however, one area in which Moscow is just catching up on Dublin.
Quite recently a series of bicycle stands has appeared on the city’s streets. The bikes are red compared to Dublin’s blue and there are fewer of them.
This is hardly surprising as any person who would dare to ride a bicycle along any of the three Moscow ring roads would be inviting either instant death or admission to a home for the unbalanced.
From there it’s a short distance to the park which has undergone a major face-lift.
There are restaurants and art galleries where none stood before. Large inflated cushions are dotted around the place for tired citizens to plop down on and relax after a strenuous afternoon at the new beach volleyball arena.
The older generation can still walk along the riverbank and glance wistfully at the Buran, the Soviet space shuttle that never left Earth and now lies pointing across at the headquarters of a ministry of defence that has been struck by a series of financial scandals.
Finance is a major talking point but it matters little to those who frequent Gorky Park’s new Oyster Bar, where a dozen of the best cost more than €100.
Can any of the mayoral candi- dates afford such prices? The Itar-Tass News Agency is running what it claims to be the annual earnings of those who want to run the city.
The incumbent Sobyanin, a Putin ally, earned, they claim, $160,018 (€121,861) in 2012. His main rival, the anti-Putin anti- corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, has done better on $279,703 (€212,979).
Navalny though disputes the Sobyanin figure and asks how his 16-year-old daughter Olga came to own a $5.3 million (€4 million) apartment in St Petersburg while her sister Anna has a flat in the same city worth $3.5 million (€2.7 million).
According to the polls, Sobyanin will win and Navalny will be left to pursue his appeal against what he says is a politically motivated four-year prison sentence for alleged sharp business practices.