When China’s Ming dynasty first came into contact with a new nation approaching its border from the north — Russia — Chinese officials had to choose the right hieroglyphs to name it. They called it 俄國, which translates as “Country of Unpredictability.”
One can only admire the foresight of those 17th century bureaucrats. They identified the angry nerve of Russia’s anatomy with the precision of a virtuoso chiropractor. Yes, my dear country is unpredictable. I have lived all my life, until very recently, in its capital. But a simple question about what Moscow might be like in ten years, a short span of time, in truth, leaves me at a loss.
Perhaps Russia’s state symbol — the two-headed eagle — could serve as another explanation for my uncertainty. The bewildered mutant doesn’t know which way to look, to the East or to the West, and keeps trying to fly in opposite directions.
I start with this preamble because I feel I must explain why, when I mentally superimpose the name “Moscow” with the number “2025”, I see not one town, but two, resembling each other no more than Mr. Hyde resembles Dr. Jekyll.
I’ll call those two imaginary cities of the not-so-distant future “Moscow-1” and “Moscow-2.”
This is what Moscow will become if things continue the way they have been going since March 2014, when Russia started moving rapidly towards isolation.
I imagine myself arriving in Moscow after a long absence. For the past ten years I couldn’t visit because I’ve been deemed a traitor and an enemy of the people, but recently a slight détente has set in; I come as a guest of the Committee for Cultural Ties with Compatriots. I decide to accept. I am eager to see my native town again.
It is not difficult for me to visualize this Moscow-1. I’ve been there before. I grew up in the USSR, my memories are vivid.
It feels like a time-warp, a leap into the past.
A severe border guard tries to check my passport through an antiquated computer system, but the autonomous “Rusnet” doesn’t work properly, so I have to wait for several minutes under the benevolent scrutiny of the Great Leader — his huge portrait hangs in the booth. While I’ve gotten older over the past ten years, the Great Leader keeps getting younger. His forehead is smooth, his generalissimo epaulettes glittering.
I am met by my guide, who regards me warily at first, but soon relaxes. Whispering so that our driver can’t hear, he tells me a new one about how our Great Leader sees off the Great Leader of North Korea in the airport, gives him a kiss, and then waves his hand for a long, long time. When asked why, he answers dreamily: “Oh, what a kiss that was!” I smile sourly. I’d heard that one half a century ago. About Brezhnev and Honecker, the then leader of the German Democratic Republic.
The noisy Volga sedan rattles over the holes in the pavement. The shabbiness of the streets is masked by innumerable posters, orange-black and white-blue-red. There are no commercial advertisements, only slogans and portraits of the Great Leader. I see him on a horse, in the cabin of a fighter jet, surrounded by happy children, shaking hands with a grateful pensioner.
In the hall of the Intourist Hotel, while my guide checks me in, a sneaky young man pulls me by my sleeve. He wants to sell me rubles at a rate five times better than the official one.
Then I walk to the street where I lived for so many years.
My old apartment house has not been renovated. Huge vintage air conditioners are still there, covered in rust.
I pass what used to be the Museum of Tolerance, now the Museum of Patriotism. Then I see a long queue in front of a food store. I read the notice on the door: “Chinese canned beef! Two cans max. per buyer. Food coupons not valid.”
Back in my hotel I watch the news. It’s all about the second trial of the infamous “Medvedev Gang.” The former president and his ministers confess to having been CIA agents and to practising outlawed homosexual acts. They beg for clemency. Judging by the tone of the reportage, they won’t be getting any.
I shiver. I open the fridge and drink everything I can find there: the lousy Dagestan brandy and the vodka “Putinka.”
Enough. I’ll stop describing Moscow-1 here, before I have to start drinking.
If life in my country goes back to normalcy (which I hope it will), I think that by 2025 Moscow will be the most interesting place in the world. Not the most beautiful or the most wealthy or the most comfortable city, oh no, but one that is bustling with energy.
No wishful thinking here, just the plain laws of physics. By “normalcy” I mean freedom. When a big country becomes free after a long period of suppression, it’s like a steel spring let loose. The air vibrates with adrenaline, everything moves, everything changes.
The brain drain of the previous decade has reversed its flow; professionals, entrepreneurs and intellectuals are returning home to Russia. That’s where big money is made now, that’s where things happen.
I won’t be noticing how my town has changed because I have been there for the whole decade. As a writer, I’ve been feasting on all the pent-up energy and freshness. I write differently in this 2025, and I do not like to re-read my old stuff. It’s another Russia, another Moscow, another me.
It’s April 22, 2025 today. I realize it’s Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s birthday. A sudden idea comes to mind. Why not go visit Lenin’s Mausoleum? I haven’t been there since childhood.
It’s quite a long drive, because the mausoleum was removed from Red Square long ago. Now it is the main attraction of “Sovietland,” a park in a Moscow suburb where all the monuments of the totalitarian era were transplanted, a sort of historical Disneyland of the bygone epoch. I walk along the alleys, among Lenins, Stalins, Dzerzhinskys, Sverdlovs, cheerful miners and busty kolkhoznitsy, keepsakes from the time when I was a young pioneer. There’s also a bronze Putin in a judo outfit, a work by the sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, cast some 20 years ago.
That reminds me. I do not want to miss the press conference, so I hurry back home.
The judoist has just been released from jail, having served only half of his term. I look at his wrinkled face on the TV screen. No, he has no intention of returning to politics, he says. Yes, he wants to spend all his time with his kids, to compensate for the years of absence. No, he cannot disclose the advance he received for his forthcoming memoirs.
That’s not fair, I think enviously. This schmuck’s memoirs are sure to become an international bestseller, while my books do not sell at all. It’s true that I write differently now, I write better than before, but young people think I am a writer from the past. I tell myself that future generations will surely rediscover me again, but I know they won’t.
It’s OK. I am indulgent towards my older self of 2025. As long as that guy feels no nostalgia for the times when life was awful but his books sold well.
I know, I know. In reality things usually end up somewhere between shining white and dismal black, in the gray zone. But not this time. No shades of gray for Moscow of 2025. It will be either this — or that. You’ll see.
Boris Akunin is the pen name of Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili. He is an essayist, literary translator and writer of detective fiction.
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United" (http://johnbrownnotesandessays.blogspot.com/2017/03/notes-and-references-for-discussion-e.html). Affiliated with Georgetown University (http://explore.georgetown.edu/people/jhb7/) for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."