In Moscow, An Unexpected Creative Revolution
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In Moscow, An Unexpected Creative Revolution

When, in 2000, I told my parents—Jews who had fled the Soviet Union with all the ardor of a long-abused people—that I was going back, for a summer internship at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, my mother all but fell to her knees to plead with me not to go. It was a different country, I told her. You are stupid and naïve, she was too polite to reply.

It’s terrible when you’re 21 and your parents turn out to be right. Moscow was molecularly home-like—in the metro, I was grounded by the scent of the escalator lubricant, the same they’d been using when we left, 12 years before; even the way a sconce shone across a doorway summoned something that I already knew I would never feel in America. But then there was the city, and its people. Two years after a currency collapse—and a month after a former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin was inaugurated President—Moscow was miserable. A gypsy-cab driver returning me to embassy housing on the outskirts spent much of the ride ranting about the incursion of “you people”—Americans—into what was once the Czar’s hunting grounds. In a line for blini at an outdoor kiosk, an older woman, properly bundled against the high summer heat, went up and down the queue about the flimsy shirt I had chosen to wear that day. I asked out a girl who said yes, then reconsidered when she saw the Embassy seal on my business card. I left a week early.

In the years since, I heard all about the city Moscow was becoming: Vulgar and unequal, but full of money and certainly no longer Soviet; a world-class capital with prices to match; a gangland. But then I heard the strangest thing of all: Moscow had become normal. Juice instead of vodka, T-shirts instead of high heels, a halt on the brain drain. Antipathy toward America, however, was at its highest levels since the Cold War, and room for political dissent at home had constricted precipitously. How did all of this go together? It was impossible to make sense of it from the States, no matter how much media coverage I consumed. For the first time in 15 years, I began to want to see it for myself.

These days—when the ruble is less than 50 percent of what it used to be thanks to Western sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and Russia has issued counter-sanctions and endorsed some of the most anti-American, nationalist propaganda in years—Russia will not re-admit a former citizen without proof that his citizenship was revoked upon emigration. (Trying to find out why helps you understand why Kafka wrote The Trial.) Practically, this amounts to your terrified mother digging for an ancient form while threatening to burn it “as soon as I find it and then you can’t go.”

Moscow
Once a dingy Soviet-era relic, the spiffed-up Gorky Park is now a gathering place for young Moscow, hosting festivals, exhibitions, and more. Max Avdeev

This time, however, I got her back. There’s a saying around today’s Moscow: “Things have never been better, things have never been worse.” But for all its political moribundity, the city turns out to be an exceedingly kinetic place; even as one thing is true, so is, often, its opposite. The great irony of this uneasy geopolitical moment—an American friend who spends half the year in Moscow told me that he couldn’t persuade his parents to visit because they were certain they “would be shot there”; demand has fallen so dramatically that Delta has discontinued its Moscow route altogether for the winter—is that it’s the best time to visit Moscow in years. The ruble is prostrate, the new theatrical season has just started, there is finally excellent food, the city no longer deserves its evergreen spot on lists of unfriendliest cities, and it finds itself in the midst of a creative revolution that an American would struggle to find outside Detroit. (And it would be easier to get shot in New York.) The energy one feels there is the energy of change rather than anarchy, a critical distinction made possible, in part, by the stability of the Putin era. To miss that is to miss Russia.

I didn’t have to reach Moscow for the first sign that, indeed, something was different. Our afternoon flight battled with turbulence, and when the captain came on to instruct us to buckle our seatbelts, I was astounded to observe that very thing happening all around me. I didn’t know my former compatriots to obey seatbelt instructions, and to remain in their seats during taxiing; didn’t know the flight attendants to smile as they softly but firmly insisted I buckle up just like the reasonable people around me (I had decided to hold out, in the name of experiment). So that, as we landed in Sheremetyevo to the applause with which Russians still acknowledge a safe landing, I clapped too, although on behalf of a different achievement.

Though it was early September, Moscow had not seen the sun in a week. “We’ve gone from spring directly to autumn,” I was complained to by one person; Muscovites are professional, New York–grade complainers. Installed in a friend’s living room on a quiet street thick with embassies—change or no change, Moscow continues to have few hotels worth writing about—I messaged Andrei, a 38-year-old Russian acquaintance whom I’d last encountered 16 years before, when we met at a conference. “Oh, hey,” he wrote back five minutes later, as if we’d just seen each other. “Come to a new Peruvian restaurant with us tonight.”

Moscow

One of the first exhibitions of the Rem Koolhaas-designed $27 million Garage Museum of Contemporary Art is a retrospective of sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

Max Avdeev

I would see Andrei and his friend Dasha almost every evening during my week in Moscow. We would get in touch mid-day about what was happening—a Caravaggio exhibit at the Pushkin, the Cosmoscow contemporary-art fair, house music at Redaktsiya, electronica at Mishka—and drift toward each other at some point in the evening. Moscow’s renowned traffic vanishes by the evening, and one can ride an Uber in the capital for quite a while without hitting $5, but the real reason we were able to rendezvous so often seemed due to the spontaneity with which people like Andrei and Dasha—young, educated, culturally fluent on all registers—made plans. When I mentioned to Dasha that I had social engagements three weeks out in New York, she blanched. “But that’s so boring!” she said.

The Peruvian restaurant, the latest venture from a high-end chef named Vladimir Mukhin, was called Chicha. Fine dining has changed its look in Moscow. To find Chicha, you still have to brave the dead fluorescence of a mall after hours, past a phalanx of smoking, black-suited drivers flanking boxy black cars in the parking lot. But an incredibly convivial atmosphere awaits once you’ve made it inside—another phalanx, this time of smiling, crisply-attired welcome staff. Mukhin wants you to feel taken care of—at Chicha, you can watch Moscow dining try to pass from the 2000s idea of diner-as-monarch to the contemporary notion of diner-as-friend. There are still stools for handbags and white gloves for the servers, but there’s an open kitchen and those servers are tattooed to the elbows.

'There’s a saying around today’s Moscow: “Things have never been better, things have never been worse.”'

At his two other flagships, White Rabbit and Selfie (where, when I stopped by, no fewer than two cooks were working the line in fedoras), Mukhin cooks a kind of haute international cuisine filtered through a sieve of Russian, if not Soviet, standbys. Chicha, which just opened downstairs from Selfie, aims to serve a clientele that has seen the world, and wants to eat accordingly. Upscale but casual: Chicha was still looking for the right balance. When, on arrival, everyone at the table decided to start with the namesake beverage, made from maize, our young server bent his head sorrowfully and said he was out. The supply lines with Peru were under duress.

“Already?” I said. “The main drink? You’ve just opened.”

“Don’t hit us where it hurts,” he said sadly.

It was hard to mind this, however, because Chicha is built on extreme, sincere-feeling friendliness—this is even more radical in Moscow than Peruvian food—and because the food is spectacular. I didn’t get to try my corn tempura until it was cold because the server who brought it took the New Casual to a new level—seemingly unaware who ordered it, he minced uncertainly, then plopped the dish on a nearby empty table, where it sat for ten minutes. Meanwhile, the corn was concealed by such an elaborate, faux-rustic vessel—essentially, a hollowed-out cross-band of some tree—that I couldn’t tell that the orphaned item was mine. Upon learning all this, however, our main server nearly committed seppuku, and, even cold, the tempura was phenomenally flaky and flavorful.

I remarked to my companions—Andrei; Polina, a marketing specialist at a bank; Vad, a website designer; and Ksyusha, a PR rep for a steel company; all in their late twenties and early thirties—that we were surrounded by people tapping on iPhones, discussing American books, speaking Russian heavily leveraged with English—invait, sorri, strit-fud, faispalm—in a restaurant where no Russian came out of the speakers. (As a Moscow friend who works for the BBC said, “All the restaurants in Moscow are theme restaurants—and the theme is New York.”) How to explain the anti-Americanism we were constantly hearing about in the States?

“I am against American politics,” Polina said sharply. “But I don’t want to talk about that now. What I don’t like are the absurd cultural notions there. A guy opens the door for a girl, and he’s a misogynist.”

For Ksyusha, the issue was the narrowness of the American gaze. “Americans don’t travel outside their country,” she said. “We have a wider picture.”

I persisted—wasn’t it strange to consume American goods while dismissing America so brusquely?—but Andrei challenged Ksyusha, the traveler, to a game of world capitals, and the table dissolved in shouting about Canberra and Wellington.

I prodded Andrei again later, on Facebook. “Tonight, you heard Putin propaganda lite,” he wrote back. “The zombiefication works also on the young and educated.” I gently pointed out that he wasn’t on the barricades, either. “Yes, we have problems with the rule of law and all that,” he said. “But you have to try very hard for that to affect you. Of course, it pains me, but not so much that I’d go out on the street. I’m just trying to work and enjoy myself. And hope for the best.”

Moscow
To experience Moscow's nightlife is to be surrounded by young people posing for selfies and speaking Russian spiked with English. Max Avdeev

The next day, I posed the same questions to Fedor Tardatyan. Tardatyan, who until last year ran Oldich, a “dress + drink” restaurant, vintage shop, and performance space, is such a devotee of the Williamsburg, Brooklyn, aesthetic that he has named his catering company after it. He styles himself correspondingly: beard, tattoos, plaid shirt, trucker hat. We met at Ferma (Farm), the burger joint he now runs out of Market 21, a stylish food court on New Arbat Street. New Arbat is the width of half a football field, with enormous stone buildings on each side, so encountering Market 21 there is like finding a farm-to-table establishment in an office park.

While I waited for him, I paged through that morning’s issue of Metro, the free daily, whose front-page headline proclaimed that “Russia and America Will Become One.” It turned out to be a reference to new research by Siberian geologists that “strengthened Russia’s claims to the Arctic” and proposed that in 200 million years, Russia and America might form a single land mass, “obviating the need for geologic competition.” In its tone and arguments—obsessed, posturing, wishful, absurd—the article seemed to capture the present Russian mood as it relates to America.

Tardatyan was just back from Austin, where he and his cooks had completed a weeklong apprenticeship—his next opening is a barbecue joint. He was happy to see Russian counter-sanctions against Western food producers spurring local innovation, but his own interests were elsewhere. “People don’t want to eat what they eat at home,” he said. “The traditional dishes, that’s too heavy for 2015. That’s how you warmed yourself up a hundred years ago. And then you died at 35.” Ferma, he said, was an explicit homage to the Brooklyn café Five Leaves, just as Oldich had been conceived in adoration of British restaurants.

The previous night, Andrei, Dasha, and I had gone to a show by the rappers Cops on Fire, where we were surrounded by kids in high-tops, sweatshirts, and skinny jeans deploying their best MC moves in imitation of the rappers on stage, who, in turn, had pilfered the poses, if not the musicality, of American hip-hop. I struggled with the dreamlike impression, I told Tardatyan, that I had flown to some very far-flung American city. If in 2000, Moscow had been surreal because it was so rough-edged, now that was because it felt so familiar. I did feel something discrete—even as everyone around me did their best to seem current and aloof, I felt none of the loucheness and frigidity in which Bushwick and Williamsburg specialize—but I was the only one in my group to be invigorated by the distinction. Did only the Kremlin care about Russianness?

Moscow

Moscow's young people are a new breed: educated, spontaneous, and culturally fluent.

Max Avdeev

“The world is global,” Tardatyan said. “This trend started in Milan, not New York. Three-four years ago, Fashion Week, everyone came out with beards, tattoos, plaid shirts, Red Wing shoes. Brooklyn may be the most visible, but I go to Tel Aviv, Sydney, Berlin, I see New York everywhere.” He saw nothing wrong with copying it. “America is a good country. Comfortable, convenient, rationally constructed. You walk around Berlin, it’s another Williamsburg. But that’s because it’s nice in Williamsburg. And people copy what’s nice.” Everyone was copying—from the America-haters continuing to queue up at McDonald’s to my fellow diners at Chicha to New York establishments that fake history and rustic credentials in the service of nothing more than a buck. Some were just more honest about it. For young people opposed to the Putin regime, Tardatyan added, American things constituted a symbol of protest. “When this whole anti-American hysteria started, they started loving America more. Then you’re underground.” He said it in English.

Young people lusted after Levis and Marlboros during the Soviet years, too. But they wanted more than American goods, and America was more than a way to feel underground. My talk with Tardatyan made me understand, for the first time, the desperation perennially expressed by Russian nationalists; they were wrong to imagine a campaign of premeditated commercial and cultural conquest by America instead of a vacuum caused by Russia having no modern idea of itself. But they didn’t seem wrong in flagging a crisis.

There is, in central Moscow, one great difference between both 1985 and 2000 and today: the city lives well. Salaries are higher (before the ruble recently fell, a subway conductor made between $20,000 and $30,000 a year); the Wi-Fi in that subway works better than New York’s; high culture remains a funding priority; and the city feels safer than ever. (All the crime has been saved for high government, as the joke goes.) Murder sprees, automotive anarchy, and the uncountable kiosks clogging sidewalks with cheap merchandise: all gone. The new city is a city of bike lanes, wake-surfing on the Moscow River, and parking-regulation enforcement. Perhaps profanity is not a reliable indicator of a nation’s well-being (call it the Swearing Index) but in 2000, I couldn’t go far without hearing anger and expletives; on this trip, it took me two days to hear cursing. There’s a half-joke about town that says Putin has put the opposition to sleep with artificial beaches and good food, but there’s no denying that the transformation has been both elegant and effective. “Would it be better if they didn’t have bike lanes?” as Masha Lipman, Moscow’s premier political observer, asked me.

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Moscow has become a surprisingly well-planned city, with abundant bike lanes and consistent parking-regulation enforcement. Boris Fishman

Everyone knows that such blandishments end when it comes to political access. My visit overlapped with regional elections; the election commission had found ways to disqualify the opposition in three of the four areas where it was trying to run. The one in which it remained on the ballot was a vast, rural, conservative area that no newcomer could effectively mobilize—a fig leaf. Those that do work the government has deemed subversive—activists for gay rights, NGOs that receive foreign funding, supporters of election monitoring and political accountability—have equally little room for maneuver. This makes the city’s incredible dynamism all the more striking. At an outdoor lecture about online degrees at the Strelka Institute, an education-and-art complex on the grounds of the old Red October chocolate factory, every seat—there were hundreds—was occupied, although the evening was chilly. I couldn’t spot anyone who looked over forty; virtually everyone spoke or understood English—the language of the lecture, by an American executive of an online-class portal. There seemed to be no sense that all this self-improvement was misguided, either because it was an American import, or because no one could expect to live well without political privilege.

'There is, in central Moscow, one great difference between 2000 and today: the city lives well. Salaries are higher, there’s Wi-Fi on the subway; high culture is a funding priority, and the city feels safer than ever.'

Meanwhile, Western sanctions seem to be bringing closer to the fold even those who criticize the regime. I’ve known Masha Lipman as a voice of dissent for a decade, but even from her, I heard praise first, even if limited to the capital’s transformation. “American media doesn’t prepare you to discover, in Moscow, a European metropolis with a serious intellectual and cultural life,” she said. The political situation made it difficult to defend the West—“To have positive feelings about America politically, you have to be against your own country. What are you for, sanctions?”—but even young, liberal people felt less inclination to do so, she said. With America “we went from, in the 1980s, ‘informed infatuation’—everything’s wonderful there!—to, throughout the 2000s, ‘informed appraisal’: America has lost its luster and credibility.” Lipman knew a young Russian woman who was at Harvard for a graduate degree. “She told me, ‘Americans are robots. Something’s missing in human relations. There isn’t enough friendship. The women are even colder than the men. Get your degrees here, but live elsewhere.’” Meanwhile, even Western-minded Muscovites—for whom the recovery of Crimea, a traditionally Russian-speaking area, was a matter of national pride and historical justice—had a hard time being lectured about it by a country that blundered into Iraq for what they see as far flimsier reasons. I was reminded of a ubiquitous conflation in American reporting about Tehran and Beijing: The yearning of the people around me for American products, style, and standards of living did not mean a yearning for American values.

Lipman and I were discussing that contingent of young, liberal Moscow that joined the tens of thousands of those who marched, in late 2011 and early 2012, to protest alleged fraud in parliamentary elections and Vladimir Putin's intention to run for a third term as President. The forest fires that swept through central Russia in the summer of 2010 had given this group practice at crisis organizing. “Rescue and Relief was not effective at all,” Lipman said, referring to Russia’s version of FEMA, “but within two days they’d built an Internet platform to organize information, streamline donations, tips on effective volunteer firefighting. They felt their own agency. The idea was, ‘If we have a goal, don’t complain, don’t ask for help, just do it. We can make things happen.’” After Putin’s crackdown on the protests, volunteering and philanthropy remained, for some, a way of doing something when explicit political dissent was so costly. Lipman told me about a young family that became involved in efforts to place orphans, often psychologically or physically impaired, with families abroad. When an adoption of a Russian boy by an Italian family unraveled at the last moment, the Russian family adopted him itself.

But the anti-Putinism of this group did not mean pro-Americanism. These days, some were trying to leave, Lipman said, but most were “trying to think about politics as little as possible,” and, in the meantime, helping how they could. These were acts in the service of a beloved homeland, if not a beloved regime, by young people with a new level of pride in it, and the opportunities that were now possible. It was a bracing notion to hear described, coming from a country where this kind of patriotism usually goes with conservatism. Then again, young Moscow is more conservative than its American counterpart. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it is more serious.

It was middle-aged people who tended to be least encouraged by the changes Moscow had experienced. “Of course, it’s wonderful that people no longer have to wonder where they’re going to get food to feed their families,” Aleksey, a bank vice-president in his sixties, told me. I had sought him out because a book sent him by a mutual friend in America had been lost by the postal service; I was the replacement mule. Ahead, however, Aleksey saw only crisis. Russia was “a country without a future”—corruption, an un-diversified economy, falling oil prices, sanctions. For distraction, it was turning to its two favorite pastimes: Nostalgia and anti-Americanism. St. George military ribbons were all over hood ornaments, and the invasion of Ukraine was being promoted as a fight against fascism, as if it were World War II all over again. (Ukraine has a rich history of right-wing nationalism.) No one wanted to think too hard about the contradictions. “A guy rides around in a Mercedes with a ‘Will pay for Obama’s hide’ sticker on the trunk,” Aleksey said. “Who made that car, you idiot? Those taxes are going to NATO… This is fascistic. I used to be unable to understand how the German people followed. Now I do.”

We were eating at Grabli (Rake), a cafeteria that serves affordable, well-executed standards in an assembly-line format. A greeter welcomes all who enter, and the decor of the third-floor aerie, flanked by bookshelves and large plants that overlook the lower floors, courtyard-style, is much nicer than it has to be. The Miami lounge in the speakers was, once again, courtesy of the West. Occasionally, I looked around us to marvel at the volume with which Aleksey, by his own admission someone who took a long time to abandon the socialist mindset, was berating the regime to the indifference of the surrounding diners.

For Aleksey, the official attitude was too familiar—“a humiliation complex from the Cold War, hate mixed with envy.” What made this time different were the counter-sanctions Russia had imposed on Western imports. “There is no Russian Apple,” he added. “No proper Russian carmaker, pharmaceutical company, manufacturer of medical equipment. An orchard still takes ten years to bear fruit. They’re putting palm oil in cheese to make up for the drop-off in the milk supply.” He believed that a dramatic dip in living standards was near, and that it would lead to discontent that even the Putin regime would fail to suppress. “I’m looking for a way out,” he said. “I want to protect my family—there’s a national catastrophe in the offing.”

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LavkaLavka, a food cooperative, sources exclusively Russian products. Max Avdeev

“In a way, this is what happened in the 1960s,” Katerina Novikova, another mutual friend, told me when we met at the Bolshoi Theatre, where she runs the PR department. “After Stalin, we had a breath of fresh air, and then after Khrushchev everything went closed again. Since the war and the sanctions, there’s a real negative feeling around, a sense of isolation. I’ve been reading, I don’t know, War and Peace. You want something big, grandiose. Because everything around you is so petty.” We were in the Bolshoi canteen, a cramped alcove that the theater’s recent reconstruction had left with a distinctly Soviet feeling. Between us, we had instant coffee, white bread with cheese, and a hard-boiled egg under a dollop of mayonnaise: A quintessentially Soviet tableau. As a regular meal, it was unbearable; as a piece of nostalgia, it was harder to imagine something sweeter.

With grotesque ingenuity, the Putin regime has exploited the most vulnerable aspect of the post-Soviet id: fear of the political and economic instability that was so general in the 1990s, and a willingness to trade liberties for its abeyance. (While Novikova and I spoke, stagehands were readying the set for Boris Godunov, the great opera of Russia’s anarchy before the Romanov ascension to the throne, in 1613.) “There’s this idea that things are dictated from the top and against our will, we obey,” Novikova said. “It’s not true. It’s a black-and-white world again, and we’re good at that. No one has to forbid us to say anything—we’re cowardly enough to take precautions even before being told to act a certain way.” Her assessment recalled nothing so much as a patient desperately in need of analysis. But the story was also more complex: For instance, the Bolshoi had brought on a politically controversial young director without any interference.

No one I met was engaged in work more revealing, at once, about the subtleties of the new political order and what is creatively possible in today’s Moscow, than Ilya Tsentsiper. Tsentsiper is a kind of brand whisperer. His eponymous firm is responsible for everything from a reform of the same postal service that had lost Aleksey’s book to Exhibit A in Moscow’s modernization: the transformation of Gorky Park from squalid Soviet bygone to beloved public space where virtually all of young Moscow gathers on evenings and weekends. The vast, high-ceilinged room where he works alongside a small army of young designers, architects, researchers, and programmers, is as airy and light as an office in SoHo; the sole color comes from a neon rendering of a Wittgenstein quote: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” The office is in the Russian Union of Youth building: To get there, you pass a massive etching of Lenin and enough wooden paneling to take you back to the Brezhnev years.

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The cafe in the Garage Museum serves fare that would be familiar to most western visitors, including rabbit ravioli and flat whites. Max Avdeev

Having proven himself with Gorky Park, where you will now find outdoor dancing; the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, where a Louise Bourgeois retrospective has just opened; running paths; and excellent restaurants—it’s Central Park on a human scale, with much more to do—Tsentsiper’s firm has been tasked with modernizing VDNKh (Exhibition of the Achievements of the People's Economy), the nearly 700-acre Soviet-era exhibition center that is perhaps the most significant symbol of socialism in the country. This is in addition to reinventing the user experience for the postal service, one of the largest retail and logistical operations in the world, with 32,000 departments. “One of the great pleasures of doing something in Russia,” Tsentsiper said, “is the magnitude of the project, and then how quickly it becomes a reality. Abroad, they don’t believe me when I tell them. But there are so many things here that work badly, or don’t work at all, and so few people intent on doing something about it, that the field is yours. Strelka, which is a massive, multi-purpose complex—education, art, leisure, entertainment—went from idea to opening in under a year.” (Tsentsiper was the creative lead there as well.) “Can you imagine if I had to do that in London or New York? I would spend five years just raising money and getting my papers stamped.”

Russia’s authoritarianism and inequality helps Tsentsiper. Whether in terms of funding or political cover, “you need only one person’s permission. It’s a very unreliable model—they can change their mind tomorrow. But if they don’t, things move with a wild speed, a wild energy. It’s like a narcotic.” There are corresponding restrictions: Tsentsiper must create something lasting and true without alienating political patrons. “It’s a political project, a seen project,” he said about VDNKh, the Soviet exhibition center. “To the credit of the Moscow authorities, they declined plans for commercial and residential development there, and they cleaned up a lot of the illegal, low-rent stuff that had sprouted up.” But Tsentisper had to move delicately with the Ukrainian pavilion. “So the sheep would be safe and the wolves would be happy,” he said with a meaningful look, “we decided to devote the pavilion to Cyrillic. It’s something that unites the Russian and Ukrainian people without belonging to either of them.”

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On the menu at the Lavka restaurant: rye pasta with reindeer, deer heart with mashed celery, and rosemary crumble. Max Avdeev

At that moment, it was hard to pity him for not having the political freedom of an American counterpart: The restrictions made his creative challenges richer. Before coming to see Tsentsiper, I had stopped by ArtPlay, a massive art-and-retail complex on the east side of the city where expensive home-furnishing stores sit next to graffiti-covered walls and DIY art installations. It was hard to imagine its uncurated diversity under the same roof in New York—the open-endedness Tsentsiper was describing helped explain. The Russian creative class faces more political oversight than its American counterpart, but, unlike the States, where the creative stakes can feel very low, the volume of that oversight pales next to the breadth of all the things that need modernizing. It’s a sweet spot: Enough is stable to get things done; enough unresolved, and unpoliced, to make up for political strictures.

“I’ve just had a friend visit from abroad,” another acquaintance, also a banking executive, told me at dinner that night. “He said, ‘San Francisco—it’s the same every time. Amsterdam—it’s even more the same. But every time you come to Moscow, there’s something different. He’s right. We’ve got some money, we’ve gone places, we’ve brought back ideas. We have no mountains, no nature—but we’ve got a ski jump anyway. We’ve got no real water, either. But my friend went wake-surfing, and then he went to the airport.”

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A food festival at Gorky Park, exhibit A in Moscow's ongoing transformation. Max Avdeev

I did, finally, discover, in my travels around Moscow, an establishment that felt, at once, modern and homegrown. LavkaLavka, a food cooperative with several retail shops, sources only Russian products, primarily from local farmers. (“Lavka” means “shop.”) The farm-to-table trend began abroad, too, but Lavka’s owners have done something genuinely national-feeling with it. This is no small feat in a country—multi-ethnic, but unequal; derivative of but hostile toward the West; culturally rich, but compromised by the politics culture has occasionally served—that offers no easy answer to what’s authentically, inclusively, contemporarily Russian.

It’s not a question for classrooms. The words I had heard from my acquaintance—“we’ve gone places; we’ve brought back ideas”—reminded me of something I had heard from an American friend during my 2000 visit, as we were eating at a Japanese restaurant. He pronounced the sushi better than any he had eaten in Tokyo. “Russians,” he had said, “don’t make anything. But they copy better than anyone else.” These words haunted me as I walked around the city, grasping for evidence of the native but new. My return home made nothing so clear as that the future of Russia, and of Russian-American peace, depends on whether Russia manages to define Russianness as something that is neither what other people do, nor its mechanical opposite.

The sole Lavka restaurant, through an archway off a side street not far from the Bolshoi, offers eight types of spring waterfrom the Volga region, Siberia, the Caucasus—and dishes like rye pasta with reindeer, wild berries, and sun-dried tomatoes; deer heart with mashed celery, rosemary crumble, and cowberry sorbet; and a pike burger, all from farmers acknowledged by name and region. The food is exceptional, and never recalls another restaurant, either in New York or in Moscow. But ultimately, it isn’t this—nor the pleasantly open, two-level mix of wood tables, high ceilings, and country-kitchen accoutrements—that makes it feel sui generis. It’s the subtle sense of comfort and confidence one feels coming out of the kitchen. None of what’s on display feels pantingly borrowed from elsewhere, whether the West or an exalted Russian past; the servers, both young and middle-aged, are friendly but unfawning, efficient but unrushed, and humanly distinct from each other; things feel informal because they look you in the eyes when you order, not because they are wearing studiously bedraggled clothes. It’s the best of old Moscow and new Moscow, and then something unclassifiably extra, all in one. I experienced there that rarest of sensations in this globalized world: authenticity. And in its independence from all agendas but its private and personal own, I saw the future I wish for my homeland.

Boris Fishman is a novelist living in New York City. HarperCollins will publish his second novel, Don't Let My Baby Do Rodeo, in March. For more, see borisfishman.com.

The Details: What to Do in Today's Moscow

Hotels

The Ritz-Carlton, Moscow: Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton features an elegant lobby with marble and gold accents, luxuriously appointed rooms, and incredible views of the Cremlin and Red Square. Doubles from $537; ritzcarlton.com

StandArt Hotel Moscow: A boutique hotel option from the Design Hotels team, StandArt Moscow offers 105 sleek, modern rooms and suites set in a multi-story Art Nouveau building. Doubles from $261; designhotels.com

Restaurants

Chicha: Notable chef Vladimir Muhkin’s latest venture, Chicha serves contemporary Peruvian food in an upscale, but approachable setting. Don’t miss the corn tempura. Sharing plates $5-$30; chicha.ru

Ferma: A Brooklyn-inspired burger joint in the Market 21 food court; the eerily-hued black burger is a popular order. Entrées $6-$8; the21.info

Grabli: A chain of airy self-service cafes that resemble New Orleans courtyard gardens, Grabli serves straightforward, freshly made traditional fare in locations marked by ornate, wrought-iron details, abundant natural light, and lush (though not necessarily real) hanging plants. Entrées $2-$7; grably.ru

LavkaLavka: An exceptional new farm-to-table restaurant and food cooperative that serves thoughtful, singular preparations of all-Russian ingredients. Entrées $6-$15; restoran.lavkalavka.com

Selfie: Run by acclaimed restaurateur Vladimir Mukhin, this fine-dining spot features a dramatic open kitchen where chefs prepare a menu of expertly crafted and globally inflected dishes. Entrées $13-$41; selfiemoscow.com

Strelka Bar: On the site of the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture, and Design, this Art Deco–inspired bar and restaurant boasts an elaborate cocktail list and an eclectic menu of global offerings like seafood paella and lamb moussaka. The rooftop terrace is open in summer and has a lovely view of the Moscow River. strelka.com; Entrées $6-$24.

White Rabbit: Named one of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2015, White Rabbit serves hyper-modern interpretations of traditional Russian cuisine served in a plush dining room set under a glass dome. Entrées $12-$43; tasting menu $107; whiterabbitmoscow.ru

Bars

Mishka Bar: This small, basement bar draws a crowd for its weekend dance parties, which last until the wee hours of the morning. Bolshaya Dmitrovka 11/3; 7-812-643-25-50

Redaktsiya Bar: An under-the-radar bar and nightclub; go late night to dance to house music. Stoleshnikov Lane, 6c3; 7-926-208-83-87.

Activities

ArtPlay: An artists’ hub on the site of a former manometer factory, this cluster of brightly painted brick buildings houses galleries, exhibition spaces, and interior design shops in addition to cafés and bars. artplay.ru

Bolshoi Theatre: One of the most abiding cultural institutions in Moscow (and the world), the Bolshoi Theatre has been the center of Russian opera and ballet for more than three centuries. Its iconic, neoclassical main building dates back to 1865; a detailed refurbishment of the grand, historic space was unveiled in 2011. bolshoi.ru

Cosmoscow: This annual contemporary art fair showcases works from both established and up-and-coming Russian and international artists. cosmoscow.com

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art: In 2012, this center for modern art moved from its original home in a former bus depot to former restaurant in Moscow’s Gorky Park that was completely redesigned by Rem Koolhaas. garageccc.com

Gorky Park: A remnant of the early Soviet era, this sprawling public space has recently undergone a complete overhaul. The restored 300-acre park now includes running paths, an enormous ice-skating rink, an open-air movie theater, and eco-friendly landscaping. 9, Krymskiy Val.

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts: The Pushkin houses Russia’s largest collection of foreign art, from ancient Egyptian artifacts and Renaissance masterpieces to 17th century Dutch paintings and iconic pieces by more contemporary artists, including Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Picasso. arts-museum.ru

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