Rebel Rebel is on in the background. Not the original Diamond Dogs Rebel Rebel, but the bonus track version of Bowie's Reality album. I'm in David B. cafe, and the walls are peppered with pictures of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, leaving me in no doubt that the B in David B. cafe stands for Bowie. I'm in Russia, but apart from the Cyrillic text on the menu chalk board, this could be a scene from anywhere in Western Europe. The barista – bearded, tattooed – froths some milk for a latte, while the five or so people sat in the cafe continue browsing their Apple laptops, engrossed. The coffee machine quietens down, and Bowie is no longer playing, but Queen instead. Freddie Mercury is declaring that he wants to break free.
I finish my coffee and make my way outside, and I begin to wander the streets of the Patriarch Ponds neighbourhood of central Moscow, where I come across cafe after cafe emulating the same European cafe culture as David B. This is an affluent area, and the cars lining the pavements are Land Rovers and Jaguars. There are luxury German cars too, but it would seem Brand Britain has quite a lot of purchase here in Moscow. In 2017, the British artists London Grammar, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Richard Ashcroft and Kasabian have all played gigs or at festivals in Moscow. Elton John in due on stage at the Crocus City Hall in December.
The most striking example of Anglophilia I find, though, is the number of English themed pubs that dot central Moscow. There’s the White Hart Pub, Scotland Yard, British Queen, Union Jack, Bobby Dazzler Pub, John Bull, John Donne, Chelsea Gastropub, Smith's English Pub, and Edward's Pub. There’s a specific Scottish pub, and a Welsh one too. Neither Berlin nor Paris have anything comparable. Because of import costs, exchange rates and EU sanctions, a pint of beer in one of these British pubs costs around the 400 rouble mark. For contrast, about ten times the amount paid for a standard pint of Russian larger. Yet still, on a Friday and Saturday night, these pubs are rammed full of Londoner impersonating Muscovites.
Of course not all Muscovites emulate – or wish to emulate – a western lifestyle. But this group who do are a significant contingent, and they seem to have a peculiar penchant for British culture. I think this important and relevant.
After wandering around the plush Patriarch Ponds neighbourhood for an hour, I catch a Metro train to Leningradskiy station, and from there I take a commuter train out of central Moscow and into the suburbs. I stare out the window at the passing Soviet Khrushchyovka apartment blocks, of which there are thousands. Here post-Soviet life looks much like Soviet life. For many the end of the Cold War clearly hasn’t ushered in too great a change.
At a stop, three men dressed in military camouflage board the train. The largest of the three men holds a battered acoustic guitar, which he begins to play. Together, the three men start singing a very pious sounding song, and when they finish, one of the men walks up and down the carriage collecting money for Russian soldiers that have sustained injuries while fighting in Eastern Ukraine. The teenage girl on the seat in front of me, and the elderly man on the seat opposite, both hand over their roubles with a weary but sincere look of patriotism painted on their faces.
Russia, alas, is at war; overtly in Syria, and covertly in Ukraine. Tensions with the West are at their highest levels since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reasons for which are well known. In 2018 Vladimir Putin will seek to further consolidate his power by contesting for a fourth term (or a second second term) in the presidential elections. His party is the United Russia party. But is Russia really united?
It was Putin himself that once said that Russia was ‘part of European culture,’ and that he could not ‘imagine my own country in isolation from Europe.’ Europhilia – and in particular Anglophilia – is alive and well in Moscow, at least among a significant minority of its younger, richer inhabitants. It’s important that we in West European reflect on that fact, and factor it into how we think about Russia.