Sunday, 10 January 2010

10 ways Russia has changed

After the naughty Nineties - a decade that saw the extremes of decadence and poverty - Russia entered the new millennium with a new leader, troubles from bargain-basement energy prices and a vicious war in Chechnya.
But 10 years on - even though corruption and bureaucracy are still with us - the wheels of progress have barrelled along, oiled by an influx of petrodollars.
From snack food to sports stars, sobriety to Swedish furniture, The Moscow News takes a light-hearted look back at the noughties.
So a drum roll, maestro, please ...
In Sep. 1999, Planeta Sushi opened its first Moscow outlet on Triumfalnaya Ploshchad. By the end of 2009, every man in the city understands that far from plying his date with drink and promising her jewels, the dating game is played with chopsticks, wasabi and a strong piscine flavour. Eating out in Moscow no longer means borsch and black bread.
Anna Kournikova may have transformed the image of Russian sportswomen from steroid-fuelled shot-putters to busty blondes - but she looked more at home on the catwalk than the tennis court. Then the likes of Anastasia Myskina, Maria Sharapova, Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova won Grand Slams and Dinara Safina topped the world. CSKA and Zenit won the UEFA Cup, the national hockey team claimed back-to-back World Championships and Russia's footballers were the surprise stars of Euro 2008.
In the 1990s Russia's scores at Eurovision were so low it was twice disqualified from entering, but Dima Bilan's 2008 winning entry, "Believe", proved that Slavic songs were the way forward. Bilan, backed by a quick routine from Olympic figure skating champ Yevgeny Plushchenko, won in Belgrade after Serbia followed Ukraine (2004), Latvia (2002) and Estonia (2001) in bringing the contest behind the old Iron Curtain.
Ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky began the decade as the man the West loved to fear. From brawling in parliament to threatening to reunite the USSR, he became the poster boy for "Bad Russia". By 2009, far from trading punches, he was exchanging notes with contestants on TV singing show "Two Stars", and playing the pundit at Eurovision.
Bland, professionally-packaged entertainment shows fill Russia's airwaves around the clock these days - and references to Vladimir Putin are carefully removed from South Park before it screens here. But a decade ago satirical puppet show "Kukly" had no fears about mocking the Kremlin, while independent broadcasters were more than a liberal pipedream.
A blotto Boris Yeltsin trying to conduct a police orchestra on a 1994 visit to Germany summed up the old decade's descent into anarchy. Ten years after Yeltsin stood down, the current president, Dmitry Medvedev, has yet to skip an official engagement with a hangover and is leading a prominent anti-booze crackdown. Even when visiting a bar to watch the Russian football team on TV, he stuck to cola and tea.
Boris Berezovsky was once the power behind the Kremlin throne, rumoured to have aided Vladimir Putin's rise to the presidency. Today he is persona non grata in Russia, while the likes of Mikhail Prokhorov and Oleg Deripaska lead the rich list - at least on paper. At least Boris can console himself in his Surrey stately home, unlike Mikhail Khordokovsky. The former Yukos chief enjoys less palatial Siberian accommodation these days
When NATO's bombs rained down on Serbia in 1999, Russia stamped its feet impotently on the sidelines. But after the military got its mojo back, sabre-rattling with long-range bomber patrols got serious when Moscow's forces made a swift and decisive intervention in the South Ossetian conflict of August 2008.
The natural habitat of Europe's middle class, an IKEA furniture store, first appeared here in March 2000 - and as the new wealth of Russia trickled down Mega Khimki played a key role in luring ever-growing numbers of 4x4s into the Leningradka gridlock. Meanwhile, after decades of holidaying on the Black Sea, Russians begin a travel stampede to the Red Sea and Antalya - or anywhere else that has sun, sand and a liberal visa regime.
When oil cost $12 a barrel in 1999, Russia's economy spluttered like a rickety Lada in a Siberian snowstorm. By the time it maxed out at $145+, the nation's finances purred like an oligarch's Ferrari on a scenic Swiss road. The aftershock of the crisis slammed the brakes on an orgy of consumption - but Russia is now back in the driver's seat after a surge to around $70.

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