Monday, January 19, 2015

Uncertain Times

Even in the best of times, Russia is a strange place to be. But that is especially true these days as the value of the Russian ruble steadily drops and the economic situation worsens. The financial crisis had just begun when I returned to Moscow in September, but the ruble’s value is now half of what it was then. In mid-December, the Central Bank raised interest rates in the middle of the night in the hopes that it would prevent people from selling their rubles for euros and dollars. Instead, the ruble lost 11% of its value the next day. The currency fluctuations were so extreme that Apple suspended online sales in Russia until things stabilized and I lost track of the exchange rate. There was enough of a sense of panic that my flatmate briefly considered taking his life savings out of the bank, Russians started buying luxury cars because they were holding their value better than the ruble, and there was a run on buckwheat at the supermarkets.

At first it seemed like I was going to come out of the financial crisis unscathed. Expats were leaving the country in droves, but my dollar salary was going farther than ever before. My rent was effectively halved, Starbucks chai tea lattes no longer cost twice what they would in America, and it looked like an opportune time to splurge on beluga caviar. But then I got laid off.

I wasn’t joking about that caviar, i.e., the most expensive bite of food ever

With no job and only a few days until my flight home for Christmas, I wondered if I should pack my bags and leave Russia for good. I started sending my résumé out in a non-discriminatory frenzy; the following day I got a tentative job offer in Estonia. I was very close to relocating to another former Soviet state, but that seemed a little too erratic—even for me. In the end, my trip home was a visit and not a move.

When I landed at Domodedovo last Thursday, it felt different than my previous arrivals to this country. Normally, a nervous knot forms in my stomach when I touch down on Russian soil. It’s something of a cross between a fear of the unknown and a flutter of excitement over what’s to come. I was impassive last week—Russia had ceased to feel as frighteningly foreign, and likewise less exotic. In a country that is utterly unpredictable, I felt like I knew what to expect, and what I was expecting was grim and depressing.

Mother Russia, however, did not bowl me over with bleakness. Passport control was smooth and efficient, the sound of the Russian language was oddly comforting after three weeks away, and a Russian gentleman chivalrously sprinted my overweight suitcase up a flight of stairs when he saw me struggling to lift it. I walked outside to catch the train to the city center, where I was met with crisp winter air and the scent of freshly fallen snow. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but the train platform extending into a powder white forest reminded me that I was in Russia, a fact that always surprises me when I pause to think about it.

Sometimes I feel like I am looking back on the present from a place very far in the future, and I have a wistful pang of nostalgia for this period of my life. I still marvel at the strangeness of having ended up here, and it makes me sad that my time in Russia is drawing nearer to a close. But every time I tell people I’m moving back to the US this year, they tell me I have the look of a “lifer” and will probably never leave. Sigh...they might be right.  At this rate, my tenure in Russia is looking like it may last as long as a Putin presidency.

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