In post-Soviet Moscow 15 years is an eternity
This article originally appeared at The Motley Fool
I just flew back from Russia (and boy, are my arms tired!).
But seriously, folks. A lot has changed in Russia since I left the country in 2000 (just in time to see America's Internet Bubble burst). From time to time, I've revisited the country -- and maybe you have, too. But if you haven't been to Russia on this side of the millennium, here are a few changes you can expect to see on your next trip.
1. Welcome back!
Let's start with the first thing you encounter upon arriving by plane to Moscow (Russia's main port of entry). First off, "Moscow" is no longer synonymous with "SVO." Sheremetyevo airport (northwest of the city) remains the most famous, but Domodedovo (to the south) and Vnukovo (southwest) are now both in common usage. Major airlines including British Airways, El Al, and Austrian Airlines now fly into Domodedovo. Lufthansa and Transaero, for example, service Vnukovo. Aeroflot, the flag carrier, still prefers to use Sheremetyevo.
Skipping merrily past customs and immigration, probably the greatest improvement to meet the weary traveler's eye is outside the airport. Once upon a time, this was the hunting ground of semicriminal syndicates of unlicensed "taxi" drivers. They controlled traffic from airport to city center, charging an arm and a leg for passage.
Speaking of Metro stations -- there are a lot more of them. Since 2000, Moscow has added 35 new stations -- including a new seven-station, elevated Butovskaya line -- and reopened the Vorobyovy Gory station after years of repairs. Altogether, that's an even three dozen.
All those new stations don't come cheap. Once upon a time, a trip aboard Moscow's ultra-efficient (most trains arrived as little as two minutes apart), wide-ranging Metro station would set a babushka back about $0.20 -- but no longer.
Today, a one-way ticket costs 50 rubles, or roughly $1. (And yes, Moscow uses paper, mag-strip tickets now; no more plastic tokens.)
Upon exiting the Metro, you may be surprised to see that Moscow now has bike paths. What's more, people are actually using them! As a tourist or business traveler, you probably won't. But you do need to be aware that a lot of the city's sidewalks are now half as wide (for you) as they used to be -- and you must keep on the lookout for two-wheeled travelers.
Whatever will we do with all this oil money?
Metros and bike paths aren't the only thing Moscow built during the decade-long period when it was flush with $100-per-barrel oil money. The Russian capital also spent big money to turn its flagship Moscow State University (MGU) into a world-class institution of higher learning.
Between 2005 and 2009 alone, MGU got a new Main Library Building, a new Economics Building, and a new Humanities Building and Medical Center. And even with oil now sub-$100, the spending spree isn't over. The 28-year-old daughter of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ekaterina Tikhonova, has reportedly just been put in charge of a new $1.7 billion project to build a dedicated science campus.
A children's paradise -- in seven stories
The Russian government isn't the only one rolling in money and spending like mad. Ordinary Russians in the nation's capital have caught the spending bug as well. As evidence, you need look no further than the recently reopened Detsky Mir (Children's World) mall. The Soviet Union's biggest (and self-proclaimed world's biggest) toy store now hosts neon signs, 73,000 square meters of shopping space encompassing more than 100 stores spread across seven floors -- and sky-high price tags.
Too old for toys?
That's OK. Moscow is undergoing a retail renaissance in all sectors -- including supermarkets, for example. As early as the late 1990s, supermarkets had already begun arriving in Moscow. Today, they're everywhere, sometimes two per block, and they come in sizes from minimarts and supermarkets (Magnolia, Azbuka Vkusa) to warehouse stores (Metro Cash & Carry, Auchan).
Don't like to cook?
Once a difficult place to find a bite to eat on the street, Moscow is now littered with fast-food joints. McDonald's was the first and most famous, of course. But Burger King has joined in the fun, and there's always a line of caffeine-crazed customers at the city's numerous Starbucks outlets.
Plus, for anyone who remembers one recent blockbuster IPO, Moscow has Shake Shack!
"Would you like jewelry with that?"
Moscow's retail build-out does create some curious dichotomies, however. For example, take a look at this pic of one of Starbucks' local competitors, side-by-side with Tiffany's just-opened first-ever outlet in Russia:
Look, Ma! No kiosks!
One thing you won't see much of on Moscow's streets: kiosks. In the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin's Russia was a kiosk-based economy. Everywhere you looked -- in and near the metro, along every city street, and in the walkway passages underneath the streets -- there were kiosks selling candy, cigarettes, vodka, groceries, cosmetics, and more vodka.
They're almost all gone. Some very few have been enclosed and turned into ultramini minimarts. The rest have simply vanished.
Cash or credit? Preferably cash
Way back when, these kiosks were cash-only operations -- credit cards not accepted. Today, Russia's many stores, shops, restaurants, and shopping malls...still don't take credit cards.
Oh, Russians know about credit cards. They exist in theory. And the use of debit cards is starting to catch on. There's at least a chance that if you bring a debit card with you to Russia, you might be able to use it at an ATM, if nowhere else.
In a cash-loving economy like Russia's, ATMs are crucial to tourists who want access to U.S.-based funds. More interesting, though, is the spread of ATM-lookalike machines from Qiwi. The 21st-century answer to paying utility bills in cash at Sberbank, these e-kiosks are popping up all over the place, and they permit a user to pay the electric bill, reload a smartphone, and even play the lottery.
Yandex comes into fashion
One more stock idea for you before we return to our regularly scheduled programming. (At The Motley Fool, we do have a reputation forobsessing over stocks). A few years ago, we began hearing word that Google was facing a homegrown challenger in Internet search in Russia. This upstart was dubbed Yandex (a clever name referring to the creation of "yet another index"), and apparently it had rocketed to as much as 65% market share in just a few years. Yet few people I spoke to actually used Yandex. Nearly every Russian I asked said they "googled" (гуглировать) their Internet queries.
From a "don't believe everything you read" perspective, that worried me. Claiming "65% market share" was one thing, but I needed to hear people talk about Yandex "on the ground" before I could give that number credence -- so here's the good news.
On my most recent trip, I finally began hearing people refer to news items they had read on Yandex. While Yandex recently reduced its claimed Russian market share to less than 60%, which sounds bad, what I heard on the street is that people are using the service more, rather than less. And that's a good thing.
Sanctions? What sanctions?
Of course, the one thing that both investors and tourists in Russia really want to know is:What's up with the sanctions? Are they wrecking the economy? And do the Russians hate us now?
Well, the answers are (mostly) no and no. Under the West's sanctions, prices on many imported consumer goods have skyrocketed. But in Moscow at least, where most of Russia's wealth concentrates, shoppers are still shopping regardless -- and as you can see in the photo at left, not all Westerners have turned their back on Russia.
True, Muscovites aren't thrilled with the sanctions, and there's anti-Western propaganda on the television and on the streets -- but not everyone is taking it at face value. As an illustration of that, I'll leave you with one last photo of a billboard disturbingly touting Russian military strength in the face of economic sanctions -- and of one graffiti jokester letting some air out of the bubble with a reminder: One year after sanctions commenced, Russia's still here -- but half the ruble's value is gone.
Rich Smith owns shares of QIWI and Yandex. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 353 out of more than 75,000 rated members. The Motley Fool recommends Google (C shares), McDonald's, Starbucks, and Yandex. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google (C shares) and Starbucks. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.