Summertime in the world’s most sanctioned country

By: Rachel Marsden

MOSCOW — “It’s fun!” a Russian gym-goer said to me as I hopped out of the 25-meter, four-lane pool. “Yeah, it sure is,” I replied in my “upper-independent” level Russian. It’s totally normal here for the many gyms around the city — most of which are open until midnight — to have their own full-size swimming pools, reliably heated to 28 degrees Celsius — unlike in France. Why is the most sanctioned country on Earth doing better than Europe in every observable respect?

Swimming pool closures have plagued France since last year under the guise of the government’s energy saving measures — all because Europe cut itself off from cheap Russian energy and traded it for more expensive Norwegian and American imported gas in order to stick it to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It sent energy costs and inflation skyrocketing in Europe to the point where the bloc is now officially in a recession, according to new European Central Bank figures.

As summer heats up and Parisians sweat up a stinky storm in the many subway trains and buses that still don’t have modern air conditioning, Muscovites are enjoying air conditioned subway platforms and icy-cool trains. Whether one should have to show up at work drenched in sweat with the hope that it will somehow help to control the Earth’s atmospheric temperature is just not a topic of debate here. People are focused on their day-to-day reality. And when you ask them about sanctions, the typical response is, “What sanctions?”

Store shelves are still full of Western products, typically at cheaper prices than one pays in Europe for the same items. The L’Oréal hair mask that I usually buy in Paris, not far from the company’s global headquarters, is just a fraction of the cost here. Coke has been relabeled by its Russian bottler, Dobry Cola, but tastes exactly the same.

Starbucks is now “Stars Coffee,” with the mermaid logo revamped into a girl with a Soviet-style starred hat. Some Western hotel chains have removed their logos from sight and slipped under the cover of a local partner, although operationally everything seems the same. Europe’s largest mall, Aviapark (featuring the world’s tallest cylindrical aquarium) is still booming with business as western store brands are still as present as ever, just as all the European luxury brands are at the high-end GUM mall next to the Kremlin in Red Square. And the massive French-headquartered Auchan supermarket is selling domestic and foreign products at prices that would make the average shopper at the same store in France jealous as the French battle inflation. From ground-level, it really doesn’t appear that Western sanctions are making a dent on Russia. They’re certainly making European citizens suffer, though. It takes a special brand of incompetence to pull that off, but the European Union bureaucrats have somehow managed it.

It’s also the Westerner arriving in a country that our own leaders cut off from the SWIFT banking system who has to land at the airport with wads of cash stuffed in every pocket and undergarment. But it’s a minor inconvenience that’s easily resolved when the exchange counters at the airport or at one of the Russian banks found on nearly every city block in Moscow will gladly take your Western currency and give you roubles.

While walking around Moscow, you’re struck by the constant renewal — the pristine maintenance of heritage mixed with towering and shiny modern development everywhere. The whole place is defined by its ability to adapt. The idea that it would simply crumble under Western sanctions is almost laughable from here.

Since sanctions were first imposed in the wake of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, strategic investment in certain sectors, including high-tech and agriculture, have only made the country more self-sufficient. Yandex Eats is their Uber Eats. Yandex Taxi is their Uber. Yandex Market is their Amazon. Even during a trip through the Holt Renfrew-style stores, the number of unique high-end Russian clothing brands is striking — most of which no one outside of the country has ever heard of. Much is geared to promoting the local economy — right down to the many ice cream and strawberry stands that populate the city.

There is, however, the occasional visible indication that this is a country actively involved in a hot military conflict. Billboard ads for military recruitment and support are everywhere. Every subway station has a heavy police presence and airport-style security scanners — understandable in light of recent terrorist attacks, including the bombing of a Russian military blogger at a Moscow cafe and of a Russian political activist’s car not far from here.

In the wake of drones being shot down over the Kremlin and over the city’s residential areas, navigation systems used for civilian purposes have lacked in location accuracy over the past few days, possibly in an attempt by authorities to frustrate the perpetrators.

Anti-Russian sanctions have so glaringly failed. So it’s high time for Western governments to take their jackboots off the necks of struggling Europeans.