If Russia is alarming its neighbours with its actions in Ukraine and its anti-Western rhetoric, many of its own people are also uncomfortable with the prevailing atmosphere of bellicose nationalism. Some are preparing to leave, discovers the BBC’s Caroline Wyatt, a former Moscow correspondent – and some have already left.
Moscow is at its loveliest in May, when the usually forbidding expanse of Red Square is bathed in sunshine, and the delicate scent of lilac fills the air around the crazy ice-cream spirals of St Basil’s Cathedral.
The rocket launchers and martial might on display to celebrate Victory Day in Europe have all gone. And instead of marching bands, the ethereal sounds of an Orthodox church choir fill the square, and visitors stop to listen.
I meet an old friend for coffee on the terrace of what was once the empty Soviet department store GUM. Now it’s a temple to consumerism that wouldn’t feel out of place in Paris, London or Milan. I can hardly conceal my surprise when the waiter wishes me a good day with a smile that even looks as though he means it.
I hardly know this place, it feels so different. The streets are no longer pot-holed, nor choked with traffic. There’s a new confidence visible in the way people walk. And despite Western sanctions over Ukraine, the supermarket shelves are still full.
Yet as we sit over coffee, reminiscing about the Moscow of old, I’m suddenly reminded of the past as my friend looks around to make sure that nobody can hear.
“I’ve sent my family to live abroad,” he tells me. “It’s better that way. I’ve sold everything, and now I commute. The health service here is crumbling, and so are schools. Sanctions have started to bite, but it’s not that – it’s the political atmosphere. It’s stifling and it’s getting worse. Nobody knows what will happen next, but it doesn’t feel like a good place for the liberals.”
I resist the temptation to make a joke, to lighten the mood… Liberals on the run, worries about the health service? Why, it sounds just like the UK. But my friend isn’t laughing – and nor am I, as I remember his optimism about his country’s future 15 long years ago. For this highly educated man to send his family abroad was not a step taken lightly.
Later, I meet Olya in a park, and we sit on a bench dappled by the early summer sunshine. Olya, too, has sadness in her eyes as she talks about preparing to emigrate – if she can. She’s also eminently well-qualified, another middle-class Muscovite with a decent job and good prospects. For Olya, it’s not economic fears that make her want to leave, but a gathering sense of unease.
“I don’t know if you in England know the story about the frog, who sits in a pan of warm water on the top of the stove. He’s happy. And then someone lights the stove beneath, and gradually, the water gets hotter. I’m scared of being that frog – trapped in a boiling pot, unable to get out.”
Olya’s fears grew as the troubles in Ukraine spiralled into conflict, causing blazing rows that split her family – and many others too. “Some believe America will use what’s happening in Ukraine to attack Russia – and they say that we should attack first because that’s the best defence,” she tells me.
“All I want is to find a place on earth where everyone knows the law and abides by it, and where there isn’t corruption.
I’m reminded of those conversations when I hear President Putin respond to the corruption allegations against Fifa. He blames America for what he seems to see as politically motivated arrests aimed at taking the World Cup away from Russia in 2018.
I ask another friend, Tanya, what she makes of it all. “That bellicose form of patriotism is everywhere in Russia today,” she says, speaking softly as she drags deeply on her cigarette.
Tanya and her husband are putting money aside for their daughters so in a few years time the girls can travel and perhaps study abroad.
“If our borders are still open then,” adds Tanya, with a sigh. “I remember the Soviet Union – we were trapped and we couldn’t escape. That’s how I grew up. I just hope it doesn’t happen again.”