Sheremetevo airport, Moscow’s main international terminal, is located eighteen miles NW of the city’s center. Given the Russian capital’s expansion since the airport opened in 1959 this is now not at all far from Moscow proper, though it seems much farther to downtown by car. (It can easily take over an hour to reach the heart of the capital when traffic is bad. And in Moscow, traffic is almost always bad.) As Moscow is Europe’s largest metropolis (current population approx. 10.4 million ), you might expect that city vistas would figure prominently in your airplane window during final approach and landing. By and large, though, there’s not much to see. At least, not in comparison to the amazing views afforded by some of the world’s other great cities.
On a clear day, the approach is dominated by the mundane topography of podmoskv’e (the city’s suburban region): a few roads and railway tracks intersecting forests and fields, accompanied by clusters of small summer cottages (dachas) and some non-descript buildings that grow a bit denser as the plane nears the runway. Although the landscape has altered somewhat recently thanks to increased development near the airport, arriving into Moscow, I’ve always been keenly aware of how much the view is dominated by the countryside: flat, open, and seeming endless. From the air, the city is hard to discern. It’s almost as if it is in hiding, enveloped by prostranstvo – the vast space that encompasses the country’s near limitless hinterlands. In direct counterpoint to the sharp verticality of its politics, Moscow’s topography is decidedly horizontal.
I am always excited to find myself returning to Moscow. But from the standpoint of an aerial eye, the arrival has never made much of an impression.
That changed last week.
As my plane descended toward Sheremetevo last Friday morning I noticed something that I hadn’t seen before: Moscow now has a skyline. Or, to be more accurate, it has a skyline now visible from an airplane. And it’s modern one at that: a distinct cluster of steel and glass high-rises that emerge from the Eurasian plain to mark the location of the capital and its bustling business center. It’s certainly not much compared to New York, Tokyo, or Chicago, but it is definitely there.
The “cluster” is Moscow-City (Москва-Сити) — a gigantic $12 billion (and counting) development project first begun in 1995. It’s the latest in a long line of grand strategies to renovate Moscow. However, as I rode into town toward the apartment where I’m staying (located a brisk twenty-minute walk from Moscow-City itself) I noticed something else – there’s little activity at the construction site. From up close, Moscow-City has all the appearances of an abandoned development surrounded by sleeping boom cranes. Thanks to the onset of Russia’s worst economic crisis since 1998 – work on the architectural mega-project (like others elsewhere) has slowed to a crawl. Although spokesmen for the project pledge that construction will continue, the opening of some of Moscow-City’s partially built structures will be delayed until 2016 — four years behind schedule. The again, things could be worse.
It would seem that skyline that I saw through my airplane window was something of a mirage. At least for now.