I used to write a lot about Russia, back in the days when it was a market international law firms actually wanted to talk about, and traveled to Moscow at least once a year.
But the boom years of the mid-noughties are now long gone, thanks to a crippling combination of severely depressed energy prices and harsh economic sanctions, imposed by the United States and Europe in response to the conflict in Ukraine.
Most Big Law managing partners would now probably rather forget they have a Moscow office at all, rather than talk to journalists about it. As such, my late-June trip was the first since 2009.
I was excited to see how the legal market—and the city more generally—had changed over the past eight years. For the business of law take, you’ll have to read the feature. But here’s a more personal view.
Even before getting to the country, I discovered that one thing had changed for the worst: the visa application process had gone from being merely painful to an exercise in abject misery. In addition to some perfectly reasonable questions about whether I’ve had any specialist training in biological or chemical warfare, I also had to list every foreign trip I have made in the past 10 years. With dates.
I only travel abroad a handful of times each year, but it was still a major pain trying to dig up all of the relevant information. I can only imagine how much of a headache this must be for lawyers who spend half their lives crossing international time zones. (Or, perhaps more accurately, for their secretaries.)
The situation was made even worse by the Russian embassy website crashing every time I tried to submit my application, meaning all of the information had to be re-entered from scratch. After the second failure, I wanted to punch my laptop. After the fifth, I was ready to set it on fire and trample the ashes. When I finally saw the “application received” page, I genuinely felt I had some insight into what Buddhists mean when they talk about spiritual nirvana.
The visa wasn’t to be the last source of pre-trip stress. Two days before my flight, I discovered that Travelex, the world’s largest currency exchange company and the only one with a concession at Heathrow, where I planned to collect my order, was not offering Russian rubles for sale. In fact, thanks to crisis-related volatility—the currency practically halved in value after the sanctions were introduced in 2014—Travelex has completely stopped trading in rubles for the past two-and-a-half years. Cue a panicked rush into town to find an alternative bureau de change that was selling the currency. (The wild currency swings have also resulted in some challenging interactions between law firms and clients in Russia.)
Crisis averted, I arrived safely in Moscow after a four-hour flight from London, the majority of which was spent trying to fold my 6’6″ frame into a cattle class seat and sending evil thoughts to all the short people stretching out on the exit row. I was greeted by a scene of comforting familiarity: Domodedovo airport is still a shambles. Signage is sparse and lines for passport control form seemingly at random, with lines of confused passengers snaking to the desks at improbable angles while staff watch, disinterested. Coming from Heathrow’s modern and ultra-slick Terminal 5, it felt like I hadn’t just traveled to a different country, but also several decades back in time. (Although, in fairness, Domodedovo is no worse than Terminal 7 at JFK, which never ceases to amaze me with its inefficiency and disorganization whenever I come to New York for a stint in the ALM mothership.)
Having finally extricated myself from the airport that time forgot, I was met with another reminder of past trips: The traffic in Moscow is still awful. Like, China awful. Moscow’s roads have been rated the worst in the world—the average Muscovite spends a soul-destroying 130 hours each year stuck in traffic jams. I managed to make it a full 15 minutes from the airport before hitting gridlock. I sat checking emails and listening to the driver’s horrific Russian pop music as we crawled past a nasty looking and apparently very recent accident, with smoke still pouring out of the wrecked car’s badly crumpled body.
All told, the 50 kilometer journey from the airport to my hotel in central Moscow ended up taking two-and-a-half hours. Thankfully, I had pre-booked a fixed-price airport transfer, so at least I wasn’t left watching the meter rack up a telephone-number-sized fare and panicking about how I was going to explain to the editors that I’d spent the department’s entire annual budget just to sit in traffic.
While progress was painfully slow, it at least gave me ample time to soak up my surroundings. Moscow was certainly much prettier than I remembered. That probably had something to do with the fact that all of my previous six or seven trips had been in the depths of winter, when Moscow becomes a brutal wasteland of gray and white and the weather is so cold that even a brief venture outside is liable to end with your eyelids frozen shut.
Moscow in summer is an entirely different proposition, with temperatures often topping 90 degrees. It actually gets so hot that many Muscovites try to escape the city by going on vacation and spending weekends at houses in the countryside—known as dachas. Still, as a sun-starved Brit, I’d take stifling heat over body-popsicle-forming cold any day of the week. It certainly made for a refreshing change to have not traveled with a suitcase full of gloves, scarves and all of my thickest socks.
That said, the forecast for my five-day trip was one of gray skies and frequent heavy rain. In the kind of cruel joke that only weather gods can crack, I needlessly carried around an umbrella all week in glorious sunshine, until I accidentally left said umbrella behind at my very last meeting, when the heavens promptly opened midway through a 40-minute walk back to the hotel. Typical.
The walk to and from the hotel was already proving more challenging than I had expected. Moscow is currently in the midst of a $2 billion beautification program, which the local government is pushing through ahead of the country’s hosting of the World Cup soccer tournament in 2018. (Russia won the right to host the marquee sporting event amid allegations of corruption and vote rigging. But while an investigation by soccer’s world governing body, Fifa, found serious alleged irregularities and recommended action against several senior members of the organization’s executive committee, it cleared Russia of bribery.)
The idea is to make the city more pedestrian-friendly and generally more aesthetically pleasing. Sidewalks across the city are being widened at the expense of road space—much to the chagrin of motorists, who are now facing even more delays to their journeys—trees are being planted, overhead cables buried underground and historic features restored.
This is undoubtedly a positive move—speaking as a tourist, at least—but my visit happened to coincide with work taking place on Moscow’s main street, Tverskaya, which runs northwest from the Kremlin for almost three kilometers and was also home to my hotel for the week. The entire street had been reduced to a construction site, with the pavements completely ripped up and builders operating all manner of heavy machinery.
I had deliberately booked a hotel on Tverskaya, as almost all of the law firms I was visiting were based within a 20-minute walk, meaning I could avoid wasting time in cabs and cram in more meetings. Instead, I wasted time trudging through rubble and trying not to get mud all over my suit. You know what they say about best laid plans. Given the purpose of my visit, it all felt oddly appropriate.