I thought I knew what to expect. The dozens of articles, interviews, and books I had read about Russia had painted a picture in my mind of a land where “honest policeman” is an oxymoron, half of the population is paralyzed by AIDS or tuberculosis, and racism has seen a resurgence so epic that every minority trembles in fear at the mere thought of walking the streets at night.
When Goldman Sachs included Russia in its now-infamous delineation of the “BRIC” countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China— as key emerging markets in 2002, businessmen around the world scrambled to cash in on the former superpower’s coming economic boom. Since then, soaring oil prices have led Russia to meet and exceed even the loftiest of the investment bank’s expectations. Since the election of Vladimir V. Putin in 2000, Russia has successfully reasserted itself as a major world power, emerging from the economic and social unrest of the 1990s stronger and more confident than it has ever been. Moscow now boasts the largest number of billionaires and the highest cost of living of any city in the world. And in the political realm, the Kremlin’s newfound confidence has been on prominent display throughout the year, starting in May with the now nearly-forgotten military parade in Red Square—the first since the fall of the Soviet Union—and continuing with the surprisingly aggressive invasion of Georgia three months afterward.