Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Difficult Place to Love

I returned to Moscow for the first time in 1988, 15 years after emigrating to Israel. As Russia shed communism and began emerging from international isolation in the 1990s, I enjoyed coming here more and more, observing its remarkable changes firsthand. But by the end of Vladimir Putin’s first presidential term, I felt a gradual reversal — so much so that in recent years my prevailing sentiments while in the country of my birth were irritation and disgust.

I also hear from expats living in Russia — including many who used to love it — that they are thinking of pulling up stakes, and not because of the economic crisis. It is the social and political climate that is starting to get to them, pervasive corruption, the neglect of social and physical infrastructure, an angry, adolescent-like foreign policy, nostalgia for the Soviet Union of Leonid Brezhnev and even Josef Stalin, and the revival of Soviet rhetoric and practices.

But on my latest trip I enjoyed Moscow more than at any time in the last five years. I may have been helped by the fact that on my first day I managed to pull an Achilles tendon playing football. Unable to walk, I had to cancel most daytime appointments. I spent my days on a couch and only saw my Moscow friends — those who were willing to come to my neighborhood.

As a result, I engaged in an unusual mix of activities. For two hours one morning, I translated a master class given by Italian director Stefano de Luca to students at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts, the famous GITIS. (His Piccolo Teatro di Milano gave some performances in Moscow and he agreed to lecture, but an Italian translator couldn’t be found.) The Russian kids were great — smart, interested and very talented. They were so taken by their guest, who talked about Commedia dell’Arte and the function of the mask in Italian folk theater, that they mobbed that night’s performance. The director, in turn, was smitten by their enthusiasm and took about three dozen of them backstage to meet his actors.

On another night, I stood in a smoke-filled room at the Masterskaya Club across from Hotel Metropol, listening to the all-girl band Tatyana. Headlined by Miriam Sekhon, who appeared last year in Oksana Bychkova’s film “Plus One,” the band is a quintessentially post-Soviet phenomenon. They do Soviet-era classics about lovesick waitresses, weavers and construction workers with verve, spunk and sarcasm, but also enough nostalgic tenderness to bring tears to your eyes.

Finally, the night before leaving I sat on the edge of my uncomfortable side chair at the famous Fomenko Theater and, along with other members of the sold-out audience, tried not to miss a single word of a play based on Leo Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness.”

Not that the events were unusual, but I saw them in complete isolation from economic or political reality. Culturally, at least, Russia is thriving. Its varied art scene is uncensored and exposed to the outside world on a scale not seen in almost a century. Art may be done on a shoestring and without government funding, but this is exactly why it is so interesting.

It is also a dramatic reminder why I still visit. It also reminds me why so many love Russia, while hating its corrupt bureaucrats, venal politicians and shameless nouveau riches — all of whom make it such a difficult place to love.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.