Purple Magazine
— F/W 2006 issue 6




A vast country, spanning an entire continent, with a large percentage of ethnic minorities, eager to redeem its reputation. What sounds like a mid-decade singles ad for the USA could apply equally to the Russian Federation. If the US acts like an excessively authoritarian manager, Russia behaves like an overqualified employee who cannot seem to get the attention of its superiors, bringing together an unlikely cocktail of charm and indignation to the table. While the rest of the west is transfixed on trade in China and tragedy in Iraq, the country has been waving its hand, asking to be noticed. And notice we did. For the duration of the Fall/Winter fashion season in 2005, when Cavalli, Von Furstenberg, Fendi and Prada all pillaged an imperial Russian past for their collections. It’s attempt to create, in Chechnya, a tragedy so repetitive and mind-numbing it rivals that of Palestine’s. Or it’s meddling with the Ukrainian presidential elections. But in the end, it wasn’t fashion nor violence which got people to take the country seriously. It was oil. With the price per barrel soaring, Russia has once  again began to command a muscular respect it hasn’t enjoyed for a good thirty years.


Russia’s dizzying mix of east and west, of Asia and Europe, spoke volumes to the boy who grew up Iranian in Texas. A decade ago, I spent a year in St. Petersburg.

St. Petersburg was waning. For over  80 years, its only advantage lay in its distance from Moscow’s hub of power. Stas, Babik, Sergeï and I commemorated the city’s slow descent intro irrelevance by drinking behind the baroque façades of abandoned buildings.  For each night of the week, a different coloured façade: Mondays were yellow, Tuesdays blue,and Wednesdays pink. Like the buildings, the solid educational bedrock of the country was also eroding. The money flowed to Moscow. Which, given the glitz and blitz of mediocre new buildings in the 90s, was not necessarily a bad thing.

But the country itself had been cowered. Russians were told to look at Westerners and act accordingly, i.e.to tolerate difference and to consume it. History is written by the victors, we are told. In Russia’s case, in the 1990s, the victors were a handful of oligarchs, not capable of writing very much more than blank historical checks. The world’s grand narrative turned a blind eye, and when it deigned notice, it heaped scorn and ideological retribution on the country. “You lost” was the ultimate message, but since this was the rosy 90s, it came across as “You tried hard. Good on you. Maybe next time.” The evil empire it wasn’t. But the indignation was already palpable .

The country has historically been split between the Westerners, like Pushkin and Alexander Herzen, and the Slavophiles, like Dostoyevsky. The Russians face the west, with their back to the east. Stockholm is only a stone’s throw away from St. Petersburg, Peter the Great’s jewel and the country’s window to the west. Yet, as soon as a Russian pleads “We are European,” a ferocity only worthy of a Mongol or a Tatar past shines in their eyes. The Westerners have long promoted what is called a Tatar hypothesis; that Moscow represents all that is Asiatic and barbaric. Again, an example of a sore loser in history? I am reminded that in Iran, it is not uncommon for parents to name their son Genghis.

MOSCOW, 2006

I return to the country for the first time in 10 years. As in a Chekhov play, the protagonists are ageing and taking inventory of their ebbing influence. The oligarchs have matured. Their kids now roam Moscow’s streets with an air of triumph only heirs of industry can convey. It does not matter any more whether their wealth is deserved or not: their confidence is appeasing. The parents have turned to philanthropic interests just in time for the offspring to take their rightful place in the social calendar. A German friend, dubbed the Queen of the Pipeline, tells me Moscow resembles NY in the 80s. I wouldn’t know because I am too young, but I have not seen decadence pulsate as it does in Moscow. Sushi is served like peanuts, something to nibble on, while waiting. Over 400 restaurants are open 24 hours a day. The city throbs with glut and desire, not to mention a will to succeed that would make America’s founding fathers proud. Moscow has burned to the ground on a number of occasions. And each time, comes up thirstier than before.

I dodge the car and driver assigned to me, and make for the gypsy cabs that served me so well in my student days. I immediately realize why this country has such a hold on me: the first driver is an Armenian, the second is Kirgiz; the woman at the newspaper stand is Afghan.

Like its oil, Russia’s confidence is crude. Not all has changed for the better. I am advised not to take the subway after dark. A heady mix of politicians blaming foreigners for Russia’s internal problems and an atavistic bluster of violence has resulted in a rise in the number of hate crimes against darker-skinned people. But despite ourselves, this brutalism enchants us: these are the excesses for which Russia is known, loved and loathed, the necessary evil of a lust for life. This severity—of ideas, landscapes, people, beauty—allows it to be a playground for robust projects, in an age where the rest of us are stuck with meddling questions like euthanasia and gay marriage.

I have decided to move to Moscow, a city of 16 million people, almost 10 years to the day of my previous move. Is it treacherous to help Russia, America’s erstwhile enemy, stand tall? The geopolitical shifts of power caused by oil’s windfall could convince me otherwise. If only to act as a counterweight to the acephalic behaviour of the United States, Russia could align itself with Iran, Syria, and an eventually independent Iraq. Never again will it be an enemy of the US, but Russia could still prove to be a very stubborn thorn in its easily bruised side.

Payam Sharifi for Purple fashion

[Table of contents]

F/W 2006 issue 6

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