The first thing you notice upon disembarking at the airport in Moscow is the smell. Or more precisely, the lack of it. The signature pungent odor of rough Soviet cigarettes is gone. At passport control, the pimply-faced, heavily armed teenagers in the ill-fitting uniforms have been replaced by smartly dressed, tastefully made up sulky young women who briskly check your passport and send you on your way.
I last was in Moscow in late 1991 as the wreckage of the Soviet Union gave way to the dubiously named Commonwealth of Independent States. No one could have known then what level of chaos and hardship this country would descend to. Sixteen years later and what seems like at least two lifetimes, I've been given the chance to return for NBC to work on several reports with correspondent Jim Maceda on the state of modern Russia.
I quickly realize that on the other side of the airport doors lies Oz. And the grimy highway that speeds toward the city center is nothing less than the yellow brick road. The intervening years have wrought an amazing transformation - mile after mile of shopping malls, Ikea stores, car dealerships, all with packed parking lots. While we've heard a great deal about the super-rich here, some semblance of a middle class must be doing at least some of this buying.
Along the roads and the skyline is a riot of color and neon - the language of advertising is everywhere. So that's what the words "Always Low Prices!" look like in Russian. Back in the day, advertising came in two colors, red and white, and it was propaganda, not washing machines, that was on offer. "Glory to the 25th Five Year Plan! Peace to the World! All Power to the Soviets!" Repeated ad infinitum. Now Russians are urged to remodel their kitchens, find the best calling plan or check out zero percent financing at the Toyota dealer.But nothing could have prepared me for the eye-popping Euro-style prosperity awaiting in the city center. Glittering stores, a panoply of restaurants (everything from haute French to TGI Friday's) - all await in what my colleague Jim Maceda calls the "Dubai of the North." But more than that surface glamor, there is a level of confidence and self-assurance in the people I see on the cold and icy streets here. People don't walk in the careworn, just-trying-to-get-by manner I remember -- trying to ignore the occasional posh store or restaurant, catering to expatriates, in their midst. Now they patrol the shops and the food courts, enjoying the fruits of the money generated by their country's vast energy reserves.
It's a fascinating time to be here, given the current tough talk from Russian President Vladimir Putin -- about which we'll be reporting -- but it's clear this nation has a robust sense of pride and entitlement - and its people are long past settling for whatever life throws at them.
Photo caption: Clare, yesterday, outside the Kremlin wall. Photo by NBC cameraman Dmitri Solovyov.