Africa: The Sun's Out in Moscow

23 June 2019

Moscow — The last day of the African Import and Export Bank meetings in Moscow was the hottest day for 50 years.

And when I joke with our young hostess, Alena, that it's because there are so many Africans in the city, she looks at me seriously and said: "Is possible." Alena was born *in* Siberia, where the Gulag sent 14 million people to forced labour camps under Vladimir Lenin's rule. Alena remembers her birthplace warmly.

I'm not going to lie: growing up in South Africa in the 80s meant I had certain ideas about Russia: icy cold, vodka and Communist spies - basically life in black and white.

What greeted me upon arrival at Moscow Domodedovo Airport was summer, and KFC. Burger King too.

The airport, now one of the largest in the country, had been named after Mikhail Lomonosov, known for his scientific discoveries, linguistics and poetry.

Russia has changed.

The Afreximbank meeting participants I spoke with - most in the country for the first time - used phrases like "not what I expected", "Moscow is beautiful" and "doesn't it snow here?"

They'd come to discuss transforming trade in Africa, and found a summer holiday destination.

But not all are convinced that Russia has changed for the better, like our Muscovite tour guide Nadia - her name "means hope," she said happily - whose four-hour speech turned to how some of the changes that Perestroika brought were not welcome. And I guess most surprising, after the weather, were all the shopping malls close to my hotel, a Radisson, where designer brands screamed SALE at avid shoppers.

But Nadia was burning to discuss the popularity of new Russian talk shows. "They pull hair and scream and fight just like the ones on American TV. It's the worst thing that's happened since we have our freedom," she said.

Our first stop on our Moscow tour was Red Square, and the name has nothing to do with the colour of the buildings. According to Wikipedia, the name came about "because the Russian word красная (krasnaya), which means 'red' is related to the word красивая ('krasivaya') meaning 'beautiful'". Standing outside the Kremlin where President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin has his official residence, surrounded by hundreds of tourists, with the iconic St Basil's Cathedral in the background, was the first time I felt the history of the city.

The heat, however, was too much for even the African participants attending the Afreximbank meetings, and we escaped to the GUM, billed as the " home department store of the country". But not before I was asked to pose for a photo with a woman who called me by name and put her arm around my shoulders before I had gathered myself. Thanks name tag.

GUM is over-the-top in design, and price. Luxury goods everywhere, and my new Mauritian friend and I chuckled over the price tags that touched on 26 000 000 rubles. That's almost R6-million, or U.S.$400 000.

Russians are ambitious, if the meeting participants, volunteers and their leadership are anything to go by, and it's reflected in the speech from Dimitri Medvedev, Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation, who spoke of a "new era" of co-operation between Russia and the continent. Afreximbank President Professor Benedict Oramah echoed that thought, saying that the country is a key partner in developing Africa's infrastructure.

The volunteers assigned to different areas of work at the massive event - 1,500 delegates from 81 countries and almost 300 reporters - were mostly from high school, and if this is the new generation of Russians, it was a refreshing change from the stoicism (okay, coldness) of the older service people.

Just like in African countries, where the "youth bulge" is proudly spoken of an advantage but also a challenge, Russia would do well to pay attention to the potential of their youth, and it is hopefully high on the agenda for the full-scale Russia-Africa political summit and the accompanying economic forum, planned for October 2019 in Sochi.

My allAfrica colleagues are surprised when I say I wouldn't mind returning - hopefully not solo - but then they haven't sampled the vodka (made with water sourced from the heart of Siberia) I brought home yet.

Juanita Williams is AllAfrica's Managing Editor, and has been in the media industry for more than 20 years.

For more on the Afreximbank meetings, see: 'Fight Africa's New Revolution With Ideas, Hard Work, Investment'

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