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Finding Obama in the streets of Moscow

It started as a morning like any other in Moscow – with falling snow, news of contract killings and economic crisis plastered on all the front pages, and a public largely in the dark about goings on abroad.

“I like Obama,” said Yulia Golub, a 24-year-old woman who sells newspapers in the shadow of the Foreign Ministry. “I mean, I can’t see why not to like him,” she added listlessly.

It’s people around Yulia’s age that seem to react that way, distant from politics, blissfully unengaged. Elizaveta, a 21-year-old student strolling through a mall near the Kurskaya train station this evening, couldn’t quite place why she liked Obama. “He’s cheerful,” she said. And … ? “He’s good.”

Then there was Anton, an 18-year-old student cruising the mall with his friend Kirill. “No, I don’t like him. He won’t be a normal president,” he said. His explanation? “America only has stupid people in government.” But Obama will bring in new people, the Bush team is out. “They’re all stupid.”

Anton, like the dozens of people I spoke to today, said they had no problem with Obama being black. (Moscow, never an easy place for non-Slavic looking people, has seen a sharp rise in racist attacks and killings since the New Year.) Something else seemed to bother him. “I hear his real last name is Hussein – that already says a lot.”

Outside near the train station, Tamara Vladimirovna, a 71-year-old retired teacher, was selling pickled cabbage in the -6C weather. She could barely contain her excitement (about Obama, not the cabbage).

“I wish you could have an inauguration every day! Congratulations!” she said, as a group of friends gathered around her – old women selling slippers and pickles and homemade pastries despite the windy cold. They mainly talked about how expensive the inauguration was. "I heard $4 million!" "I heard $6 million!" This also constituted the blogs' main coverage here.

“You have your first black president – this is real progress," said Tamara, the most excited of the bunch. "Americans want to see a change in their lives, but what will change over here? We’re the ones who will continue to suffer. Life should move forwards, not backwards.”

None of these people was planning to watch the inauguration – they said they’d catch it, of course, if it was shown on one of the three main state-run TV channels. It ended up running on Vesti 24, a 24-hour cable news channel.

So instead I headed to a branch of the Starlite Diner, a chain of U.S.-style diners that is home away from home for many Americans here. The Moscow chapter of Democrats Abroad had organized a viewing, and over 100 people crammed into the restaurant’s red and white booths to watch Obama's historic inauguration.

The crowd exploded into short bursts of applause when Obama appeared, when Biden was sworn in, when Obama finally took his turn and gave his first speech as the 44th U.S. president. And there were flamboyant waves of goodbye to the big screen broadcasting CNN International as Bush made his way to the helicopter and left the White House forever.

Most of the Americans there said they wish they could be home to be part of the energy gripping the nation.

There were some who came away inspired. “It’s a historic moment,” said Gagik Grigoryan, 30, an Armenian living in Moscow. “Just like he said – 60 years ago they wouldn’t have served him in a restaurant. Who knows, maybe in 60 years there will be a gay president too.”

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