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More sex, more violence, more banks

Touching down at Sheremetyevo Airport after two years away, there's no mistaking the old Moscow. First, passport control: the women gaze at you with the time-honoured suspicious look - up and down, up and down - before returning your passport with a "we-know-your-type" stare. It used to give me the creeps; now it seems vaguely comical.

Then comes baggage reclaim. In accordance with another old tradition, the electronic messages above the luggage area have little to do with reality.Then comes customs, where you can (allegedly) go through the red or the green channel.But the green channel is purely for decoration. If you try going through it, you will be scornfully turned back. In short: just like old times.

And what about the streets of Moscow? At first glance, less change than I perhaps expected. There were dramatic and obvious changes between 1991 (when the Soviet Union collapsed) and 1993, when I was last here: a sudden explosion of Western goods, advertising, and Third World poverty. And now?

It changes, it changes not. Re-visiting Moscow after a break is like tearing petals off a lover's daisy. Superficial details have changed, even while the essence remains the same. Or is it the other way round? The essence has changed, while the superficial details remain the same?

One small but notable change is to the recorded message in the Metro. The voices still sound the Soviet-same. But a new phrase has been added when the train stops. "Esteemed passengers. When leaving the train, do not forget your things." That comes courtesy of the destruction of Chechnya and Russian fears of bombers' revenge.

Above ground, there are changes, too. There was prostitution before, but now it is far more blatant. Little groups of mini-skirted women poke their heads into darkened limousines to discuss terms, all along one of the busiest stretches of Tverskaya Street, where, opposite the Kremlin, Mercedes and BMWs gather with characters who have apparently been on a "How to Look Like a Seedy Hood" course.

One beefy pair in wide suits stand chewing gum, imitating bad guys in a Bogart movie.

Violence has become almost routine. In that, at least, the cliches do not disappoint. The poisoning of a leading banker last week caused a ripple of shock, but other grisly shootings and throat-cuttings pass almost without comment.

The other conspicuous growth industry is in banks, which occupy some grand buildings and sport huge neon adverts. Ludicrously expensive shops have sprouted, too: $10,000 for a dinner service, $1,400 for an ugly carafe. And then there are the security men, who are everywhere: uniformed men to protect the rich - from the gunmen, and from the poor.

Meanwhile, old ladies try to make ends meet by offering a kind of alternative late-night store: bread, sausage, vodka, all the essentials of life. And on Pushkin Square, seven-year-old orange-skirted Tanya waits, selling a newspaper which explores the joys of group sex.

Sex, violence, obscene wealth and poverty. Is this, then, the new Russia? The answer, clearly, is yes. Beyond all this, however - the stuff of juicy Western headlines - is another, more difficult question. Will things get worse - or is there something saner, in the distance?

Russians love impossibly large, philosophical questions. Ask that one, and you just get an enormous, helpless shrug. If things get worse, it doesn't bear thinking about. But few dare to put money on things getting better. Tomorrow is as far as most Russians dare to look. And even that seems dodgy.