MOSCOW — Struck by how surprised many foreigners are when they first set foot in this restless metropolis, interpreter Yekaterina Borisova slips easily into ridicule to describe the phenomenon.
Visitors "usually share the standard collection of stupid stereotypes about Moscow that date back to the Cold War era: bears in the streets, caviar, fur hats with earflaps and permanently drunk Russians," she said. "Most foreigners who end up coming to Moscow are truly shocked to see that the Moscow of their imagination is so different from real-life Moscow. They are surprised to see a huge and bright modern city."
After a chaotic transition from communism, followed in 1998 by a nationwide economic crisis, Moscow has quietly enjoyed a four-year boom. As soaring oil production and high oil prices boost Russia's economy, the greatest benefits can be seen here at the center of power.
The city and its people have been transformed, with about half the population now considered at least middle-class. There is a flood of new restaurants, fancy boutiques and high-priced supermarkets carrying top-quality goods. The streets are jammed with traffic and people are working hard to get ahead.
"Moscow is changing every year," said Elena Bashkirova, a sociologist who left academia and is president of Romir Monitoring, a leading Moscow polling agency. "They have renovated a lot of beautiful buildings. For many years I wouldn't even look at them, because they looked very dull, gray. Now they are all pink, yellow, very beautiful, really."
Post-Soviet buildings that match the quality of European construction increasingly mix in a jumble with imposing communist-era structures and Czarist buildings notable for their elegance.
Although 8.5 million people are registered to live in the capital, a government committee this year estimated the population at 10.4 million. That makes Moscow larger than Los Angeles County, which has 9.5 million residents.
"People are swarming to Moscow like cockroaches," said Cheslovas Bagdonavichus, 53, who once designed Soviet fighter jets and now is deputy director and part owner of a cargo haulage firm. "It's like a second Babylon. Everybody believes that all the money is only in Moscow. It's possible to make money only in Moscow, it's possible to steal money only in Moscow. This idea is out there, and everybody is here."
The wild capitalism unfolding here -- a free-for-all flourishing under a weak legal system -- is reflected in the type of pride Bagdonavichus takes in his work, which often involves arranging shipments of Chinese goods to Russia on aging Soviet-era planes.
"My responsibility as a manager is to load an Ilyushin-76 chock-full in order to make more money," he said. "And even if sometimes I violate safety regulations, it's my responsibility as a manager to make sure I get away with it."
The boom is even attracting Russians who fled the motherland.
"Many people who immigrated to the United States or Israel are coming back, because they're clever," Bashkirova said. "It's easier to make money here than in the United States, where everything is stable.... I have a Mercedes. My daughter has a Mercedes. My business partner has a Jeep, because Jeeps are very fashionable here."
The Moscow gold rush takes place in a city that still sports communist symbols of the sort that have largely disappeared in the former Soviet Bloc states of Eastern Europe.
The Moscow subway, or Metro, is decorated with "socialist art" of workers, peasants and soldiers, while Lenin statues remain in place and the Kremlin towers are still topped by red stars. Lenin himself lies, looking more plastic than preserved, in his Red Square tomb.
"Younger generations do not have the right to curse their forefathers, or destroy something that was built by their hands," said Yuri Kruk, director-general of Investstroymetro, the agency that builds Russian subways. "That is why in Moscow things that were created under socialist rule have been preserved."
With the end of Communist Party efforts to enforce rough equality of income among all but the party elite, a new upper-middle class has emerged. Its members are the greatest beneficiaries of the city's transformation.
"When you look at Moscow and compare it to what it looked like five years ago, only a blind person will not notice the difference," said Yana Skachkova, 29, an advertising agency manager. "Buying something you need is no problem, no matter what time of day it is, since lots of stores work around the clock. Living in Moscow has become much more pleasant and convenient -- provided you have money, of course."
The same principle applies to foreigners: The good life is available now, but it's not cheap. For Western expatriates, Moscow was the second-most-expensive city in the world in 2002, after Tokyo and ahead of Osaka, Japan, according to a survey of 144 places by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Tourists find hotels and restaurants expensive even by Western European standards.