Long known for its rich history and elegant marble-lined metro, Moscow has suddenly discovered that it has a bad rap among foreigners -- and is spending millions to try and turn it around.
"After all, Mickey Mouse is just a mouse with good publicity," said Veronika Khilchevskaya, a consultant working on the US$27 million campaign by the Moscow mayor's office to boost the Russian capital's image.
"We should present Moscow as a confident, comfortable and interesting city," Mayor Yury Luzhkov said.
Quality-of-life reports frequently slam Moscow for high prices, traffic and pollution, as well as a dearth of quality hotel space, tourism offices, public toilets and facilities for the disabled.
The mayor, however, likes to point his finger at the media, whom he accuses of focusing on "negative information" about Moscow, such as frequent building collapses and attacks on dark-skinned foreigners.
Though considered a global metropolis, with more than 10 million inhabitants, the Russian capital is still without an English-language Internet site.
City authorities are in negotiations to buy the site moscow.com, bought by a private individual "during the post-Soviet chaos," said Georgy Muradov, head of the new Center for the International Promotion of Moscow.
"It pays to make a good impression," said Grigory Antyufeyev, head of the Moscow Tourism Committee. "Every foreign tourist brings US$900 to the city."
But only about 3.5 million foreigners have passed through "the intersection of Europe and Asia" in the past year -- seven times less than Paris, Antyufeyev said.
Moscow has changed radically since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
In addition to a flourishing of Western-style shopping centers and chain stores, old hotel facades have been repainted, cathedral cupolas restored, bridges and monuments spruced up.
"There are new restaurants every 100 meters, the shops are full and there are flowers everywhere," said 48-year-old Vladimir Beketov, who was stunned upon his return to Moscow after 12 years in the northern city of Vorkuta.
Beketov was equally stunned by Moscow's traffic, which was virtually non-existent in Soviet times. In the last eight years, the number of vehicles on Moscow's roads has leapt from 320,000 to 3.5 million.
More than half of the budget for Moscow's image makeover -- US$17 million between next year and 2009 -- will come from the city budget, and the rest from commercial organizations.
Moscow media have warned that if the campaign isn't well-run, it could wind up a pointless exercise in Soviet-style propaganda with no effect on perceptions of the city.
The mayor's office is sparing no effort, though: it plans to launch a quarterly magazine in three languages for foreign officials, host receptions for diplomats, and offer two annual cruises on the Moscow River for journalists.
But one of the image-makers it has invited onboard already has her doubts.
"Russia doesn't have much experience promoting its own image," said Galina Sidorova, editor in chief of monthly Sovershenno Sekretno.