JUST OUTSIDE THE MUSEUM a father plays an accordion as his little girl – not more than 6 – sings and twirls to an old Russian folk song, then passes the hat for money. It’s a common sight: kids playing their clarinets or violins, carrot-haired babushkas belting out tunes, and pensioners kneeling on the ground, crossing themselves . . . everyone passing the hat for just a few more rubles to make ends meet.
Even the metro stations, once known for their stunning architecture inside are now known by what they sell outside. Each has a specialty these days: people hawk housewares at one; children’s shoes at another; a specialty at a third is car, motorcycle and bike parts. (“That’s where the remains of my car are,” one American businessman tells me after his automobile was stripped bare by thieves-turned-entrepreneurs.) I see donated food, provided by international aid agencies, sold on the streets. Anything to make a few rubles . . .
“We’re not Third World,” Misha tells me later over dinner. “We’re a First-World educated people. It’s the economy that’s Third World, not us.”
We shop for dinner, pinching rubles given the outrageous prices Russians are paying for fruit, vegetables and meats. Yet the very favorable dollar exchange rate makes me – for once – feel rich. But I have to be careful: I don’t want to spend too much buying things my Russian friends normally couldn’t afford; it’s insulting. But I know they appreciate my small gifts.
* * *
PICK A RELIGION, ANY RELIGION, and you’ll find someone somewhere trying to tell Russians about it, usually outside the McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in downtown Moscow. Young Christian groups perform Passion plays in Russian; a retired Southerner drawls out “Ya’ll been saved?” to those waiting in line for a Big Mac; and hundreds of Hare Krishnas make their colorful, tambourine-banging presence known as I down my cheeseburger, fries and Coke – all for less than a dollar.
I attend a Protestant church that is packed to standing-room only with Americans, Russians and Africans, and I think back to my student days in the Soviet Union when all this was so clandestine. Olya and Misha tell me later it is not necessarily that Russians are clamoring for religion; they are simply curious about things spiritual: be it Christianity, New Age or plain old astrology, which is taken quite seriously by many Russians. Monthly horoscopes are sold near ticket booths inside metro stations.
“PLEASE DON’T THINK that all Russians are out to take advantage of you,” Olya and Misha tell me, after I point out several double-standards of prices in Moscow – one for locals, the other for hard-currency foreigners . . . and of Russians who tried to charge me exorbitant prices for things that are free. (Such as being told a bar’s cover charge is $15 – after you’ve ordered a drink and when there really is no cover charge.)
My friends want so much for me to leave with memories of the good people here, not the desperate strangers trying to pry a marriage proposal – really a passport-to-America arrangement – out of me or the shady “we can do biznes together” types. I know they are right. Olya and Misha are golden-hearted, gracious in their hospitality. There are lots of Russians here in Moscow like them; it’s just that sometimes the hustlers and rude folks leave a stronger impression – in any country – than the kind and magnanimous people that I know are the majority.
Olya and Misha have no intention of leaving Moscow. Somehow, things will work out, they tell me. They’ll find jobs and help rebuild the economy to make life better for their 9-year-old daughter. Sentiments, I’m sure, shared by their parents, in their day. We polish off the cherry liquor I bought from the hard-currency store, a gift they can’t buy with their rubles. The TV hums with a “Wheel of Fortune”-type program where “Bible” is the winning word; next are highlights of the “Miss Bust” contest complete with close-ups; finally the 11 p.m. nightly news ends with an astrological forecast for the next day.
The breeze is picking up, rustling the curtains. It feels like another storm will soon pass through, cleansing this city once again.
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