Russia: Winds of Change

–THE PEOPLE LURCH AS MOSCOW  SCRAMBLES  TOWARDS CAPITALISM–

(My note: This travel piece is 1 of 4 stories published as a package for the Seattle Times. It’s excerpted from a 150,000-word story paralleling upheavals in my life with upheavals in this enigmatic country, from 1980 to 1995.)
Novodevichy Monastary onion domes, (Moscow, Russia 1992)

Onion domes top Novodevichy Monastery (Moscow, Russia)

Moscow, 1992 – IT’S A WEEK LIKE ANY OTHER in Moscow. Last night’s rainstorm blew away a week’s worth of air pollution that had coated this city of 10 million in a bluish curtain of carbon monoxide leftovers. From out my window this early morning the air is fresh, the sky a pale blue. The sun matches the glistening gold onion domes of the ancient Novodevichy Monastery. It’s a familiar feeling, this Moscow weather. Unlike everything else around here.

I’ve been to Moscow many times, but not to this Moscow, a city markedly changed since last August’s coup. My guidebook – purchased last year when I came here following the coup – is hopelessly outdated. My first day in Moscow I hop the city metro bound for the Kremlin. The speaker blares out “Next stop: Clean Ponds!” But my map reads “Kirovskaya.”

“Next stop: Lyubyanka,” (first known as a type of Russian woodwork, not the infamous prison.) It used to be “Derzhinsky.”

 “Next stop: Hunting Area.” It used to be “Marx Prospeckt.”

I ask the Russian woman next to me if I’m on the right metro line. She nods yes, patiently explaining in Russian that in a wave of post-coup political correctness, several metro stations recently were changed to prerevolutionary names. “Lenin” is now “Tsaritzina;” “Nogina” is “Chinatown,” and “Sverdlova Square” is now “Theatre.” At last count, a dozen metro stations, 26 streets and 15 squares sport new names.

I'm in Red Square just two months before the Soviet coup. Please, don't ask why I'm wearing blue socks. (Moscow, Russia--1991)

I’m in Red Square just two months before the Soviet coup. Please, don’t ask why I’m wearing blue socks. (Moscow, Russia–1991)

 MY RUSSIAN FRIENDS, Olya and Misha, challenge me to find out what else is unusual in their city. They are in their early 30s, highly educated and unemployed. Olya specialized in the philosophy of economic planning, while Misha was an economic expert at a prestigious – now nearly bankrupt – government institute. Misha hasn’t been paid in the past three months, yet he goes to work every day, researching and writing articles that may never be published. Most of his colleagues have found work elsewhere, but Misha has invested too much of his career to admit he doesn’t have a job anymore.

Theirs is a dilemma shared by other talented, educated people in this city: not everyone can do “biznes,” the often shady, sleazy buying-and-selling of goods and services that passes for capitalism here. Daily life in Moscow is a crazy-quilt fabric where nothing is at right angles.

“Go look for it,” Olya and Misha tell me. So I do.

Protester's sign: "We defend Lenin from democracy." (Moscow, Russia 1992)

Protester’s sign: “We defend Lenin from democracy.” (Moscow, Russia 1992)

I START AT RED SQUARE in the heart of Moscow, site of Russia’s first rock concert on what was once Communist-hallowed ground. Directly across from Lenin’s Mausoleum, gold-metaled kiosks hawk hard currency (dollars and other “hard” Western currencies are much preferred to the often useless ruble), liquor and Yeltsin dolls (modeled after Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leader and hero of last year’s coup that toppled the Communist leadership). Next door the Lenin Museum – dubbed the “Graceland of Russia” – is nearly empty. A wrinkled man and a bent-backed woman hold a placard reading “We defend Lenin from democracy.

Inside the museum, a sign in Russian pleads “Dear comrades (a word rarely used any more): Please sign our petition to save the Lenin Museum from liquidation.” I count eight visitors in this four-story building that officially holds 2,475 people. On the museum’s top floor, a private store opened a few days earlier selling an odd assortment of computers, answering machines, bathing suits and soft drinks. I track down the manager – who is shooting a commercial for the store – to ask why he set up business here in Lenin’s museum.”Why not? It’s a great location next to Red Square.” As I look around the store I spot a large, seemingly forgotten banner in Russian hanging in a corner: “Our goal – Communism.”

Hmmm.

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