Russia: Winds of Change



(My note: This travel piece is 1 of 4 stories published as a front-page travel 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 My guidebook – purchased last year when I came here following the coup – is hopelessly outdated.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:

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.”


* * *

Begging for rubles on Moscow's main street. (Moscow, Russia 1992)

Begging for rubles on Moscow’s main street. (Moscow, Russia 1992)

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.

* * *

Religions of all flavors, now freely expressed. (Moscow, Russia 1992)

Religions of all flavors, now freely expressed. (Moscow, Russia 1992)

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.)

Volgograd boy's first visit to Red Square (Moscow, Russia 1992)

Volgograd boy’s first visit to Red Square (Moscow, Russia 1992)

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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