|Financial Times December 19 1998
Moscow: Urban, but not yet urbane
By Paul Gould
A bracing night-time stroll along Tverskaya, Moscow’s answer to
Oxford Street, is almost enough to convince me that Russia’s
westernization is a fait accompli. There are neon lights, advertising,
shops, Mercedes and BMWs. The normality belies any talk of a country in
crisis. It defies the sense of fear that Moscow holds for visitors.
Indeed, for a moment it seems the place offers little that is
challenging or different.
Then I see the babushka with her goat. The wrinkled old woman, clad
in the habitual headscarf and white apron, must be 70. But there she is,
braving the sub-zero chill outside one of Moscow’s busiest metro
stations, nonchalantly selling goat’s milk – with the proud producer of
her wares on display for good measure.
The milk has been enterprisingly decanted into a variety of used
mineral water bottles, and the ploy of putting the goat on show is
original enough to generate a healthy trade. But not odd enough to raise
eyebrows. Yet this farmyard duo stands within sight of gaudy casinos, a
Cadillac showroom and all-night pharmacy freely selling Viagra (no
messing around with prescriptions in licentious Russia). For Moscow’s
muscular sprawl and political might sit side-by-side with a peasant-like
nature stubbornly dear to the Russian soul. Urban it is, but not quite
The same bumptiousness infects the new, commercial Russia. On nearby
Old Arbat Street or at Izmailovsky market, stacking dolls – some of them
opening to reveal Brezhnev inside Gorbachev inside Yeltsin etc – jostle
for position with Soviet-era insignia: flags, army belts and officers’
hats. Traders insist you must not pass their stall – but you have to
haggle hard to get a decent price for that ‘I am a KGB agent’
Go to Moscow with questions, and you will come back with more
questions. Go with expectations, and they’ll invariably be turned on
their head. If I expected a city of drab monoliths, then I am pleasantly
surprised to see pastel-painted Art Deco townhouses with wrought-iron
balconies. If I expected a city of puritanical severity, I am surprised
to see recklessness and debauchery. If this jumble of competing
impressions sounds contradictory, that’s because it is.
What makes the place tick? Where is that Russian soul that people are
always talking about? My trip to Moscow, like anyone’s visit to that
beguiling capital, is a search for that soul.
The city’s very name stirs strong associations in the Russian heart –
or so wrote the poet, Alexander Pushkin. As if to prove the point, there
are always fresh flowers at the poet’s statue, just a stone’s throw from
McDonald’s on Pushkin Square. A reverence for culture is part of
the story. Like saints, the names of artistic giants resound across the
capital: the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, Chekhov metro station, Gogol
Boulevard, the Stanislavsky Theatre. But religion plays an even larger
part. A visit to a Russian Orthodox church is an unfailingly moving
experience – defying the Soviet Union’s 70 years of official atheism.
So a friend and I visit the Yelokhovsky Cathedral in eastern Moscow.
Entering when a service is under way – which is acceptable -I
respectfully uncover my head while my friend covers hers. We are
instantly plunged into the hush of a thousand lighted candles. Countless
icons glimmer in the semi-darkness. A steady murmur is punctuated only
by the basso profondo chanting of the bearded priest in his shimmering
There are no pews: the congregation, a mile of older Russians,
shuffles constantly from altar to alcove. They cross themselves before
the icons covering every bit of available wall space. They light more
candles. They utter their own private prayers. They kiss the icons:
these people believe.
Hard to realise that this is the same bogeyman state that dynamited
thousands of churches in its rip-it-all-up pursuit of a brave new world.
Yet this is the story behind an exhibition at the resurrected Cathedral
of Christ the Saviour. The gold-domed edifice on the banks of the Moskva
River is not yet open to the public, but the exhibition in its vaults
uses a poignant mixture of photographs, models and documents to tell its
First built in 1812, to commemorate victory over Napoleon, the
cathedral was razed in 1933 to make way for the never-built Palace of
the Soviets. On display is a signed decree clinically ordering its
‘clearance’. Photographs show it being stripped of its gold,
its dome crashing to the ground amid the rubble.
Until the rebuilding of the cathedral in 1995-97, an open-air
swimming pool occupied the site for decades after it was realised that
the ground would not support the Palace of Soviets. Only models and
pictures now testify to those plans for a skyscraper topped by a
gargantuan statue of Lenin.
Moscow, however, affords many other glimpses of that would-be
communist utopia. At Mayakovsky metro station, naturally named after the
poet, a series of ceiling mosaics evokes the Soviet dream of a society
of heroes, of plentiful harvests and of sunny skies defended by an
But the piece de resistance is the 1937 statue of ‘The Worker
and the Collective Farm Girl’, near VDNKh metro in northern Moscow.
Standing as tall as Nelson’s Column, the twin Titans of steel stride
towards a bright future, clothes and hair billowing in a stylised wind,
holding aloft their hammer and sickle. It is a vision of a society that
The chasm between the devout, cultural Russia and its Evil Empire
alter-ego is writ large across the face it presents to visitors.
Russians are warm, reckless and hospitable in private – yet surly and
brusque as they shove their way through the obstacles of public life.
The architecture is equally schizophrenic, with forbidding Stalinist
monoliths looming over ancient onion- domed churches.
On Red Square, the humbug-like turbans of St Basil’s
Cathedral hover behind a horizon of cobblestones. At this most familiar
tourist magnet, two images spring to mind: cold war parades of tanks and
missile launchers; then the caprice, the whimsy that gave birth to the
cathedral’s fantasy architecture.
As Churchill said, Russia ‘is a riddle wrapped in a mystery
inside an enigma’. And that has to be one of the best reasons,
still, to go.
February 1999, Peaceworks (publication of the American Friends
Service Committee, New England)
Letter from Russia
By J. Kates
‘Everything is new. But it’s the same old life.’ With these
words, Mikhail Aizenberg answered my remarking on the new dishwasher,
washing machine, and kitchen light in his Moscow apartment. And there’s
a truth to that.
I have been visiting Russia since 1986. What is most striking to me
on each visit is the continuity of ordinary life from Soviet times until
now, in spite of multiple revolutionary upheavals. Ordinary people keep
leading ordinary lives.
The people I hang out with are mostly the intelligentsia, which has a
real class-meaning in Russian society that it doesn’t have in the West.
Right now, ironically, the intelligentsia, small as it is, and centered
in the major cities, takes the place of what elsewhere would be a
broader middle class. That is, economically, these are people who have
access to Western currency and goods in moderation, and tend to be wary
of the vulgar excesses of the wealthy ‘New Russian’
businessmen. The intelligentsia is proportionally more Jewish than
the-you can’t say ‘working class’ in the same way we do in the
West-generality of the working population.
Children go off to school in the morning just as they always have,
and come home laughing through the parks, climbing trees to knock off
chestnuts while their mothers stand underneath, shouting in vain for
them to come down. Very little has actually broken apart.
Nevertheless, there are always visible signs of change, as in the
Aizenbergs’ apartment. Some of the changes are evidence of a new
prosperity, and side-by-side are evidences of a new kind of poverty.
On one visit or another from 1986 until now, there have been varying
amounts of goods available in the shops and kiosks. The books on sale at
makeshift tables in the Metro have changed over the years from
dictionaries and textbooks to rampant pornography, to
how-to-succeed-in-business manuals, to detective fiction and romance
novels. There are fewer ordinary shops open now than there were just a
couple of years ago, but many fancy European and American boutiques in
the new underground malls of central Moscow. (The most ambitious of
these, under the Manege, is reportedly more of a Potemkin village than a
real concourse.) There are a great many more beggars on the streets,
while cafes and restaurants have sprung up everywhere.
Many people in Russia are as hungry for work as for food; and now,
with the increasing privatization of housing, more homeless are evident
as well. Ever since the lid of Soviet street-control has been lifted,
beggars have been as apparent on the streets of Russian cities as they
are in New York or Boston. Even at the ‘cleanest’ times, there
always were beggars of one particular kind-older men and mostly women
who help the religious Russian Orthodox fulfill their charitable
Moscow has been transformed by paint and elbow grease as if a curtain
had been suddenly raised. It is clean and gleaming, with old monuments
rebuilt and posters proclaiming the resurrection. There is a purpose to
this. Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, is trying a New-Deal style
gamble. If he can create public works, he will create employment. Where
there is no money for public works, he trades with foreign companies to
get it: He offers them prestigious buildings for their headquarters, but
they must undertake the repair and beautification of these buildings at
their own expense. If he can instill in Muscovites a pride in their
city, they will be less inclined to ship their own interests and money
elsewhere. The gamble is starting to work, but it’s a race against time
and against the chaotic economic policies of the country as a whole.
In St. Petersburg, the repair and sprucing up go on as well. In only
two days this September, the entire main street of the city was torn up
and completely repaved and repainted. Imagine all of New York’s Fifth
Avenue remade overnight. The ‘Baltika’ brand of beer, brewed
in St. Petersburg, has won European prizes for its quality. Both cities
remain an easy pleasure for the casual visitor, whose only experience of
underlying instability will be the weakness of the Russian ruble, and
the bargains the foreigner with dollars can snap up.
Everywhere, you can hear of people who have not been paid for months,
who must rely on credit or barter. Of course, barter has always been a
factor in Soviet life. People received various perks and access to goods
at their jobs, often in a random fashion-cases of wine at one level,
herring or hats at another-that they spread back and forth among
themselves with their neighbors.
Most chaotic of all for ordinary people is the currency. I mentioned
to Aizenberg how, each time I came to Russia, I had to learn the
monetary system all over again, as if I were traveling from one country
to an entirely different one. I held out a ten-ruble note. ”It takes me
days to figure out whether this will buy me just a bus-ticket, or a good
”You’re not the only one,’ he answered ruefully.
Anyone who can, works for American dollars. Those who can’t, change
their rubles into dollars as quickly as possible at the currency
exchanges set up on nearly every block. Inna Poluyanova, a graduate of
Keene State College in New Hampshire, has a fairly reliable job with an
international corporation in Moscow. She earned the gratitude of her
co-workers by negotiating a deal with a local currency exchange. They
all change their money there, and, with the large sums generated for the
exchange, they can get a far more favorable rate than the average person
on the street. Then they take their dollars home. The banks have
Poluyanova has a good friend who used to be a very well paid bank
executive vice-president. Now this other woman is grateful to have a job
at subsistence wages, and her new co-workers, who know of her past
employment, regard her as the villain who stole all their money. For the
older generation, it’s just the same old life. But for the younger
generation, Poluyanova explains, there is more bitter despair.
She tells of one young man who spent eight years building up an
extensive chain of auto-supply stores all around Russia. He threw
everything he had into this new operation. Then, overnight, all his
careful work was destroyed by the larger economic crisis. ”What is he
supposed to do?’ she asks. ”What is he supposed to think?’
Those people for whom the old life is familiar, and would like to see
it re-insitutionalized, gravitate toward nostalgic nationalists and the
inheritors of the old Communist Party. Those for whom this new old life
is all they’ve known, and don’t like it, are tempted by a fascist
movement-young men in black berets, armbands, and combat boots who stand
on corners singly or in pairs, watching the passersby, looking all too
much like the official security guards also on duty everywhere. And
looking all too much like their counterparts in Germany in the 1920s.
The Communists and the fascists unite in their distrust of the present
government and their dislike for foreigners and Jews.
Should we worry about Russian anti-semitism? Who can tell. Zionists
always sensationalize it. They have done so since the Kishinev pogroms
of the late nineteenth-century for their own political interests. But
anti-semitism in Russia is like racism in this country. How deep is our
racism? Russian anti-semitism is not as woven into the very fabric of
society as US racism is, but it’s still part of the everyday background
noise for a lot of people. Jewishness is not a religion in Russia, it’s
still a ‘nationality’-what we would call an officially
recognized ethnic category. This complicates definitions and
assessments. (What did Zhirinovsky mean when he was asked in an
interview about his own parentage, and he answered that his father was
Russian and his mother was a lawyer?) Jewish institutions
flourish-Hebrew studies, theatre, universities, synagogues. But many of
the ostentatious New Russians are Jewish; and this fact is noted as
significant by some of their opposition, either overtly or covertly, in
newspaper articles and letters. Anti-Moslem feeling has long run just as
strong as anti-Jewish feeling, but there is now also a proud and visible
Moslem presence in both St Petersburg and Moscow, alongside the fear and
distrust of dark-skinned southerners from Moslem republics.
The Communists and the fascists are planning large, nationwide
demonstrations for October 7. I happened to stumble across a
”rehearsal’ demonstration on Mariinsky Square in St. Petersburg on
September 21. The Communists gathered under their red banners and
portraits of Stalin. The fascists collected more menacingly a little
distance off, threatening a local news photographer who tried to
photograph them with their paraphernalia. A few black fascist banners
mingled with the red Communist ones as the rally came together. Army
Special Forces tried to keep a low profile on side streets around the
square. A few tourists walked by, oblivious, as if moving through an
Many of the signs were inflammatory and political, but one
middle-aged man off to the side held a poster that summed up the
frustration: ”All 1996 without wages. Time to change the system.’
Periodically, massive demonstrations like the October 7 one are
announced, and take place, but so far the worst free-floating fears of
the general populace have not been fulfilled. (My companion on September
21 reminded me that the last time we had walked these streets together,
a year and a half before, had been the day of a general strike.) There
has not yet been another coup, or a riot. Not one of the mainstream St.
Petersburg newspapers even reported the ”rehearsal’ demonstration
in the next day’s news. And, sure enough, October 7 passed without more
than a ripple of unrest.
What people fear is the future. They can keep living with what is,
the old life, but they are terribly afraid of what a new life may look
like. They can deal with everything as it comes, the worst part is not
knowing what will be next. And so, with every lurch in the economy, even
the most level-headed rush to buy up supplies of what they think will be
needed-sugar, salt, or rice. Shortages encourage hoarding goods, and
hoarding exacerbates the shortages.
Most are neither Communists nor fascists. They try to live with as
little as possible reference to their government, as they have done now
for decades. Evgeny Primakov may be the new prime minister, but people
talking of him fumble to recall his name, or maybe they pretend to
having forgotten it.
It’s the same old life, but now illuminated by glitzy ads for German
clothing, French perfume, and American cigarettes. When I met a Russian
friend I had encountered first in New Hampshire, he took me out to lunch
not for shashlik at one of the Russian cafes that are open on every
block, but for a cheeseburger at an American-style fast-food cafeteria.
General attitudes towards our own country are complex. There are some
people who expect America to bail them out with one flick of a
checkbook, and others who think that we are deliberately trying to bring
Russia down to ruin. Denis Maslov, a University of New Hampshire
graduate from St. Petersburg who now studies political science as a
doctoral candidate at Columbia University, wrote an article for the
newspaper Smena explaining to his compatriots that Russia is really very
low on the list of American foreign-policy interests these days.
Likewise, Russian foreign policy is not centered on American or
western European political interests, but on Russian interests.
Historically, Russian foreign policy interests have always been
concerned with the southern border and expansion eastward from Central
Europe. Nowadays, oil pipeline routes control a lot of how to think
about the southern border. Historically also, Russia has always wanted
to be taken seriously as a great power in Europe.
My friend Maslov himself was back in his home country to visit his
family and renew his passport. For this, his mother had to get a pass
from the military administration, because he is susceptible to the
draft. The officer who spoke to his mother told her that she was very
lucky that she had not brought her son with her, or that he had not come
by himself. ”You would not have seen him again,’ he said.
Denis would have been swept up immediately into the army, with the
right to only one telephone call home to say where he was. Friends
advised him to be careful in public places where soldiers gathered: they
might snatch him up. Several other people confirmed stories like these,
but I am still not sure how much reality they represent, and how much is
just the climate of uneasy rumor.
As I write these words, and look over the photographs of the
demonstration, I know that they are the stories and images that will
fill a newspaper, and create or confirm a picture of Russia for its
readers. It is much harder to convey the daily laughter and the busy
streets, the food that is still generously available, if you have the
money, and the lively culture of a complex nation. Did I see violence?
Yes, a fistfight broke out at a poetry reading during an argument over
what poetry really is. Did I flinch at signs of anti-semitism? Yes, but
on the evening of the Jewish New Year my devout Russian Orthodox hostess
stayed up late to welcome me home with traditionally Jewish apples and
And ten rubles? When I left, at the end of September, they could buy
me five bus rides, or a small book, or a little less than a half bottle
of Baltika beer. The ruble was trading officially at sixteen to the
dollar, and everybody knew it.
J. Kates is a poet and literary translator who lives in
Fitzwilliam, New Hampshire.