Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1994


Gregory Freidin


When a famous Russian popular singer, Alexander Vertinsky, returned from his Parisian exile in the late forties, he was so taken aback by the sight of the new Moscow that he exclaimed: "Oh Russia, verily I cannot recognize thee!" Then he noticed that his suitcases were gone. "Now, oh Russia, I verily recognize thee!"

Even for someone who like myself grew up in Moscow and has been for the last six years a close, sometimes a participant observer of the Moscow scene (on one side of the barricades in August 1991, and on the other, in September-October 1993), the city has become part of schizophrenic vision: it is deceptively familiar and unfamiliar, and both at the same time. Even compared to six month ago, the last time I was visiting Moscow (remember Zhirinovsky's victory at the polls?), the city has undergone a sea change.

What is this new Moscow like?

High noon. Wall-to-wall traffic, throbbing, baking in the exhaust haze, gridlocked. Lasciate speranza... until all of a sudden a patched-up black BMW, Moscow's preferred muscle car, jumps halfway up the sidewalk and, like a startled black crab, scurries into a side street. A cabby follows. After that, all is stillness again, except for the noise of a hundred idling engines.

For every BMW and Mercedes (the latter, according to a recent news report, sell in greater volume in Moscow than in any other European capital), there is a pothole lying in wait, just as it is for any other wheeled species. But in the new capitalist Russia, even this venerable, vintage pothole -- as familiar to all as the craters on the face of the Moon -- has been transformed into a symbol of hope for the nascent automotive service industry.

With gasoline in Moscow selling for approximately half of what it costs in the USA and the incomes lower by several factors, most of those caught in the midday traffic must be on the way to or from making a lucrative deal. The scene would otherwise make no economic or even anthropological sense, since the vagaries of instability and inflation have long transformed the average Russian from a hybrid of a utopian and a cynic into a primitive subspecies of the Homo Economicus. It is this rough hewn creature, with a tight and often enough brass-knuckled fist, that now wheels in his, or her, private beat-up Zhiguli sedan or a late-model Volvo -- and deals in anything from counterfeit caviar to shady real estate, to drugs, white slavery, children's encyclopaedias, or oil futures.

But the real boom in Moscow is in the construction business. No, you will not find construction materials lying around as in the old days (handy for barricade building and minor home repair). Instead, every block has a lot fenced off, a scaffolding in place. The screeching and booming noises emanating from the construction mess give the passer-by an ear-splitting proof of a sharp economic upturn. Some neighborhoods have already been transformed beyond recognition. The outskirts of Moscow's South West, formerly a quaint Russian village of Krylatskoe, sports a sparkling new Dallas skyline with a black-glass-and-steel post-modern office tower that looks like a wedding cake from hell. Outside Moscow proper, modern single family homes and mansions with saunas, Jacuzzis and yes, bidets, are rising like mushrooms amid the stone age collective farm hovels with their crowing cocks and mud-wallowing pigs. The burbs have apparently arrived in Russia. And while some of the post-communist loot has surely been diverted to Cyprus or London's up-market neighborhoods, a good deal of it is being sunk right into the home dirt of Moscow's new suburbia.

Standing in food lines has been as Russian as apple pie is American. I still remember the childhood thrill when an elder from one interminable queue or another scrawled on the back of my hand a two- or three-digit number with an indelible chemical pencil moistened in his spittle. Now it takes a special effort to see the old Moscow behind all the fruit and vegetable stalls surrounding every metro station; rows of kiosks with their liquor bottles and Mars bars; and the counters of old cavernous shops, bare a year ago, groaning under the weight of everything from farmer's cheese to chuck, to imitation crab meat. Prices are high but Muscovites still spend little on rent, and with the exception of 10% or so can provide for the necessities. The dire warning of food riots and galloping inflation issued by the free-marketeers and the communists alike six months ago turned out to be off the mark. Food consumption has been rising steadily, and the monthly inflation is down to 4-5%, the goal that the IMF had expected Russia to reach only in December.

At the old-fashioned food store on the Tverskaya, the cacophony of foreign labels on packaged food is exciting to the young and the savvy. They think nothing of asking the sales clerk to hand over a cold cereal from Germany or a bottle of an Algerian claret. An older man wanders in, a bit shabby but still respectable in his old fedora and a rumpled suit. His lapel is weighed down by a couple of WWII medals, perhaps, in a tribute to the 53d anniversary of the German invasion of Russia or simply as the last symbolic anchor in that sea of unsymbolic change. He looks around. He can afford some of it on his average 90,000 rubles pension, but unable to make heads or tails of all the new-fangled stuff with four-figure price tags, he mutters under his breath: "Just blow up this whole mess, blow it up and send it to hell." He is jostled by the fast-paced shoppers, too familiar with his type to bother at all. Even more disoriented now, he shuffles out of the store, spitting and cursing.

Still nostalgic for the long lines? To get your fix today, you must go to one of the new financial centers where crowds of people queue up for hours on end, not for food, or clothes or cosmetics, but for the astronomical dividends -- as much as 10% a month in non-inflationary dollars -- which some pyramiding schemes calling themselves banks pay out to their clients. The catch is that such a bank may have fifteen outlets that would accept your investments and only one that issues the "dividends," and that only once a month. The chances that your principal will go up in smoke between the payout days is great and has been improving now that the 20-30% a month inflation has been reduced to single digits, bank bankruptcies have become routine, and the government has begun cracking down on misleading advertising. The demise of the go-go MMM notwithstanding, investors have wised up to this new form of the Russian roulette: to spread the risk, they shift their investment from "bank" to "bank" every couple of months. For many Moscow artists and intellectuals with a few thousand dollars in savings, this form of rent has replaced the old government subsidies. In today's Moscow, these rentiers can live comfortably on $300 a month (the income from a $600 investment), provided they have the stomach of a gambler and a pair of strong legs, useful in today's Russia both in the dividends line and during the all-night vigil of the Russian Orthodox mass on Easter. Their favorite author? Why, Nietzsche, of course, the "philosopher with the hammer," as reported by Moscow's high-brow Review of Books.

Nostalgic for the perestroika high-wire politics? You are out of luck. Whatever is left of politics in this world of nouveau riches and nouveau Russes, is now spelled with a very small "p." By contrast with the years before the December 1993 elections, no single issue or personality defines the political scene in Russia today. All that matters now is "the economy, stupid." Gone is the high drama featuring the indomitable Boris Yeltsin, butting his head against Gorbachev's skull, wrestling with Communism from the tank turret, or butting his head against the skulls of Khasbulatov and Rutskoi. It has been upstaged by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the man with the comic genius of a Chaplinesque Hitler (or is it a Hitleresque Chaplin?), who alone has been able to provide occasional relief from the tedium of the country's new politics. In a stroke of a clown's genius, he has now been tailing Yeltsin's tour of the Volga region in his own steamer, setting up his political carnival tent in the wake of the Presidential train. Even Solzhenitsyn's revivalist return, though it made a few ripples on the editorial pages with a soft spot for the dissident politics of conscience, became quickly submerged in the tidal wave of change rolling over the old country. Politics is becoming local, becoming boring...

The long-awaited founding congress of Yegor Gaidar's Russia's Choice party, now called the Party of Russia's Democratic Choice, turned out to be the sleepiest affair of the summer. The biggest coup of the two-day congress was to have two thirds the 1000 seats convention hall filled with the delegates and guests (the delegates repeatedly congratulated each other for this momentous accomplishment); and the congresses biggest joke was Gaidar's ironic apology for proposing a rather cumbersome name for the party, since the preferred words "liberal-democratic" had already been hijacked by Zhirinovsky's bunch. The people who presided over the congress, bankers and regional politicians whose constituencies had benefited from Gaidar's economic reforms, belonged to the generation of the new Russians, sober, calculating and deliberate. No firebrands, they see politics as a serious business, and party building, as a political franchise open to all who are willing to hawk their socio-economic product to the local constituencies. In the presence of these politicians of the new type, even the passionate speeches from the dissident old guard, who welcomed the birth of the democratic party, sounded muffled and slightly embarrassing -- a blast from the past, the democrats' finest hour on the barricades of August 1991. That noble political generation has now been swept aside, swallowing the indignity of the acquittal of General Valentin Varennikov, one of the organizers of the abortive putsch.

If there is one political issue that still elicits a lively response, it is the problem of crime -- whether organized or disorganized does not matter. The sound of small arms fire in Moscow's residential neighborhoods has become the city's eine kleine Nacht Musik. Much of the violence involves criminal gangs fighting for their turf, but ample and graphic crime reporting, a few highly visible assassinations of prominent bankers, a hand grenade tossed through a window of a bank in central Moscow have all had their chilling effect on the city. According to the government statistics, so far unchallenged, crime syndicates have penetrated 80% of all enterprises in Russia, with 50% of private business owned by then in part or outright. Compared with the organized crime syndicate, known as the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which held a monopoly on racket for some seventy years, these figures should sound encouraging. But with the Soviet Union long gone, they elicit legitimate concern both in the government and among the public.

Yeltsin's June decree on fighting against this scourge was met by opposition coming both from his allies among the democrats and his foes on the right. The democrats protested the violation of the habeas corpus, guaranteed by the new Constitution; the Communists and the ultra-nationalists protested that the decree had not gone far enough to turn Russian into a one-stop police state. In the end, the Duma failed to muster enough votes to suspend Yeltsin's decree. At long last, the President has found himself in the middle and close to the center of political gravity. And it is precisely this middle and rather low ground that the two most likely candidates for President in 1996 -- the Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Moscow's Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, both recognizable as tough merchant capitalist types from the turn-of-the-century Russian painting -- have been fighting for in anticipation of 1996. Yeltsin's crime-fighting decree has provided for increased street patrols by the highly visible Special Police Force (OMON), who, flack-jacketed and armed to the teeth, stroll along the busy sidewalk and stop cars at intersection. Their presence alone should give Muscovites a better sense of security. And while this parade of government force goes on, the wheeling and dealing of the new Russia will continue unabated.

Whatever show fills the stage of the country's political theater, whatever the reaction of the audience at home or abroad, the business of Russia today is and for the foreseeable future will continue to be -- mind you, nothing personal -- strictly business.

Moscow-Berkeley, June-August 1994

Copyright (c) 1994 by Gregory Freidin