We have recently returned from a trip to St. Petersburg, Moscow and points in between on the inland waterway and I seem to be suffering from a case of severe, if intermittent, culture shock. It is not the differences between today’s Russia and the United States that have me reaching for my inhaler, but the sharp contrast between the Russia of today and what I experienced during the other two periods I spent in that country—the early to mid-1960’s (several trips with my father who was investigating Soviet psychophysiology) and the early to mid-1990s (several trips to work in Moscow on a joint book sponsored by NASA). Of course, I know that my first-hand acquaintance with my family’s erstwhile homeland and thus my impressions have been laughably short-lived and superficial. Perhaps on each visit I have managed to see through only a very few chinks in the Potemkin façade presented to foreigners. I am also painfully aware that many, if not most, of my readers have a vastly more extensive and profound knowledge of the changes in Russia over this period. Nevertheless, with your indulgence, I will attempt to share some of my impressions here. Who knows? Every once in a while, the view through a chink may provide a new perspective.
The Moscow relative of a friend of mine visited New York and Washington about a decade ago and reported that one of the things that most struck her here were the ubiquitous delicious odors of cooking in urban streets. This does not seem to be true of the Russian capitals—perhaps, surprisingly, this is one advertising secret the new Russians have not yet learned. Or perhaps the smell of food is simply overpowered, especially in Moscow, by the smell of money, bargeloads of new, fresh (if not necessarily clean) money. Everything in the center of the city is well-tended (when I was last there in 1996, the grass around the Kremlin appeared not to have been mowed in at least a year). The stores (if that is not too plebeian a name for them) on central city streets are at least as forbiddingly pricey and elegant as those of any city I am familiar with. Our old friend GUM looks now like Georgetown Park (the most upscale of upscale malls in DC), filled with stores that are so elegant that they have only one item in the window, and only a couple more in the shop, and a like number of customers if that. Indeed, a Russian-born friend suggests that GUM may primarily be a money laundering operation. (Why carry more than three pairs of shoes, when what you are doing is selling the same $600 pair over and over?)
The new houses we saw built and being built in the dacha region on the banks of the waterway we traveled are not the picturesque cottages the word evokes but McDachas—коттеджи, whose opulence overshadows vacation homes in Palm Springs, to pick a U.S. example. The boats and recreational water sports equipment to be seen are worthy of Nantucket. It can still be reported that in the cities (especially the far outskirts of the capitals and smaller cities such as Yaroslavl) there are still Soviet-style exurban apartment complexes, crumbling masonry, balconies that look like they are in imminent danger of falling, and apartment houses where “normal people” live that have front entrances resembling the back doors of slum dwellings. On the other hand, upscale, modern and Western new construction and reconstruction is everywhere—stretching far, far beyond the tourist-oriented center of the cities. In the capitals at least, infrastructure, especially main roads, seems also to have been given at least a fraction of the attention it much needed the last time I visited here. The most striking infrastructure innovation we noted was a double-, or maybe even triple- or quadruple-, length toilet bus, parked outside the Hermitage and judging by appearances hooked up to the local sewer system.
At the risk of sounding downright un-American—and even though in general people seemed more cheerful than I had ever seen them in these climes and I saw many fewer signs of real poverty—I must admit that the sight of all this money being poured into the capitals made me uneasy. Where is it all coming from? Yes, I do know about petrorubles, but is that really all? We have learned that the Communists beggared the rest of the country for their own personal benefits and that of the capitals. But the benefits accruing to the capitals and the public and personal lives of at least some of their inhabitants is so much more startling now! Is the rest of the country becoming commensurately more impoverished? The only non-capital city not dependent on the tourist trade that we visited was Yaroslavl and, while it was in no way as opulent as Moscow or Petersburg, it seemed to me considerably more prosperous than the Moscow of 1996.
Perhaps, if someone had asked Marie Antoinette how to make a city look more beautiful and prosperous, she would have replied, “Get rid of all the ugly and poor people.” One can ask not only what has been added to the capitals to change them so much, but also what has been taken away. Here is a list of things I saw less of than I had before or would have expected.
- Diversity (чернокожие or at least a heavier sprinkling of obvious non-Northern Europeans); indeed if I had had the black hair of my youth and only a moderate suntan, I estimate I would have been in the top 1% of the racially exotic in most of the crowds I was in Russia (foreign tourists excepted). Ironically, the diversity of (non-Soviet) ethnic restaurants has increased a great deal.
- Drunks (compared to the 1990s): a really marked decline.
- Obvious prostitutes: perhaps they are just dressing better or have adopted more subtle recognition cues.
- Beggars and shabby people selling household possessions or single cigarettes: none at all noted in the center of the capitals, though there were a few outside the cities e.g., at Peterhof, or in the smaller cities on the river. This is a general observation compared to the mid-90’s and I would not venture to say that there were none to be seen throughout the city.
- The thuggish bodyguards one used to see standing outside certain types of establishment in the 1990s.
- The kinds of Soviet types (here I am talking appearance and demeanor rather than ideology) our memories of the Soviet Union are populated with (definitely still around in the 90s): stout and officious minor officials (mainly women), бабушки and бабы of all sorts—rural and urban, middle-aged to elderly men in caps with medals or even just значки in their lapels. There ought to be a Red Book of Endangered Species for them.
- Police presence: In two weeks, I only noticed traffic cops (looking to me as if they were up to their old tricks) and the one young policeman who told us relatively politely not to sit on the grass in front of St. Basil’s.
The question arises, in my mind at least, as to what has happened to all these people. Many may have simply been gotten out of town: deported (but surely some of the чернокожие one used to see had residence permits), persuaded to leave through quasi-official harassment or other less than savory means of gentrification, or simply gone in search of somewhere cheaper to live. The police and the prostitutes and maybe the bodyguards are undoubtedly undercover. But still, can the populations of Moscow and St. Petersburg born before, say, 1960 have left in such large numbers, or have they miraculously been transformed into only slightly tarnished versions of New Russians? Why hasn’t the experience of their formative years been imprinted on their appearance, demeanor, and service philosophy the way it seems to have been on those who emigrated to Brighton Beach?
Here are a few other things that I noticed were diminished compared to my previous visits or expectations.
- The number of birds (other than those used to living symbiotically with man) and insects (and remember we were on the river) was startlingly small compared to what one would expect in a healthy ecology. This is really frightening.
- Soldiers other than those who appeared to be about 17. In the 1960s, the streets were full of burly adult soldiers with multiple decorations, many of whom walked hand in hand.
- At some point in the 1990s, it appeared that every other apartment dweller in Moscow had a large dog. This trend has apparently normalized.
- The length of the line at the Red Square Mausoleum—but there is still a line.
- The quality and quantity of fish on offer (especially smoked fish and caviar) compared to the 1960s. My belief is that all the best kinds have simply been used up.
- Likewise the quality of the bread.
- Likewise the tea, which in all restaurants and other public places we visited came in bags.
- While the prices of books have not gone down, they were much lower than I expected after hearing that Moscow was the most expensive city in the world. Are they being subsidized? But having no desire to look a gift horse (or more precisely, edition of Black Beauty) in the mouth, I loaded up on children’s poetry and reference books.
A few things that have increased in number or quality.
- Pretty girls. Remember the old stereotype of the Russian female as a maiden with potato shaped hips and a potato shaped nose? Well, forget it. My husband, a well-known expert on the subject, rates the girls of the Russian capitals only slightly below those of Rio de Janeiro, but adds that the Slavic beauties are much less interesting because of the low diversity.
- Fast food eateries. I suppose the actual number of McDonald’s has increased, but they are attracting much less attention now, because there are so many rivals, imported—Sbarro, for example—and homegrown—one called Крошки Картошки, and another featuring a large selection of blini and kasha dishes.
- My impression is that a monolingual Russian speaker trying to read the signs on stores within, say a radius of 10 miles of the Kremlin, would have no less trouble than a monolingual speaker of English confronted with these same signs.
- Skill at advertising and PR. My memory of 1993-96 is that there were just as many advertisements (billboards, etc.) as there are now but that they were generally of very poor quality, unsubtle, and frequently (mis)translated from English. Now there is real evidence that Tverskоy Boulevard has mastered the skills of Madison Avenue. I saw some really clever ads. One that particularly sticks in my memory was for a product to treat traveler’s diarrhea that was posted on the inside of the doors of stalls in the women’s room at Sheremetyevo. An informal survey provided unambiguous results regarding the product most commonly advertised: cell phones and associated technology.
- Relative prevalence of efficient service with a smile (or at least not a scowl of enmity). Based on shopping trips to Brighton Beach (to be fair the last was several years ago), though, Soviet-style service has not died out everywhere in the world. Ironically, the only place I myself encountered old-style frustratingly inefficient service this trip was at a church products kiosk on Red Square.
- Quality and diversity of available produce. How many years ago was it that people lined up for hours for a couple of bananas? Now kiwis go unremarked in Yaroslavl. I am not speaking here solely of the fruit and vegetables in restaurants catering to tourists—but also street and central municipal markets. Prices, while probably high for the average Russian, seemed more than reasonable to me.
- Quality of musical performances that tourists are taken to. Evenings of opera and ballet selections and choral performances in churches. Astonishingly good, better than anything designed for tourists I have seen anywhere. (Though one would have preferred a whole opera or ballet.)
While GUM has been turned into a clone of Georgetown Park, significant chunks of the Russian past seem to be in the process of turning into a huge theme park. This is not all spurious or tasteless, though I suppose it is all driven by the profit motive. The island of Kizhi, for example, is a wonderful, tasteful outdoor museum, diminished only slightly, if at all, by the accoutrements required for the tourist trade. Who among us, no matter how highbrow, in the course of a cultural afternoon might not want a WC, a bottle of water, a snack, or even a souvenir or two? On the other hand, there is no denying that there is a considerable kitschy and spurious element to it all, whatever its Disneyesque charm. To my mind the symbol of this aspect is the matryoshka. Does everyone know that: “Contrary to…popular belief, the matryoshka has no roots in Russian folk culture at all”? (Figes: Natasha’s Dance, pg. 267) This doll was dreamed up in 1891 at a workshop associated with the Russian “arts and crafts” movement on the model of a traditional Japanese nesting doll. Thus, by the way, it would seem equally valid (if the word can be used in this context) to have matryoshki decorated with Winnie the Pooh or Harry Potter as with females in Russian peasant dress, and I no longer have to feel guilty about purchasing the former two for my grandchildren.
The ironies of the “peasant past as theme park” phenomenon were brought home to me, when we got off the river boat at Uglich. There a souvenir торговый ряд of at least a mile in length had been set up for the benefit of boat tourists, complete with musicians, kiosks in the style of embellished huts, etc., etc. On the path, a stooped very old woman, of exactly the type whose absence I noted in the capitals, complete with headscarf, was attempting to sell postcards and roadside flowers. One of the tour directors, feeling that she was impeding the smooth flow of traffic off the several boats, said, and I quote verbatim, “Бабушка, уйдите отсюда, вам здесь нет места”[Grandma, go somewhere else, this is no place for you.] I guess the real thing is never welcome in the theme park.
If the Russian past has become a theme park, then its theme song is Kalinka. I was never much aware of Kalinka as anything other than one of many Russian folk songs, one that I rather liked. But with Soviet-style unanimity it seems to have been singled out by buskers, restaurant musicians, etc. I gradually got to feel about it as about some particularly annoying advertising jingle, and even, out of the kindness of my heart, tried to advise street musicians that they would get more tourist contributions if they were to play virtually anything else. It should be noted that the Soviet past is evidently too fresh and too raw to have yet undergone a similar process of theme-parkization. However, the profit motive being what it is, I would not rule such a development out. When you hear the first announcements that SovietLand is being built and will soon be open to the public, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Well, I guess that’s all except for a couple of personal peak experiences that I would like to share. There are more, but I am not without mercy and will save the rest for another column.
Biggest Realization (call it a “duh moment”): That “Подмосковные вечера”(translated into English as Moscow Suburban Evenings) is not about the barren plots filled with huge depressing apartment complexes (as, against all reason, I had always thought) but about the dacha regions.
Favorite Purchase. A T-shirt that has written on it: “ВСЕ БАБЫ КАК БАБЫ…А Я БОГИНЯ.”(All other broads are just dames, but I am a goddess.)
Greatest Linguistic Triumph. Picture this scene: Peterhof. A beautiful August morning. Slightly disheveled lady tourist (SDLT) with binoculars slung around her neck is confronted by довольно нахальный молодой человек (ДНМЧ) (smart-ass young man) who attempts to get her to buy postcards.
SDLT (quite politely) Нет, спасибо—не надо. (Thank you, I don’t want any.)
ДНМЧ (evidently, irritated by SDLT’s presumptuous attempt to speak his language and determined to show her up.) Нахально. Тогда дайте мне ваши бинокли—сегодня как раз день моего рождения. (Well, then give me your binoculars—today just happens to be my birthday.)
SDLT (in a tone of astonishment). Почему, кем вы мне приходитесь? (But why, who are you to me?)
ДНМЧ (inspired) Ведь я ваш потерянный внук—разве не узнаете? (Actually, I am your long-lost grandson, don’t you know me?)
SDLT (after a pause to consider this information) Нет, это невозможно—все мои внуки очень красивые. (No, that is impossible, all my grandsons are very handsome.)
Loud laughter from friends of ДНМЧ standing around in the vicinity. SDLT exits smugly.