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The Semi-Regular Newsletter

Travels in Russia

KLM Rocks Across Europe!
Santa Claus in Moscow
Television Is a Time Suck
The Reality of Irrelevance
Salute Mayor Luzhkov
Impeachment Happens
I'm Back! Did Ya Miss Me?
Chechnya Burning
Weddings in Winter
The Jews Are Here!
Gailyn Goes to Town
Is There a Central Bank?
Santa Barbara is Real
Nick's Thanksgiving in Russia
Den' Rozhdeniya = Birthdays
Those Crazy Expats
It's Just a Few Drops of Vodka...
Elections Are Always Rigged
The Blind Leading the Blind
Good Russian Grooms
You Say 'Boris Berezovskiy' Fast
Too Cold to Care!
Russian Oil Towns
Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Which Way is St Peterburg?
Where am I again? Oh, yeah...
I Love Me Some Vodka
It's a Gosorg Halloween
Hunger Comes to Us All
Why Don't They Just Learn English?!
Post-Crisis, Life Goes On
Is Yeltsin 'The Man'?
Murmansk - Brrrr!
Taganka Hides Her Secrects
These are Communists
It's a Power Vaccum
The Commies are Back
Propaganda is Good for You
You Better Buy Russian!
Sex Ed Soviet Style
Party over, oops outta time!
Russian Healthcare in Moscow
What Russian Financial Crisis?
YE Prices in Russia
The Hungry Duck
Russian Caviar Mafia
Magical Mushrooms
Shhhh! We're Bear Hunting
Soviet Street Scams
Bez Dollarov
A Koshka Konspiracy
On The Dacha
The Banking Implosion
Surviving Army Life
Shashleek is Steak on Steroids
Dacha Thinking
Beach Weekend
Dos Vedanya
Hello from Vladivostok
Equality Means Only She Works
Jogging is an Extreme Sport
Russians Have Reunions Too
My Folks in Massive Moscow
Better than Fireworks
Miners Are Real Men
The Russian Mafia is the Roof
No One Smiles in the CIS
One Year Anniversary
Russian Brides Rock
Laura is My St Pete Connection
Change is in the Wind
Chuck Norris' Beverly Hills Casino
The Expat Woman's Predicament
Street Food is Yummy!
Spring Flowers Make June Leavers
The Provinces Are Provincial
Ever Take an Elektrichka?
The English Invasion
Nuttin Like New Money
Rules Are Made to Break
All Black is Russian Fashion
Easter Memories = Easter Dinner
Politics, Russian Style
Theresa Tries to Russify
I Go to Gay Clubs Worldwide
I Hide on Women's Day
New & Shiny: Nizhny Novgorod
Psst! Wanna job in Moscow?
Fili Park Has All the Bootlegs
Web Page Reactions
Take a Break at Dom Odaha
Expat Living in Moscow is Swank
Why Are You Remonting?
They Look Like Telephones...
In Need of a Decent Hairstylist
Smashing Bottles in Red Square


Russia, December 19, 1998

I Am Not The Only One...

Moscow really puts a zap to your head!

Red Square in all its Beauty
Lenin's Tomb
Red Square in all its Beauty
Russian History Museum
Red Square in all its Beauty

St Basil

Red Square in all its Beauty
A Side Street
Red Square in all its Beauty
Yes, Russia
Red Square in all its Beauty
The North Tower
Red Square in all its Beauty
A Side Alley
Red Square in all its Beauty

St Basil

Red Square in all its Beauty

The South Tower

Red Square in all its Beauty

A Little Detail

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 urbane.

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' T-shirt.

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 robes.

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 story.

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 invincible airforce.

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 never materialised.

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 obligations.

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 dinner.'

''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 collapsed.

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 alternative universe.

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 honey.

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.

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