Letter Home from Moscow (August 1997)

I recently found in my closet several handwritten letters that I sent to my mother during my time teaching in Russia. I sent many more, but these were all I could find. I will be posting these on my blog. I have retyped the letters but changed nothing. It’s hard for a writer-editor not to tweak her old stuff. But I wanted to keep the letters as authentic as they were the day I wrote them. God bless.

Moscow, 28 August 1997

Weather: hot, humid, muggy

Dear All:

You are getting this letter courtesy of my mom in Florida, who has been kind enough to spend the time needed to copy and mail this out for me. I will also try to write each of you directly from Russia on occasion, but my mom sending letters will enable me to reach more of you more frequently.

Mail from Russia takes 2-5 weeks to reach the United States, so I wanted to send a letter fairly soon after arriving here. I didn’t imagine, however, that I would have seen enough in the first 3 or so days since I’ve been here to fill an entire letter, but I have!

First of all, I will say that I’ve been here long enough already to know it’s been too long since I’ve traveled here. But in a way that may not be a bad thing, as the 10-year gap since my last visit to Moscow is long enough for me to truly be astounded by all the changes. Those who have witnessed these changes gradually over the years might not get quite the impact I am.

This place strikes me in some respects as being like Poland of 10 years ago, though with even more of a Western influence than Poland had at that time. (Of course, now Warsaw is like West Berlin of 10 years ago.) Moscow now has private markets everywhere, and prices are quite reasonably low by U.S. standards, though of course quite high compared to the old Moscow.

Hungarian goods (the ones you see displayed at trade shows in NYC) seem to dominate the processed-food market: all manner of blended fruit juices (the kind sold in boxes, including “sippies” with straws); seasonings; jam; yogurt; milk also in boxes – previously nearly impossible to find in this part of the world.

Peppers – red, hot, spicy, mild, yellow, you name it – are the rage here … everything has to have pepper in or on it. I’m told this is the case throughout Eastern Europe. Also big are potato chips (Pringles, Ruffles, Lays) with every manner of seasoning from “Paprika Pringles” to “Chicken Ruffles” to “Hot Dog-Flavored Lays.” Another big thing is instant flavored coffee, similar to KGFI coffees.

Perhaps the most bizarre thing sold in the markets are “cocktails in a can” – cans, like soda cans, of cocktails such as gin and tonic, screwdrivers, Lynchburg lemonade, and Long Island iced teas, all priced around $1.50. I haven’t figured out yet if open-container laws apply here, but I’m guessing not, given the prevalence of these pop-top drinks at all the outdoor markets.

In the clothing area, Moscow has become a very dressy place, and even little kids wouldn’t be caught dead strolling through the park in anything less than formal evening attire. I gather quite a lot of money goes into clothes, and they can be quite pricey … comparable to NYC prices. They are big on either the black-white combination or also very bright colors (the same goes for car colors), though coordination stops with color and does not extend to pattern-matching! For women, the long skirt slit up to the hip constitutes formal evening/park-strolling/business-meeting/academic-conference attire.

Red Square by night has so far been the biggest shock to me. It is something like “Disney World meets Times Square,” and no amount of staring open-mouthed enabled my brain to absorb what has taken place here. First of all, a lot of money is being poured into renovation, restoration, painting, and construction in this area – financed somewhat by the City of Moscow, but primarily by local (domestic and foreign) business enterprises.

Let me try to give you a blow-by-blow … We travel as a group to Red Square one night – this has always been a thing to do in Moscow, as it’s always been beautiful to see St. Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin stars lit at night. But no amount of mental gymnastics could have prepared me for what I was about to see. We step off the metro (subway), which is still as beautiful as ever [Moscow metro stations have always been gorgeous – huge, cavernous marble constructions adorned with arches, mosaics, murals, statues, chandeliers – and this hasn’t changed, though what is new are the advertisements displayed in every train car (DuPont mattresses, Adidas running shoes, Red Baron frozen pizza!), and the Coca-Cola/Ruffles hot-dog stands inside the stations and the news kiosks selling Western papers and magazines like “Der Spiegel” and “Cosmopolitan.”]

Anyway, we step out of the metro station and are instantly bombarded by lights – neon lights, twinkle lights, flood lights. The first thing we see is the Bolshoi Theatre, all lit up. Then we walk toward Red Square and come to the main street which dead-ends into the Square. The Square is on the left. We look to the right. Giant, bright, flashing signs announce the presence in Moscow of “Panasonic,” “Sanyo,” “Hitachi.” The street below is lined with trees decked out in twinkle lights and flood lights.

We look left to the Square (actually, I keep staring backward in disbelief at the giant flashing signs), and in front of the history museum is a newly built Black Madonna Shrine, open and brightly lit. We walk through the gates, and on the left is a church, entirely rebuilt using old Russian architecture (the church which originally stood here was ripped to the ground by Stalin, because it blocked the May Day parade route); it looks like a fairy-tale structure with beautifully carved wooden shutters and domes.

Now we walk into the Square, and are accosted by peddlers selling old Soviet memorabilia (scrambling for cover when the police drive by). In the Square, the first noticeable thing is the absence of guards patrolling the now closed Lenin Mausoleum. But on the left is something more astonishing – GUM, the old Soviet state department-store, now looks like a Western-style shopping mall, with brightly lit window displays that could easily be found on Fifth Avenue. This is a shock (and this is only from the outside!). Another striking change is the addition of banners and giant murals all over the Square displaying the old Romanov eagles and crowns. Somehow, though, the scene which left the biggest impact on me was the red/white/blue flag of Russia waving atop the Kremlin. That was an incredible sight.

We step back out of the Square, thinking we’ve seen it all. But wait; there’s more! We cross the plaza to what used to be a giant parking lot where all the tour buses parked as they brought people to stand in the 5-10 hour line at the Lenin Mausoleum. What I didn’t realize ten years ago is that the parking lot covered a very old, dried up river bed – a channel of the Moscow River – which was closed off long ago and converted into a large drainage system. Within the last six months, the river channel was uncovered and turned into a long fountain pool, the bottom completely covered with tile mosaics and light displays – flashing, of course. Standing in the pool and fountain are giant sculptures of Russian fairy-tale characters. The fountain is crossed by wooden bridges with white-washed railings and has a serious Disney look.

Fronting this area – visible all along the pool length via floor-to-ceiling windows and above through giant glass domes, is a 3-story underground shopping mall, to be opened in a few weeks. Each floor will be decorated, in descending order, in 19th C, 18th C, and 17th C Russian style. Already 75% of the space is rented/sold, which I find amazing. They are working overtime to get the mall opening to coincide with the festivities celebrating the 850th birthday of Moscow.

In short, for better or worse (and arguments can be made both ways), capitalism and Western culture have taken Moscow by storm and perhaps gone overboard. The downside is apparent with the plethora of panhandlers and illegal peddlers, increase in alcoholism and crime; this was never seen under the old system. On the flip-side, what was seen ten years ago were 15+ people cramped into tiny apartments and paranoia run rampant. So the situation is improving, but in fits and starts, and Russian traditions are fighting with Western styles to seize the benefits of capitalism without the foreign culture accompanying it in its initial stages.

Overall, the mood is ambivalent. Many Russians feel pessimistic and optimistic at the same time … pessimistic about the national situation as a whole, but optimistic that their personal situations can and will be eventually improved; hope is, of course, pinned particularly on the private sector, and the enterprising energy and initiative are definitely present. In general, people seem more proud, confident, and happy than before. There is a much more jubilant atmosphere among all age groups. When faced with proposed initiatives, people tend to offer the same response – skepticism that something won’t work coupled with an expression, more hopeful, that the initiative should be tried anyway. This optimism, however guarded, is very new, and in some ways is the most astounding change of all. This attitude is more prevalent among the young than the old, but seems little connected to socioeconomic circumstances.

As for what hasn’t changed, the hotel dining experience is still very much the same. Even the hotels look about the same, though the lobby kiosks sell goods never seen before in such places – including a matrioshka doll sporting a Chicago Bulls uniform! – and very over-priced – e.g., $3.50 for a bottle of spring water which sells for about 70 cents in the open-air market.

Another change is the presence of ethnic restaurants – Indian cuisine, Middle Eastern souvlaki kiosks, Japanese sushi bars.

Having overwhelmed you with details of changes in the new Moscow, I’ll close here. For those who don’t know what I’m doing here, I’m spending a week in Moscow prior to traveling to Yekaterinburg, Russia (in Western Siberia), where I will spend a year teaching university classes in International Relations and Constitutional Law, as well as participating in the Russian educational reform effort through the Yale-based Civic Education Project (CEP).

Bcevo khoroshevo! 

If you would like to read the next letter in this series, it is my letter home from Yekaterinburg, Russia (Sept 1997), in four parts.