Moscow, The Summer of 1995
As our trip to the US in the summer of 1994 earned us enough bonus points with the SAS to make another trip to a European city for free, we started looking for options within the designated limits. Dublin would be a new experience for us, but after our very interesting and rewarding trip to St. Petersburg in 1994, we wanted to explore Russia a little further. Kiev with its Golden Gate was an interesting possibility, but two factors kept us from deciding on Kiev right away: how could we be sure that the fallout from the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl didn’t still affect Kiev? and perhaps even more importantly: in the spring of 1995 the Danish TV ran a series of programs on Russia, and in one of them it was said that the city of Kiev had an unemployment rate of 80 percent, many of which were just hanging around on street corners waiting to mug tourists.
After this news we quickly decided on Moscow: the Kremlin ; the Red Square with Lenin’s Tomb, St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the GUM department store; the KGB offices; the magnificent subway; and outside the city: the Trans Siberian railroad.
Our first encounter with modern Russian bureaucracy (although we didn’t know it at the time) took place when we booked our hotel rooms – we had to pay for the first night in advance. But when we arrived at our Moscow hotel, the pre-payment hadn’t arrived. "It was probably sent directly to the Swiss bank," we were told, "so don’t worry, a document confirming this will probably show up before you leave." The hotel was an old tenement building with apartments that had been turned into a hotel. The lobby was full of uniformed soldiers in camouflage uniforms, and we first thought they were staying there. Later it turned out that they were "protecting" us from B & E trespassers. Before we left we were convinced that the hotel was run by the Russian Mafia (the present day Russian Czars) and that the soldiers were defending some sort of Mob "stronghold".
When we arrived at the airport we started looking for a bus that could take us to downtown Moscow (we hadn’t the faintest idea of where our hotel might be located, only that it was inside greater Moscow). But there was no bus – instead, everybody we asked offered to take us there at an expense of $70 (in private taxis that were run down private cars).
Suddenly we did spot a bus and escaped the very importunate private cab drivers. The bus driver charged us some hundred rubles each for the trip to the city (as far as I recall, back then it was just a little more than a couple of US dollars), but he wouldn’t accept any foreign currency (which was all we had as we couldn’t buy rubles in Denmark). Luckily, somebody helped us by sending our dollar bills from hand to hand down the bus, and after a while the correct amount in rubles came back.
Problems with foreign currency
Our first "regular" exchange of dollars taught us more about the uncontrolled Wild West-like conditions in the city: one of the dollar bills I had brought was not new (not worn, either), but since it showed signs of having been spent more than a couple of times, part of its value was taken off (about 10 percent as far as I remember), and there was just nothing I could do about it. Strangely enough, when we left and I changed what rubles we had left back into dollars, I was given worn dollar bills, but this time at their full rate of exchange. Surely, somebody must be skimming the turnover.
The subway - the "Metro"
For the subway we bought small plastic tokens of about 40 rubles each – coins are so much more expensive to make. As a result, smudgy bills of little value are being exchanged scores of times each day to the extent that one can barely make out anything else but the distinguishing color of the bills.
The subways were impressive: the escalators that go deep, deep down into the underground; the broad corridors, some of them in marble and bronze and displaying all the kitchy bad taste attributed to Stalin’s favored architecture; but most of all: they’re clean! Years of the secret police monitoring the subway may be what has brought this about, but we never saw a scrap of paper, a piece of chewing gum, or an empty beer can.
However, finding one’s way in the subway is not easy as everything is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and what’s more, the names of the stations are not given in the form of a list, but as "prose" which makes it extremely difficult to discern the individual station.
We understood instinctively the audible warnings like "doors closing", but the announcing of upcoming stations was often disturbed in a funny way: apparently, all the names of stations have been pre-recorded on an audio tape which is being played before the train stops. However, very often the tape would run at either too slow a speed, or too fast a speed – or both in turn – which made us laugh. Nobody else laughed, though.
Outside the metro stations people were queuing up (like they were queuing outside the big department stores) holding up dresses, shoes, and other articles. At first we thought they were proudly showing the world what they had just bought, but later it dawned upon us that they were actually displaying goods for sale. Mini markets had sprung up where people gather (and everybody will be on the subway due to the size of the city and the small cost). Thus we saw people offering not only genuine articles like a set of silver spoons, but also smaller articles down to a couple of tomatoes, a cheap comb, or a bag of crisps. People were actually desperate to exchange goods, and often things were just traded instead of sold. Street sales also took place from cars, and it’s quite obvious that the untaxed underground economy is as strong as the official one.
Communists and religion
The inner city was bustling with traffic: builders’ trucks everywhere, old houses being restored, squares being re-laid or altered. Some of the historical museums we wanted to visit (such as the Historical Lenin Museum) were closed due to repairs, but from the attitude of the workers we asked, the idea was more a closing down of the past than actual repairs.
Lenin himself was still displayed in his impressive mausoleum "shrine" in the Red Square, but unlike how conditions used to be there was no waiting there in line for hours. An occasional school class would still come by, but the apparent fact that nobody was forced to come, did away with the waiting.
Addendum 2000: Perhaps the most significant proof of a radical change is seen in the fact that due to the failing number of visitors, part of Lenin's mausoleum has now been turned into a show room for foreign cars: Mercedes Benz now proudly displays the company's new models in the shrine.
At the one end of the square (towards the river) is the orthodox Cathedral, an impressive and very exotic building with its bulb crowned towers in many colors. Contrary to what we thought for a church this size, the inner rooms were all rather small and connected with winding corridors, almost a maze. However, what was equally impressive was a "camp" of workers who lived behind barbed wire in mobile homes fitted with bunk beds. The workers were restoring the Kremlin, and apparently working and sleeping in shifts, occupying the same beds in the cramped sheds. The fence with the barbed wire was probably to keep the public out, but the whole scene bore a strong resemblance to the gulags of former times.
One block from the square, at the entrance of the Historical Museum, is the meeting place for hard core Communists, mostly old people of which many were wearing medals for outstanding feats in the service of the Soviet state. Every time we passed there big debates were going on, and it seemed as if the debaters were not so much discussing the pros and cons of the present situation as how do we return to the good old days.
Like in the cities of Eastern Europe, Communist memorabilia were sold everywhere tourists go, and fairly cheaply. What a drop in self-esteem it must have been to go from being a super power to selling out the uniforms of the former mighty army.
Yet, although public security and the reverence of the days of old had gone, some kind of secret monitoring was still taking place: when Vibeke wanted to tie her shoe laces and put her foot on the lower steps to the entrance of a big impressive building, two plainclothes policemen or guards appeared out of nowhere wagging their fingers.
The same thing happened inside the Kremlin walls when I wanted to get around a group of tourist that were filling the sidewalk and moving very slowly. I took just one step out on to the totally empty road which must have been more than a hundred feet wide (a square), but as soon as I made the move, a whistle was blown and guards came rushing to usher me back into the flock. In former times government cars had the absolute right of way wherever they went by means of two parallel white lines in the middle of the very broad roads. How my walking in the gutter near the curb could interfere with that is still a mystery.
The Kremlin itself was, of course, a marvel with its many old churches and government buildings. The same kind of wonderful Middle-Age or Renaissance churches are also found in the town of Vladimir east of Moscow which may be reached after a few hours by train.
Vladimir is divided into two separate towns: the old town with magnificent renaissance churches (and a smaller scale model of the famous Golden Gate in Kiev) and dilapidated wooden houses lining the muddy dirt streets, and where water is still pumped in the street; and the new Vladimir, home of a tractor factory and the ugliest cement train station we have ever seen.
In Vladimir we experienced the well-known Russian custom of queuing up in line for bread: There are three lines: the first one takes you to the counter where you state the kind of bread you want (usually there’s only one kind of bread, but you still do it the prescribed way); you are then given a slip of paper indicating the price you are to pay, and you go to the second line to pay for your purchase. Then on to the third line to exchange your receipt with the loaf you just bought. Before payment is made, the sum is calculated twice: once on an abacus (bead frame for counting) and next in hand or on a mechanical adding machine. This procedure ensures low unemployment rates, but it must be annoying for the Russian housewife who must go to buy bread maybe twice a day.
Still, the waiting in line has developed a unique form of casual small talk among the Russians, and nobody really seemed to mind the waiting when they could entertain themselves with gossip or what else they were talking about.
Going back from Vladimir on the train turned out to be a bit of a problem:
Due to our scarce understanding of the Russian language, we hadn’t been able to make sure that we could, in fact, return from Vladimir to Moscow on the same day. We came out on the Trans Siberian Express, but going back we had to change trains several times.
While waiting for one of the trains we had noticed a man who had obviously been out in the shrubs picking berries (as a supplement to his meals? or to sell?). He stood out from many of the other passengers by appearing rather distinguished, yet his glasses were broken, and he had repaired them by means of a piece of pipe cleaner (a thin wire coated with cotton used to clean a smoking pipe). He also noticed us and the fact that we were foreigners.
During the journey on the train Vibeke wanted to smoke and went to the small platform between the coaches. I was too tired even to smoke and remained in the coach where I couldn’t see her. A little while later a group of very noisy, almost rude very young boys came through the coach and went on to the platform. A couple of minutes passed, and suddenly the man with the broken glasses yelled out and hurried to the door to the platform and some bustling was heard. Soon Vibeke appeared and told me that the gang of boys had circled her and had started to move in on her in a very threatening way. Just before they were about to attack her, the Russian man had intervened and stopped them in their doings. We later learned that Moscow is full if such gangs. Their usual way of robbing their victims is by kicking them silent, so Vibeke was very lucky to have the gentleman interfere before anything serious happened.
But this was not the only help we got: when we got to the railway station in Moscow we had to run to make it to the last metro-subway-train, and since we had trouble in reading the signs we were at a loss as to the direction. Luckily for us, a nice woman ran with us to our platform before she hurried to her own. In Moscow the subway closes at 1 a.m. exactly, and we just made it to our stop, the last station the train called that day.
The Trans Siberian Railraod
On the way out to Vladimir on the Trans Siberian Railroad things were a little different: once they had boarded the train, the other passengers stripped down to their underwear and went to bed. They were obviously in for many hours of traveling and settled down; some started making tea in small samovars. The train made a few stops on the way, and salespeople would board the train with a variety of goods, for instance crystal glass wares. They would leave sets with people in each coach and return later to collect the goods or the money for what was sold. Later they would get off the train and head back on another train in the opposite direction.
The temperature soon grew to unpleasant heights. There were no windows that could be opened, and since most passengers had taken their shoes off and lay with their feet sticking out toward the corridor, walking along the corridors was a very special experience.
Back in Moscow we spent the last days exploring the city by walking about taking in the many sights and sounds of this gigantic village. It was obvious that many of the facades of the government buildings had been ornamented with plaques or reliefs of Lenin or other Communist heroes such as Marx. Where these reliefs had been sitting were now either holes in the wall or a marked change of color. Almost by chance we found a park where these effigies had been taken: an outdoor museum that originally used to house "sick art" like the one Hitler tried to ban and crush in Germany. Now the "off-limit" art had been supplemented with the former Communist art including a very tall and impressive statue of Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the KGB, a statue that used to stand in front of the infamous KGB headquarters. Perhaps as a further humiliation of him and the KGB, his statue is positioned lying down on the side – he’s forever toppled and tumbled – on the other hand, I hear that the KGB is still alive and kicking although it may be called something different these days.
The black (basalt?) monument in memory of Karl Marx with the famous inscription "Workers of the world, unite!" was still standing, but somebody had used a can of spray paint to write "Michael Jackson lives" all over it in white paint.
To make more room for the grand parades on May Day (May 1st ) Stalin had a small, beautiful Baroque church in the corner of the Red Square torn down. In 1995 this church was being reconstructed, paid for by private funding. Similarly, another huge church was being rebuilt anew just off the square. Incidentally, it was interesting to see the many women scaffold workers, many more than in the West, working on the many repairs throughout the city.
In the "Moscow News In English" we read about the many new houses being built in the new suburbs along the Volga. The astonishing thing was that the price of such houses or apartments was sky high, actually much more expensive than a similar apartment in the West. "Whoever can pay such a rent," we asked ourselves? The newspaper gave part of the answer by featuring some of the new financial moguls that buy (bribe) their ways to and in congress to make even more money. Russia may have been poorer than the West before 1990, but today there are many more poor people and a handful of very wealthy racketeers.
Most of the software in computers behind the iron curtain was illegally copied (as were the audio and video tapes), and I don’t see how this can have changed since there is no restraint as to what goes in Russia these days. Hotels and streets are full of (part time?) prostitutes, and muggers are waiting on every other street corner. As a result, many of the bigger shops employ private (armed) guards who substitute for the police.
But the day we left Chechnyan "rebels" had risen to confront the dictatorship of the new Russian government, and we were stopped at road blocks on our way to the airport. Groups of soldiers with canons were positioned at strategic vantage points, and although it pricked our imagination and curiosity, we were still glad to leave. Rumors had it that the bombings had been organized and carried out by the Russian government itself to discredit the Chechnyans, and since we were moving about quite a lot, we just might have happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong moment. Had we been unfortunate enough to get in the crossfire, we’d have had it – and in case of an arbitrary arrest, who knows what would have become of us?
Still, we’re glad that in time we got to experience a fascinating society that may change further before long.