Since the 1988 summit, Moscow wears new face

July 30, 1991|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Three years ago, Ronald Reagan arrived for his Moscow summit to find his evil empire just beginning to go straight.

Joint ventures and cooperatives were getting on their feet, but your sensible Muscovite still didn't want to be seen talking to a foreigner.

Millions of people forced to wear drab clothes and live in drab apartments walked along drab streets while an unimpressive number of tinny cars sped along the roads.

This morning, when President Bush gets his first daylight look at a city in full glasnost, he'll see bright yellow Benetton shirts and the latest in faded jeans. He'll see car-clogged roads sprinkled with Mercedeses and BMW's and even a few Chevy vans.

Maybe some of the most prudent get nervous around foreigners, but most Muscovites who are stopped on the street and asked all sorts of personal questions by a foreigner will smile and answer -- at length.

There are still plenty of hard-working people who can only afford skimpily made Soviet clothes and the Mercedeses are rare enough that an 11-year-old boy will stop, stare and sigh when one rolls past, but they are here. And they didn't used to be.

"Oh, there are a lot more clothes from the West now," said Maya Repina, a young and striking blond woman who was walking across Red Square yesterday wearing tight bright yellow pants and a matching shirt emblazoned with "Benetton."

"But they are very expensive. You have to decide what you're going to spend your money on," she said. "Everyone does it as he sees it."

Her friend, young, gorgeous and dark-haired, said there were more and more rich people in Moscow every day. "It looks bad on the surface," said Irina Nikolayeva, "but there is another life underneath."

Twenty-one-year-old George is partaking of that life, which is why he is one of those who won't give his last name. (Though later he warms so much to talking that he writes down his name and address to get a copy of this article.)

George, a law student at a prominent Moscow university, spends his vacations grooming himself for the market economy he hopes will emerge from Mr. Bush's summit.

George has entered the new entrepreneurial epoch on Red Square.

Here, in front of the KGB police goose-stepping as they change the guard at Lenin's tomb, in front of the dazzling domes of St. Basil's, he does his trading. He specializes in Americans, Britons and Canadians and offers souvenirs -- Red Army watches, Russian dolls, lacquer boxes -- for anything American.

Insisting on speaking English (he wants to be good at it when he becomes a lawyer for joint venture firms), he says that once, in three of his best days, he made $600.

He's wearing a T-shirt that says, "Today's Taste of Texas . . . Pepsi."

"I spend about 200 rubles a day," George says -- this in a country where the average monthly income is just over 300 rubles. "I drink champagne with the girls and I go to McDonald's. I spend 50 rubles a day at McDonald's."

Lest you wonder why all Russians aren't on Red Square trading, Georgesays it's very hard to get into the business.

He and his friends say you have to start out as a 13-year-old, trading for gum, and work your way up, finding out what policemen to pay off on your way up. It's still officially illegal for Soviets to possess dollars.

"If I have more than $50," he says, "I can go to Siberia for five years to gather snow." To avoid such a trip would require a payment of 8,000 to 10,000 rubles, he says.

His mother, a dental professor, earns 1,500 rubles a month, a dizzying salary here. "I earn about 1,000 rubles a day," George says. "That's the kind of country this is."

This is what confronts the other George, here for his summit. When Ronald Reagan arrived three years ago, a T-shirt with Glasnost written on it in Russian would sell for 40 rubles. That was $68 in the former exchange rate. Today, 40 rubles is about $1.25. And no one is making those shirts any more.

These are the kinds of things that will weigh on the superpowers today at the summit in the Kremlin, just across the square from George.

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