Returning to Russia

December 01, 1991|By ALEXEI VINOGRADSKY

MOSCOW — Moscow. -- Of course I'd heard about the changes going on in the Soviet Union. I knew what the papers were saying and what the television showed. I'd talked to my mother and friends who live in Moscow. But I nevertheless was not prepared for the changes I found in my native city when I returned a few weeks ago on my first visit since moving to Baltimore 11 months ago.

When I stepped off the plane at Sherementyevo Airport, I was greeted by the brightly colored advertisements of rental car companies insisting that their services were the best and the cheapest in the world. I couldn't say so after reviewing the prices. They wanted $60 a day.

I decided to use the regular Moscow taxi cab. A long line of people with heavy luggage waited for the taxis, and a lot of cabs stood nearby, but not one driver would take any of these people. When I got in line, four cabbies came to me and asked me politely where I was going. I answered. After that, they began bidding for my business: $30, $25, $20. When I tried to explain that I only wanted to pay rubles, they lost all interest and left me alone.

After a couple minutes another strange-looking guy came up to me. I started to tell him that I only intended to pay rubles for a cab, but he didn't give me a chance to explain.

"I see you come from the Washington flight," he said. "How's the weather in the USA? OK. I'm sure you are a real businessman. For that reason I can sell you very cheap 25,000 tons of cast iron. In America, Russia cast iron costs lots of money. My firm has a license to export. What's your price?"

I told him that I unfortunately had no interest in cast iron and didn't want to buy any materials in the airport. He left dejectedly.

The changes in downtown Moscow were obvious from the first glance. Compared with last year, traffic had grown three times worse. Not only were there more cars, but there weren't any lines painted on the road and cars went haphazardly in all directions. The potholes had grown so large that you could lose a wheel.

Passing through the old part of the city, I saw graffiti left from the coup, spray-painted on buildings, calling for the resignation of the junta and the restoration of democracy.

In front of Lubyanka, the notorious KGB headquarters, all that remained of the statue of KGB founder Felix Dzerzhinsky was an empty graffiti-stained pedestal. Someone had put a small, tri-colored Russian flag on of it.

When I walked into a Moscow metro, I saw that a number of the station names had been changed. When I was last there, the stations had names like Dzerzhinsky Square and Nogin Square in honor of communist revolutionaries. Now the stops have pre-revolutionary names such as Lubyanka and China Town.

Business in the capital is booming everywhere: on the streets, in the metro stations, in the stores. I had never seen such a great quantity of books in the metro stations. You can find everything from science fiction to medical encyclopedias. There are books on astrology and erotic albums.

Nearby, teen-age newspaper vendors are skipping school to earn money. They mark up the prices of the newspapers to earn a profit. The papers range from Commersant, a business newspaper, to Private Life, where you can read about Sylvester Stallone's lovers and the kind of underwear Madonna has.

In Pushkinskaya station, a billboard showing a naked woman advertises Andrei, a new men's magazine, that sells for 40 rubles. People pass and don't bother to buy the magazine, but they sneak a look at the picture on the cover.

On the streets, new stores sprout like mushrooms after a rain. Here you can find almost any kind of goods sold at market rate. Sometimes these stores have strange names which cannot be translated into either Russian or other languages. I stopped by one of these stores on Solianka Street and asked the salesman inside what the store's name, Onaitis, meant. "I have no idea. It's a boss's invention," he said.

Most of the people who go into the commercial stores are only window shopping because prices are beyond the reach of the average Muscovite's salary of about 400 rubles a month. One pack of Marlboro cigarettes costs 30 rubles, a can of Milwaukee's Best beer is 20 rubles, a leather jacket is 7,000 rubles, a bottle of Seagram's whiskey is 200 rubles. You also can find there brightly colored packs of foreign candies, French canned lunch meat and beer nuts.

In the state food market you find long desperate lines for milk, meat, butter and sausage. But although the shelves are almost empty, they have boot-legged videotapes of "Ghost," "Terminator 2" and hundreds of other American moves.

Once I went to the store to buy some beef. I walked for about 30 minutes and at last found a butcher shop with some meat. There was a line like always, but I took courage and decided to try to buy it without waiting.

I asked the butcher if he would sell me some meat. He said, "Why not? Do you want regular meat or the best one?"

"What's the difference?" I asked.

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