Odd cultural mix in Moscow

Georgie Anne Geyer

January 20, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer ZTC

Moscow ---AT A CORNER of the big, dull GUM department store on Red Square, the scene seemed at first to be just another money-raising charity scheme.

The boy standing there all bundled up against the 15-below-zero cold had a round face. He seemed to be singing something -- some chant from the newly freed Orthodox Church, I immediately thought.

Then, as I came nearer, the otherworld liness of this strange little drama assailed my senses. The boy was demented. ("Crazy, crazy," Russians standing there kept saying to me, pointing to their heads.) Over and over, he kept letting out strange five- or six-second howls, like a wolf lost in the tundra. Then he would pause for five seconds and begin to howl again. All the time, his eyes were closed, while the woman with him calmly collected donations in a small box.

As I paused, a handsome, well-dressed man, his impeccably manicured gray hair tucked neatly under a smart cap, walked up and stopped, listening to the mantric howls.

Then he fell to his knees on the packed snow before the chubby-faced boy and bowed his head for some seconds. When he gracefully arose, he gave the expressionless woman some money and disappeared into the cold, gray afternoon.

To my astonishment, I knew quite well what I had seen. The boy was what was called throughout Russian history a "holy fool." Throughout the centuries of Russian Orthodoxy, with its stoic mysticism, insane people were believed to speak in God's tongues.

"Of course you saw a 'holy fool,' " a sensitive Western diplomat assured me, when I wondered aloud whether the Russian winter was getting to me. "It's the old holiness of insanity in an insane world . . . God speaking to a deranged world." Then he shook his head slightly and added, "If you just look around here, you'll see a lot of things out of 'Boris Godunov.' "

Ah, but I said to him, "I have not finished my story." He looked quizzical. "The scene," I concluded, "took place at the corner of GUM, the old communist department store," before the window now filled with the expensive Paris wares of Christian Dior!"

When you enter Moscow at the international airport these days, the odd mixture of Western and Eastern forms hits you immediately.

Before, under communism, Sheremetyevo Airport was like the outer moat and castle walls of the Bolshevik Revolution. Once you arrived, you entered the cold, closed world of Marxist orthodoxy.

Today, the walls of the airport are papered with Western advertisements -- MasterCard, Baskin-Robbins, Novatel. On Red Square, Christian Dior has that corner window of the once-sacred GUM, and across the boulevard the grand old Hotel Nacional, where Lenin lived for a time, is being totally restored by "Rogner, Austria."

Napoleon and Hitler were stopped by the Russian winter and by Russian inertia. Not only are these new "invaders" unstoppable, but they have been invited by the very state itself. There is even a joint venture in hamburgers, people whisper to you, in Magadan, in the east, until only recently known as the capital of the Gulag.

My first thought upon arriving here for my fifth trip since 1967 was that the Russians, so long such an insular and xenophobic people, must really hate this latest, virulent foreign invasion, and some do. But, as one young reporter at the youth paper, Komsomolskaya Pravda, put it ironically, "There are a lot of things that bother me more."

It is so cold and so gray that one can almost skate on it. There is so little food that people live their days waiting in line. Nobody is starving -- yet -- but malnutrition is setting in, particularly with the vulnerable older people, who fought the great wars and are now losing this one.

And so people are turning back to religion. Russian President Boris Yeltsin went to Orthodox Christmas services. The Protestant churches are booming. Astrologers, magicians and wood sprites are said to be seen -- and I myself saw the "holy fool."

I never dreamt I would see one. Holy fools are the stuff of one and two and three centuries ago. But strange things happen when one world collapses and no one knows what world will come next.

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