It's cold, it's gray, it's January in Moscow as Clinton arrives for second winter visit CLINTON OVERSEAS

January 13, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The last time Bill Clinton visited Moscow, he was just another faceless tourist. This time, he's a face on a wooden doll -- the hottest souvenir in town.

The last time, he stayed in a big Soviet tourist hotel where Russians weren't allowed. This time, he's staying in the American-run Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel, where impeccably dressed Russian businessmen clinch deals over rare sirloin flown in from New York.

Everything has changed, and nothing has -- it's still January. Mr. Clinton visited here in another January -- 1970 -- when he was a 23-year-old Rhodes scholar touring Europe.

On this one, Mr. Clinton deserves a break. No one who remembers January in Russia would willingly return in January. And anyone who visits in January probably spends a lot of time in his hotel room, keeping warm and telling himself he's having a great time.

Mr. Clinton arrived early this morning for a summit with President Boris N. Yeltsin that begins today. He was lucky to arrive in the dark.

Passengers flying in on a January afternoon see an impressive landscape from aloft. Only it's like looking at a smudged, dirty print. Everything is gray -- sky, snow, light. Ground crew are black dots, bundled into indistinct shapes. Darkness comes as a relief.

Let's hope a quick-witted advance man reminded the president to go to the restroom before he got off the plane. Most public toilets are indescribably dirty -- although the one at Vnukovo Airport where Air Force One landed has one of the best.

Scores of police were on duty yesterday, ready to guard the U.S. president. One was patrolling the street next to the Slavyanskaya, methodically unscrewing license plates from cars.

The policeman was enforcing a no-parking sign, and taking the license plate brings the malefactor into the arms of the law more surely than writing a ticket, which would be crumpled up and tossed away.

In the spirit of summitry, an American's car was politely overlooked, and it retained its plate.

Mr. Clinton leaves his hotel for his first meeting with Mr. Yeltsin at 9 this morning, as it's just getting light (or gray).

Someone had better persuade him not to go jogging first.

The sidewalks around the Slavyanskaya are covered with a couple of inches of ice, which has melted and refrozen several times.

Footsteps are imprinted in the ice like fossils -- captured as some poor soul stepped through rapidly freezing slush.

If Mr. Clinton were to slip on the ice and hurt an ankle as an average visitor, he'd have a long wait for an ambulance. Most stop to pick up paying passengers as they drive along the city streets, and that seems to slow down emergency response time.

If Mr. Clinton insists on jogging anyhow, he might want to turn right outside his door and run the 4 miles along the winding Moscow River to Moscow State University, which he visited on his last trip here.

The 32-story university, built in ornate Stalin Gothic and capped with an enormous red star, towers over Moscow.

Tourists gather near the university, in the Lenin Hills, for a sweeping view of the gray city.

This is a popular selling spot for Moscow's young entrepreneurs. Mr. Clinton might want to stop for a souvenir. He can get a KGB identity card for only a few dollars -- a fine gift for any of his conservative critics.

Unfortunately, the Clinton matrioshkas -- the wooden nesting dolls -- were all sold out yesterday.

Mr. Clinton is painted on the outside, and inside, tucked in fond embrace, are George Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and George Washington.

Mr. Clinton may remember that when he was here before, he was endlessly stared at -- all Westerners were instantly recognized by their clothes and bearing, and they were the object of great curiousity.

Now no one stares. Everyone who sees a well-dressed person on the street immediately understands. The person can only be Russian.

The Slavyanskaya lobby is lined with fancy stores selling fountain pens for $365, a 5 1/4 -ounce box of Oreos for $4, a man's striped gray cotton shirt for $175 and a woman's fur coat for $8,000.

"Of course people pay these prices," a smartly dressed saleswoman said. "Our best customers are Russians."

Yesterday, only foreigners paused to look longingly at a doormat-size rug with Lenin's face woven into it -- for $200.

Still, the past always presses near.

In the middle of the Slavyanskaya parking lot, like a giant, rotting centerpiece on a banquet table, stands a crumbling brick building.

The building -- originally a club for workers at the Kievski Railroad Station across the street -- has not been used for more than a year. But an elderly woman still sits at her post at the coat check, patiently unraveling the wool from an old sweater so she can use it to knit a new one.

The hotel had to build around the club because it is a historic building -- it was used by workers in the 1917 revolution. It has been preserved, even though no one seems to have the slightest idea of what to do with it.

A portrait of the club's founder -- Andrei Ivanovich Gorbunov -- hangs in a place of honor. He has a bright red ribbon pinned to his coat.

Mr. Clinton will find that the past keeps intruding here, just as the unused old club stands its ground against the gleaming Slavyanskaya.

These days, such thoughts are hard to keep in mind. It's cold, it's gray, it's January. Better to drink a little vodka and go back to your room.

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