Crumbling Empire A Letter from Moscow

June 12, 1994|By KATHY LALLY

MOSCOW — Moscow. -- Mostly it's a slow, steady crumbling of empire, but some days parts fall off in large chunks and with a great bang.

One loud crash befell us the other day, setting off a typically post-Soviet chain of events. The abandoned building next door, which has been growing progressively more slovenly, collapsed.

It went with an impressive explosion of noise and dust that sent the policeman stationed at our foreigners-only building flying out of his little metal box. His post stood against one wall of the old building, and the scraps of brick and concrete rat-a-tatting against his roof sounded like a barrage of artillery.

He fled straight to the telephone, so of course one of the first officials on the scene was the KGB man in charge of our building. Our policeman wears a police uniform, but he doesn't even know the location of the nearest station house. Not long ago, he watched in bemusement as a carload of strangers drove up in an old Russian car and made off in a spiffy Mercedes belonging to a resident.

For years, his job was to keep Russians away from the foreigners living in our building, and to spy on us. So when he called his boss to report the collapse, the KGB was here within minutes.

They don't call it the KGB anymore. They've given it some kinder, gentler initials. But as far as we're concerned, it's the same people and the same KGB.

Also on the scene was a delegation from UPDK, which stands for the Diplomatic Corps Administration Bureau. That's the organization that was traditionally charged with arranging the lives of foreigners here, telling them where they could live and what employees they could hire.

Moments before, the UPDK group had been inspecting the newly varnished doors to our building, smiling in quiet satisfaction at what a good job they were doing, taking care of their foreigners.

Then the building next door fell, sounding like a bomb, and just avoiding burying one of their foreigners, an American who was backing out of the driveway.

The UPDK contingent joined the KGB, staring at what had happened. The old building had been surrounded by huge concrete slabs to keep people out.

The collapse of two stories of brick and concrete shoved the concrete barriers over into the middle of the street, leaving a mound of rubble several feet high and destroying a nice Subaru station wagon parked on the other side of the street and belonging to another of their foreigners.

A few minutes later, four real policemen arrived, wearing bulletproof vests and waving about Kalashnikov submachine guns. "It's dangerous here," they shouted at building residents who had gathered to marvel at the whole spectacle and congratulate themselves on not having been crushed to death.

"Now they've decided it's dangerous," growled one resident, who had been calling city officials and UPDK for months complaining that the building was dangerous and would fall down at any moment.

The next arrivals were two GAI, wearing their big bright red badges. The GAI are the traffic police, and were called either because our little side street was now completely blocked or because an automobile was injured, both of which fall into their jurisdiction.

They also have an investment to protect. Our narrow side street runs onto a major highway at the corner. The side street was made one-way some time ago, causing great inconvenience to motorists, who now have to go around a large traffic-clogged block to get to the highway.

Most Russian drivers ignore the "do not enter" sign and zip along right into the waiting arms of the GAI, who might as well have a license to print money at our corner. They stand there from early morning to late at night, collecting fines -- which are lower if the errant motorist doesn't request a receipt. No receipt means headquarters doesn't need to know any money was collected at all.

Our GAI do well there. Lately, they've been driving a large, gleaming, spotlessly white Ford Crown Victoria.

Next came a couple of fire trucks, which idled nearby, belching black exhaust.

Finally, a crew from the road department arrived, about eight of them dressed in nicely tailored raincoats and black leather jackets. They paced back and forth and were full of orders by the time the lone workman arrived at the controls of a giant orange Japanese-made backhoe.

He spent the night clearing off the street, ignoring the endless instructions.

As is common here, nothing was done until it was too late. And once it was too late, no one could do enough.

Disasters have a way of bringing neighbors together, and so one elderly man who lived a few buildings away and had never in his life spoken to one of the foreigners stopped to chat.

"Aren't you sick of it yet?" he asked in astonishment when his new American acquaintance told him she had lived in Moscow for three years.

A younger man stopped and picked up a stray broken brick, which was close to disintegrating into dust. "Wonder if I could use this on my dacha?" he mused to no one in particular.

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