From Soviet triumph to used-car lot

July 09, 1996|By ANDREW J. GLASS

MOSCOW -- In the early 1960s, the Kremlin spent a fortune to erect a 390-foot obelisk here. The monument, made of solid titantium, marks Soviet triumphs in space. In spirit, it reflects the grandiose themes so beloved by Vladimir Lenin, who believed that communism would spread out from this capital to encompass the whole world.

Also boasting of Soviet glories, Lenin's successor, Joseph Stalin, built a huge fair grounds, on the same site where the space obelisk still soars into the Moscow sky. At the entrance to this vast complex of pavilions, statues and spouting water fountains is a giant triumphal arch, surmounted by the figures of a tractor driver and a woman collective farmer, gilded in gold.

In the 1980s, even as communism was losing much of its luster, the most popular place within what Stalin had named the Exhibition of Economic Achievements of the U.S.S.R. was the pavilion dedicated to space travel.

Today, although the name of the fair grounds has not been changed, the entire site has been converted into a commercial bazaar, where nearly all varieties of consumer goods are for sale. The onetime proud space pavilion is now an indoor used car lot.

Well, not entirely. In its deepest recesses, there still hangs a picture of Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut. And there is also a full-scale replica of Mir, the current Russian space station. It costs the equivalent of $1 to roam about inside the capsule.

Yakoslava Martinova, 24, collected my rubles. I asked Ms. Martinova, who has a recent university degree in museum administration, whether she minded sharing the premises with previously owned Cadillacs and other fancy cars, being offered up for sale a few yards away by assorted unsavory types, for five or six times what they would have sold for in the U.S.

"No, not at all," she replied. "We are going through a stage here where this kind of thing is necessary. In due course, when there is more money to be had, we'll no longer have our Vostok space rocket rusting outside this place. Instead, we'll have a proper museum where we can show journeys by Russians to Mars and beyond."

Not everyone in these parts reflects Ms. Martinova's patience. And these days that is precisely what worries Alexander Lebed from his new Kremlin perch. On the day after Boris Yeltsin handily won a second term as Russian president, Mr. Lebed warned that people's expectations must now be met or the country will explode.

Mr. Lebed, a former general, says he backs reforms that would move Russia toward a full market economy. But he also views what has happened to the state fair grounds here as a desecration of Russia's lofty heritage. In that guise, the Lebed political agenda is closer to Lenin than Yeltsin.

It remains to be seen how all this plays out -- particularly whether Mr. Lebed succeeds in his evident ambition to succeed Mr. Yeltsin as the next leader of this troubled land.

Andrew J. Glass is Washington bureau chief of Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 7/09/96

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