Monday, January 08, 2007

Back in the USSR – A Tale of Two Cities

Unlike Dickens’ two cities – Paris and London of the 18th century – the two cities of which I speak are contemporary metropolitan entities. They are: Moscow and Moscow! I am just concluding a one week stay in this sprawling, fascinating, enigmatic center of the Russian Federation. This visit constitutes my eleventh stay in Moscow. The changes that I have observed over the course of the 14 years that I have been coming here are breathtaking. At the same time, some things remain so entrenched in the old ways of doing things that it almost seems as if the USSR never stopped existing- hence the title for this posting. So, let me offer you some anecdotes from my days here early in 2007, and let you draw your own conclusions about the two cities I have observed – one rushing headlong into a free market economy and some semblance of democracy on the one hand, and one seemingly being held back by the vestiges of 75 years of a centralized economy and bureaucratic gridlock on the other hand.

The New Moscow - I arrived from London’s Gatwick Airport at Moscow’s newly expanded and beautifully renovated Domodedovo Airport, located south of the city. For all of my prior visits, I had arrived either at antiquated Scheremetyevo Airport and had waited in interminable lines for baggage and waited again to be processed through passport control and customs, or had come from Kiev by train and was deposited in the center of the city. The processing at Domodedovo was friendly and efficient.

The Old Moscow – My hosts for this visit are old friends, one of whom calls himself my “Russian son.” He works as an anchor for one of the national news broadcasts, and is a drummer in a rock band. Since my last visit here (right after September 11, 2001!), he has married, and he and his wife have had a son. This would be my first opportunity to meet his wife and son. I also wanted to visit with his mother and father, who over the years have become good friends of mine. Upon arriving, I learned that the father had been hospitalized with serious breathing difficulties. He was still in the hospital, and had just spent several days in intensive care. On my first full day in Moscow, we went to visit him and to bring him some juice. He is a professional – working as a cameraman for a federal TV network. He wife is also a professional – a former film actress and radio producer. They are an upper middle class family by Moscow standards, and have many influential connections. One of their friends is the chief of staff of a major hospital in the city, and this friend was able to use his influence to ensure that my host’s father be admitted to this hospital to receive the best available care. We arrived at the labyrinthine complex of 18 buildings and entered through a dilapidated door that resembled one that I would expect to find on a backyard storage shed. We walked into a time warp. We wove our way through corridors and bridges connecting buildings to one another, passing dozens of gaunt patients lying in hallways on gurneys that had first seen service before Nikita Khrushchev was pounding his shoe at the U.N. The walls had not been painted in several decades, and the tile and concrete floor were chipped and uneven. We passed several wards housing up to a dozen patients, and finally arrived at the “private” room where my friend’s father was convalescing. I saw more of the same decay – a room fitted with four antique beds surrounded by walls and a ceiling with flaking paint and rust stains. I felt as if I had been transported back to the 1940’s and was standing on the set of “Snake Pit” or “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” When I had an opportunity to discretely ask my friend if this were a government hospital or a private one, he assured me that this was one of the best government facilities. “The private hospitals are not as good as this.”

The New Moscow – Throughout my week here, we were able to shop in modern stores that provided easy access to almost anything I could have wished to purchase. Many of the stores are open 24-hours a day, and provide excellent customer service along with a rich variety of domestic and imported goods – much like at home in the U.S. This situation is in marked contrast to my first few visits when a trip to buy groceries would consume several hours of waiting in line hoping that the required goods were available that day.

The Old Moscow – My visa requires that I register with the proper authorities within three days of arriving in Russia. Beginning with the morning of my first full day, we began to call the office where I would need to appear. On each occasion during the six days I have been here, the office was closed for the holiday period. So, I was never able to register. I have no idea what will happen when I attempt to pass through passport control later today at the airport. If you do not see any more postings for awhile, you may surmise that I ran into trouble trying to leave Russia!

The New Moscow – My host family has included me in many of their activities with extended family and friends while I have been here. A few nights ago, my host and his wife brought me with them to meet another couple. The five of us spent several hours bowling and playing pool in a facility that looked exactly like ones that I have seen in the Boston area. Last evening, my hosts asked if I would like to play a game that they enjoy playing with many of their young professional friends – the Parker Brothers board game Monopoly! They own the original version - as well as a Russian version that replaces Board Walk with Arbat, an upscale shopping district in Moscow. What an irony it was to face off against my Russian host and hostess in the quintessential capitalist game! My hostess is a trained economist, which made the irony even more delightful.

The Old Moscow – Back to the hospital. My host received a frantic call from his mother. They had moved another patient into the father’s room, although the family thought that they had made arrangements for him to be left in privacy. The new patient was quite ill, and was coughing non-stop, making it impossible for the father to sleep or even rest. After a series of calls back and forth, my host made another trip to the hospital. A “gift” of a bottle of champagne and a few hundred rubles handed to the head nurse greased the way for a quick transfer of the new patient to a different room.

The New Moscow – The music scene. I was pleased to learn that my host’s rock band would be playing a gig at a club called Woodstock! They played for two hours – two sets of perfectly blended covers of English and American rock standards and some Russian classics. Their version of the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR had the crowd clapping, shouting and dancing with delight. My host and I spent several hours listening to a special set of CD’s I had received as a Christmas gift from my son, Scott: “Billy Joel – the Complete Hits Collection – 1973-1997.” (You will read more about this remarkable collection in The White Rhino Report in the next few weeks) Listening with my Russian friend to Billy Joel’s haunting Leningrad from 1989 was a moving moment: “We never knew what friends we had until we came to Leningrad.” Several years ago, my host had traveled with me as my translator when I had occasion to go to St. Petersburg, the former Leningrad.

And so it goes . . . and so it goes.

I could go on and on, but enough for now. I will return later to talk about our discussions of Bush, Putin, Iraq, Chechnya, the next U.S. presidential elections, the future of democracy in Russia, the Orthodox Church in Russia and the gorgeous Cathedral of Christ the Savior that I visited this past week.

It was a rich and thought-provoking week.

On to London.



Anthony Lorizio said...

Dear Al:
Thank you for sharing so generously while travelling.
I sure hope you get out of Russia OK...I want to hear more in person.

Mark said...

Fascinating post, Al, as always! :)