By David K. Shipler
I spent last week in Russia and felt as if I had woken up, after a long sleep, to an unrecognizable world. Putting aside the nefarious activities of Vladimir Putin’s government—Crimea, Ukraine, cyberattacks, Novichok, and the police-state mechanism poised to act at Putin’s whim—Russia has revolutionized itself, at least on the surface.
I’d last been there 25 years ago, in the liberalizing Gorbachev era and then right after the breakup of the Soviet Union, so I witnessed the beginning of change: a freer discourse, an occasional private restaurant devoted to pleasing customers rather than repelling them. But my true reference point, the time I seem to have fallen deeply asleep, was the communist period of the late 1970s, when I lived in Moscow for four years. Awakening last week, I felt like some country rube who had never seen a city’s bright lights. Or, as my son Michael noted as we traveled to Moscow and St. Petersburg for the World Cup, I seemed to be switching glasses all the time, looking through Soviet lenses in utter amazement.
Gone are the depressingly gray state-run stores and restaurants with empty shelves, long lines, and unsmiling clerks and waiters with no motivation to serve. Decent restaurants in Soviet days required connections to get reservations, and some had signs screwed permanently to the doors saying, “Myest Nyet,” “No Room.” Who wants customers when you get paid anyway by the state? And except for the caviar, the food was rarely gourmet. A Russian joke went this way:
Customer: Is the fish fresh?
Now, people have somehow learned how to prepare excellent dishes of a wide variety in tastefully designed restaurants and cafes with tables that spill out onto sidewalks as abundantly as in Paris, at least on the streets of central Moscow and St. Petersburg. There is hardly a place where you can’t get a good cappuccino, usually dressed with a leafy silhouette of cream floating on top. And beef—which was tough and tasteless in Soviet days—can be had at extremely high quality in a Moscow place sardonically named “No Fish,” surely some wit’s sly reference to the era of deprivation, when fish stores routinely had no fish—and meat stores no meat, for that matter.
Next to our modest hotel was the Beverly Hills Café, designed as a retro 1950s diner with burgers, shakes, 50s American rock in the background, statues of American performers in front, and a bevy of young waitresses in yellow miniskirts. MacDonald’s and Burger Kings dot the landscape, and on the block of our old apartment (nicely renovated and still home to a New York Times correspondent), stand a Starbucks next to a grill where a decent lunch can be had. Before I fell asleep, the block was faceless and austere, and good luck finding a quick lunch anywhere nearby.
Around the corner, on the site of an outdoor farmer’s market where produce and meat were scarce and prices high, stands a fancy, multistory mall whose ground floor wreaks of perfume by Dior and other upscale brands. The food is on the top floor, where the cases of beef, the tank of live fish, the assortment of delicacies rival any Western gourmet establishment. The prices are similar, too, which must put the goods way out of reach for the average Russian; virtually nobody was shopping there.
Central economic planning by Soviet government officials guaranteed that “the people,” who were supposed to own the means of production, received not what they wanted but what the remote bureaucrats decided they should have. The encroachment of capitalism, as inequitable as it might be, has also been a kind of liberating influence, transferring consumer power, at least, to ordinary folks.
So, gone are the frumpy clothes and scowling faces; Russians now dress the way Americans do casually on the streets: T-shirts, shorts, and most striking, jeans, which were so passionately coveted in Soviet days that some daring American tourists would sell them to Russians at exorbitant prices, and the few Russians authorized to travel abroad would bring home suitcases crammed full. No need now: Russia has been quietly invaded by Lee and Levi.
Gone also is the easy driving for those few Russians who had the connections to get cars. Traffic no longer breezes through mostly vacant streets with virtually no parking restrictions; congestion is common, parking is scarce, and taxi drivers grumble about sudden road closures around the Kremlin to let black sedans exit through the mammoth gates. At the end of the workday one afternoon, as traffic ground to a halt, a driver explained with a sardonic grin. Government officials “have finished drinking,” he said, and were heading home.
Religion, barely tolerated and tightly constricted in Soviet days, has blossomed symbolically in Moscow and especially St. Petersburg, where the fresh glint of gold leaf illuminates the onion domes and high crosses that were once left to fade and decay. A liturgical store of religious books and icons beckons patrons near Red Square. And over the two gates of the Kremlin facing the square, massive icons have been installed, as if to certify an official imprimatur conferred on the Russian Orthodox Church.
Of course the church was always under the thumb of the government—under the czars and under the Communists—infiltrated by apparatchiks and manipulated for official ends. But Soviet days saw ambivalence toward the church as both an artifact of tradition and beauty on the one hand, and antithetical to Marxist ideology on the other. On Easter at midnight, young people were tempted away from services by theaters showing—one time only—first run American films. And those who sought to attend church found themselves confronted by rings of auxiliary policemen who would check IDs and report them to their chapters of the Young Communist League.
How deeply religion has reached into the society is a question, however, one I can’t answer based on a short visit. A civil “wedding palace” on the bank of the Neva in St. Petersburg seemed constantly busy as we walked by repeatedly last week, and a young Russian guide in St. Isaac’s cathedral explained to her small group that most young people aren’t really interested, except for the church’s aesthetics and its connection to Russian history, something that was said in Soviet days as well.
Bookstores were mind-blowing. There on the shelves were volumes once banned, by Osip Mandelshtam, Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, and others. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg have squares or streets named after Andrei Sakharov, the pro-democracy campaigner who was stripped of his work as a nuclear physicist in Soviet days, denied permission to travel to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and exiled to the city of Gorky until released by Gorbachev. I sometimes felt as if I were sleep-walking.
The World Cup brought swarms of foreigners, to the delight of the tourist industry and Russians who want contact with the larger universe. Smiles and warmth, mostly reserved in Soviet days to intimate gatherings around kitchen tables, radiated the public places in Moscow. A middle-aged Russian woman on the Metro, seeing my 10-year-old granddaughter, Kalpana, spontaneously handed her a wand for making soap bubbles. A man gave her a coin. And as we joined a huge crowd waiting to enter the Metro after a match in St. Petersburg, an unsmiling police commander, glancing at Kalpana, gestured us to the side and led us around to an entrance where, waving to his officers on guard, he watched us walk through like VIPs.
Russian softness toward children is nothing new; it’s a long, happy tradition, always a strong counterpoint to the stern features of the powerful and potentially ruthless state. And that level of political oppression was a layer of society to which we did not penetrate, cruising on the festive surface of swinging Moscow and St. Petersburg. Nor did the country’s economic hardship become apparent; the centers of those cities were scrubbed clean of both peeling paint and human suffering.On our last night, we dined at the Library, a pleasant restaurant on Nevsky Prospekt, where the bill came tucked inside a book. I am still wondering if the restaurant’s manager, or a waiter, was playing with a metaphor, because the book jacket gave the title, in Russian, as Money by Emil Zola. The book itself, however, was the second volume of Lenin’s works, written in the late 19th century and published under Stalin in 1941. You can’t tell a book by its cover.