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October 12, 2007

Russian Glimpses - Part 1, Moscow

Patricia A. Kelly

I knew the usual, I imagine, of what a reasonably educated American who lived through the Cold War and had World War II era parents would know before my trip to Russia. I read a "concise" history prior to the trip. I had always wanted to see the Hermitage. I was eager to learn.

I'm accustomed to traveling throughout the world, and finding societies a little behind the U.S., the people a little poorer, the buildings a little shabbier. I'm accustomed to expecting a lot of citizens to feel some envy for my life, and, perhaps, even wish for it.

Imagine my surprise as I encountered Moscow: filthy streets and shabby residential buildings, yes, but Land Rovers and Lexus, gorgeous, gleaming public buildings, public parks with food stalls and permanent amusement parks, steaming barbecue and crispy French fries at open-air tables, more feminine style than I've seen outside of Michigan Avenue.

A really nice Moscow restaurant might charge $100 U.S. per person for dinner, excluding drinks. A nicely renovated apartment might have laminate floors, Italian cabinetry, handmade tile baths and beautifully mirrored closets, with exquisite art and furnishings.

The hallway, however, will be old, with crumbling tiles, thick paint, and the smell of old food. The building entry requires a security code, and there is an extra outside door due to terrorism, the war against Chechnya.

"We Moscow millionaires love Putin. We don't care if he is a thug. We're so happy to be rich," half-joked our friend and escort as we languished in traffic. "We know oil was $10 a barrel when he came into power, and $89 now, but we still credit him with our prosperity. In the U.S., your politicians pretend to be upright and ethical, while secretly enriching themselves. Here it's open, and we don't care as long as the city and country are run well.

"The wife of the mayor of Moscow is now one of the richest women in the world, a billionaire with large-scale construction company connections. In the past five years, the city has rebuilt the original Russian Orthodox Cathedral, once blown up by Stalin to be replaced by a Soviet monument, at a cost of $564 million plus donations. It has developed a huge park with dancing fountains, a palace and outbuildings, on the site of a palace first built and rejected by Catherine the Great. She didn't like the brickwork, so she stopped construction after all the walls were up.

"The city would re-elect him again if they could. There's even talk of changing the law to allow him an extra term. Yes, his wife became rich during his term, but so what, as long as he has done such a good job for the city."

Almost every apartment has a balcony. I comment on this, and ask why. The answer: storage.

"Wait," I say. "That doesn't make sense. If you were designing for storage, wouldn't you design closets?"

"Oh, maybe so. Perhaps they were originally for ventilation and fresh air," this from people who used to rock their babies to sleep on the balconies.

Moscow is a wealthy city. There's horrible traffic, with few drivers following any traffic rules, and many accidents. There's also much more green space than in many cities.

People have been allowed to purchase apartments, but, for the most part, the government owns the buildings and property, and is responsible for general maintenance. Hot water for many buildings comes from central pipes carrying hot water as by products of electricity production. This system needs frequent repair, so it's conceivable to spend months in summer without hot water, not to mention having scalding water in first floor apartments, and tepid water on the top floor!

Building heat is also a government responsibility, so that's who decides when it's cold enough to fire up the furnace.

The government is ready to privatize all the apartment buildings, but, because of huge deferred maintenance issues, the occupants are against it.

Our first official guide, Svetlana, lives in two rooms with her husband and child. Her mother lives in the third small room in their apartment.

When I learn that she has embraced the Russian Orthodox faith, now that it's allowed again, I exclaim, "I'm so happy that you now have the freedom to practice your faith, and so much more freedom generally in your life."

A quizzical look eventually leads to my understanding that freedom, in Russia, implies lack of any connections. She's not sure that's a good thing.

As for the better life since Perestroika, there is some question about that, too.

Before, the government took care of everything. It provided housing, jobs, schooling and medical care, security. Now, with only somewhat controlled inflation and "wild capitalism," there are more worries. There are price increases, private car insurance with long waiting times, uncertainties about property ownership and maintenance, huge traffic jams, and people from everywhere flocking to the major cities, leading to even further decline in agriculture. In Soviet times, you needed permission to move.

Now, there's private car insurance. If your car is under warranty and you get it repaired through the insurance company, you can expect to ride the metro for months while awaiting parts.

Before we met Svetlana, we took a drive outside of town to visit the monastery of St. Sergei. He went to the forest centuries ago to pray and live an ascetic life out of love for God. Many monks followed, building a monastery and beautiful chapels.

A legend about Sergei is that, even though he had very little food, a bear visited him regularly, and he shared what he had with him. I bet Sergei is shaking his head in wonder from heaven as he looks down upon his shrouded body, lying in an elaborate silver sarcophagus under glass, being kissed by throngs of worshippers.

As I said, a land of contrasts. Next time, Svetlana, the subway and Stalin..

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