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The World : High Noon in Moscow: Gridlock, Smog and a Thirst for Quick Riches

August 21, 1994|Gregory Freidin | Gregory Freidin, a professor of Russian at Stanford University, is a co-editor of "Russia at the Barricades: Eyewitness Accounts of the August, 1991, Coup" (M.E. Sharpe Publishers)

PALO ALTO — When a popular Russian singer, Alexander Vertinsky, returned from his Parisian exile in the late '40s, he was so taken aback by the sight of the new Moscow that he exclaimed: "Oh Russia, verily I cannot recognize thee!" Then he noticed that his suitcases were gone. "Now, oh Russia, I verily recognize thee!"

Even for someone who, like myself, grew up in Moscow and has frequently returned during the last six years, the vision of the city is both deceptively familiar and unfamiliar. Since the last time I visited, a mere six months ago, Moscow has undergone a sea-change.

What is this new Moscow like?

High noon. Wall-to-wall traffic, throbbing, baking in an exhaust haze, gridlocked. Lasciate speranza-- until, all of a sudden, a patched-up black BMW, Moscow's preferred muscle car, jumps halfway up the sidewalk and, like a startled black crab, scurries onto a side street. A cabby follows. After that, all is stillness, except for the deafening noise of a hundred idling engines.

With gasoline selling for approximately half of what it costs in the United States and the incomes lower by several factors, most of those caught in traffic must be on their way to or from making a lucrative deal. The scene would otherwise make no economic sense, or even anthropological sense, since the vagaries of instability and inflation have transformed the average Russian from a hybrid of utopian and cynic into a primitive subspecies of homo economicus . It is this rough-hewn creature that wheels in his, or her, beat-up Zhiguli sedan or late-model Volvo--and deals in anything from counterfeit caviar to shady real estate, drugs, white slavery, children's encyclopedias or oil futures.

But the real boom in Moscow is in the construction business. The outskirts of Moscow's South West has a new skyline marked by a post-modern office tower of black glass and steel, which looks like a wedding cake from hell. Outside Moscow proper, modern single-family homes and mansions with saunas, Jacuzzis and yes, bidets, are rising like mushrooms amid the stone-age collective-farm hovels.

Standing in food lines is as Russian as apple pie is American. But now it takes a special effort to see the old Moscow behind all the fruit-and-vegetable stalls surrounding every metro station and the rows of kiosks, with their liquor bottles and Mars bars. The counters of old cavernous shops, bare a year ago, groan under the weight of everything from farmer's cheese to imitation crab meat. Prices are high but Muscovites still spend little on rent. Food consumption has been rising steadily, and the monthly inflation is down to 4%-5%.

If you're nostalgic for long lines, the best place to go is to one of Moscow's new financial centers. There, customers queue up for hours to obtain the astronomical dividends--as much as 10% a month in non-inflationary dollars--that some pyramiding schemes, calling themselves banks, pay out to their clients. The catch is that such a bank may have 15 such outlets to accept your investments, but only one to issue the "dividends"--and only once a month. Chances that your principal will go up in smoke between the payout days is great, but not as great as when inflation was 20% to 30% a month and before the government began a crackdown on misleading advertising.

Whatever is left of the Big Politics in this world of nouveau riches and nouveau russes is now spelled with a small "p." No single issue or personality defines the political scene in Russia today. What matters is "the economy, stupid." Gone is the high drama of the indomitable Boris N. Yeltsin butting his head against Mikhail S. Gorbachev's skull, fighting communism from a tank turret or arm-wrestling with Ruslan I. Khasbulatov and Alexander V. Rutskoi. He has been upstaged by the neo-fascist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, who, in a stroke of a clown's genius, has been tailing Yeltsin's tour of the Volga region in his own steamer, setting up his political carnival tent in the wake of the presidential train.

The long-awaited founding congress of Yegor T. Gaidar's Russia's Choice party, now called the Party of Russia's Democratic Choice, turned out to be summer's sleepiest affair. Its biggest coup was to fill two-thirds of the 1,000-seat convention hall with delegates and guests; its biggest joke was Gaidar's ironic apology for proposing a rather cumbersome name for the party, since the preferred words liberal-democratic had already been hijacked by Zhirinovsky's bunch.

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