March 20, 2003 First Time in Moscow

Posted in Rodger's Russia Book | Posted by rodger |


Well, I am in Moscow. I would have phoned someone to let people know that we are alright, but the concept of pay phone is strange here. You have to get tokens from the post office to use in the pay phones. No token, no phone call.

It was a lot easier than I expected. I’m a child of the cold war and I’ve heard horror stories all my life about how hard it was to get into Russia. The few people I knew who had been here had tales of searched baggage, intense questioning and KGB suspicions. What happened was that I got my baggage from the carousel, and then stood in line for an hour waiting for a bored border guard to ask if I was here for business or pleasure. I said “family”, he stamped my passport and said “Next”. That’s it. Guess the war is over.

As you know, we are here to see meet Larisa’s mother and to visit Leo Frankowski, a close friend of mine who moved to Russia about two years ago. Larisa’s aunt lives here in Moscow and has rented her neighbors apartment for us to stay in while we are here.

We are not in that original apartment. Larisa’s aunt arranged for us to use a vacant apartment next to hers, but it was not exactly vacant. It was more like abandoned with a fungus infected couch/bed (divan in Russian) left behind. It was a disaster.

The apartment was typical for a communist era apartment. It had one large room walled tastefully with poorly patched plaster of various colors, a separate four foot wide kitchen with a broken two burner stove, and the pervasive smell of moldy furniture. As it had only one main room, there was, of course, only one electrical outlet. They must sell a LOT of extension cords in Russia.

We spent one day looking for a hotel before we gave up. I don’t know if it is because capitalism is new here in Russia, or if Russians have always been crooked, but we were conned (“Just pay us the money and THEN we let you see the room – don’t worry it looks just like this picture that I showed you.”), lied to (“Oh, no, We couldn’t have said $60 a day on the phone. The rooms here rent for $100.”), and disgusted (“You must understand, sir, that all Russian beds are that small, and peeling paint is considered quite fashionable this year.”)

I also found out that in a large Russian hotel, each floor is a separate hotel, with separate managers, reservations, and prices. If the hotel on the sixth floor doesn’t have what you want, you can try the separate but identical hotel on the seventh. Does everyone know how to say “wasteful overhead”?

The second day, we got a call from Larisa’s friend. Her parents live in a nice apartment (by Russian standards) in the middle of Moscow and they own a Dacha. They were willing to go their Dacha and let us use their apartment for $400 for two weeks. I feel rather strange about this, but we are living in someone else’s apartment – using their dishes and towels and telephone. Apparently this is not an uncommon arrangement in Russia.

This apartment is small, but nice even by New York or Chicago standards. It has a washing machine in the bathroom, oak floors, a cable box that doesn’t work, and a telephone that only makes local calls, but it is very nice as the owner has done a lot of work on it.

My wife has been having a great time. After feeling helpless for so long in the states, she is now the organizer, interpreter and leader, and she loves it. She gets our cabs and leads us through metro stations with the confidence of a Moscow native. It is nice to see her feel confident.

I would have a tough time getting a cab here. Many people who have cars pick up people on the side of the road and sell them a ride. It is so common, the Larisa has never taken more than a minute or two to wave someone down. You stand in the street and hold your hand up and in a few seconds, a car will stop, and a stranger will offer you a ride – for a price. The costs are usually cheap and there is some sort of unwritten fare schedule that everyone seems to know. Our most expensive ride was from the old apartment in the suburbs to the new apartment in the center of Moscow. It cost $10 in a real, licensed cab. Still no meter, still a negotiated flat price, but a real cab. Problem for me is that EVERY ride has to be negotiated and my Russian is still pretty much limited to “Ya nee ponymyoo” (I don’t understand).

Sadly, the old Moscow is almost gone. There are still thousands of communist era apartment blocks (HUGE, gray and badly built.), but we did our shopping tonight in a Supermarket a block away (the Russians call it a “Supermarket”). When we stopped for a snack at a kiosk near the metro station we were offered our choice of the traditional Russian snacks – hot dog, chili dog, hamburger, cheeseburger, or pizza – washed down by those traditional Russian delights – Pepsi, Pepsi light, coke, coke light, or Mountain Dew.

The most common legacy of the communist era is in the faces of the people. I have seen a thousand Russians on the street and in the metro and have not seen one smile. Every single one looks like a man who has just been told his dog died.

A part of it is culture, but I suspect that part of it is simple reaction to reality. Today in the Metro, I sat across from a woman who appeared to be in her 70s. I realized that in the years since the 1930s she has seen turmoil, hunger, and war. She probably saw the last part of Stalin’s reign, may have been here during the years that the Germans were at the gates of Moscow, and she has seen the years of food shortage in the 40’s and again in the 70s. In 1989 she had to worry about freezing when the Russian government said that there was not enough heating oil to keep Moscow warm in worst part of the winter. Then she saw her pension made worthless by inflation and realized that she had been cheated out a lifetime of promises for security. It’s no wonder that there was sadness in her wrinkled and worn face.

However, the young people can make money – and a lot of it – and they are still wearing expressions that are just as sad.

Not all Russians are as sour in private. Larisa’s uncle Slav reminds me of my father and uncles. He drinks too much and is a happy inebriate who tells broad jokes, proposes too many toasts and can even make jokes with a man with whom he shares not a word of language.

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