Sunday, July 07, 2013

Moscow Then and Now

It;s a lazy, smoggy Sunday here in Montreal. Enjoyed a lovely weekend visit from my friend and fellow writer Linda Cahill, a former Montrealer who now lives in Toronto. She wanted to revisit old haunts to establish settings for the crime novel she has almost finished. We saw part of the German Grand Prix before she left, and now I'm following the Wimbeldon Men's Final on TV.

Came across a piece I started writing several years ago, and thought you might find it of interest, contrasting two visits, widely spaced in time, to Moscow.

Returning to any city after 37 years, you can expect to see a lot of changes. When that city is Moscow, the differences are astonishing. I first visited Moscow for New Year of 1970, on a Swiss student tour. In the fall of 2007 I returned alone--that in itself was a big change, since it was very difficult for individauls to travel in Russia during the Soviet period. Almost all travel then was with a group, and at the untender mercies of Intourist, the state tourist agency. You were encouraged to stay with your group, not to venture out alone.

In 1970 foreigners were segregated at special Intourist hotels, counselled to shop in Beriozka shops that were closed to locals, and generally kept under control as much as possible. If you did go out by yourself it was easy to get lost, since there were no accurate maps published for Soviet cities. Outdoor advertising was nonexistent then, the only posters visible usually contained pcitures of Lenin or Marx and admonitions to work harder or celebrate the Soviet Motherland.

The lobbies of Intourist hotels contained paperback copies in several major languages of the classics of Communism, and you could take with you as many as you could carry. I used to have quite a few, including Lenin's "Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism." Unfortunately, I found most of them very hard going.

Today foreigners are not segregated in Moscow, except, as is common everywhere, by wealth. In 1970 I was in a hotel within walking distance of Red Square. In 2007 all those hotels cost more than $300 a night, so I opted for a new hotel in the suburbs. The ruble, which had been worth more than $2 at the official rate in 1970, was around 30 to the dollar in 2007. But as a dollar holder, I was still considerably poorer in Russian terms--how did that happen?

The Beriozka shops are gone, but have been replaced by Chanel, Fendi and other upscale retailers frequented by New Russians and rich foreigners. The wide streets that were mostly empty in 1970 now endure traffic gridlock much of the time. Then, the city was very dimly lit at night, but now lights and colour are everywhere in central Moscow after dark.

Because I stayed in the suburbs in 2007, I had to learn to use the Metro. Clinging to my Metro map for dear life, I ventured toward the cashier and asked in fractured Russian supplemented by fingers for a 10 ride ticket. After I received an electronic ticket from the broad-faced woman behind bars, I stepped over a sleeping stray dog and onto the long, long steep escalator to the train. (to be continued)


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