Monday, December 7, 1998

The Talk of Moscow

Written in 1998 for Playboy magazine

“Nobody really knows what's going on in Moscow,” said Victor Pelevin, Russia's leading novelist. We were at the Temple of the Moon, the city's most exorbitant Chinese restaurant, feasting on sweet-and-sour crocodile. "But I'll tell you a joke. It's about the New Russians, who've made so much money they can afford anything -- the term connotes a bandit with a gold chain, who drives a BMW convertible and speaks on a cell phone from a sauna, surrounded by naked girls. Two New Russians are talking. One says: ‘How much did you pay for that necktie?’ ‘Five thousand dollars.’ ‘Where did you buy it?’ ‘On the corner of Tverskaya.’ ‘You fucking idiot, round the corner you could've bought the same one for seven thousand.’”

Everything is possible here. I heard this mantra constantly, but it only applied to Moscow, a city of 10 million in a vast country of 150 million that stretches over nine time zones and is so undeveloped you can't cross it by road. The other mantra I heard, sometimes as a joke, more often as a warning, was darker. Nobody else can ever fuck us up the way we can fuck ourselves.

It's said there are more $100 bills in Moscow than anywhere outside the U.S. -- mainly under people's mattresses, because no one trusts the banks. These thousands in savings are what many Muscovites have been living on since the Russian economy tumbled back in August, 1998. (The ruble fell in a couple of days from 6 to 23 to the dollar.) And despite how the ongoing crisis is portrayed in the western media, the mood on Moscow streets has remained far from doomsday, for all of Russia's money still passes through here first. Several towns outside Moscow have eaten their cats to stave off starvation, and in Vladivostok this winter people froze to death. In Moscow there was plenty of heat and plenty to eat, and anyone with any power is still making money. At night Moscow becomes lit-up, even excited -- it must be the only world capital where it's easy and free to park.

It is more corrupt than you can ever imagine was another mantra. I came expecting Dodge City, with shootouts, but I found Moscow calm, and safer than an American city; I walked all over late at night and never felt uneasy. There's a police office at each subway station, you don't see homeless people or teen gangs of hoodlums, and the mafiya, who are now much of the business establishment, don't make their millions preying on pedestrians.

“Nobody would ever bother to shoot you on the street because no one can make money on it,” said Pelevin.

He is very tall, with strong Tartar features and an acute awareness of having lived in many different countries by simply having remained in Moscow. At 38, Pelevin has received worldwide acclaim; his books, like A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia, Omon Ra, and The Life of Insects, are by turns satirical, poetic, and fantastical. They are also best-sellers here, an amazing situation for a serious writer.

“The problem is that most Russians were exposed to the world too fast. Like Indians who didn't know what alcohol was, so they became alcoholics in a day. The same thing happened to Russians suddenly exposed to advertising. Americans build up a kind of immunity. But for us, because there's such a difference between what we had in Soviet times and what we have now, some people become mad consumers, and only define themselves in terms of what objects they own.

“Look, everybody who grew up in the Soviet Union believed how the official propaganda always depicted the West: as a place of absolute evil. Imagine a cartoon that showed America as black skyscrapers, a yellow sky, and no hope for ordinary people, who suffer immensely while the rich feed on their bodies. A stupid, cruel society, where all power is controlled by criminal tycoons. Imagine this idea was brainwashed into you by Soviet propaganda.

“Then, from the headquarters of the Communist party, came an order: ‘Now we are starting to build capitalism.’ The people given this task were ordinary party members. But what vision of capitalism do they have? Only these party cliches of a totally evil society, from the back page of a satirical magazine. And they succeeded. They built us a perverted image of capitalism, from a set of wild notions about the West that exist only in Soviet propaganda. And the kind of capitalism that they've made here exists nowhere else in the world.”

Most of Russia's cash is in Moscow, though this wealth comes from natural resources -- oil, gas, and minerals -- thousands of miles away. Step outside Moscow and you're in a peasant countryside that, despite a concrete diarrhea left everywhere by Stalin, holds 19th century echoes of horse-carts and mud.

The city is surprisingly lovely and staggeringly ugly. It's huge (the ring road is 80 miles long) and under constant, very sketchy repair due to a mayor who still harbors presidential ambitions, Luzhkov. Parks give it many neighborhoods; skyscrapers are rare. The historic center, surreally litter-free, is all lollipop colors, mansions with rococo icing and stately columns. Lubyanka, the massive KGB headquarters, could be a 1920s Miami hotel that took a sadistic turn.

Boulevards are wide enough for tank brigades; to cross them is suicidal. Instead you traverse underneath, through passages of shops selling videos, CDs, books and lingerie. Leave the historic center and you're among hideous, grimy 20-story apartment blocks, where most Muscovites live. I couldn’t see how they could afford any of it, until I spoke to a lawyer.

“In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, everybody was given ownership of their apartments,” he pointed out. “So they don't pay rent. Water, heat, electricity cost virtually nothing. My girlfriend spends only $25 a week for food, and never dines out. Any extra money goes to clothes. Even somebody who makes half what she does will spend it all trying to be fashionable.”

Two years ago middle-class Muscovites were like kids spending all their allowances from week to week. In those few days when the ruble plummeted and prices on foreign goods dropped as well, people couldn't buy up the Versace underwear fast enough.

“Everyone, but everyone in Moscow, is lying all the time,” said Natasha. “Why? Because they feel that is the only way to survive.” She was in her twenties, a bubbly, successful literary agent; she'd been a teenager when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. We were in a cafe, and she was trying to explain this new world she was helping to invent.

“You see,” said Natasha, “Muscovites are always lying to the government because there are so many taxes, so many laws. Not one person in this country tells the truth, and they all understand this is the only way. If they don't lie to their friends, they still lie to the people below them and the people above. And they feel, if not afraid, still very worried.

“I’m lucky. My salary’s paid in dollars. But it’s difficult to plan day to day. We lost contracts, because many publishers’ banks failed. Everyone lost something at the banks, even if it wasn’t their life savings.

“Before, for everyone, in Soviet days, their whole life was secure. When there were difficult times they knew the reasons and knew why there were problems. Now, though things are better, they feel only vulnerable. Unless you're a New Russian, you miss the security of the old days. Children don't have any idea how it was before, it's all boring to them. They don't know the history and they don't care. For them Lenin means nothing, and they would rather listen to pop music than read.

“Yet, more than ever, Moscow is not Russia. It wasn't Russia before and it isn't now. Moscow is still the only place in this country with possibilities.”

Few Muscovites have any sense of how much enormous wealth flows through. Most is controlled not by the federal government, which is broke, but by the rich city government, which has a stake in everything. The city owns all the land; besides rent and many taxes, it grabs a percentage off every deal. That might be a fourth, say, of what the twenty-plus McDonald’s, open round the clock, take in.

Little is actually spent improving the city. Most goes into people's pockets. For all the talk of the mafiya, the biggest gangster in Moscow is undoubtedly the city itself.

Besides a residence permit to avoid endless hassles and fines, everyone also needs a krysha (“roof”), i.e. protection -- the most important mantra of all. For a normal business, besides payoffs to city collectors, this means extortion money paid to gangs -- or else. “He was murdered because of his business activities,” was a frequent police quote in the press.

Every inch of Moscow sidewalk is spoken for, but a babushka selling cigarettes in the subway needs a different roof than a law firm. No gang would pressure a McDonald's -- if your business is 25% owned by the city you have plenty of krysha. But you might need a security force.

Bribery is routine. To improve their salaries, the Moscow police just stop cars and demand money. Need an operation? Bribe a doctor and bring your own sheets.

These days Red Square is the place to shop, for across from the Kremlin stretches a transformed GUM. Built shortly before the 1917 revolution, GUM was for a time the largest department store in Europe. Inside it’s belle-epoque industrial: a crystal palace of sunlit halls and iron-and-glass ceilings. Famous in Soviet days for offering shirts in one style, two colors, and three sizes, GUM is now full of familiar names -- Sony, Reebok, Lancome, Pierre Cardin, Estee Lauder, Ray-ban, Lego, Revlon, and the rest; the Levi's shop sells 501 jeans for $95. Despite the ruble collapse, plenty of Muscovites can still afford to shop here.

The new Manezh subterranean mall nearby is even more lavish, with its space-age elevators whispering three floors below the square, its marble atriums, its glittering shops. It burrows right beside the Kremlin, for 75 years the headquarters of the Communist world. All the names missing from GUM are here: Nike, Guess, Next, Benetton, Rockport. Shop windows drool with Swiss watches, French bikinis, jewelled golden swords, high-end Japanese electronics, and Italian fuck-me outfits. A toy store sold dolls for $1000, a kid's gas-powered Mercedes for $5000. What made it stranger was that the embalmed corpse of Lenin also lay on view in a glass case, 200 yards away.

One Sunday afternoon I decided to see where ordinary, hard-pressed Muscovites, who survive on $50 a month, were shopping. I rode the metro, arguably the best subway system in the world: it carries more people daily than those of New York and London put together, and trains arrive every minute. Each station in the city proper is magnificently different, a Stalinist-era vision, but all are marble, and insanely expensive to keep up with their bronze statues and ornate mosaics.

By the Sportiviny sports stadium people were stampeding a muddy tract of close-knit booths selling cheap clothes and electronic goods, housewares, videos, leather coats, shoes, Marlboro cigarettes ($1), sunglasses, and pins with Elvis Presley and Madonna. There were Port-o-sans for those who gorged on Coke, Pringles, and hot dogs.

Now the ex-middle class were shopping at flea markets like this rather than downtown at GUM. It was imports that weren’t affordable. Gas and vodka and food, anything of Russian origin, were cheaper if you were living off dollars from your mattress.

The Sandunovskiy Baths, in two historic buildings, seemed a possible element of changeless Moscow. I went for the lux men's baths, up a marble staircase, past nude statues. There I chose a sheaf of leafy birch twigs and reflected on the masochism in many of this culture's pleasures. The idea is to sweat the vodka from your pores, then lie on a stone slab and pay an attendant to wreak an invigorating birch revenge on you.

In a polished-wood salon of hard benches and lackeys serving tea, fat men in towels sat around gossiping. A decrepit marble antechamber led to the sauna. In stultifying heat I was joined by two New Russians in their twenties who determined I was American, then joyfully went through obscenities (“Motherfucker! Don't try that shit on me!”) until we hit a barrier in the universal language.

Rather than asking them, I gave myself a few cursory thwacks with my birch sheaf and visualized the place in its heyday, full of chubby party officials hiring it for co-ed parties. Nowadays you came here to avoid the mafiya and ended up naked with them.

Mutual friends told me that Sasha, in his thirties, had been a star at the KGB. A Ukrainian, he lived with his wife and child in a decaying apartment block, with dark entryways that stank of urine. It was a typical Moscow flat: flowered wallpaper, ornate cabinets, golden drapes, and an upright piano. The only oddities were Bruce Lee posters, and the tall Japanese swords and battle axes that Sasha had made himself.

“I loved martial arts as a boy -- boxing and a Russian form of judo. For two years I was a sergeant in the army and a driving instructor in the tank corps. To do that you have to have steel teeth and steel balls. This was in Afghanistan. I was young and felt sorry for myself. I saw a lot of blood, but my division came back. I met some KGB officers there, and ended up doing my higher education at the Moscow KGB university, specializing in law, studying to be a KGB officer.

“Before, questions about Communism meant little to me. I learned a lot. Afterward, I was ready to struggle against the enemies of my motherland -- terrorists, spies, foreign armies. I was ready to be James Bond.

“I also became a karate champion, one of the top three KGB martial arts instructors. Along the way, I realized that KGB political officers were idiots. They could barely read, they spoke of nothing but the Great Russian Party that Ruled the World. I stopped being afraid of them, and maybe that's why they fired me. I was twenty-three.”

But it wasn't that simple, what had happened to him.

“The KGB school had strange rules. One was no Jewish wives -- because they must be spies for the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. My wife is Jewish, though we were not married then. One day my KGB chief asked me, 'Why do you think Jews are normal?' I answered that I'd met a lot of assholes in my life, and they were from all kinds of backgrounds and nationalities.

“This was too impudent to tolerate. To be fired was very painful -- I cried and cried. A few years ago that guy was thrown into prison for selling weapons, which made me happy. In those days I really believed in the ideals of the KGB. I felt wounded because I wasn’t given a chance to carry them out abroad.”

Eventually, with the collapse of the USSR, Sasha found his way to a good salary, first as a bodyguard, then at a foreign embassy, now with a private security company.

“And what happened to your old KGB colleagues?”

“The ones with brains became big businessmen. Some are with gangs, some are still in the KGB. Selling weapons and drugs. Their official salary is under $100 a month now, that's the problem.” He shrugged. “A little bit of democracy creates a big vacuum and a big mafiya to fill it. They gave so much money to the church that in one part of Moscow the priests were saying mass for gangsters killed in action, can you imagine? But the real mafiya here isn’t gangsters, it's the police and the KGB.” He sighed. “In America your police motto is To Serve and Protect. In Moscow it's Give us your money and fuck off.”

Alexander was a blond Russian in his forties who trained in the States and has his own p.r. firm. “Five years ago the spin doctor business didn't exist here,” he told me. “All media were controlled by the government -- an absolutely perfect propaganda machine that broke down. Then lots of money came into Russia from the west. Now it's bankrupt. Political factions are fighting for control of the media; elections are always going on somewhere in this country and big money gets spent on p.r. In the States, you have to be clever to convince journalists of your agenda. Here you just need a thick wallet. The result is armies of ‘image consultants’ marching through the streets telling people they can make Swiss chocolate out of a piece of shit.

“You get completely different coverage of internal politics just by changing TV channels. People are rioting on one channel and it disappears on another. Russians are naive. My sister-in-law said, ‘Isn't it funny that airplanes started to fall out of the sky a few years ago?’ It never crossed people's minds that they hadn't been told the truth before. That's why trips abroad were forbidden in the Soviet years.

“Russians have become very nostalgic about a beautiful past: the stability they did have, and a lost prosperity they think they had. People were shocked by what happened in the fall of ‘98, they lost money, life became more expensive. But the crisis is behind us, we're in some kind of stable situation which people can deal with okay -- though it might get worse.

“Some groups, like miners and teachers, hadn't been paid for months anyway, so nothing changed in their nightmare. The ones who got hit were the emerging middle class, young white-collar professionals who got laid off.

“But one phenomenon of Moscow that hasn't changed is the big black Mercedes with someone important, followed by an Escort jeep full of bodyguards with thick necks, driving other cars off the road. Imagine: back in the 1970s a real pair of Levi's jeans were a status symbol. This is how far we've come.”

Nothing here is changing as fast as TV. “People love game shows,” said Yuri, a former television producer. “Most are copies of American shows. A Wheel of Fortune, a Name that Tune. Our talk shows are also based on Western models. We never had true-life stuff before glasnost in the late '80s. People can't get enough.

“The new trend is sex talk shows. On one the host is a black girl from America who speaks Russian like a native and has fake blonde hair. Her guests are homosexuals, transvestites, people who have never had sex, nymphomaniacs. And they discuss sex openly. On another show a young couple have to do different tasks and if they fail they take off their clothes. For some reason we keep seeing lots of topless girls.”

One of the most popular shows (85 million viewers) has been a game with the Moscow police. On Perechvat (Interception) a “thief” -- the contestant -- “steals” a car in mid-city and has 35 minutes to elude three squad cars. The police have tracking devices, so they're on his trail quickly. If they arrest him, he loses; if he can keep moving, he wins a new Korean car, waiting back in the TV studio with a howling audience.

The cops can't shoot, and the thief's not allowed to break the speed limit. (In an episode I saw, one contestant drove onto a train and escaped; another used a boat.) Most head for the wasteland of an abandoned airfield, where they can't be cornered.

Meanwhile the police cars charge through Moscow streets, sirens blaring, TV cameramen hanging out the windows and people scattering. The chase looks convincing, though the thief maps out his route with the producers. They don't tell the police, they just set up their cameras.

It's not hard to grasp the popularity of Interception. Each year in Moscow 18,000 cars are reported stolen. There's also no tradition of cop shows, so this is the first time Russians have seen their police in action. Most of all, it's the fantasy of winning a car worth a family's life savings by evading a hated, corrupt authority figure.

Night life for most Muscovites means drinking as much vodka as possible with a video on. This vast intake makes men impotent -- you simply can't down a lot of vodka and still perform. As one joke said: When two Moscow ladies Moscow want a wild sex weekend, what do they need? Nine Russian men.

Moscow is a late-night town: people routinely telephone you at 1 a.m., and most clubs stay open until morning. The most useful biweekly guide rates night spots by calculating the odds of having sex or getting hurt. * = You have a better chance of getting iced than laid, ** = You have a better chance of getting laid than iced, *** = You WILL get laid, and afterwards, you'll want to ice yourself.

They also rate a club's “Flathead Factor,” i.e. its gangster density. *** = If you come here, you WILL wind up on our Death Porn pages.

Among clubs with names like Propaganda, Taxman, Rasputin, Plasma, and Buchenwald, the most notorious was the Hungry Duck (“Thank God for antibiotics, folks!”) -- a rampaging, howling riot that the police sometimes shut down, where you got spilled on and trampled and were lucky to avoid a brawl.

Despite what you read, every woman is not for sale, though you do see prostitute brigades after dark, waiting like a line of taxicabs. In the fancier clubs, with cover charges around $50, security's tight, with courteous gorillas wearing walkie-talkies and Kalashnikovs. Single women came to dance and meet someone -- but most wanted to be kept mistresses, maybe for the night, maybe for life. This financial reliance is built into the promiscuous society, but it was hard to tell who was a professional and who a gold-digger, since every woman dressed and danced outrageously but flirted with restraint.

The result was a dance floor shaking to techno-pop, full of ravishing women dancing solo -- those years of state-sponsored ballet training really pay off. Impossible to exaggerate their sheer overwhelming beauty, which surpasses even Havana: long-limbed goddesses with high cheekbones, elongated eyes, a refined pout, a headlong confidence, and a penchant for high boots.

The weirdest Moscow custom was the Jealousy Game -- that blonde angel in skintight leather dancing alone, smoldering at you, who wanted you to join her so she could make her mafiya boyfriend with the nine-foot wingspan, drinking with his cronies, jealous and exceptionally violent.

Under stroboscopic lights, with dry ice spewing past at high speed and athletic bodies gyrating in spandex beneath psychedelic streamers, one gorgeous young prostitute said to me, “There are women here who will not sleep with anyone. And others who will do everything you want without a condom. Which type you prefer?”

Moscow's opportunism-with-the-gloves-off owes as much to the old totalitarian approach as the recent capitalist mess. What astonished me is how much many people miss one of the most brutal regimes in history.

This attitude was exacerbated by a profound conviction that the rug could be pulled out from under them at any moment. Nothing was predictable: anyone who said he knew what would happen here was deluded.

A refrain I heard often was how much people missed the security of the Soviet system, when you could afford everything that was in the stores. Of course, back in the good old days there was nothing in the stores.

“It's simple,” said Tania, one Sunday afternoon. “Our lives, for most of us, fifteen years ago, were much, much better.”

Tania was twenty-seven, tall, dark-haired, with a pixie smile and a slant-eyed gaze that bespoke Tartar blood. Her English was good. Trained as an economist, she worked for a communications company. She'd gotten her job immediately after university, on merit (she claimed), not connections; she was now looking for another. When I asked what she earned, she shrugged. “Don't laugh, please. $60 a month. But two years ago, it was about $250. This is why so many people miss old days. Because now there is only rich and rest of us. Before, life for most of us was more similar. Not only rich and poor.”

Tania wasn't complaining, but her salary clearly didn't go far in an expensive city. Nevertheless, she was well-dressed, a residue of the boom years. She lived in a flat with her mother and brother. She and her friends rarely went to movies, or even a cafe -- too much of a splurge. They went for walks or watched videos at someone's flat.

“About half my friends live with parents,” she said. “That's why I don't travel. Until last year I was saving money to get my own apartment, to have a private life. There aren't mortgages for someone like me.” As there's no credit, every ruble is due up front.

We'd met at the Tretyakovskaya Museum, a favorite outing for Muscovites because it’s affordable and contains only Russian art, mostly 18th and 19th century paintings. This mirrors the fad of wealthy New Russians for collecting Tsarist-era stuff, no matter how schlocky. Later (the river aglow in dusk light) we walked over the bridge to Red Square and a glory of Old Europe: the Kremlin spreading its walls and turrets past the gold-tipped tulip domes of St. Basil's Cathedral. As we entered the square Tania indicated a group of men arguing.

“Communists,” she said. “Organizing another revolution.”

“Will they succeed?”

She rolled her eyes. “No way.”

Tania had come of age in a new Moscow, having grown up on another planet. Clearly she had mixed feelings. But what about her parents' generation? How did her mother feel about Stalin?

“She and her friends have great memories for their youth,” she said. “Their lives were clear and secure. Russia was strong, Stalin was our strongest leader. Very popular. They miss him.”

“Miss him? What about all the millions of his own countrymen he murdered? Thirty? Forty?”

“They didn't know that then. So they remember other things.”

In Moscow, everything is possible.

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