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Moscow comes alive

Ten years of amazing change have created a Moscow that does not match drab images of the Cold War capital.

By TOM ADKINSON
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002


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[Photo: Tom Adkinson]
A colorful array of nesting dolls greets tourists and residents on the Sparrow Hills overlooking Moscow.
Offered the chance to visit Moscow to preview historic treasures that would be on display this year in the United States, I was intrigued. Like most American baby boomers, I grew up with unflattering images of tanks and missile carriers rumbling through Red Square, of sinister men and stoic women, of food lines, of soldiers on every corner, of a dull and drab place overlaid with a sense of foreboding.

What I found last January was anything but dull and drab, and instead of a sense of foreboding, there was an atmosphere of excitement and exploration.

The good images, however, do not start at Sheremetevo 2, the main international airport serving Moscow. It was built in 1979, and it seems there has not been a light bulb changed since then. It's dark, cramped and unwelcoming. The ceiling design looks like a collection of discarded tin cans or an attempt at art using artillery shell casings.

Pepsi and Coca-Cola signs at Sheremetevo 2 were a faint hint of what is beyond the airport's dreary interior.

The 17-mile drive to the heart of the city, in part on Leningrad Avenue, quickly proved that my expected images of Moscow no longer were true. Commerce -- and traffic -- have arrived.

Billboards and storefronts told the story. Tobacco companies are particularly conspicuous. At the edge of the airport property was a gigantic, revolving, triangular Marlboro billboard. Soon, other names appeared on the drive: McDonald's, Jaguar, Intel, Winston, Samsung, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Peugeot.

A giant Ikea store (assemble-it-yourself Swedish furniture) gave way to Stalin-era apartments, ornate pre-revolutionary buildings, a monastery that is being converted into a hotel, a gaudy casino with neon worthy of any Tennessee fireworks stand, and a late- 1800s train station whose main line goes to Belarus.

Is this really Russia?

During the next week, I learned that it really is, and that Moscow is a city in the throes of dramatic transition. It is still determining its personality and identity.

My visit was with a group of journalists to preview a major art exhibition from the Kremlin State Museum that will be in Memphis and Topeka, Kan., later this year.

I augmented hours inspecting the treasures of the czars in the Armoury Museum with long walks through the city, excursions on the subway, visits to Red Square, adventures in dining, a tour of an upscale supermarket and a frigid excursion to a combination flea market and souvenir emporium.

On my first visit to the Armoury Museum, which is tucked into a corner of the sprawling Kremlin complex, I spied a mixed metaphor that told the story of today's Moscow: On the street just outside the Kremlin wall stood a young Russian soldier wearing his winter-issue overcoat -- and carrying a Calvin Klein shopping bag.
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[Photo: Tom Adkinson]
This is the enclosed arcade of G.U.M., for decades the store for shopping in Moscow and now trendy enough to have a computer store.

Conversations with hoteliers, administrators at the Kremlin Museum, travel industry executives and staffers at the American Embassy had the same theme: Moscow is so unlike what it was only 10 years ago that it borders on the amazing.

"Things are so different, so much better now," said Tanya Krivoshey, 36, an assistant manager at the front desk of the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel. "There are places to go with friends now. As a young person, I couldn't go anywhere with boyfriends. . . .

"If you went to a (state-run) restaurant, it was no good. I tried to go to a hotel restaurant once with a visiting friend from Bulgaria who was staying there. We were late for his scheduled lunch, so we were told to leave. That's just the way it was."

What intrigued me were the retail stores, the restaurants and the relative ease of mobility.

A brilliantly lighted and newly installed pedestrian bridge over the Moscow River led to a brisk 15-minute walk to Arbat Street, a portion of which was closed to vehicles. The Arbat boasts restaurants, flower vendors, guys hawking oil paintings, and other trappings of more familiar destinations such as Bourbon Street in New Orleans or Quincy Market in Boston.

My group bypassed a very busy McDonald's, backed out of one restaurant in which credit cards were not accepted, and settled on a tavern where the waiter spoke about five words of English and the menu had some discernible hints of what was offered.

Our table was adjacent to a singer/keyboard player who played Russian pop music before grabbing our attention with Strangers in the Night. We felt the part.

We circulated plates of pork-stuffed dumplings, fillet of baked sturgeon and smoky beef, drank lots of beer and spent about $18 each.

Peeva, we learned, is Russian for beer. That -- plus pazhalsta (please), spaseebah (thank you), dobroye ootra (good morning) and preevyet (hello) -- made being a stranger in a strange land more fun.

On one meandering walk (okay, I was lost), I scored a lot of points by simply saying pazhalsta and spaseebah. One uniformed security man and I had a riotously funny and unsuccessful conversation, largely in sign language, as we studied my map.

I made motions like the Yellow Pages' "let-your-fingers-do-the-walking" logo, but my map was in English, not Russian, and he didn't understand it. We laughed. We shrugged. I said spaseebah anyway and walked on.

The second Benetton I came to had a clerk who pointed me in my desired direction. Finally, a woman in a fancy shoe store pointed me to a posh restaurant, where the host told me in excellent English that my destination was just around the corner.

All the while, I kept wondering what kind of reception a non-English-speaking Russian would get wandering around some American downtowns, dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Red Square was bustling day and night. Vendors selling shapka, those gigantic fur hats that really do blunt the Russian winter, are quite persistent, and street actors portraying Lenin, Czar Nicholas II and other Russian figures haggle with tourists to get paid to pose for photographs.

It's not tourist-tacky, but neither is it the somber place I expected.

The multicolored spires of St. Basil's Cathedral are magnetic to visitors and locals alike. A local tradition for newlyweds -- still in bridal gowns and tuxedos -- is to come to St. Basil's to take pictures, drink champagne and be showered with small coins. My fellow travelers saw a half-dozen wedding groups there, and the newlyweds were delighted to be photographed by a gaggle of Americans they'd never see again.

Two monuments to contemporary Western retailing were right at hand. First was G.U.M., once the famous state-run department store that was virtually off-limits to most Russians though it overlooks Red Square and Lenin's Tomb. It was built from 1889-1893 and has the grand aura of an elegant train station.

Even in its Soviet heyday, I was told, its selections were nothing to brag about. Today, it is a bustling mall filled with European fashion stores, toy stores, a computer store -- dozens and dozens of shops on three levels, all capped with a glass roof.

Second was Manege Square, a multilevel underground shopping complex near an entrance to Red Square. It was like Montreal's winter-protected subterranean retail world, but with a different accent.

My find here was an Internet cafe with scores of computers -- half with English keyboards and text, half with Russian screens. The price was excellent: less than $2 per hour, compared with $5 for 15 minutes at my hotel.

At G.U.M., Manege Square and around town, there is much to be recognized. Hugo Boss, Timberland, DKNY, Levi's, New Balance, Nike and Adidas operate alongside Versace, Laura Biagiotti and Para. It is as vibrant a shopping scene as you would find in most cosmopolitan capitals.

"There is a much bigger variety now than there ever used to be, but the prices still are outrageous compared to North America," said Pam Raper, a Canadian hotelier working in Moscow.

Toward the end of my stay, as the skies cleared and the temperature plummeted, most of my group visited the Izmailovo Souvenir Market, about an hour's drive southeast of the Kremlin.

Izmailovo is a peculiar combination of flea market and trinket bazaar accented by food stalls, with entertainment provided by a quartet of 65-plus matrons who were singing something other than Supremes' songs. Local and international shoppers alike haggled with the vendors.

A ubiquitous souvenir was the wooden folk-art item called matrioshka (nesting dolls). The basic model was slightly smaller than a bowling pin. A human figure (folk characters, Vladimir Putin, even Bill Clinton) is painted on this doll, which comes apart at about the waist to reveal another painted doll, inside which is another, and so on.

One enterprising vendor, apparently a student of ESPN and the Internet, got my money when I found a University of Tennessee nesting doll featuring former quarterback Peyton Manning that contained four teammates.

Moscow is an impressive -- indeed, attractive in places -- city, even on gray winter days. The famous, golden, onion-shaped church domes stand out, especially against gloomy skies, and they positively gleam when the sun does peek through.

A newly acquired travel-industry friend drove me around the city one morning for a highlight tour that was accented by wonderful commentary. He is a Frenchman who has lived in Moscow for almost 20 years with his Russian wife, so he had the luxury of independence in his comments.

We stopped at a statue of Peter the Great that was recently installed along the Moscow River. Peter stands on the deck of a sailing ship, but his figure is so out of scale that the sailing ship seems the size of a rowboat.

My guide observed that the statue was the passion of a mayor who "was long on ambition and short on taste."

He was much kinder about the overwhelmingly beautiful Christ the Savior Cathedral, which stands across the river from that statue. The cathedral, built on the site of another church that Stalin had destroyed and replaced with a public swimming pool, opened in 1996.

We drove to the Sparrow Hills, which overlook much of the city. Behind us was the massive main building of the University of Moscow (30,000 students), and at the crest of the hill were two alpine ski jumps.

It is difficult to imagine that barely a dozen years ago there were few restaurants for foreign visitors outside the hotels where they were obliged to stay. Today, restaurant listings for cuisines from around the world fill four pages of the Russia Journal, a weekly English-language newspaper.

All week, I sought regional restaurants, and I scored big with Chez Pirosnani (a Georgian place) and Korchma (Ukrainian).

At Chez Pirosnani, my group again had plates flying around the table. We sampled more sturgeon, borscht, eggplant with pine nuts, wonderful dark bread, trout, grilled lamb chops and what the menu called barbecued chicken -- it was baked with spices rather than what we would consider barbecue. And there was peeva and vodka aplenty.

A guitarist and a violinist played sprightly folk tunes. We applauded heartily when we realized they had shifted to Stars Fell on Alabama, and we drew the attention of all in the restaurant when the musicians chose the true international language and we accompanied them to Elvis' Love Me Tender.

At Korchma, the staff dresses in colorful Ukrainian folk costumes, and at an evening meal, a troupe of musicians and dancers puts on an energetic show amid patrons' tables, for there is a lack of other floor space.

Korchma has enough international guests to print a menu in English. We all found tasty items (especially stews and fish entrees), but we were bowled over by some of the translations. None of us tried the buckwheat and liver pancakes, or the fried potatoes with lards and onions. I regret not ordering the salmon belly for beer, just to see what it was.

One real surprise in Moscow was seeing a B.B. King Blues Club. Even though I did not get to visit, some of my traveling companions from Memphis did. They reported that it is a good club, but it is not affiliated with the B.B. King restaurants in the United States, and the music was salsa, not blues, the night of their visit.

On my last night in Moscow, I was on Arbat Street again, and I yielded to temptation. A neon saguaro cactus in the window lured me into Pancho Villa's, where I thoroughly enjoyed fajitas and more peeva (Corona, this time).

* * *

The transition from communism to capitalism has not been all smooth. Many of the people I met said it has been unsettling to older citizens, just as it has been invigorating to younger ones.

The social safety net has gaping holes. (One day's main story in the Moscow Times, an English-language daily, was about juvenile street people and was illustrated with a photo of two boys sniffing glue.

But the change is a reality, and there is more to come. While I was there, Moscow's city government approved preliminary aspects of a multimillion-dollar plan to develop a tourist zone around the Kremlin by 2020. Green areas, seating, fountains, lighting, foot bridges across the Moscow River and information booths are parts of this "Golden Circle" project.

Moscow's past 10 years have been dramatic. The prospects for the next 20 years are enormous.
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If you go

GETTING THERE: Flights to Moscow are available via connections in London and Helsinki, among other European gateways.

For general travel information, contact the Russian National Tourist Office: Call toll-free 1-877-221-7120, fax (212) 575-3434. Write to 130 W 42nd St., Suite 412, New York, NY 10036; e-mail info@russia-travel.com. The Web site is www.russia-travel.com.

The Tampa travel agency Exeter International (formerly Russia Tours Inc.) specializes in package trips to that country; call toll-free 1-800-633-1008.

THE EXHIBITION: More than 250 objects from the Kremlin State Museum will be featured in Memphis. The title of the display is "Czars: 400 Years of Imperial Grandeur." The exhibition of jewels, crowns, thrones, a royal carriage, ceremonial apparel, tapestries, religious icons and more to tell the story of the Romanov dynasty will be on display in the city's exhibition hall, the Pyramid, through Sept. 15.

Details are available on the Web at www.wonders.org. After Memphis, the only other U.S. location for the display is the Kansas International Museum in Topeka, from Oct. 15 to March 15, 2003.

-- Freelance writer Tom Adkinson lives in Nashville.

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