Monday, December 20, 1993

Marx to Michael Jackson

Eight years ago, when I first visited Russia, the skyline was dominated by large billboards that sang the praises of Marx and Lenin and generously wished long life to Communism and Socialism. They have vanished and in their place stand shy saplings of consumerism – billboards of varying sizes which urge you to buy shoes, computers, cigarettes and so on. What happened to the old boards? Some, apparently, were torn down with ceremony and amidst rejoicing at the changing of the old order. Others disappeared quietly and the wood was appropriated by the workmen who put it to use in their dachas – that’s capitalism, isn’t it?
I can remember shopping, last time, in stores called beriozkas. Here you could buy handicrafts, crystal, souvenirs and very cheap but high-quality Russian vodka. The medium of exchange was the US dollar. Now these commodities are available everywhere: at street stalls, where the needy might dispose icons and other family heirlooms; and in department stores, where you can catch the attention of surly-looking salesgirls by calling out, “devochka!” the Russian word for girl. Sated shoppers at the one-year-old Sadko Avenue (already a match for Bond Street; already more a symbol of Russia than the Red Square) peel off notes from wads stuffed inside their wallets, confident that there’s plenty more where that came from. The WASP expat newspapers refer to this prototype sneeringly as the man in the lime green suit with the fat gold Rolex on his wrist. But they also tolerate him kindly because it’s he who is firing the economy.
The US dollar is legal tender, but we preferred to make our purchases in roubles as the economical option. Smirnoff, the American vodka made from the fabulous recipe of a long-ago Russian (as everyone knows) was available much cheaper at the kiosks than the dollar shops and it’s possible to shop from one kiosk to the next looking for the best price. The kiosk is a Russian version of the panwallah, and stocks cigarettes, booze, chocolates, lingerie and electronics, much of it imported.
Russian food is not as bad as propaganda has it. But when, in nostalgic fits of longing for more familiar fare, we ate at the restaurant Delhi, we found it as popular as its food is atrocious. We were also told that food here is actually only cooked once a week; that it was now run by the mafia, (a word Russians use to describe the antisocial section of their society) and frequented mostly by Indian expatriates. You can still see a weekly Hindi film on television – the one we saw bits of had Rekha and Shatrughan Sinha speaking such fluent Russian that it quite boggled the mind. The advertisements are peopled by characters who look like they would be more at ease back home in America. And in a country which the world views with concern for its food shortages, we were amazed at the number of television ads for dog and cat food.
I didn’t come across anyone like the Mithun girl this time. They’re there, I suppose – but no doubt leaning more towards Michael Jackson. On one occasion, though, my cabby casually began to chat about Rao (as in the Indian Prime Minister, PV Narasimha) and his political ideologies of which I believe he knew more than I did.
This cabby was in fact not a professional taxi driver, but the owner of a private car who, according to local custom, would be willing to ferry you to your destination for a small fee if it happened to be on the way to wherever he was going. If you stand on the side of the road in Moscow and wave out your hand until someone stops, you can specify your terminus and negotiate a price.
Over a series of meetings in those few weeks, it struck us that this could well be the reason why no one ever seemed to be on time. And on this trip we had another of those interesting coincidences that call forth that “Oh my! What a small world!” refrain. We sat chatting with an Indian businessman and our conversation went something like this:
IB: Oh so you’re from Pune!
We: Yes, that’s right. Do you know the place?
IB: Um … sort of … I have a brother who lives there.
We: Really? Where does he live?
IB: Er… can’t really remember, it’s a funny-sounding name … I think it begins with a W …
We: Would that be Wanowari?
IB: That’s right! He lives in Wanowari!
We: Oh how nice … we live there too! Where in Wanowari?
IB: Er … you know, it’s one of those new gated-community kind of places …
We: Really? We live in one of those too! Which one does your brother live in?
IB: Er … I can’t remember … what’s the name of your place?
We: Clover Village.
IB: Yes! That’s where my brother lives. Clover Village.
We: Wow! What a coincidence.
IB: He has a row house there … I can’t remember the name of the lane but I know it’s the second left turn after you enter the gate.
We: No! That’s our lane, Flemington Terrace.
IB: Yes! That’s my brother’s lane! He lives at No 2 Flemington Terrace.
Me (aghast): No! We live in No 2 Flemington Terrace.
Me (thinks fast): How many children does your brother have?
IB: Two
Me (looking suspiciously at husband, wondering, ARE YOU THIS MAN’S BROTHER BY ANY CHANCE?): But we live in No 2, and our neighbour has four children!
It turned out that this Indian businessman’s brother was our next door neighbour. The extra two children were a third brother’s, who lived with them. Small world, right?
I enjoyed that stay in Moscow very much. I still had enough halting Russian to find my way around on my own. The metros were still as clean and organized as they had been before – relics of a more rigid era. A ticket to anywhere by metro or by bus was just ten roubles, a very small amount. Still, few passengers would buy one. I saw a ticket inspector patiently explaining to a woman who did not have one that she should have and that everyone was supposed to. Sadly, my stop came and I had to reluctantly get off without hearing the rest. But I doubt whether she was led before a firing squad to be shot, which may or may not have been the procedure in the old days.
parts of this first appeared in The Metropolis on Saturday 18-19 Dec 1993