Yes, Samantha, the best of Moscow hardly changes
The Olympic stadium, folding umbrellas, and traffic are different. Strawberries, slogans, and - thank goodness - the local park are the same. These are the impressions of a 1970s resident of Moscow returning for a visit in the 1980s.Skip to next paragraph
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Deceptively, a folding umbrella seemed the ideal gift for Sasha the driver. Some years back there was not an umbrella to be had in any store in Moscow. But one freak monsoon-style downpour in the midst of the city's sunny summer weather was enough to reveal the fallacy of this choice. A sudden sprouting of masculine black and feminine print mushrooms on downtown sidewalks suggested that Moscow may now possess the highest ratio of folding umbrellas of any capital this side of Tokyo.
Consumer progress shows up in automobiles as well. The number of private cars expands slowly but steadily, and the city's 10-lane boulevards are finally coming into their own at the 5 p.m. ''chas pik,'' or ''peak hour.'' Moscow's unique system of left turns by overshooting and ''razvorot'' - the expression for ''u-turn'' that is the first word added to a foreigner's vocabulary here - thus provides ever more spectacular jam-ups, but still seems to function.
The fortunate new drivers, it would appear, are all learning the elements of the game at the empty parking lot for the Olympic Sports Complex. Any jogger who crosses this macadam stretch without looking in all directions does so at his own risk.
The stadium, built for the 1980 Summer Olympics, towers where the last of Moscow's charming log houses were torn down in the late '70s. Carved fretwork window frames and cotton curtains have now given way to a massive white-on-red sign: ''Glory to our great fatherland.''
The neighborhood park, however, still stands - perhaps because of the plea of a local grandmother. At a lecture at the cozy outdoor stage back in pre-Olympics days, a city official opened for his scattered listeners the vistas awaiting Moscow in the coming Olympic year. Athletes from around the world would come to compete (with the exception, it would turn out, of Americans, Norwegians, and other boycotters protesting Soviet involvement in Afghanistan).
When the official solicited questions, the grandmother rose to her feet with one persistent query: Why were they taking away her park that was so little anyway? Why not build their stadium somewhere else?
In the end they didn't take away her small park. Young couples still wheel baby carriages around the pond. Tennis players still lob balls until the northern July light fades to midnight blue. A playground has even been added, complete with dwarf figures and a fairytale house with slide.
The little theater still stands too, now displaying a detailed account, on this 40th anniversary, of the famous tank battle of Kursk. It's a battle the Red Army won - so the posters say, and many of Moscow's bemedaled and beribboned veterans would no doubt attest - with a superiority over the Germans of only 1.4 to 1 in troops, 1.9 to 1 in guns and mortars, and 1.2 to 1 in tanks.
As for the rest of the neighborhood, it's much the same, too. One can still buy rich vanilla ice cream from vendors, test the freshness of bread loaves with a fork (but not fingers), and get shoes, rugs, handbags, electric razors, and metal repaired. The rooster on the puppet theater clock still crows convincingly every hour - as Soviet leader Yuri Andropov's Maine penpal, Samantha Smith, got to see before dashing off to join other 11-year-olds at the Pioneer camp in the Crimea.
The circus is closed for renovation until late August. The Uzbekistan restaurant, according to connoisseurs, has yielded its place as the pride of Central Asian establishments to the Baku. But the movie theater is doing a brisk business as the Moscow Film Festival brings to town the New York-panned ''The Outsiders'' - the official American entry - along with the unofficial ''Tootsie'' and the lyrical Armand Hammer Productions study of ballet training, ''Backstage at the Kirov.''
Most reassuringly, perhaps, the dirt path shortcut still leads to the nearby farmers market with its abundance of strawberries and cherries, cucumbers, eggplant, young carrots, new potatoes, garlic, and even, as a special treat, sugar-coated klyukva berries.
It made for a familiar homecoming.