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Return to Moscow: my Wizard of Oz moment

The Monitor's correspondent visits Russia for the first time since just before the collapse of the Soviet Union and takes in the kaleidoscopic changes. 

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    Shop assistants prepared T-shirts, printed with images of Russian President Vladimir Putin, for sale at GUM department store in central Moscow last year.
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My Moscow is gone.

The last time I was there, in November of 1991, the Soviet Union was a month away from dissolving, and a grand experiment in Russian-style capitalism was about to launch.

The Moscow of 1991 was much like the Moscow of 1980, when I first lived there as a college student: a monument to faded glory, rather dreary and a little sleepy. Basic products could disappear from store shelves without notice. Most people didn’t have cars, and traffic jams were practically nonexistent.

When I told Russian friends I was going back for a conference in late March, I was warned to expect big changes. Yeah right, I thought. How different could the place really be?

A lot, I discovered.

Step off a plane at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, and the difference hits you in the face. The old Sheremetyevo felt like a bus terminal. The basics were there, but not much else. None of the signs had English translation, and I pitied the poor non-Russian speaker trying to find his or her way around. The stone-faced soldiers, standing at attention, certainly weren’t much help.

Now there are stores and restaurants – including a TGI Friday’s – and special lounges for business-class travelers with helpful attendants, edible food, and flush toilets … with toilet paper.

Stepping into the new Russia felt like that moment in "The Wizard of Oz" when the screen shifts from black-and-white to color. And that was just the airport.

I spent my first night at the Novotel near Sheremetyevo – imagine that, a modern hotel near the airport. In the lobby, a rack of brochures advertised Moscow nightlife (girly shows), an outlet mall, bus tours of the city, and cruises on the Moscow River.

The next day, my travel companions and I boarded a bus for Suzdal, a small, historic town about a four-hour drive away. We were heading to a meeting of something called the Dartmouth Conference – a US-Russian dialogue project that began in 1960, ended in 1990, and has just been revived, amid heightening tensions between the US and Russia.

The accommodations in Suzdal were even more plush than the Novotel. We stayed at the Best Western Art Hotel Nikolayevsky Compound. In Suzdal, the rooms were enormous and ornate, and the shower was something to behold: so many bells and whistles that when I twisted one particular knob, jets of water shot straight out, soaking me and the rolls of toilet paper across the room.

Outside the walls of the compound, Suzdal was more down to earth, and even a little like the old Soviet Union. The Lenin statue still dominated a town square, the sidewalks were a bit icy, and many of the old wooden buildings sorely needed shoring up. But many of the old churches, monasteries, and museums had been beautifully renovated, and the guides who took us through were knowledgeable and enthusiastic.

Next stop, central Moscow

After five days back in Russia, I was itching to see the place I had once called home – first as a student, then as a young reporter working at Moscow News as part of a US-Soviet exchange, then as a reporter for the Monitor.

Finally, the time had come. Stepping onto Red Square is one of those experiences that everyone should have. We’ve all seen pictures of the colorful, Disney-like onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, and the dramatic view of the Kremlin nearby, its red stars gleaming atop spires. But there’s still nothing like seeing Red Square in person. Vladimir Lenin’s tomb is also still there, a show of respect for the nation’s Soviet communist past.

But there’s one big change on Red Square: GUM. The big old shopping arcade that runs along the eastern side of the square is still there, except now it’s a spiffed up, thriving shopping mall with plenty of merchandise. And high-end stuff, at that. Think Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

On the ground floor, there’s a big gourmet grocery store called Gastronom No. 1, with beautiful displays of fruits and vegetables, bread, chocolate, sushi, you name it. Want to try some super-expensive black caviar? Have a free sample.

“You can get anything you want now in Moscow, even crocodile meat,” a Russian told me. 

Walking faster, talking faster

Now I’m starting to get kind of sad. No more random food shortages, no more using Pravda for toilet paper, no more cheap tickets to the Bolshoi Theater. As a student, I could go see world-class ballet and opera for the equivalent of 50 cents or a dollar per ticket. Now, since the Bolshoi reopened in 2011 after a six-year, half-billion-dollar renovation, I’m told tickets are impossible to get. Scalper prices start at the equivalent of several hundred dollars.

And oh, the traffic. The once-ubiquitous, utilitarian Ladas and Moskviches are increasingly rare. Now the ride of choice is Mercedes or BMW, with plenty of Fords, Toyotas, and Kias in the mix. Moscow has become just like any other major city during rush hour. And when the traffic is moving, watch out: It moves fast. Even pedestrians move faster than I remember back in the 1980s. And people talk faster. Moscow was always seen as the New York City of Russia, but now it is even more so.

Uber is also in business in Moscow, and a pretty good deal for a tourist out on the town. Three of us paid $31 total for a roundtrip ride in a shiny Mercedes from the President Hotel to Red Square – not that far away, even with a detour over to the bridge where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was murdered in February. The fee also included about 45 minutes of wait time while we walked around.

As expected, Western food chains are everywhere – from Krispy Kreme, to Starbucks, to Le Pain Quotidien, to the ubiquitous McDonald’s and Burger King. I had covered the grand opening of the first McDonald’s in the Soviet Union early in 1990; that store, located on Moscow’s Pushkin Square, is still there, the busiest McDonald’s in the world. (Last August, the Russian government closed it for “health violations,” a move seen as retaliation for US sanctions against Russia, but it reopened in November.)

Russians have their own chains. There’s “Coffee House” – literally transliterated from the Russian “Кофе Хауз.” Trip Advisor suggests it’s worth a miss. Chaihona No. 1, which features foods from the Caucasus and Uzbekistan, also dots the Moscow landscape.

But I still saw plenty of plain, Soviet-style eateries called simply Cafeteria No. 1 (never a No. 2). And even in a short visit, I still had plenty of experiences worthy of the old Soviet Union. At the airport, when I went to change money, the cashier just looked at me and barked, “What?”

At restaurants, some dishes on the menu weren’t available. Very Soviet. Even at GUM, they were out of “GUM-burgers,” the “house specialty” hamburgers.  On the plus side, the little ice cream stand at the entrance to GUM sold delicious cones in many flavors for just 50 rubles each, or about 85 cents. During Soviet times, even in deep winter, you could always find an ice cream vendor on the street.

Another Soviet holdover: The buildings are still terribly overheated. The only way to cool things down, still, is to open the window and then let the cold outdoor air blast in.

Russians also still have a “strong leader” fixation. When President Vladimir Putin orchestrated the annexation of Crimea last year, his popularity shot up – and soon, a pop-up store of “Putin-wear” appeared at GUM. 

In fact, Russian gift shops are full of Putin T-shirts, for a hefty price. Unwilling to spend so much on a gag gift, I had to settle for a refrigerator magnet showing Putin, a map of Crimea, and the words “Crimea is Ours!” And I did get a cool coffee mug showing Putin in a Frank Underwood-like pose.

Let me also be clear that I don’t really wish a return to the old dysfunctional Soviet past on the Russian people. It was just shocking to see how much the place had changed. And I hope I don’t pull another Rip Van Winkle, and wait another 23 years before going back.

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