Steak, fruit, direct-dialing: Can it really be Moscow?

Direct-dialing to the outside world by telephone . . . eating in clean, comfortable restaurants featuring such exotic (for Moscow) items as steak, green vegetables, and yogurt . . . watching waiters rush to bring you your order. . . .

Attending a press conference every day, given by a senior Soviet official, and being able to ask any question at all without putting it in writing first. . . .

These are just some of the things a Westerner in Moscow can do during the Olympic Games that he could not do before -- and will almost certainly not be able to do once the games end.

Sometimes I have to rub my eyes and look again to be sure that this is the same city in which I have lived for the last four years.

Visiting correspondents and tourists take these services for granted. "What's so unusual about direct-dialing, for heaven's sake?" they ask. But with all due respect, they don't understand.

Those of us who live here know very well that the approved method for calling London or New York is to place the call and wait up to two hours for the connection. On Fridays I have been told, "We have no lines until Monday.Call back then."

During the games (July 19 to Aug. 3) newsmen can go down to the press center on Zubovski Boulevard and book a call to anywhere. It comes through in minutes.

That's a real revolution.

(It doesn't always happen. Some delays have prompted Vladimir Popov, deputy chief of the Soviet organizing committee, to complain that "somebody" in Western Europe and New York wants to block news of the games.He denies the KGB is tampering with the lines. But in general, the situation is transformed.)

West European correspondents say they can direct-dial home -- an unheard-of luxury here. Closed borders are closed borders, and no Soviet citizen can direct-dial out. One suspects that not even Westerners will be able to do so for long.

There's even a code allowing direct-dial to the United States, a fact I now acknowledge, though I was guilty of open disbelief when a colleague tried to break the news to me the other day.

Eating out is almost unrecognizable. Usually, Westerners here don't do it. Service is ultra-slow, restaurants drab and often unclean, food indifferent, music too loud. Only a few are inviting.

But now in the press center itself a grillbar is open around the clock (or is said to be. I haven't tried it at 4 a.m.). There's a full- dress restaurant where waiters hurry and most of what is listed on the menu is actually available. The customary Russian rule is to list 50 items and provide three.

At the Cosmos Hotel, where 2,877 radio and telivision people are staying, the Kalinka restaurant has magically become fast-service smorgasbord.

A friend and I paid five rubles ($8) each to the cashier on the way in and heard her say: "Now you can eat all you want." In disbelief, we took a tray and asked a chef in a tall white hat behind an array of food for soup, fish, steak, french-fried potatoes, and green peas. Within 30 seconds we were looking for one of the pleasantly decorated tables, thoroughly nonplused.

What happened to the Moscow we used to know?

The press center also has a five-rubles-for-all-you-can-eat restaurant, and other hotels have similar arrangements to speed service.

The Soviets have gone to enormous lengths to feed tourists, press, and athletes, whose four huge Olympic village cafeterias overflow with green vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish.

Ordinary Soviet citizens, meantime, complain that meat in particular and fruit and vegetables in general are harder than usual to get, despite new stocks in stores.

But the tourists -- the biggest peacetime influx in Soviet history for any single period -- are being taken care of. Officials say there were about 46,000 foreign tourists in Moscow on the eve of the big track and field competitions, which were expected to draw even more -- even though about 100,000 from Western Europe and the United States have canceled.

The daily Moscow press conference is, in a way, the most fundamental change of all, even if it is temporary.

The resident Western press hardly ever meets a Soviet official who will answer impromptu questions on a wide range of topics. The idea of daily press briefings of the kind held by the White House and State Department is alien to the rationale of party secrecy and power.

All interviews must be sought well in advance, by letter, with questions spelled out. If the interview is granted at all, extra questions can be asked -- but only on the topic in hand.

Now, however, the organizing committee is obliged to hold a daily press briefing as previous host cities have done. It is handled by the urbane, widely traveled Mr. Popov. Before the games he was deputy minister of culture for 12 years, handling sensitive questions on artistic freedom and censorship. Many believe him to be a senior officer in the ranks of the KGB.

So skilled has he proved himself at the briefings that he could give a daily briefing after the games, and resident correspondents would not know much more than they do now.

He smiles when he gets a soft, friendly question from a Soviet or an East European correspondent. He looks stern when British, US, or French correspondents rise in the auditorium (where TV cameras pick up each questioner) and ask why a French track star was searched for 20 minutes at the airport on arrival, or whether the KGB could be tampering with phone lines, or why agents ripped film from news cameras during a demonstration in Red Square.

A lock of gray hair falls over his forehead. He purses his lips. Often he doesn't answer directly but goes off on a tangent in a way familiar to anyone who has attended briefings in Washington, D.C.

Blandly he denies that the presence of Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat here as an honored guest strolling in the Olympic Village implies any Soviet acknowledgement of terrorism. Emotionally he dismisses the Red Square demonstration as "dirty" and refuses to say more "out of respect for all of you here." (Some felt a direct answer about the seized film would have shown more respect.)

The French athlete had not been searched, he said, only "thoroughly checked" according to law.

Moscow -- ah, how it has changed. At least, for now.

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