In gray Moscow, a longing for garish billboards

A longtime Moscow resident, aware that I had just spent some 40 months in the Middle East, grasped my shoulder and barked: "There is absolutely no better training ground for this place."

He is the most obliging of souls, it turns out, and says much the same to correspondents just in from New Delhi, London, or Newark, New Jersey. No matter. I am determined to quote him anyway and to toss out for starters, with far more assurance than my two weeks here should permit, this hypothesis:

Moscow in January equals Cairo plus slush.

It is also Cairo minus a few things, of course. Like sun, and desert dust, and street-side smiling and shoving and shouting, and hawkers, and traffic policemen who have given up on traffic policing. . . .

And color. It is hard not feel a decadent capitalist longing for even the garish billboard hues of urban America after a few weeks in the remoreseless gray of Moscow. I had never realized how much of the West's bright lights and glitter goes into selling the West's goods and services to the West's consumers. That doesn't matter much in the minutely planned chaos that is the Soviet economy.

There are no brands "x" and "y" on most official market shelves. Sometimes there are no brands at all, but more on that at a later date.

More, too, on the absent sun. I am assured it will be back on duty in time for the nastayaschaya ruskaya zima,m or "real" Russian winter, when temperatures plunge, someone rips the dingy cellophane from the sky, and slush turns to chaste and powderly snow.

Yet there is something puzzlingly Cairene here.

Muscovites, like the millions crammed much more tightly into Egypt's capital, seem to project an impregnable cynicism, a toughness, a durability. It is a quality Westerners might call street smarts.But it is more automatic, atavistic; less scheming and shadowy.

The Egyptians would call its practical side "baksheesh." To use the accepted Western translation -- "bribe" -- is to judge what is as natural to Egyptian (and, it seems, to Soviet) society as breathing is to a lung.

Wheels here don't just turn. They need grease, and they get it. Favors may be traded. Rare consumer goods become currency. If you know someone who knows someone who works for someone who knows someone else -- and many Muscovites do -- then products that just aren't around can be had. The system, if not exactly in the fashion Pravda might like to portray, ultimately works.

It is true that the system could work better. Life is tough. There may not be enough meat or vegetables or apartments; grease or no grease. But when, for most Muscovites, were things much better?

There may not be Western-style democracy. But what does that have to do with tomorrow's dinner?

There is also a careful Mideastern irreverence for the powers that be, but it is still not clear to this green Moscow correspondent how widespread the joking and jibing is.

Only a tiny minority seems inclined to seriously challenge party or state dogma outside its own circle. Few bother to do so, one suspects, even in private.

But even as Soviet media were sniping at the US-Iran hostage agreement, a waiter in a Moscow eatery found it in him to deliver a beaming "congratulations on your joy over the release of the hostages" to American diners.

And even as Soviet front pages were driving home the importance of the coming Communist Party congress, a young Russian acquiantance recounted:

"You know, right before Prime Minister [Alexei] Kosygin passed away last year , he was talking with President Brezhnev. He asked Brezhnev, "Why don't we just simply open all our borders and let people come and go as they please?'

"'But Alexie,' Brezhnev replied, 'then there would be no one left but us.'"

"' What,' comes the reply from Kosygin, 'do you mean by "us"?'"

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