Moscow 'Bizness' Bush Won't See
Lively consignment and luxury shops, bitter war exhibit signal shifts in Soviet culture
MOSCOW — FOR the most part United States President Bush is seeing Moscow from the window of his limousine as it flies down the city's broad boulevards from the US ambassador's residence at Spaso House to the red brick ramparts of the Kremlin. Here are a few scenes from the Moscow that Mr. Bush won't see:The Commission Store There is no sign identifying the undistinguished two-story building at 22 Olympiski Prospekt. The curtains on the first floor windows are drawn. Inside a dimly lit lobby people sit on cushioned benches along a wall, waiting for their number to flash on a board above a doorway. Welcome to Moscow's highest-class commission store, a consignment shop specializing in jewelry, and gold, and silverware. Alla, a computer engineer, nervously grips her bag. Somewhat reluctantly she shows the silver bracelet she has brought. She waits her turn with the assessors. If they accept it, the bracelet will go on sale upstairs, and if sold, Alla will get the money. The store, like hundreds of similar ones across the city, gets its commission - 7-10 percent. "I need cash," Alla explains. Since the massive hike in state-set prices in of April, Alla has found it tough to make ends meet. "I got a raise, but I still receive less than 300 rubles [about $10 at current market exchange rates] a month." Upstairs in the showroom Olga, the salesgirl, stands behind a glass case filled with elegant silverware, some of it engraved with family initials. A set of spoons sells for 972 rubles [$32]. An antique silver ladle for 4,900 [$163]. Most who bring these in are pensioners says Olga. "They have very little to live on. They dig these valuables out to support themselves." There are those who can't wait for the goods to be sold in the commission showroom. For them there is always Dmitri, a permanent fixture hanging outside the glass doors and even venturing into the lobby to pick off his victims. In Dmitri's black bag is a set of portable scales. He will weigh the gold right there and peal off some rubles from his stash - less than the commission might bring, but in cash on the barrel-head. "Most people make only 200-300 rubles. Now its summer and parents want to give fruit to their children," Dimitri says. "It's all very expensive. Fifty-to-seventy percent of the population has less than they need to live. Those who do 'bizness,' they are still making money. And they come to buy only good things." Dmitri is vague about what he does with his purchases. He claims to melt them down to make gold chains. Anyway, he concludes with disdain, "this is a country of fools. You can make money from hot air here."
The Estee Lauder Store Perhaps Bush might drive down Tverskaya Street, known until recently as Gorki street, the Fifth Avenue of Moscow. Not far from where the street empties into the Manezh square bordering the Kremlin, there is what appears to be a sign of the new capitalism - a store of the US cosmetics firm Estee Lauder. But George Bush may not notice the permanent crowd outside or understand the peculiar rules that govern the store's operation in the mangled world of Soviet economics. Entry requires an invitation. That precious piece of paper comes from factories and government agencies that hand them out as rewards to their employees. The invitations grant one the right to buy a limited amount of perfume, colognes, or lotions. These passes are in turn often sold or given to friends in exchange for other favors. Galina got one from a friend. She is unusual because she wants to buy something for herself - very expensive perfume at 250 rubles for a tiny bottle. Those in the crowd outside the store have another aim. They pay people with invitations to buy them goods - "They know everything on sale and its price," says Galina - which they will then sell for a profit on the black market.
The War Exhibition Around the corner from Estee Lauder, at the Central Exhibition Hall, red and black banners artfully draped over a scaffold proclaim a new show on "The Afghan War." It has been little more than two years since the last Soviet soldier crossed the Amu Darya river from Afghanistan, marking the end of an inglorious decade of combat in that mountainous Central Asian land. The exhibit is perhaps the first collective reflection on what many have called "the Soviet Union's Vietnam," their own defeat at the hands of poorly armed but determined guerrillas. The long, curving, white walls that divide the hall are covered with stark black and white photos of men at war, and art such as an oil painting of Afghan men in turbans squatting outdoors to watch a film on Lenin projected on a sheet. There are color panoramas of beautiful Afghan valleys and bustling markets, alongside rich oriental carpets. Amid the images, the organizers have reproduced slices of a soldier's life. Armored personnel carriers and Army trucks stand beneath mottled camouflage netting hung from the ceiling. The tail of a jet fighter is surrounded by sandbags. Ammunition boxes are piled up next to tents. A field hospital, complete with operating room, stands along a wall. Iron bunk beds are stacked in a pyramid, each pillow adorned with a single rose, a photo of a fallen comrade leaning on the blue wool blanket. There is no public display of guilt for a war that left 1 million Afghans dead and several million refugees, and there is no overt questioning of the cause. A grainy photo shows 14 men in fatigues, posing at some unknown desert site, the members of a KGB "anti-terror" group that assassinated of Afghan President Haffizollah Amin on Dec. 27, 1979. But this exhibit is not without undertones of bitter irony, especially toward the Soviet leadership of Leonid Brezhnev that secretly planned the war. A stacked set of four televisions continually replays a tape of Brezhnev in his senile last years, being pinned with yet another medal on his crowded chest. In obvious counterpoint, democrat and anti-war leader Andrei Sakharov appears in a series of photos. There are more photos of the physicist- turned-dissident than of current Soviet President Mikhail Gor bachev, a fact Soviets practiced in the art of reading between the lines will not miss. And among the paintings of soldiers, there are other messages. The message "15,000?" is written on a poster at the end of a flag-draped coffin, reminding us of the still-unconfirmed number of Soviet war dead. Around the corner, scrawled across a surreal war scene, an artist declares: "Wherever the Bolsheviks led us - it took us to a dead end."