By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Back in the U.S.S.R.?

I am visiting Moscow, for two conferences that coincidentally are taking place one right after the other, for the first time since I was a student. The city is a tumultuous assault on the senses!

Taking a train into the city from a crowded, chaotic, not-very-modern airport, I arrived at Paveletsky station, which is a bit outside downtown, to transfer to the Metro to my hotel. I suddenly had an amazing feeling of deja vu — not of Moscow during my one previous visit a long time ago, but of East Berlin before the fall of Communism, the kind of feeling that one cannot experience in East Berlin anymore. How to describe? Dingy concrete walls, blackened with soot. Concrete pavement ground down by countless people and not really maintained. Signs poorly lit. A passel of tiny kiosk-like stores. Far more people smoking than one would see in Western Europe or the United States.

I am staying at the Hotel National just north of Red Square, which creates a weird experience of its own because I had stayed at this hotel in my previous visit as a student tourist in the 1970s. It was actually more affordable for me on a student income then than it is now on a professor's income. At that time, it was a dingy and shabby shadow of its 1903 (pre-Russian Revolution) self. People with more money would have stayed at the Rossiya skyscraper, built by the Soviets in the 1960s just south of Red Square. Well, the Rossiya was so poorly constructed that it was demolished after the end of Communism, while the National was lavishly renovated to its 1903 glory and taken over by the French Le Meridien chain (since bought by U.S.-based Starwood Hotels).

I mentioned to the young people behind the front desk (who had asked me if I had been to the hotel before) that during my previous visit there was — as in all Soviet hotels then — a "key lady" on each floor from whom you had to get the key to enter your room and to whom you returned the key when you left. They told me they didn't know such an arrangement had ever existed.

Red Square itself is simply stupendous — in my opinion, easily one of the five most impressive urban spaces in the world. It is a huge pedestrian area right in the center of the city, surrounded at its edges with amazing architecture in every corner. By contrast, other huge urban squares, ranging from the Place de la Concorde in Paris to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, are filled with cars.

St. Basil Church, the one with the onion domes seen in so many pictures, is indescribably beautiful and unique with its passel of bright colors and beautifully jarring shapes. The walls of the Kremlin are large and impressive. Other buildings have a mixture of quasi Beaux Arts/Renaissance construction, such as the long, monumental GUM department store opposite the Kremlin, or the burnt-red, neo-Gothic-like grandeur of the State Historical Museum. They have rebuilt some of the original structures in the Kremlin destroyed by Stalin, such as the Resurrection Gate at its northern entrance, which was eliminated to make it easier to bring in equipment for military parades.

The GUM department store reflects another part of Moscow’s current reality: the spread of luxury consumption for the small group of rich Russians. GUM is still a collection of smaller shops, as it was in Soviet times, but it is now dominated by fancy French and Italian brands of perfume, jewelry (interestingly, they have Cartier but not Tiffany's), cosmetics, and haute couture. Indeed, I have never seen a city with so many billboard ads for perfume brands. Security guards were everywhere in GUM, but not many customers.

They have also built a small underground mall in the space between Red Square and my hotel — I don't remember what was there before, but my memory is that it was just open space with cars and pedestrians — that is more mass luxury than elite (L'Oreal rather than Guerlain). It was incomparably more crowded than GUM had been.

Prices are amazingly high. My breakfast at Starbucks yesterday, a small cup of black coffee and a pastry, cost the equivalent of $7. A similar meal at a U.S. Starbucks would be $4. (A small cup of coffee and a muffin at a McDonald's near my hotel was about $3.) When we had dinner at the restaurant/cafeteria of a business school outside the city, the prices seemed way out of the price range for students or faculty — between $20 and $30 for main courses and more than $10 for a banana-citrus smoothie. Asking Russian colleagues about this, I got the answer that they basically never went out to restaurants other than local places unless somebody else was paying. Many prices in the city, I was told, are based on what 100,000 rich people in a city of 15 million can afford.

One of the things that rich (male) oligarchs buy is Russian supermodel girlfriends. Women on the streets of Moscow are bizarrely divided between many dumpy "babushka" types and occasional incredibly tall, thin supermodels in training. It is a strange sight, almost as if the two groups were the product of totally separate gene pools.

Posted on Jul 01, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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