COVER

SPRINGTIME IN MOSCOW

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 30 1988
COVER

SPRINGTIME IN MOSCOW

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 30 1988

SPRINGTIME IN MOSCOW

COVER

As he squinted against the midday Moscow sun breaking through his windows last week, Tornike Kopaleushvili had the contented smile of a man who is realizing one of his fondest dreams. Last month Kopaleushvili, 48, who spent 26 years working for government-owned restaurants, became chief director of the Upirosmani Restaurant, one of Moscow’s handful of new co-operative dining spots. Now, he is responsible for most day-to-day decisions at the restaurant and he shares in the profits with the government. At the Upirosmani, which overlooks Moscow’s historic Novodevichy Monastery, Kopaleushvili serves dishes from his native Georgia against an elegant backdrop of original paintings on the walls and live music by two classically trained violinists. A longtime member of the Communist party, the restaurant operator said that the experience had taught him that “when you own a part of something, you work much harder and care more.” He added, “This is something I once thought impossible.”

During a late-blooming springtime, with the first tulips and tree buds only now appearing, Moscow is brimming with freedoms once considered impossible. Along with the co-operative restaurants and stores that now dot the city, Muscovites are enjoying new manifestations of the openness, or glasnost, that Communist party Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev has developed since he took power in 1985. One of the most popular theatre hits of the season, Dear Yelena Sergeevaya, includes nudity and frank sexual dialogue. On the Arbat, the city’s trendsetting central shopping and pedestrian mall, artists now sell wildly colored pop art and pictures of nudes, along with their traditional landscapes. Freedom is still a strictly proscribed commodity, but that it is breaking out at all is in itself remarkable.

Camps: In a poster shop, a government-sponsored cartoon shows a bureaucrat trying unsuccessfully to hide under an old instruction manual, while the caption—referring to Gorbachev’s campaign for economic restructuringreads: “Perestroika: you cannot hide from the new.” And recently a Soviet newspaper published a graphic account of life in a Siberian labor camp, marking the first time that the media has ever acknowledged the existence of the camps.

Newspapers now frequently publish letters criticizing aspects of government policy. And some senior Soviet officials, including Minister of Health Yevgeni Ivanovich Chazov, have appeared on late-night radio talk shows to respond to calls from listeners. At

the same time, as the Soviet Union celebrates the 1,000th anniversary of the Russian Orthodox Church, many old churches are being restored by the

government, while religious observance, traditionally discouraged by the state, is becoming more open. Said Tatiana, a 51-year-old practising Roman Catholic and former government employee who would not give her last name: “I used to hide my religion from everyone. Now, I feel I can gradually let more people know how I feel.” Declared a Moscow-based Western diplomat: “There are still limits on what can be said and done, but no one seems to know what those limits are.”

Freedom: Still, there are frequent and sometimes harsh reminders that Soviet citizens remain far removed from either affluence or political freedom. The average Muscovite earns about 200 rubles a month (about $400) but must pay prices far above North American averages for fruit and vegetables —and those

are often of poor quality. A pound of new potatoes sold last week at local markets for about $5, and tomatoes were selling for between $7 and $10 a pound. Shoppers lined up for more than an hour to buy pears selling for $8 a pound.

Food: Gorbachev acknowledged in a speech earlier this month that food production remained a “major concern,” and he added that the country was short of “meat, fruit and vegetables.” He said, “We have to look for cardinal measures to resolve that problem faster.”

Some Muscovites say that they are unconvinced that Gorbachev’s reforms will ever lead to economic improvement. “Under Stalin, prices were much lower, and you could buy meat at the market,” said Vladimir Kuznetsov, a taxi driver in his early 50s. He added that perestroika “has not made anything better for the people; there is nothing in the shops.”

As well, despite Gorbachev’s frequent calls for demokratizatsiya (involving individuals more in government decisions), the state still does not tolerate formal opposition. Earlier this month a group of about 100 people gathered in Moscow with the intent of forming the Soviet Union’s first-ever

Western-style opposition party, the Democratic Union. The party’s manifesto included the goals of establishing a multiparty political system, a mixed economy, independent trade unions, the withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Eastern Europe and a Westernstyle democracy. The manifesto also declared: “Freedom is the right to be against. We have been fully deprived of that right since October, 1917.”

KGB: But on the day their three-day conference was about to begin at the Moscow home of one member, the group was greeted by more than three busloads and 20 cars full of agents from the state security agency, the KGB. Although they were allowed to hold the first two days of meetings at the apartment of a member, more than 20 people were eventually arrested. Out-of-town members were put on trains to their homes the next morning. Later, authorities arrested Sergei Grigoryants, editor of the unofficial dissident magazine Glasnost, who was sentenced to seven days in jail on charges of “malicious disobedience.” After being released last week Grigoryants said that the authorities had confiscated his printing equipment and seized his files and manuscripts. And he accused the KGB of “consciously creating an unstable situation.” Said Grigoryants, who added that he hoped to continue publishing: “Who knows where it all will end.”

That issue has perplexed most Soviets since Gorbachev took power. On the one hand, dissidents, such as supporters of the Democratic Union, say

that the government has not moved far enough in expanding individual rights and curbing government powers. But traditional Communists—who many Soviets say are led by Yegor Ligachev, the No. 2-ranking Kremlin official—oppose the scope and speed of the reforms. The conservatives assert that ordinary Soviets are becoming unnerved and confused by the rapid changes.

For his part, Gorbachev has acknowledged the controversy over the changes he has introduced. “We found real confusion in the minds of many people—workers, intellectuals and administrators alike,” he declared in a May 7 speech to Soviet newspaper editors. He added: “Some people have indeed lost their bearings amid all the current processes. Some people have been taken aback and panicked.”

Painful: In fact, many of the

changes have been painful. Earlier this year Gorbachev announced that government cars which had been supplied to about 4,000 middleand high-level functionaries across the Soviet Union would be taken away. His antialcoholism campaign, which has coupled severe cutbacks in vodka production with stiff price increases, has proven so unpopular that government officials are now considering a slight increase in production. More seriously, because of the massive changes that Gorbachev has said are necessary to revitalize the Soviet economy, government economists now estimate that 16 million people across the country will have to be relocated or retrained by the end of the century.

Still, Gorbachev seems determined to press ahead with his program for change, and nowhere is that more evident than in Moscow. Adding a distinctly Western tone, McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada Ltd. signed an agreement last month with the City of Moscow that will allow the company to build up to 20 outlets in the city beginning next year (page 44). Astro Pizza Ltd. of New Jersey is already operating a truck that travels across the city, selling North Americanstyle pizza to long lines of waiting Muscovites. A Japanese sporting goods company is financing the first-ever baseball diamond in a Moscow park, and the city is

considering a request from an American businessman to build a golf course in a Moscow suburb.

The changes also extend to personal style. At an open-air market in the north end of Moscow, a young vendor recently sold badges featuring Western rock groups, including Iron Maiden, Madonna and Motorhead, alongside likenesses of Gorbachev and badges reading “Perestroika.” At the Bluebird, the newest Moscow nightclub, Western jazz and rock music is regularly played until the early hours of the morning. Blue denim jeans, which were seldom seen on Moscow streets even two years ago, are now common—but still expensive at $200 each. Said 29-year-old Sasha Maximov, who sells tiedyed jeans at a stall on the city’s south side: “People don’t buy much at these stalls. They prefer to buy state products because they’re much cheaper, even if the quality is poorer.”

Goofy: On the Arbat, long lines of mothers and their young children wait patiently to have their pictures taken with stuffed dolls of Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and Goofy.

At a cost of $13 for three fiveby four-inch photographs, Roman Kaikov, who works for a government-owned photography store, said that almost all of his business comes from Soviets and very little from tourists. “Tourists will not pay our prices, because they think we are too expensive,” he said.

But few of Moscow’s nine million residents are affluent enough to take advantage of the most striking changes—the availability of imported foods and consumer goods. Western diplomats estimate that only about 20,000 of the city’s residents have enough income to buy imported goods and foods regularly. The new co-operative restaurants and stores are also too expensive for most Soviets. Lunch in Kopaleushvili’s Upirosmani Restaurant costs $28 per person, or seven per cent of the average worker’s monthly income.

Although the official Soviet news agency, TASS, reported in January that about 200,000 members of the nation’s more than 140-million-strong workforce are now engaged in either co-operative or individual ventures across the Soviet Union, many Muscovites say that they do not use the co-operatives at all because of the high prices they charge.

Despite egalitarian rhetoric, Muscovites observe class distinctions as pronounced as those in major Western cities. On the huge boulevards that run throughout the city, the middle lane is reserved for foreign residents and senior government and party officials, who are easily identifiable in their large, black, chauffeur-driven Volga saloon cars—or Zil limousines for high officials. Gorbachev has tried to eliminate some perquisites of the bureaucracy, but many government officials

still shop at special diplomatic stores that stock Western items unavailable to regular consumers. As well, travel to Western countries is seldom permitted or affordable, because ordinary Soviets face severe restrictions on converting rubles into foreign currency.

Reforms: Indeed, many Soviets say that, while they greatly approve of the long-term goals of Gorbachev’s reforms, their everyday lives have changed very little. Declared Lyuba, a 35-year-old teacher who declined to identify herself further: “Nothing is better. In fact, some things are worse.” The antialcohol drive has resulted in a sugar shortage, because sugar is now being used for illegal black-market distilling. And although Moscow has not been as hard hit by the shortages as other areas, the daily party newspa-

per, Pravda, reported last month that demand in the city was running at 900 tons daily, compared with a planned consumption of 745 tons. As a result, shoppers have been limited to just over four pounds of sugar per person per purchase.

Delays: Some Muscovites also say that indecision over government policies has resulted in delays in services and supplies. Declared Lyuba: “It used to be that you would pay a repairman extra, and he would get a spare part

from somewhere. Now, he does not get it at all.”

So far, Gorbachev has done little to wean Muscovites from their traditional dependence on the highly developed black-market system. Called na lyeva (meaning, literally, “on the left”), the black market enables Soviets to buy goods that they could never find in state stores. Some black marketeers obtain their wares from Westerners or shops that cater to Westerners; others steal them from state shops and factories. Farmers often withhold produce destined for state markets and sell it privately.

Young married couples often wait between five and 10 years for a new car. But for up to 13,000 rubles on the black market, they can buy someone’s place on the list for a new Soviet-built

Lada automobile. And a bribe of a bottle of vodka to a mechanic will considerably shorten the wait to obtain an appointment or spare parts at a stateowned service station, which otherwise can take up to a year.

Prescription drugs, which are often not available at regular pharmacies, can often be obtained on the black market. Translations of Western novels, which are in short supply, cost $8 at a state bookstore, compared to up to $50 on the black market, where the variety is much wider. Vodka, which now sells for about $14 in government stores, and $18 if the buyer chooses to pay someone else to stand in line to make the purchase, costs up to $30 on the black market when state stores are closed.

Primitive: The shortage of goods and services that drives the black market is so dramatic that tourists arriving in Moscow are often astonished by the primitive conditions prevailing in the capital of a country recognized as a superpower. Local telephone calls to hotels or offices can become ordeals because offices do not have switchboards, and, as a result, every line rings separately, making it impossible to leave messages.

Few direct-dial telephone lines to foreign countries are available, and calls often have to be booked two hours in advance. On both local and long-distance calls, lines are often cut without warning.

Scarce food also creates many frustrations.

Often, the problems begin before the goods have even arrived in the stores. In an article in the Soviet labor newspaper Trud (or Labor) in early May, an economist, Dr. A. Antonov, estimated that the loss of potatoes and other vegetables that rotted before they ever reached stores cost the Soviet Union at least one billion rubles annually. Even items that appear to be safe can sometimes be dubious. Most foreign residents in the city stopped drinking the milk sold to local

residents after French Embassy officials warned last year that it might be tainted.

Even under Gorbachev, foreign residents in the Soviet Union are kept isolated from local residents. Almost all foreigners residing in the city, including businessmen, diplomats and journalists, live in special apartment com-

pounds guarded by sentries and wire fences. Foreigners are assigned different-colored licence plates for their cars—red for diplomats, yellow for journalists—and forbidden to travel more than 40 km outside Moscow without prior approval.

Liquor: At the special stores, known as beriozkas, which accept only Western currency, foreign residents can obtain some Western consumer items, liquor and foodstuffs not available to Soviets. Many of Moscow’s largest

restaurants have separate sections for foreigners, offering items that are not available to other customers. In turn, foreigners pay a higher rate in restaurants and hotels.

On domestic flights on Aeroflot, the state airline, foreigners are assigned to a separate departure lounge and boarded at different times to seats away from other passengers. Although Soviet government officials say that the process is designed for the comfort of foreign residents, others suspect a different purpose. “Privilege is a clever mechanism to keep people apart,” said British journalist Martin Walker, correspondent for The Guardian newspaper and author of the 1987 book The Waking Giant: The Soviet

Union Under Gorbachev.

Still, Western diplomats say that they notice a marked difference in the way they are able to deal with their Soviet counterparts. Declared one: “It used to be that certain items were impossible to discuss if you wanted to get anywhere with them. Now, they do not give you everything, but everything is on the table to talk about.” Watershed: Most observers say that the next critical phase of Gorbachev’s reform efforts begins on June 28, when about 5,000 delegates from across the Soviet Union attend a special party congress—the first such gathering in more than 40 years. Gorbachev has described the conference, at which he will seek a mandate for implementing further reforms, as representing “a watershed in our history.”

Until then, when Gorbachev’s power to continue his reforms becomes more clear, many Muscovites seem to be reacting cautiously to the changes taking place around them. Declared the 51-year-

old Tatiana: “We are not a people who change direction very easily.” For many, the most constant thread in Soviet life was outlined more than half a century ago by the poet Vladimir V. Mayakovsky, who said: “The earth, as we all know, begins at the Kremlin. It is her central point.” Despite the shifting winds of a Moscow spring, that belief seems unlikely to be uprooted easily.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH in Moscow