Life beyond the lineups

MALCOLM GRAY March 2 1992

Life beyond the lineups

MALCOLM GRAY March 2 1992

Life beyond the lineups


Letter From Moscow

At Moscow’s 1,370-seat Star movie theatre, audiences lined up to see the 1984 Hollywood science-fiction film The Terminator. On radio, local disc jockeys praised the latest songs by native rock bands Black Coffee and Time Machine. And the city’s fine arts museum unveiled some of its dazzling new acquisitions. That small sampling of activity was part of daily life last week in Moscow, a sprawling home to 8.5 million people which, through news reports to the outside world, sometimes appears as nothing more than a run-down place of widespread shortages and looming chaos. Despite the hardships of everyday life, Muscovites do more than forage for food. Many find time for activities that range from attending fashion shows to cross-country skiing in parks. And last week, scores of couples dressed in their best clothes publicly displayed a personal optimism about the future: they got married. Said 21-year-old Tatiana Sabinin as she hugged Alexander, 20, her husband of 20 minutes: “Times are hard. But life goes on—and we are in love.”

Marriage registrations have remained fairly constant across Russia in recent years. But in a country where young couples are often forced to share a flat with one set of parents, successful marriages are a challenge. Moscow authorities recorded 85,000 marriages in 1991, but another

43,380 couples split up during the same period. Still, in the red-carpeted halls of Wedding Palace No. 1 in central Moscow last week, a constant procession of wedding parties lined up for a brief civil ceremony. Brides and grooms briskly rejected any suggestion that they should have postponed the big day until more stable times. “My friends say that getting married now is an act of heroism,” said Vladimir Balkina, a 20year-old radio technician. “But I believe that the spiritual side of life is always more important than economics.”

Still, the signs of hard times were apparent inside Wedding Palace No. 1, the pre-revolutionary mansion where, on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, a string quartet ushers couples into married life to the opening bars of the Wedding March. When Tatiana Sabinin exchanged vows with her carpenter husband, the slim, brown-eyed nurse wore a traditional— and expensive—white wedding dress. Like many Russians, she subscribes to the belief that getting married in a rented dress invites bad luck. But there were no pre-wedding toasts among the 10 friends and relatives who accompanied the couple to the hall. At 100 rubles per bottle, or about 14 per cent of an average Muscovite’s monthly wage, locally made champagne is now too expensive for many families.

The brief ceremony itself, conducted by a young female official in a blue formal gown, took place in an airy room illuminated by a crystal chandelier suspended from the high ceiling. In the only symbol of the former Communist era, a hammer-and-sickle brass plaque hung on the wood-panelled walls. Formal registration of their marriage cost the Sabinins 200 rubles (the equivalent of about $2), and the Sabinins said that their week-long honeymoon would be at an inexpensive Moscowarea spa. The young couple also paid a photographer another 200 rubles to record the event on videotape. After the wedding, they and their friends crowded around a television set in the foyer, taking longer to watch themselves on tape than it took to carry out the actual ceremony. Reluctantly, they tore themselves away from the tape of their wedding without paying an additional 200 rubles to purchase the cassette. Neither they nor their parents own a VCR.

Another landmark in central Moscow, the Pushkin Fine Arts Museum, also continues to operate through hard times. Named in honor of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet, it is an elegant structure of marble columns. Although adult admission costs only three rubles, the museum recorded a 10-per-cent drop in attendance last year. But it still drew about 1.5 million visitors to exhibits that include a fine collection of French Impressionist art. Irina Antonova, the museum’s director for the past 31 years, is now seeking private sponsors to maintain the institute’s extensive program of art courses, research projects and special events.

Although the cash-strapped Russian government has pledged to continue paying for the museum’s daily operations, state funding for such special events as classical music concerts faded away with Soviet communism.

“Culture and art are basic to our lives,” said the energetic Antonova.

The Pushkin cannot show all the latest acquisitions, she added, but now “we can show a selection without worrying about political interference or ideological correctness.”

One flight up from Antonova’s wood-panelled office, a group of parents and children listened as a lecturer interpreted Vincent van Gogh’s The Prisoners’ Round. Antonova expressed pride in maintaining such weekly art appreciation courses at affordable rates. The sessions are a holdover from the old system of state support. But that backing also encouraged a stifling brand of so-called socialist realism, which did not weaken until reformer Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. Even now, at a time of profound uncertainty in Russia, Antonova said that she still prefers the fruits of glasnost to the rigidities of orthodox communism. “In the past, we would never have been able to display works by such avant-garde Russian painters as Marc Chagall,” said the director. “Quite simply, the authorities did not approve of his work.”

Elena Kuptsova, 35, is one parent who regularly visits the Pushkin museum with her children. Kuptsova, a well-dressed English teacher, acknowledged that she and her husband, a foreign-service officer, worry constantly about the high price of food and other consumer goods. She now teaches English lessons in her spare time, which doubles the 1,000ruble monthly salary that she receives from her post at a local college (in Canada, the equivalent of her yearly salary would be about $1,200). “I am extremely glad that my children will grow up under another system,” she said, glancing towards her sons, six-year-old Vladimir and four-yearold Ivan. “We no longer have to live double lives—one public and one private. Now we can simply live.”

And after visiting the Pushkin museum last week, one of Kuptsova’s

exercises in free choice was to take her kids to McDonald’s, another Moscow attraction. With french fries and a vanilla milk shake costing 16 rubles each and a Big Mac weighing in at a hefty—by Moscow standards—46 rubles, many Russians have curtailed their visits to the restaurant. As a result, the lines of customers that once filed between crowd-control barriers curving around nearby Pushkin Plaza have vanished. Inside, however, patrons must still compete for recently vacated places among the outlet’s 700 seats.

There, in an unlikely setting that combines fast-food efficiency with the noise and bustle of a bazaar, one of the city’s charms flickers over the crowded tables: easy conversation. At neighboring chairs near a stylized brass palm tree, two strangers discovered that they, like many other Muscovites, regularly visit a nearby outdoor swimming pool that is open year-round because its water is heated to at least 27° C. Yevgeny Karmolin, a 34-year-old concert-hall technician, almost let his hamburger grow cold as he discussed the pool’s future with Gesya Avina, a

woman perhaps twice his age, who was in the restaurant for the first time.

There was no disagreement between Karmolin and Avina about the history of the pool site. Both of them knew that it had once been occupied by the 19th-century Cathedral of Christ the Savior, Russia’s largest Orthodox church. But in 1932, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin had the cathedral demolished as the first step towards building a grandiose skyscraper. That planned Palace of the Soviets never rose above ground because Stalin’s engineers could not design a way to anchor the massive building in the swampy soil. Instead, 28 years after the Communists razed one of Russia’s most sumptuous cathedrals, they replaced it with one of the world’s largest swimming pools.

But while Karmolin supported a Russian Orthodox plan to rebuild the cathedral on the pool site, Avina, a lifelong Communist, countered that such a proposal would mean the loss of a recreational centre used regularly by thousands of people. “I am not against restoring the church,” she said, “but let it be rebuilt nearby.” The two strangers parted amicably. But their disagreement underscored the countless choices faced by the new Russia as it struggles to emerge from the ruins of the old.