The Letter from Moscow

It has politics, history, architecture, Clinique and Calvin Klein—not to mention 80 percent of the wealth in Russia. Reggie Nadelson reports on The New Moscow.

There's a shopping mall in the middle of Moscow, right under Manezhnaya Ploshchad—the massive plaza where serried ranks of Soviet tanks and trucks bristling with nukes once awaited entrance to Red Square. With its stained marble and fake columns, it's the brainchild of Moscow's mayor, Yury Luzhkov. Above-ground the mall's skylights erupt like an outbreak of flying saucers and the bright green grass resembles Astroturf. As soon as I get into my suite at the Hotel National, I realize this thing, this eruption, has partly destroyed my view of the great vista past the old Lenin Museum (even Lenin's wig was there), the Kremlin, and St. Basil's with its onion domes on top. Approach St. Basil's from the other direction and the view is interrupted by a sign for VISA. Welcome to the new Moscow.

I've waited a long time for a room with this view. I push aside the curtains further; I can just see the Kremlin after all. And anyhow, it doesn't really matter, because like some character in Chekhov, I can never wait to get back to Moscow. This is my eighth trip in a dozen years. I went first in 1988 to work on a documentary for the BBC and also because, in 1988 with glasnost in full swing and Gorby a magnet, every journalist on earth was going. Who could resist this incredible piece of history in the making as the Soviet empire began to crack? I went back for more documentaries, more articles, and for the four thrillers I've written that have as their detective hero Artie Cohen, a New York cop who was born Artemy Ostalsky in Moscow. He has a past there. Now, so do I.

Moscow doesn't lure one with its aesthetic charms. For those, one goes to St. Petersburg. Moscow attracts those with a passion for history, pulling oilmen, bankers, investors, those who are looking to cash in; computer guys who see a huge gap in the still nascent market; sales-people and executives from Rolls-Royce, Dior, and Benetton. Like New York, Moscow was always built on commerce. Since its beginnings over 850 years ago as a trading post on the Moskva River, it's been driven by the arrival of anyone with anything to sell: exotic merchandise from the East, architecture from the West, politics, religion, arts, revolution. Mongol hordes, the Ivans (the Great and Terrible), Nordic princes, Romanov czars, Italian architects, French aristocrats, Soviets, and now Westerners with consumer goods to flog and the new Russians, whose creed, you could say, is shopping. The new Moscow bristles with shops.

And, finally, the comforts of a good hotel, such as the refurbished National. (Until the early 1990s, Westerners' conversations here focused largely on the miseries of Moscow hotels: "You think the Rossiya is lousy? Ha! You never stayed at the Minsk!") The National is an elegant 1903 building in the "Style Moderne" (the Art Nouveau of Russia), where Lenin spoke from the balcony of suite 107.

The staff at the National is friendly and efficient, the exquisite staircase and elevator frames—all wrought-iron flowers and leaves—have been preserved, the rooms are well furnished, the bathrooms immaculate and well lit. The velvet drapes in my room are the color of pale cranberry yogurt. Cranberry and pistachio seem to be the "in" colors of the new Moscow—in drapes or in the double-breasted jackets worn by men with big muscles.

In the bar the National's peppy marketing manager fills me in on the attractions (he loves the shopping mall) before he hurries off to his country place. He's waiting until after 8 p.m. to avoid the traffic that holds Moscow in gridlock every evening.

It was in the dining room, through the lace curtains, the snow coming down outside, that I first saw Red Square. (In the film version of John LeCarré's Russia House, Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer have dinner here.) I arrived on February 1, 1988, in a blizzard and stayed, with some colleagues from London, at the National. It's hard in Moscow not to think about the past, recent, distant, the Soviets, czars, the way things have changed and not changed at all. Russia is a place that's always been pregnant with its own past. The men in our "delegation" had rooms with a view. I had a room with a view of the air shaft. I rushed down to the desk where a woman with a runny nose and a baggy cardigan spoke formal English. Could I please have a room with a view of Red Square?

She shook her head. Nyet.

"But you don't understand," I said. "I've wanted to come to Moscow all my life, and I want a room with..."

She looked at me without compassion. "Here you may want," she replied. "But here you may not necessarily get."

At midnight we went out into a frozen Red Square—the snow up to our ankles. The scale was thrilling: St. Basil's Cathedral like a crazy parti-colored pineapple; the department store GUM with its glass roof; Lenin in his red-granite tomb guarded by goose-stepping soldiers; Gorbachev in the Kremlin, where the red star glittered.

Silent, huge, and powerful, Red Square was—and still is—one of the most astonishing public spaces I had ever seen. This is the heart of Moscow, its guts, its soul.

They sell Clinique at GUM now, and a guy done up as Lenin loiters on the square, but this is no theme park. I promise myself I'll spend some time inside the Kremlin, in its Cathedral Square, its churches and the galleries; the Kremlin is a city unto itself, and it seems untouched by this new Moscow, driven by neon and advertising, shopping, and unfettered capitalism.

The new Moscow is the Wild West: It's America in the 1880s and the 1980s at the same time. Moscow has 80 percent of all the wealth in Russia; the English-language newspaper The Moscow Times reports foreign news, business deals, tabloid scandal, new jewelry shops, weekend vacations in Slovenia. The crazy prices (you could easily spend $500 on a meal) have come down since the '98 crash. President Putin promises to clean up the corruption and crime, but it is still a free-for-all: Gigantic modern buildings go up everywhere; the main boulevards are dotted with child beggars, babies in their laps; pensioners get poorer; the rich fly out to shop at Bergdorf's in New York and Harrods in London. There are hookers and strippers, artists and actors, AIDS and drugs in what is sometimes called "Moscow Babylon," a gambler's paradise where at least one casino, the Beverly Hills, is owned by Chuck Norris.

Like any metropolis, Moscow has its urban nightmares. In August a bomb was exploded in the Pushkin Square underpass and there was pandemonium. And then, as in any big city—New York after the World Trade Center bombing, Paris after the subway bombs, London in the throes of the IRA—everything returned to normal.

To better understand Moscow 2000, I hook up with my old friend Svetlana Kunetsina the night I arrive. I've known Svetlana since my first trip to Moscow, when she was a sort of underground style guru. Now she reports on the arts and fashion for a Moscow TV company. She suggests dinner at the Pushkin Cafe. As we stroll up Tverskaya, Moscow's main drag—an ugly boulevard—I spot Tiffany's and Chevrolet. In the pretty side streets, where the 18th-century houses—pale-yellow, terra-cotta, eau de Nil—have been refurbished by foreign companies, are St. Laurent, Versace, and Godiva. The things most Muscovites have always wanted, after all, are foreign.

Svetlana, of course, longs for the arrival of Russian designers and for the locals who would buy from them; she recalls that in the 1920s the Constructivists produced one of the century's great design cultures.

Blonde, six feet two and raffish in her linen pants and white shirt, the cuffs unbuttoned, Svetlana murmurs to the Pushkin Cafe's manager and we're swept up the staircase in what appears to be a turn-of-the-century townhouse. It is mostly an illusion. The rooms where you can eat and the library, for instance, are modern fakes, more or less. But then the Russians have always been good at make-believe.

From the Pushkin's roof we can see the Moscow skyline, punctuated by the Seven Sisters, the gothic Stalinist skyscrapers that were meant to make the city a rival to New York. We eat herring, smoked eel, blini with caviar, and the Russian dumplings called pelmeni. Svetlana drinks Campari. My vodka comes in a bottle shaped like Alexander Pushkin, who is sometimes known as Russia's Shakespeare. I want the bottle. It's $90, but I buy it anyway. The prices at the top restaurants are in dollars, and the waiters address you as "Madame" in a country where people are still unsure about courtesy titles; for 70 years "comrade" replaced them all. Most common now is "gospodin," which means master. I like "comrade" better.

Looking out from the National's restaurant the next evening I'm transfixed as an armor-plated sports utility vehicle big as a tank pulls up, then another. Sandwiched in between is a Mercedes with tinted windows, and from it emerges a tough, well-suited guy who's immediately surrounded by bodyguards from the SUVs—crew-cut guys in Armani-style jackets bulging with weaponry. They escort the gentleman into the hotel nightclub, then return to the SUVs to wait. One of them produces a box and, to kill time, the guys begin munching little cakes with pink frosting.

Street crime is way down from the mid-nineties, and Svetlana assures me one can stroll the center of town comfortably. If you want a cab you stand in the street and hold out your hand; someone will pick you up, usually an ordinary driver who wants to make a couple of bucks. A hundred rubles should get you anywhere. Svetlana refuses one driver who wants a lot more.

"This is how you rip off the motherland," he screams indignantly, seeing she's with a foreigner.

Quietly, Svetlana replies, "I don't see you giving to the poor."

In fact, like most Muscovites, Svetlana takes the Metro, which is warm and cheap and has the stunning stations Stalin built as palaces for the people: Ploshchad Revolyutsii station with its sculptures of muscled soldiers and workers; Mayakovskaya, all Art Deco and ceiling mosaics.

It is always tempting when you revisit a city to head for your favorites: the Art Nouveau Hotel Metropol for brunch; the pink Bolshoi Theater; Yeliseyevsky, the delectable food store with its decorated ceilings; the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts and its Impressionists, especially Monet's awesome monochromatic of London in a purple haze. I love the Novodevichy Monastery, and its cemetery where anyone who was anyone is buried. Khrushchev, Chekhov, Gogol, Shostakovich, are all here, but it's the tomb art I'm crazy about: the nuclear scientist with three-dimensional stone missiles; the bureaucrat with a telephone. Russia is bliss for lovers of kitsch. As soon as glasnost arrived, flags, busts, posters, objects intended for reverence, became objects of fun that mocked the system. The emergence of kitsch as a style was tangible evidence of the political crackup, and I wanted a piece of the action. First onto the market were the satiric matryoshke. The matryoshke (little mothers) are those traditional Russian painted wooden dolls, smiling girls with head scarves. Suddenly, the dolls appeared with politicians on them. I bought Gorbys and Yeltsins. I bought a Yeltsin alarm clock. Now, I want more.

It's a wet dreary day, but, uncomplainingly, Svetlana comes to Izmaylovo with me. At Moscow's flea market I pick up a Putin doll. A Bill Clinton doll has Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers, and Ken Starr nesting inside. I also nab a 1950s toy tractor with a farmer in a blue cap on the seat. The price is still marked on the bottom: five rubles. An expensive toy for a privileged child.

It's pouring now, and we are starving. Svetlana takes me to lunch at Le Gastronome in one of the Seven Sisters. Le Gastronome is all marble and crystal chandeliers; you can get a good steak or lobster and, during the week, eavesdrop on power lunches and cell-phone conversations.

That night we eat at Le Duc—perhaps the best restaurant in town and looking as though it could have been airlifted in from some French château. Franck Hardy, the cheery "directeur de salle," pours the wines. The sole is perfect. But if you don't want French you can get the Russian country experience at Shinok, which has a real courtyard and a real ox. A goat too.

The next day I visit the farmer's market with my friend Vladimir Pozner. More food: lamb, pork, beef, watermelons, plums, peaches, pickles, onions, cheese, honey, and fish. The salmon is cut thicker and is sweeter than our smoked salmon. The sturgeon is like pale silk. And the caviar! Half a kilo of fresh sevruga is only $70. I ogle. Vladimir translates. I order another tin.

I first met Vladimir Pozner, the television journalist, on that same trip in 1988. Born in Paris, raised in New York, the son of a Soviet, he moved with his family to the USSR in the late 1940s. Vladimir became a journalist, a Soviet spokesman, and to those who saw him on television in the West, an apologist for the system. In 1986 he returned to New York for the first time and says that, on the bridge into the city, he felt his heart stop. He was home. He's a citizen of both countries now, with a successful show in Moscow, where he is admired for his impartiality and candor in addressing controversial issues. He also has a face well suited to TV: Slavic cheekbones, cool eyes, a smile that lights it all up.

Vlad, who has stuffed his Mercedes with food, has invited me for a weekend at his dacha. Half an hour from Moscow, the city is ringed with pretty countryside, and Muscovites, like all Russians, are obsessed with it; everyone who can has a place, a shack, a bungalow, their dacha. The new Russian builds a "kottedzh," a make-believe English country cottage. With gilt furniture and expensive pictures, the "kottedzh" is to the English cottage as Marie Antoinette was to a milkmaid. A century ago the sounds in dachaland might have been of birch trees sighing and Russians weeping. These days it's the racket of new building.

The Pozners' country place is a pretty, modest house on three acres of land, and though Vladimir and his wife, Katherine, have a great apartment in Moscow, most days even Vlad, an utterly urban guy, retreats to the dacha. Stock up on fresh air. Replenish the soul.

Back in town Vlad stops the car near the river so we can see Mayor Luzhkov's grandiose statue of Peter the Great. It must be about 150 feet tall, and it's perched on a pole that includes an old sailing ship (Peter created the Russian navy), except the ship looks like the Santa Maria, and Peter a failed attempt at Christopher Columbus.

We try to get a closer look but two cops, who recognize Pozner and ask for his autograph, stop us. Access is closed. People try to blow up the statue because it's so hideous. There are still artists in Moscow.

This sense of well-being lasts until I'm back in New York. But writing this postscript, I see I was lulled into a false sense of security. In those pockets of privilege, in the company of old friends in good restaurants, I was seduced by the changes in Moscow, by the sense that it had become a modern European city, a place of urban pleasures, a place where people speak their minds and are not afraid. And it has. But this is Russia, and the years of Soviet corruption and failure layered over the centuries of czars make it a country that often can't function. It is, in ways, still medieval.

Millennial Russia has a way of making you trip over your words. Fall in love with it and it betrays you. In August, a Russian nuclear submarine explodes and falls to the bottom of the Barents Sea, a crew of more than a hundred locked inside. Out of old-style Russian pride, or perhaps just knee-jerk Soviet resistance to revealing disaster to the world, President Putin fails to ask for foreign assistance. Vladimir Putin was raised in the Soviet Union, and he came up through the ranks as a good, efficient KGB guy. In the freezing waters, trapped in the sub, the sailors die. Later that month, the Ostankino Television Tower in Moscow catches fire; several die in the inferno because emergency services barely exist. Moscow loses all broadcast TV for a week. The tower, a symbol of Soviet power dominating the Moscow skyline, was for years among the tallest structures on earth. Suddenly it threatens to tumble to the ground. Ten years after the fall of the Soviet empire the crackup continues.

 

Moscow Now

 

Moscow, in its own right, has tremendous allure for the historian—amateur or scholar—after all, half the great story of the 20th century took place here. But it's a big, messy, incomprehensible city with some gorgeous churches, museums, and streets, so for most people it's a city worth visiting for three nights in combination with a trip to St. Petersburg, or perhaps Vienna, Prague, or Berlin.

Everyone talks about Moscow as crime central, but Mayor Yury Luzhkov has cracked down. Still, this can be a tough city, so act as you would in any big city. You can get all the consumer goodies now, so you don't need to bring toilet paper or candy for the kiddies. Moscow prices, though high, are like those of most major cities. (A few years ago they made Tokyo look cheap.)

When To Go
All cities have their natural season; Moscow's is winter: The snow. The fur hats. The soldiers in the street eating ice cream (Russia has great ice cream). It's cold outside, but the buildings are warm, and so is the subway—the spectacular Moscow Metro.

Where To Stay
There are only four hotels worth mentioning. The Hotel National has good service, a friendly staff, and wonderful views from the rooms and suites facing Red Square. The Hotel Baltshug Kempinski just across the river facing St. Basil's and Red Square from the other direction, is where movie stars tend to stay. It's reputed to be the most luxurious, but the lobby is a bit glum. The Metropol, to one side of Red Square, has the most wonderful Art Nouveau tiles and a terrific winter garden for brunch; the rooms are various—some amazing, some gloomy. The Sheraton Palace Hotel is modern, efficient, comfortable. Some people (the actor Ralph Fiennes, it is reported) also swear by the Savoy. For a sense of the weird history of this town, take a look at the Hotel Rossiya. It's just off Red Square, has 3,100 rooms, and is pretty awful, but it will give you a sense of what it was like to be here in the bad old days of the Evil Empire.

None of these Moscow hotels could compete with a really topnotch grand European hotel, but they're all comfy, reasonably efficient, and central. All of them offer car services, which pass for taxis—the best way to get around Moscow, though not cheap (around $20­$30 a ride). All have concierge services, although I found at least one concierge at the National to be straight out of the old Soviet school—sullen and inefficient. On the other hand, the peppy marketing manager was wonderful and full of advice. In any case, if you want a restaurant booked, any of the concierges can do it for you. Incidentally, the rooms in many of these hotels are not really hooked up yet for modems. And if you do get on-line, make sure you have a local access number. One woman staying at the National just used her regular number and ended up with a bill of around $7,000!