Sarah Godfroy motions with her hands: “Everyone gather ‘round. Everyone come closer. Sometimes people will join us who are not part of our group.”
It’s 1986, midnight in Moscow, and we have just arrived at Hotel Berlin. Twenty-three students, two teachers, and a handful of parents from Seattle.
It’s January, two days before the Challenger disaster.
The man who was trying to join our group shadowed us everywhere we went. Every tour, every restaurant, the overnight train trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg, the flight out, even, from St. Petersburg to Helsinki.
This was how the Soviet Union stayed at ‘full employment.’
Now every time I say to a Russian, “I was last here in ’86,” the door flies open to a discussion of before and after.
The first time, the Soviet effort to keep us separated from the people we were there to visit was undone by the explosion of the Challenger. Everywhere we went, people approached us on the street and offered genuine sympathy and concern and told us how sorry they were.
Now I am here for the World Track and Field Championships and am trying to find this new and different Moscow.
Still it's not easy, but you do get around and no one follows.
I undertake three epic walks.
The first is designed by Kirill, a smart and thoughtful front desk staffer at my hotel. With a degree in journalism, Kirill is working at the hotel to improve his already excellent English; he knows where he’s going.
I take the Metro to a stop short of Red Square and instead of turning left to the Kremlin, Kirill has me turn right towards a church. It’s getting late but it doesn’t matter.
The sun is setting, the domes are gold, and I have brought my camera.
I do a 6 kilometer ‘block’ which brings me around the Kremlin off the tourist path. In the distance I see the entrance Sarah brought us through on that frigid night twenty-seven years ago. We walked ten minutes from our hotel to Red Square and entered through an arch as the square burst before us.
As I approach the Kremlin this time, it’s not midnight but dusk on a warm evening that brings out walkers, picknickers, readers, and obsessive texters.
On the expansive lawn just ahead of me, a woman is giving her partner an energetic massage. How sweet, I think, how devoted of her to be so generous to him. The new Moscow, where public displays of affection - between straight people - are part and parcel of everyday life.
As the path brings me closer, I realize what’s taking place between them is a bit more than massage… who knew that on this day of only one final - the men’s 50k walk - there was so much action in the field events after all?
Not a chance of this happening in 1986, as this would earn you a one-way ticket into the Gulag.
Red Square is dominated by the Kremlin wall on one side and Gum’s Department store on the other. Then, there was great discomfort in having access to stores, food, and supplies everyday Russians could not get close to. Now, Gum’s is dominated by Western status symbol companies and still I wonder who has access.
A morning walk draws me to the cluster of new skyscrapers that now dominate Moscow’s skyline. A one-hour stroll becomes three and a half as I make numerous detours through neighborhoods on the way.
I stop at a café whose décor is dominated by heavy red velvet drapes that provide the faux intimacy that attracts us back to our own places like this time and time again.
An enormous graveyard unsettles me. I have strong enough feelings about not wishing to take up any space when I’m gone; if everyone occupies as much space as each person here, what will be left for our descendants? Photos are engraved into headstones, and many have etched autographs of the dearly departed.
I ask Kirill about this place, thinking I’ve stumbled upon a landmark when in fact this graveyard is one of many. “Moscow has millions of people. Moscow has many dead people,” he deadpans with irrefutable logic.
I arrive at the foot of the skyscrapers, expecting a vibrant downtown. There is nothing there. No restaurants or stores, no activity, no interchange. Few people.
“That’s correct,” says Kirill. “It’s barren.”
I wonder what the future holds for these new global status symbols. Moscow will have to figure out what purpose they serve, after the fact of building them.
I stop at a man’s dried fruit and nut store, and here I find the greatest contrast between then and now. Edibles from around the world are available for a few rubles.
His small store is immaculate; this is his dream. I am always struck by the wistfulness I feel at knowing I’ve met someone only once and won’t see him again - knowing he’s left a lasting impression.
Missing in ’86 was any sense of entrepreneurialism or opportunity. With so much attention focused on Russia’s billionaires now, this man’s dream is refreshing to encounter – and to support.
Wish I’d spent a little more.
A healthy foods restaurant half a block from my hotel causes me to abandon quickly my vow to eat in a different restaurant every day. To say that this contrast with ’86 is stark is to put it mildly. Then, bowl after bowl after bowl of borscht caused me to tighten my belt.
A third walk has me on the tourist trail, and on my last full day I walk two kilometers into Gorky Park and back again along the Moskva River. While much is made of the transformation of Gorky Park from carnival camp to Moscow’s answer to Central Park, no one needs convince me. I could sit here and read forever. Except, perhaps, in winter.
I enter a WC and the opening of the door triggers a musical cavalcade - opera in the toilet.
I decide to cross the river. It’s a spectacular day and Moscow unfurls in front of me like the sails on the enormous statue of Peter the Great on a ship. I wave to Pete and find myself back at the cathedral I’d seen at dusk a few nights earlier. I try to enter and commit a cultural faux pas. “No shorts,” says the attendant.
This time I decide to come full circle and retrace our entry into Red Square; I enter through the same archway as at midnight long ago.
Today, the joke is on me as Red Square has been turned into two public areas: one for an equestrian competition, the other enormous temporary stands for a concert.
Who knew that one of the biggest changes would be that now you can obtain a user permit for Red Square?
The neighborhood around my hotel emerges slowly. I come to realize that my quest for finding neighborhoods where ‘the real’ Muscovites live and work was something I needn’t have tied so hard to find. I’ve been living in one all along.
On and near Novoslobodskaya Street - which I’ve nicknamed “Death Alley” due to the freeway-like speeds achieved by motorists on this neighborhood’s main drag - I count five cafes, seven restaurants, and numerous kiosks which seem to be like 7/11s, but in one-tenth the space. There are tech stores, a pharmacy, clothing stores and a Metro stop… everything you’d need to live quite successfully without an automobile.
What strikes me as I stay in the same neighborhood for nine days is that I start to recognize some of the people. Beyond the predictable places like the restaurants and cafes where I’ve liked to hang out, I realize that what appeared to be a fairly transient neighborhood is only busy instead.
Language is my filter, and it’s through Kirill at the hotel and Anja and Albert at the stadium that I get as close to Moscow as I do; it’s their English that makes it possible.
Anja graciously appoints herself my host. Her snacks become mine, and every time a US athlete wins a medal she turns and says, “Congratulations!” On Friday and Saturday, when Russia has colossal medal hauls, I miss some congratulations in return and am kicking myself still.
When it’s time for their two-year-old daughter to leave early one day, Albert takes her home, not Anja.
Things have changed, indeed.
Later that day, when overenthusiastic guards try to keep Anja from joining her daughter, the guards get an earful. Anja is the only one I see break through the barricade without first having thrown a punch.
Communication is more than language and I duck into a neighborhood barbershop and sit for my intercultural haircut – something I’ve done in several countries now. Ludmilla, the barber of Moscow, does not know a word of English and I know as many of Russian. With a few gestures and lots of trust, I yield to her gentle instructions, and find my hair washed before her expert snipping as well as after.
I see my dental hygienist the day after I return. “Where did you get that haircut, Mark? It suits you perfectly. It makes you look younger.” Perhaps we could have stopped after two observations?
I return to an Azerbaijani restaurant where the owner’s English is far better than his menu’s. I want to find out what, exactly, is meant by “moving with yoghurt” as a stand-alone menu item.
Lamb proves to be the answer, though I note that the menu actually says “moving with a yoghurt,” and this leads to further contemplation of what, exactly, constitutes a single yoghurt – a whole new concept.
Vegetarian dolmas prove unusually chewy - a surprisingly musky taste for grains. I ask again.
Now I’ve had mutton.
So much for three years’ abstinence from red meat.
One evening on a subway platform a man recognizes my distress when I am hopelessly lost. He stops to get out his iPad and shows me my way to the stadium. Plans my route, actually, and does not let me go until he is sure I know the way.
“Downstairs and left,” he repeats, “downstairs and left.”
On my first night in Moscow I take a cab to Luzhniki Stadium. Never am I touched more than when the driver I’ve communicated with through writing and gestures returns late at night to pick me up.
When I tip him, he wants to know why.
I spend nine days shedding a receding memory of what Russia was like under Communist rule. Many times I begin to think I'm back in the USSR, but I'm not. Mikhail Gorbachev was General Secretary in 1986 and Vladimir Putin leads now - proof that change is not always progress.
Still, neither prevents me from finding Moscow; my comrades won't allow them to stand in our way.
* * *
On my last night, a man ahead of me on the Metro escalator is wearing
plaid shorts with argyle socks.
Guess I’m back in the USSR after all.