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Different Moscows
March 1997

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     Like a flag shown in the picture, Russia at the moment is not in its top shape. A bit abused, slightly torn apart, unhappy, and uneasily stirring, the country still tries to find a comfortable position in the hard-edged reality. The pace of life has accelerated, and for many it's too hard to keep with it.

Politicians of all ranks seem to be obsessed with a New Russian Idea. None of them has anything serious to offer, but everyone is positive that the nation needs some guidelines. Or at least something to gather around. Some begin to flirt with the Orthodox Church in an attempt to find there the hidden root of a Russian soul. (Here is a page that will offer you some info about Moscow churches.) There are, of course, many other confessions in Russia, and not necessarily they will be happy to see that The Russian Orthodox Church is selected to represent the State itself. But who cares about any minorities in Russia?

Moscow churches quietly await for the times of glory to return. Some of the church buildings, once confiscated by the Communists, have been recently given back to the Church. Some other still remain closed for services, still being used for secular tasks. Museums, laboratories, and occasionally even warehouses keep using the buildings. These two churches in Izmailovo are so nice, but their fate is still obscure.

In the meantime, religious items, genuine and bogus, bring huge profits to merchants. On Moscow markets one can easily find entire stairways packed with icons for sale. Looking so ancient. Most of them are actually modern stuff that has nothing to do with real tradition - or Church, for that matter. But of course the vendors will never tell you that.

Not surprisingly, hordes of foreign tourists come to Izmailovo Vernisage to purchase a piece of what they assume is a token of that mysterious Russian soul. The bullshit they get for enormous amount of bucks, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with real Russian tradition or history. On the other hand, only what you believe is what matters, right? The guys who sell the shiny items at the Vernisage, are very professional in making you believe. Not bad, if you stop to think about it. At least, Russia has recently produced lots and lots very talented salespersons. We are fast learners, and that sounds promising.

By the way, the whole style of Izmailovo Vernisage is designed to meet the expectations of foreign guests. At the entrance, a lady dressed up as an unmistakably Russian mix between a last century peasant and a Matreshka nested doll sells you a ticket. Not a regular policeman, but a Cossack with nagaika (a whip) instead of a trivial club is supposed to maintain the order inside the fence.

A very few Muscovites visit Izmailovo market. The items sold here are all invisibly but clearly labeled "For export only". They are here because they are supposed to be a part of Russia. They are part of the our image, almost as important as Russian tanks and missiles (and you can enjoy the sights of those too in several exhibits - but at least you cannot openly buy them in the streets!). If you prefer jet-fighters, not surface warfare, take a look at my last fall story. Why these symbols? I really don't know. Icons and tanks, two items that Russia can manufacture in abundance. Nothing for a comfortable quiet life. Just something to kill and something to heal the soul after the murder.

Is it really a Russian tradition or part of national character? Some agree with the statement, and I was not too much surprised when on the shelf of an American bookstore a few years ago found a book about Russia titled "An Icon and An Ax". So simple. Read the book. Visit Moscow on a three-day tour. Mark the country as read and understood.

Muscovites and Russians donít care much at the moment about all this philosophy. Most of the population is busy with more trivial tasks. They do their best to survive in a completely weird economy. The State still owns practically all industries, even those formally privatized. This ownership means that the State wants its employees to keep working, but not being paid for it. This is not unusual in Russian tradition. We have a saying that came from the novel of popular Soviet writers, "Saving of one who drowns is in the hands of that person drowning".

People wholeheartedly follow this simple advice. If somebody can play music, she or he gets out in the streets and plays for the money. Those who are not paid at their jobs, go to numerous street markets and sell whatever they can. Policemen work as private bodyguards for wealthy criminals. Since industry does not produce much under these circumstances, the good sold are mostly imported. And it's not surprising that the flags in front of a small and dirty street market represent Finland, Cuba, Brazil, Azerbaidjan...

Street vendors sometimes make a good profit. The volume of trade is surprisingly high for the country with not much production and the shelves of Moscow shops are full. Moscow obviously is getting richer. You feel that reading long pages with the names of expensive restaurants in a newspaper or simply observing horrible traffic jams.

Oh, Moscow traffic! It deserves a special report but I hate the mere idea of doing research for it. Fortunately, I do not drive, so do not experience all the pleasure of heavy jams personally. I'm also not an insider in all these horror stories of Moscow auto service. Not my lifestyle, thank Metro. I do not spend hours behind the wheel to get to a location where the Metro takes me in 15 minutes. But of course this is an issue of faith. If you truly believe in your car, you won't betray it using public transportation.

And if you are truly successful in your business, you'll get not only a car, but a house too. A house in Moscow is something really special, it may be difficult for you to imagine how much special. It's really the new idea, not the New Russian Idea, but the New Russians' Idea (and if you feel how dramatic is the difference, congratulations, you do already understand Russia a little!)

I'm not a realtor and cannot give you the exact price tags, but the houses in the photos are in the $500,000+ range by Moscow standards. Sounds good in the country with official annual income per capita around $2,000.

And of course single-family houses have always been unique in Moscow. 99.9% live in the apartments in apartment blocks. Even the President and every Minister. Yes, the apartments also vary in the size and luxury, but still they are cells in a block. A stand-alone house is truly outstanding. There have always been people, of course, who've been living comfortably and in beautiful buildings. Here is an example from the past, a nice house designed and built for Vasnetsov, a famous Russian artist after his own sketch. That was much earlier in this century, though...

Now this house that looks funny sitting in the middle of a cheap bed-room community and looks slightly out of place between ugly concrete blocks. It's a museum now, and a beautiful one. Not a very popular museum, but it only adds to its charming coziness. One of the places where official tours will hardly bring you. Not many visitors inside even on a weekend, devoted staff inside, and every curator ready to tell you endless stories about the former owner, both about his paintings and family. Do not miss the place if you are in Moscow on your own.

Technically, the spring has already come. March spells spring in Russia. There is still snow, and occasional serious frosts in the night, but now I can run a countdown of days that separate me from summer adventures.

I'm more lucky that the owner of this bicycle. In our apartments, there's no room to for keeping bulky things, and no basements or cellars. So bicycles have to suffer. This guy keeps his two-wheeled friend outside of his window on the roof of the shop occupying the ground floor. I use the balcony for the same purpose. But it won't be long before we take our metal-and-rubber friends inside, wash and oil the vehicles - and start riding again. And then there will be more stories to tell and pictures to share with you...


Andrey Sebrant -

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