The Taiga Home Companion: Letters Home from Moscow, 1993

Introduction | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14

Part 2: Ice Planet Hoth

March 1, 1993

Well, folks, the big news is that Ian is back in Moscow, along with his laptop, so this edition of The Taiga Home Companion is being composed and transmitted not from Laura's computer, way the heck across town, but from my very own apartment. Thanks to everyone who has been writing; with luck, I'll be able to respond both more punctually and more thoroughly now that I have much easier access to a computer. At least, until Ian takes off to Novosibirsk or some place like that. We've had some queries about the cost of e-mail. It costs me about 3-4 cents to send a message to the states, plus a few dollars a month flat fee. Cheaper than US domestic mail, in other words.

It's been snowing hard here in Lake Udruchyonniigorem, frosting the fur trim on the Muscovites' coats in glittering white and in general making the whole place look like Ice Planet Hoth from "The Empire Strikes Back." Surprisingly, Muscovite drivers don't seem to be able to handle snow any better than Washingtonians. Not only do they lack snow tires, chains, front-wheel drive, and kitty litter, but no one ever taught them to upshift. I've spent the weekend watching hapless drivers in the courtyard tear branches off of trees to place under their rear wheels and summon teams of neighbors to help push their Ladas. By now their are several icy spots in the driveway where every car gets stuck. But on with the story. . .

Moscow and New York Compared

Moscow is a lot like New York, only much, much cheaper. The two cities are roughly the same size, I think. I heard a figure of 9 million people for Greater Moscow. That's big enough that when you're in the middle of the city, it's hard to imagine it ever ending. In Washington or Boston, you get the feeling that if you keep on going, you'll hit less developed land, then suburbs, then eventually woods or fields. In Moscow, the gut feeling is more that if you keep going you will get to another city center. Of course, there is a limit, and in fact my neighborhood, Kruylatskoya (by the way, I am translitering everything by whim, rather than by method) was woods until a few years ago.

Central Moscow is not as built up as Manhattan--is anywhere as built up as Manhattan? The average building is perhaps 10 stories tall, comparable to Washington or Paris (sorry for all the name-dropping, but it's my business as a globe-trotter.) But there are a few buildings that are massive enough to suggest Manhattan. Most notable are the seven "Stalin Gothics," built after the war to house, educate, and prvide working space for the New Soviet Man. They are to the Empire State Building what a football linebacker is to a basketball forward--not as tall, but much more solid. Think of the sets for "Batman Returns." They are tall enough to provide focuses for vistas, an effect you don't get in Manhattan, where skyscrapers block the vistas, or in D.C., where there are no huge objects in the sky. I kind of like them.

As for outer Moscow, what I've seen consists mainly of complexes of 18-story high-rises. It sounds impersonal, but it's not too different from my first home: Lincoln Towers, on Manhattan's West Side. True, Kruylatskoya is about five times the size of Lincoln Towers. Anyway, Andrew Kaplan (Harvard '92) argues that Moscow is all built on the wrong scale, that it's too intimidating for human beings and that the New Soviet Man never came. But I disagree. It's not as pretty as New York or Paris, but it's not wholly different either.

As for manners, it is definitely a big city here too. After taking the Metro at rush hour or waiting in a long line with people butting in, it's easy to think of Moscow as the world's largest assertiveness training course. But then you watch some children playing in the snow (and Russian children are unbelievably adorable) and you realize that there is plenty of humanity tucked into the concrete niches. All of which brings us to a song, an old Leonard Bernstein number, sung, of course, by Miss Ivy Austin:

Moskva, Moskva, kak gorot!
Kreml' starii i ya molot!
Kruylatskoya--Alexandrovskii Sot!
Moskva, Moskva, kak gorot! !

(Moscow, Moscow, what a town! The Kremlin is old and I am young.

Kruylatskoya and Alexandrovskii Sot are the endpoints of my Metro line--not a bad translation of "The people ride in a hole in the ground," considering that I don't have a Russian rhyming dictionary with me.)

Moscow Apartments

OK, I'm judging almost entirely on the basis of apartments being occupied by Westerners, but I did have dinner at the Maslovs (there son, Sergei, is our age, and his parents have more or less adopted the whole colony) and all of the apartments come furnished. So here are some characteristics of Moscow apartments.


Am I even spelling that right? Anyway, the basic decorating asthetic tends toward extreme ornateness, despite the lack of resources. So you get wood veneer wall units with plastic scrolled trim, elaborate chandeliers with fancy shades, whose effect is marred by the shortage of light bulbs, and tables sagging beneath the faux cut glass. Toto, we're not in Crate & Barrell anymore.

Andrew (who SOUNDS as if he knows what he's talking about) says that this "luxury" was used to buy the loyalty of the USSR's brighter professionals., back in the bad old days. Would you censor your thoughts for plastic trim on your bookcase? Don't answer too quickly.

Uninviting entrances.

Oddly, many buildings full of fairly nice apartments (including mine) have dark entrances, creaky, graffiti-stained elevators, and unlit stairwells. It must be the byproduct of some tax law somewhere, that discourages maintenance on the common areas of an apartment building.

Shoddy hardware.

What's the best way to meet your neighbors? Did you know that Russian deadbolt locks allow you to lock yourself out, even if you have the key? These are just some of the thrilling questions answered in this week's Adventures in Russian hardware. Let's just say that everything here, from light swtiches to mailboxes is made out of flimsy plastic or rusted metal. I think every toilet in this city runs, either because the stopper doesn't stop or the ball valve doesn't cut off the water when the tank is full. And don't try to jiggle anything--it is likely to snap off in your hand. If anything in Russia drives me crazy, it is likely to be the plumbing.

As I held the broken ball valve in my hand, I reflected--If this is how Russians build things, why were we so worried about all those tanks in East Germany? Then I remembered how many nuclear reactors are still operating in the former USSR, and I became very sad.

Ruskii Yazik

A Canadian listener to the program asked a most impertenant question about the context in which I had encountered the Russian tongue. Actually, there have been three contexts: 1. It was one of a dozen cold appetizers at the Maslovs' dinner. 2. I'm trying to learn the language here. And 3. When I try to make a "ch" sound, my tutor, Ludmilla, puts her Russian tongue on the roof of her mouth and says "ch-ch-ch. Yazik zdes!" I decided soon after my arrival that I very much wanted and needed Russian lessons. You don't absorb language through your skin, and with all the Yanks around me I wasn't going to be exactly immersed in Russian. But tutors are cheap, and I would have plenty of opportunity to practice. So I asked the gang for advice, and ended up engaging the services of Ludmilla Gregorievna, who was recommended to me by Katherine Loda, one of the group.

Here's what I know about Ludmilla. She's about 50 years old, I'd guess. She's married to an Air Force general. She's a professional language instructor at some institute, which is supposed to get a cut of what I pay her but won't, because everything in this country is done off the books. She knows enough English to correct my translations, but she has not spoken a single word of English to me, ever. The closest she came was a phrase in Spanish, which sounded so familiar and easy compared to this wretched Russian that it was like a mouthful of apple pie. But mostly we talk in Russian. It's hard having a conversation when you only have 400 words, and many of them are solid words like "railroad station" and "armchair," leaving you unable to express ideas like "same" and "different" or "many" and "few." I haven't managed to negotiate a tuition with her, for lack of verbs (Katherine pays 50 cents an hour; I expect to pay about $2.25) But it's certainly better than the almost entirely passive drill that passed for language instruction in high school.

We meet for two two-hour sessions a week, and I spend a lot of time beside that memorizing vocabulary and grammar. What I like most is the reinforcement I get from my surroundings--reading signs in the street, tuning into a Russian radio station for a bit. A farmer's market is a great place to practice your numbers. My feelings about the language vary from day to day. Sometimes I despair entirely--so many words, so many unpronounceable combinations of syllables! Other times I think I am beginning to get a handle on the language, as I begin to see some of the thornier words not as long strings of gibberish but as combinations of roots and prefixes. But whether I feel it is easy or difficult, fun or agony, I go on. Because I believe that studying Russian is the best way I can show my respect for Russia, and honor my hundred million hosts. And who can forget the strip tease in "A Fish Called Wanda?"


A couple of people have asked about what sort of news sources I have. Well, it varies. There are two good English-language dailies that have their own reporters for Moscow and Russian gov't news, plus wire stories for the rest of the world. You can pick them up free at expat hangouts, like the US embassy or the hard-currency stores. But I don't go to such places every day, so I don't always get one.

Then there's the shortwave. I've gotten broadcasts from Canada, Australia, Germany, and Sweden, but the only stations I can get with any reliability are Radio Moscow and the BBC. Radio Moscow broadcasts long, awkward, hard to understand "commentaries," and if you tested me on my comprehension of them I'd fail badly. As for the BBC, sometimes you get real news, sometimes just cricket scores. Oh, Laura, Mike, and Bill have CNN, which I sometimes see. The upshot is that you never know what I'll know about. I read about Eric Clapton and the Grammies, but I had no idea that there had been an enormous anti-Yeltsin rally here until I got an e-mail about it. I'm trying to keep focused on major themes, like the fact that there is an enormous crescent of violence involving Moslems stretching from Somalia to India. Moslems are attacking (Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan), being attacked (Bosnia, India) or just fighting each other (Somalia, Afganistan, Iraq). Does this make sense to anyone?

Sorry for the rambling folks. You can cancel your subscription at any time and keep the free Sportsphone. Later, dudes.


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