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 13: Still the Old Russia

July 23, 1993

Dear People,

On Friday some of you received a blank message. This accident was a result of poor line quality in the Moscow telephone system, which interrupted communication between Ian's computer and Glasnet. I apologize for the confusion. There follows the message I was trying to send, plus a few additions.

The Universal Language

When sound was introduced to motion pictures in 1929, many directors and other artists greeted it with great dismay. One of my film textbooks said that the makers of silent pictures had believed they had found a universal language, that would unite all the peoples of the world. The invention of the talkie was like a second Tower of Babel.

I had a small opportunity to test that idea on Tuesday night. Ian and I went to a showing of "City Lights," which Charlie Chaplin made as a silent film in 1931, two years after the introduction of sound.

Almost every foreign film shown here is voiced over by a single Russian announcer who reads all the parts in the same voice and the same tone. I figured that for a silent American film they would show an American print of the film, with English intertitles translated and read alound by an announcer, who would shut up during the rest of the film. Instead, we saw a 1936 Russian print of the film, and for the first time I was able to see how, back in the old days, foreign audiences perceived an American film.

There was no announcer. Instead, the intertitles were in Russian, which made sense; it would be easy to splice in new titles. What was more surprising was that on two occasions, when characters in the film received messages and the camera zoomed in so the audience could read them, the messages themselves were in Russian. I would dearly love to know whether these shots were done in Moscow, or whether during the original shooting a character had to make several takes. "OK, Fred. Now you hold the Russian telegram. Now you hold the Spanish telegram. Now the German. . . ."

My Russian has progressed enough that I was able to read most of the intertitles without any difficulty. But of course, even an illeterate in all languages would have little trouble understanding Chaplin's art. For the essence of the silents was not in the dialog, but in the physical and facial expressions. And as the tramp thrashed his way through life, all of us, Russian and foreign, did not wait to read a subtitle or listed to the dubbing. We laughed together.

Do you have permission?

Here's what being a semi-professional semi-freelance travel writer is like in Russia today. On Monday I was given an assignment to go to a place called Marfino. All I was told was that one could reach it by electrichka (a local train used mainly by people commuting to their dachas) from Savyolovsky Station, and that there might be a palace or some ruins or something.

After figuring out what electrichka station to go to, and what bus to catch from the station to the village, I arrived in Marfino about 11:30 on a rainy Wednesday morning. I was looking for a palace, but I had no idea where to begin. I took what appeared to be the main road, past two very pretty, but under-renovation, old churches. But past the churches, there were only contemporary Russian shacks and workshops, and one food store.

I kept on the road, until I saw on top of a hill a very handsome cluster of large, shiny, modern buildings. What set this apart from just about all the Soviet-era architecture I've seen is that it was actually attractive. White stone, iron balconies, graceful streetlamps, careful landscaping. Looked sort of like the Kennedy Center. Anyway, I decided that I might as well find out what it was, then go back toward the bus stop to look for the palace.

I walked up the hill, where several people were milling about in the courtyard. I stopped an old man in a jogging suit.

"Excuse me," I said. "I came here to see the palace, but I noticed this building. Could you tell me what it is?"

He informed me that it was a veteran's sanitorium. When I asked when it had been built, he took me into the reception area of one of the wards. "Is the library open?" he asked a young woman behind a desk. "No," she answered. "Ah, well," he sighed. "But maybe she can answer your questions," and he disappeared.

I introduced myself to the woman, and explained how I had come across the building, and what I wanted to know.

"I've only been working here for a year," she said. "But the supervisor would know."

We then went on a supervisor search. She led me through panelled halls, through opulent lobbies with broad staircases adorned with rich carpeting beneath enormous chandeliers. Past rooms with old men playing chess. A really pleasant place; I had to wonder for whom it had been built. We tried one station, then another, but no supervisors anywhere. Taking me back to the lobby with her desk, she suggested, "Why don't you wait here until the supervisor comes back from lunch. He'll be back in an hour."

I wasn't really thrilled with that idea, so I said that I would go out, take some pictures, and then come back.

"Oh, no, you don't want to do that," she said.

"Why not?"

"Well, it's raining!"

"Well, I have an umbrella."

"Look. I really can't give you permission to photograph the building."

Ah yes, the eternal Russian permission. "Even the outside?" "Even the outside. But wait a second, I'll phone another supervisor."

When she got back, she asked me, "Do you have any documents?"

"What sort of documents?" I replied.

"Like a letter saying you can come here and write about this place."

I showed her my Commersant ID, but it was no good. I had to have specific permission. "The supervisor doesn't like the idea of a lot of foreign journalists running around here asking questions," she explained. Then she said something about Perestroika, which I didn't quite catch, but which I think was something like, "Well, Perestroika and all that. . . but. . . . "

"But I'm not writing an article about this sanatorium! I came here to write about the palace, I noticed that there was a very beautiful building here, and all I want to know is the name of the architect!"

"OK. Wait a minute."

She disappeared, while giving some instructions to the guard, a young air force conscript, who also disappeared. I waited. When she came back, she had a small handwritten history of the Marfino estate with her. We didn't very far with that, since I kept misspelling all the names and didn't know a lot of the words she read me, like "serf." But just as she seemed about to lose patience with me altogether, we were rescued by the guard. Apparently, he had gone into the closed library to fetch a book about the town. Printed in 1985, it had nothing about the sanatorium. What it did have was a history of the estate, with a three-page summary in English. And then a lot of color pictures, essentially a visual check-list which I could use to make sure that I saw everything worth seeing.

I pointed out the English text to my benefactress, and told her I'd read it very quickly. I did, taking notes about dates, families, architects, owners, and so forth. Then I flipped through the pictures, and memorized which buildings I would have to find.

I returned the book, thanked the woman profusely, and left. I still didn't have the name of the sanatorium's architect, and I hadn't figured out the mystery of for whose sake the Soviet Government had built such a plush facility. But I did have all the information I needed to write my short article on the town. And better still, by the time I got out of there, the sun was shining.

All and all, it's easier to use a tourist office.

Behind enemy lines

There's a great scene in the Aeniad that takes place after the Greeks have feigned flight, leaving behind only the Trojan Horse and one soldier who slyly convinces the Trojans to take the horse into their city. Before they do that, though, the Trojans take a tour of the deserted Greek camp, terribly curious to see both the area where their enemies lived and the beach that they tried so hard to recapture for ten years.

I've had several experiences like that in Moscow, feeling like I am wandering through the camp of a vanquished enemy. On Friday I had an especially good one, a trip to the Air Force Museum, arranged by Ludmilla, whose husband is an Air Force general.

There were four of us on the trip: Ludmilla, me, and two of my friends who are also Ludmilla's students, Katherine Loda and Andrew Kaplan. When we arrived at the museum, which is about 35km outside of Moscow, we were met by a guide, who showed us the museum itself plus the enormous field of parked planes.

Our guide, Vasilly Ivanovich, was a World War II pilot who had spent 40 years in the service. But although most of those years were during the chilly part of the Cold War, he was perfectly nonchalant about showing three Americans the weapons that had been designed to kill them.

"And here's the MiG-15 that was used against the Americans in Korea. . . . This is a Sukhoi-15, like the one that downed the Korean Boeing in 1983. . . . And this huge thing, that's what you Americans call a "Bison" bomber, comparable to the B-52. It could fly all the way from Moscow to Washington and back. Fortunately, that wasn't necessary." There it was, the plane that I had had nightmares about as a kid, parked peacefully on a grassy field.

Korea, Gary Powers, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, it was all water under the bridge for Vasilly Ivanovich. The only problem he seemed to have with Americans is that they were too smug about the lend-lease program. "Sure it helped, but it supplied only a fraction of the planes we made ourselves, in Samara and Kazan." And he gave the numbers to prove it.

It would be nice to think that all Russian military types are like that, and that within a few years the main issue of contention between our military and theirs will be who really won World War II. Do you think the Germans would mind?


CNN did a tolerable job of reporting the Russian currency conversion SNAFU--long lines, the death of the ruble zone--but they missed one important aspect of the story (sorry Josh). You see, it's not just a question of changing old bills for new. The 1993 notes, now the only valid legal tender, only come in denominations of 100-50,000. Theoretically coins will replace the 1-50 ruble notes, but though I saw a fair number of coins in St. Petersburg, they are very rare in Moscow. As partial compensation, one is still allowed to spend one's remaining 1, 3, 5, and 10 ruble notes, but stores can't give them back as change, and there's little to replace the 25s and 50s.

Imagine that all coins in the US became worthless overnight. What would a postcard cost? A dollar. How about an ice cream cone? Two dollars. Here are some real-life examples.

  1. Yesterday morning--the first day that old rubles were invalid--I needed to make a photocopy. Photocopies cost R30. But the clerk wouldn't take my R5 and R25 bills. I had a new R100 bill, but he didn't have any change. What to do? "Do you have any cents?" he suggested. I dug around in my bag for a nickel, worth R45-60. "Hmmm. Five cents. Yeah, OK." He made my copy, and gave me an extra just for the heck of it.
  2. In the evening I went to a concert. Programs normally cost R10, which in fact was the price printed on the program. But no one had R10, so they were charging R100 each.
  3. Lyudmilla got on the commuter train this morning. A newspaper seller gets on board. "I'll take any money, even Kerensky bills!" he shouts. Every passenger buys a paper, even those who normally don't read, and give the clever salesman their worthless bills along with the hassle of standing in line.
  4. Today at the dry goods section of the supermarket, most people were asking the cashier to round off to the nearest R100 with hard candy. My purchase came to R450, and since I didn't want candy I was forced to dig out every grubby 10, 5, 3, and 1 ruble bill in my wallet.

When Gerashenko issued the policy, he said that there were plenty of new bills *and coins* to go around. I'll believe it when I see it.


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