From Russia, with glitter
Letter from Moscow
July 10, 2001
This was my second visit to Moscow. I visited the Russian capital for
the first time in 1988. At that time, Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika
were the order of the day. At the Red Square, his portrait and signs calling
for political opening and economic restructuring were prominently displayed.
In the 10 days of my first visit, I could clearly observe the dismantling
of the old Soviet system. We had been warned not to engage in the black
market. We were told that the KGB informers were around the corner and they
would arrest the transgressors. Ruble stood at an exchange rate of 4 to
1 US dollar. On the second day, it had dropped to 6. By the fifth day,
it stood at 12:1.
Greed took over. Some of us dared to negotiate with the lanky black
market dealer approaching us in the elevator. He was revealing the rubles
hidden behind his long and dirty raincoat. It was a delicious feeling to
have beaten the KGB at its own game. As ruble kept dropping day by day,
it became more profitable to openly exchange on the streets. The police
was watching, and no arrests were taking place. On the foreign exchange
front at least, the Soviet system had practically come to an end. Following
the official demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, ruble collapsed to its
lowest level of 10,000:1. It has now recuperated to its current level of
On the political front also, my first visit was memorable. We held a
series of meetings with communist politicians and journalists. The older
generation was holding the Cold War ideological line of animosity with the
West while the young longingly spoke of the need for greater contacts and
friendship. There was a tension between the old and the young. It was clear,
however, who is on the rise. As discussions proceeded, the older generation
hedged and softened while the young were becoming more outspoken and assertive.
In the historical struggle between the two sides, Westernizers were winning
over the Sovietphiles.
The Intourist Organization, a government monopoly, had organized my first
visit for a group of 60 world media, academic, and political leaders. In
this respect, too, my second visit was in sharp contrast to the first.
It was for the purpose of participating in an international conference jointly
sponsored by the Toda Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research (based
in Tokyo and Honolulu) and the Center for International and Political Studies
in Moscow. Both research organizations are non-governmental, focused on
global peace and policy issues. Some 33 participants from 25 countries from
Europe, Asia, and North America had come together to celebrate the UN Year
of Dialogue Among Civilizations by working on a new peace agenda for Eurasia.
The new Moscow looks radically different from the old. Instead of the
political portraits and banners, the city was now lit with huge advertising
billboards. The glittering new skyline and neon lights dominated the view.
In contrast to the Moscow of 1988, the new Moscow is bursting with energy.
All the signs of globalization and privatization are visible ranging from
McDonalds to sushi bars, Samsung, Nokia, and half-naked models. The old
government department store at the Red Square, which in 1988 displayed long
cues and inferior goods, has now turned into a modern shopping mall no less
glamorous than its American counterparts.
The Moscow women display seductive fashions comparable to those in Paris
and New York. The men are smartly dressed in jackets and ties. No forlorn
signs were visible except for an occasional beggar here or there. They
showed us the other face of Russia, the poverty and despair dominant in
the hinterlands. We attended a concert and a circus filled with enthusiastic
and prosperous-looking audiences. The cost of a ticket to the Bolshoi Theatre
used to be $2 dollars in 1988. It now stood at a whopping $75. The hall
was filled to its maximum capacity. There were enough people in Moscow
who could afford this cultural luxury.
Our visits to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Duma taught us a few
lessons on the nascent Russian democracy. At the Duma, we met two Vice-Chairmen
who could not have been any more different in their styles and messages.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky is known to the world by his chauvinistic demands that
Russia must regain its past imperial glories. He is reported to have said
that soon enough Russian soldiers will be washing their boots in the Mediterranean.
Yes, Russians are now washing their boots in the Mediterranean, but as tourists,
refugees, and prostitutes.
Zhirinovsky ranted and raved in a monologue in which he blamed everyone
for Russia's decline except the Russian Mafia capitalists. In the 1990s,
a small group of plutocrats and operators robbed Russia of about half of
its national assets. President Putin seems to have brought that process
to an end. But Russia has still a long way to go before its economy can
start over again. In the meantime, the widening gaps in wealth and income,
the cruel war in Chechnya, and a brooding Russian chauvinism threaten the
future of this proud and unhappy nation.
The conversation with Vladimir Lukin, another Vice-Chairman of the State
Duma, promised of a more rational and responsible Russia. In contrast to
the humorless Zhirinovsky, Lukin demonstrated a keen sense of humor and
irony. His critique of Western policies towards Russia was apt and precise.
He questioned why expand it if NATO does not continue to be a Cold War instrument
of power politics? If we wish to have a safe and secure Europe, why not
include Russia in NATO? If the United States wishes to have a "New
World Order" of law and inclusion, why continue the economic sanctions
against Iran, Iraq, Cuba, and North Korea? Why call them "rogue"
nations while the United States itself refuses to abide by such international
norms and treaties as the Landmine Treaty and the Kyoto Treaty? These questions
beg for reasonable answers.
The new Russia promises to be more democratic but no less critical of
the Western ways. The Westernizers have the upper hand today. But if Russia
is not integrated into the world economy and its fruits of higher standards
of living for the Russian people, the Sovietphiles may come back with vengeance.
For us guests of the new Russia, another KGB was watching us with its Kindness,
Generosity, and Beauty.
Majid Tehranian is professor of international communication at the
University of Hawaii and director of the Toda
Institute for Global Peace and Policy Research.