Over the past decade, I visited Moscow some twenty five times. But this visit to attend the International Conference on the Soviet Gulag was my first in three years. The conference hotel was in the center of old Moscow, a few minutes from Tverskaya and the Kremlin. I had a chance to walk around and check out familiar sights.
My ten-minute walk to the conference, in the former Institute of Marxism Leninism, took me past the Moscow Mayor’s office. Older people still refer to it as the Moscow Soviet (Mossovet), but most call it the Maiory (Mayor’s office). Nikita Khrushchev occupied this historic red-brick building as head of Moscow during Stalin’s rule.
Each time as I passed by the Mayor’s office, I counted the number of black Mercedes, Audis and BMWs waiting outside for their bosses. The average number was around thirty. The chauffeurs and body guards engaged in idle conversation as they waited. Russian politicians do not mind displaying their wealth and influence.
I do not like Russian television. It is idiotic game shows (20 years ago the prizes were like worth $10), singing contests, or soap operas, but I forced myself to watch the evening news one evening. In Soviet days, a dour announcer read the news accompanied by impersonal news reels. Things are different now.
The news segment I watched was a slickly-produced exercise in modern PR. It featured Moscow’s new mayor, appointed to replace long-time mayor Luzhkov, strolling through the city with a TV reporter lobbing softball questions at him. The Putin-Medvedev team decided that Luzhkov was too powerful, and they put this guy in his place. (Luzkov and his billionaire wife are hiding somewhere in Europe). He like every other politician was so corrupt that no one seemed to regret his departure.
At each destination, the telegenic new mayor cheerfully pointed out how he had corrected the mess that Luzhkov had made. He removed the more noxious billboards from Tverskaya. Gorky Park now had free rides for children. Most importantly, he rid the markets around train stations of criminal dark-skinned elements. The message was more subtle than in Soviet times but was perfectly clear.
The segment ended with a preview of an expose of Luzhkov, showing him clad in a tux waltzing with his wife at a gala ball. (Quite a change. They used to show him as ordinary-Joe playing football with his team).
Back to automobiles: As one walks along Tverskaya, cars enter from arched side streets. In virtually any other society, the drivers watch out for the pedestrians, but if the car is a black limo with official license plates, pedestrians must make way. Experienced Muscovites know that the back limo has right of way and will not hesitate to run them over. I learned this rule quickly when one almost took me out.
The biggest improvement I encountered is Aero express – non-stop trains from the three major airports to inner-city train stations. Arriving air passengers are now spared the nightmare of Moscow traffic. The Domodedovo Aero express has been operating for quite a while, but now it is spotless, offers a business class section, and has on-board catering. I assume Aero express is privately owned, but its slick brochure does not mention by whom. I could imagine the “fees” it has had to pay to get the rights of way. I can also imagine that it will be “taken over” by the political elite if it becomes too successful. Another Russian entrepreneur will eventually bite the dust.
On the Aero express back to Domodedovo, I engaged in an impromptu conversation with a woman who works as a lawyer in the criminal court system. She was fed up with Putin and with corruption and didn’t mind telling a stranger about this (Another significant change form the Soviet period). According to her, criminal justice is for hire. You can buy your way out of a serious criminal charge for less than one thousand dollars. You can buy yourself out of a murder conviction for more, but crooked judges and defense attorneys must first locate a fall guy to confess. The fall guy’s family is then taken care of financially. She herself has been approached but has refused. They know not to come to her any more, but she is one of few. She is counting the days to retirement.
I was not able to talk with many people from diverse backgrounds on this trip, but I did not find one person who wanted Putin to return to the presidency. The results of my fully unscientific poll do not jibe with the official polls that show Putin overwhelmingly popular.
The people with whom I spoke registered a deep sense of frustration and helplessness. They were going to the stuck with “that guy” for other six or twelve years. I do not envy them or Russia.