Open Road

Russian Roulette: On Moscow and Mixed Feelings

To go or not to go. That is the question.

By Scott Vogel June 20, 2016 Published in the July 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Before we begin, I want to tell you that Moscow seemed to me both the best and worst place in the world, and as such I’ve no idea whether you should or shouldn’t visit. Then again, perhaps only the greatest destinations on earth are capable of leaving one with such mixed feelings, in which case the crucial question becomes whether they are great in spite of the deep ambivalence they inspire or because of it, and your answer, whatever it is, will determine whether you should or shouldn’t visit Moscow. To the extent that the following article helps you make that determination, it will be a complete surprise to both of us.

Okay, let’s begin.

It is an unseasonably warm April evening, and my son and I are basking in the chic, old-world glamour of Café Pushkin, having donned coats and ties per the warnings of Lonely Planet’s fashionistas (“DO dress up for a night on the town”). Our candlelit table is in a window of the second-floor library, with its Queen Anne chairs, jade tablecloths and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with dusty tomes as heavy as the food. Olivier salads, meat pies, beef stroganoff, veal blinis, vanilla éclairs—the dining is as delicious and freighted as Czar Nicholas’s last meal.

“Should we take the metro back?” asks my 15-year-old, once we make our way back to the 21st century and Tverskoy  Boulevard. 

“Well, we could,” I answer. “Then again, we—ERRRRRRRRRRPPP!!”

It is the loudest noise of my entire life, a burp of both volume and propulsive intensity, one that no amount of effort can contain, nor any combination of capital letters or exclamation points possibly capture. A man in a Nike tracksuit more than 50 feet away, previously consumed by a text message conversation, looks up in abject horror. Tulips in a nearby flower shop wilt, and my son disappears down the street, apparently hurled there by the force of my blast.

“You are so embarrassing!” he growls once I finally catch up to him.

“It was an accident.”

“That’s just—terrible. I can’t believe you.”

“Oh, come on. It’s a burp,” I say. “In some countries, that’s considered the ultimate compliment.”

“Russia is not one of those countries.” This is true, and I know it. Russia’s contempt for burps is matched only by its disdain for farts.

“Well, maybe it should be,” I declare, trying desperately to pivot from humiliation to something approximating a teachable moment. “Or maybe I should just censor myself, like everyone else here. Maybe I should just hold it all in, deny the forces within me, succumb to Big Brother’s intimidation.”

My son shakes his head, giving me the we-both-know-you’re-bullshitting-so-why-don’t-you-just-quit look. But I can’t. In Moscow for just two days at this point, I am firmly in the throes of Ivan’s Revenge, which is like Montezuma’s except with diarrhea of the mouth. IR brings on a fever, a delirium that compels you to brand Moscow’s every sight and squeak (or lack thereof) as a byproduct of its failed political systems past and present. In its advanced stages, IR turns one into a Soviet dissident from the Evil Empire era, fulminating about the costs of totalitarian ambition.

“The question is,” I ask, gesturing vaguely toward an indifferent crowd at Pushkinskaya Station, “how much longer can these volcanic, elemental urges be held in check by inner and outer pressures? How much—ERRRRP!”

“That’s just disgusting,” says my son.

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Image: Shutterstock

Later, back at the chic Hotel Nikolskaya, I am awake for most of the night, glued to CNN International while finishing the last of my Tums Smoothies. As it happens, our visit coincides with the release of the so-called Panama Papers, revealing that some members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and perhaps the Russian president himself, are involved in a $2 billion money-laundering scheme. The country’s own media outlets, I notice, either ignore the Panama Papers entirely (Channel One), dismiss them as typical Western “Putinophobia” (Russia Today), or speculate about the possible damage to Jackie Chan’s reputation (Ren-TV).

In Iceland, thousands are gathering to demand the resignation of the prime minister, whose own financial chicanery is detailed in the documents. Moscow sees protesters too, two or three of them. They briefly hold up signs in front of the Duma building (“Putin Hides Money in Panama”) before being arrested and whisked away in a police van. Up against an arsenal of state pressure, media censorship, an apathetic public, and a shell game engineered by banks and law firms around the world, the forces of truth stand little chance.

“No wonder the matryoshka are so popular,” I say to my son the next morning, referring to the nesting dolls in all the souvenir shops, the ones that open up to reveal smaller and smaller dolls inside. “They’re the perfect metaphor for Russian society—a placid, cute exterior betraying no hints of the dark truths inside.”

I speak quietly. Just across Lubyanka Square from the Nikolskaya breakfast room is the headquarters of the FSB, which used to be the KGB and resembles it in more than name. Built as a mansion for a Russian aristocrat who fled the country in 1917, the Nikolskaya—after a loving, glittering restoration by the St. Regis folks in 2014—now sports an international jet set vibe, even as its doors are increasingly open to proletarian types like me, lured to Russia by the crash of the ruble and a perverse desire to confirm their worst fears. 

“Why are you hating on this place?” asks my son.

“I’m not—”

Our conversation is interrupted by the waitress, a young woman with an impossibly stern expression who is pretty in spite of herself. She pours the coffee and walks away without a sound.

“I’m not hating on it,” I say. “They are. Can’t you see how unhappy everyone is?”

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An underground Versailles at Komsomolskaya station.

Image: Spencer Vogel

“We are not an unhappy people. You are judging on the appearance.”

The words come from Angelina, a tour guide I’ve hired for the day, as we ride a long, crowded escalator down to the Moscow subway, alongside an equally crowded escalator going up. Every face gliding past, I can’t help remarking, is some combination of hangdog, suspicious, white and angry. “Seems to me that somebody needs to, you know, tell a joke or something,” I say.

“That is because you are American,” replies Angelina, also pretty in spite of herself. “You are always looking to smile and laugh. That is not part of our culture.” This would be a recurrent theme throughout our day-long tour. Among the things that are not part of Russian culture, according to Angelina: bragging, saying yes all the time, and homosexuality.

“What about that guy?” I say when, later, we pass a young man on Arbat Street sporting eyeliner, skinny jeans and a magenta murse. “That is not a homosexual,” Angelina says. He’ll do till one comes along, I whisper to my son.

Don’t,” he hisses.

Having quickly made up her mind that I am the very picture of hedonistic, Western superficiality, Angelina races us—at you couldn’t possibly understand speed—through a rainy and chilly Red Square. She rolls her eyes when I ask if we can visit Lenin’s tomb, grudgingly walks us through the forced cheerfulness of GUM department store, pointedly regards my waistline when I order wine at lunch, and abandons us altogether at the Kremlin Armoury.

“I’ll wait for you at Sbarro,” she says by way of leaving.

Whence begins my Moscow conversion. Perhaps it is the jewel-encrusted golden crowns of the czars, or Catherine the Great’s jaw-dropping coronation dresses, or the glittery bronze stagecoaches with velvet seats, but something about the Armoury lifts me out of my torpor. Suddenly, Moscow seems a city not of matryoshkas but Fabergé eggs, its intricate genius and beauty hidden behind a formal exterior. Unsmiling and impenetrable, it is like a Fabergé egg I want to open but can’t.

“That is a very—what is the word—corny thing to say? I think the word is ‘corny,’ yes?” asks Vera with a laugh. It is a different day, a sunny one, with a different young tour guide. Her reaction stops me cold.

“You’re laughing,” I say. “Russians. Don’t. Smile.”

Here’s the thing about the pretty-in-spite-of-themselves women of Moscow: They are as unique as the unhappy families in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Where Angelina was a masterpiece of flat affect, Vera’s emotional lability is by turns scary and seductive. One moment she is happily whisking us through Artplay, a former tea factory turned meeting point for the city’s emerging creative class, drinking in the energy of the art galleries, the design studios, the clever coffee shops. The next, Stalin’s evils leave her close to tears. She snickers at the vodka museum inside the kitschy Disney-esque historical village leading to Izmaylovsky flea market—a mecca for souvenir hunters the world over—and rolls her eyes at a tchotchke depicting Putin shirtless and riding a bear. But her mood darkens again amid the crowd of unshaven old men hawking Soviet war medals and ancient cosmonaut suits and hammer-and-sickle medallions pried from the hoods of train engines, all at rock-bottom prices. The post-Soviet after-Christmas sales continue.

“Somehow we endure,” Vera murmurs, shaking her head. The old Chekhov stage direction—laughter through tears—finally makes sense to me, as does Moscow itself, at least for a moment. It is a lambent place, a place of inextinguishable yearning for the modest and sensible outcome, where men stand in long lines to buy posies at flower shops (“Moscow women must have flowers”), where even a Ukrainian restaurant chain like Korchma can serve soul-stirring borscht and pelmeni, and Georgian khachapuri—a heavenly amalgamation of bread, cheese and fried egg—is found on every corner. Moscow is for high culture at the lowest prices (standing-room at the Bolshoi Ballet: $1.50), but also low culture of the highest quality—at the handsome new Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, say, where the crowd is young and no one flinches when an ululating woman gives birth on a bicycle.

I begin to feel a gnawing desire for pothole-free streets swept clean by merchants, for subway platforms as majestic as the halls of Versailles, and for long, slow escalator rides to the surface. The line of sad faces going the other direction no longer strikes me as remarkable. The remarkable thing is the five couples among them, making out furiously, as if descent itself were an aphrodisiac.

“We should move here,” I blurt out when we reach the top.

“I can’t keep up, comrade,” says my son.

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Souvenirs at Izmaylovsky Market

Image: Spencer Vogel

My trip to the best and worst place ends at the Moscow American Center, a 23-year-old organization that was run out of a Moscow library until last year, when Russian authorities revoked the group’s privileges, presumably because of worsening relations between the two countries. Of late, a room in the U.S. Embassy is providing a temporary home for the center’s programs and events, including the popular English Conversation Club, a place for lovers of all things American to practice their language skills.

This day’s topic of conversation, we learn, is shopping. Near a screen projecting an image of Costco—the caption, “What do you buy in bulk?”—sit dozens of Russians in groups of five and six. For some, especially those old enough to remember the bread lines of the ’90s, there is something undeniably exciting about a store selling trashcan-sized jars of mayonnaise.

“What do we want to talk about next week?” asks the club’s leader at the end of the hour-long meeting. “American culture,” proposes someone. “Traditions,” says an elderly woman. “The election,” says a man.

“Uh, let’s not do that one,” mumbles the leader worriedly.

  As we’re leaving, three young club members accost us, their excitement at meeting actual Americans bordering on the ecstatic. There is 16-year-old Timur, who emigrated from Uzbekistan as a baby. He goes to school, works as a sous chef in the Hotel Volga, dreams of attending a cooking school in Chicago, and is thrilled to connect with my son (“my first American friend”) on Facebook. Both of them tall and affable, the two boys are indistinguishable from behind. “I want to go to America because everyone is equal there,” he says with a smile.

There is also Sabina, who is studying to be a nurse and dreams of living in the States “where you do jobs that you like, not just jobs to make money.” And finally there is Murad, a college student from Turkmenistan whose T-shirt features a Manhattan skyline photo at sunset and reads “the city that never sleeps.” The 19-year-old looks at me pleadingly. “I want live Manhattan so badly,” he says, just in case there was any doubt.

I nod and grin at all of this, not telling Murad that Manhattan apartments cost only slightly less per month than the average Russian makes in a year.

I say nothing to the young chef about America’s epic income disparities in the new Gilded Age, its roiling resentment toward the top one-percent. And I do not disabuse the future nurse of the notion that ours is still a land of opportunity, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Someday, perhaps inevitably, they will all see the truth for themselves, see that America is not what they’ve heard, that it is instead both the best and worst place in the world. But that is for them to discover.

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