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Modern Moscow

Moscow was bleak yet soulful during my first visit in 1988, but it has since transformed into a city of glitz and billionaires

Lee Siew Hua on 01 Nov 2015

The Straits Times


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Under a radiant October sky, I am standing on the Patriarch Bridge that arches over the Moscow River, and it is a deja vu moment.


It was on a bridge like this during the bleak Soviet years when a black marketeer, just a teenager, sought me out.


He pulled out tokens of Lenin from his thin jacket that wintry day in 1988 and asked if I had blue jeans in my hotel room - or cigarettes or American dollars.


His English was purely focused on these rough terms of underthe-table commerce and he could not understand when I asked if he was still in school.


The surreptitious glances he cast about belied his open grin.


Blue jeans? It may be laughably archaic now, but Levis were coveted in those days, when Soviet apparatchiks decided there was no room for a free-spirited symbol of American capitalism in the land - so no jeans would be produced.


The scarcity of jeans was matched by the shortage of almost everything else.


The stores I wandered into were disturbingly bare and, till today, I can visualise a lone piece of soap on one shelf and a random comb on another.




In the 1980s, Russia was still the Evil Empire of Ronald Reagan's searing Cold War rhetoric.


By the time I returned last month, a quarter-century later, the Soviet bloc had long fragmented.


Moscow is today a world capital of billionaires - surpassed only by New York - and every urbanite seems to have a pair of blue jeans or five.


My October journey, triggering long flashbacks, involves a return to classic places and new scenes, and it is enlightening that a city can change so profoundly even as we have been embracing the narrative of Singapore's transformation.


I step again into the grandiose, glass-domed GUM Department Store (www.gum.ru/en) on the Red Square, where I once saw an underwhelming choice of souvenirs at controlled prices, notably busts of Lenin (again) in any size, matryoshka dolls and caviar. 


Today, GUM (Glavny Universalny Magazin) sparkles as an emporium of fine goods from around the world.


Miu Miu and Montblanc are here, among the emblems of the consumerist West that Russia once repudiated.


And yes, Levi's now has a store in GUM, and this is poetic irony.


Now that I think about it, the heartland cities on my Trans- Siberian Railway journey, which preceded my Moscow jaunt, were just as replete with blue jeans and global merchandisers, from Ikea to Toyota.


When I step into Gastronome No. 1 in GUM, there are live lobsters, walls of chocolate, vodka galore, French cheeses, exquisite Chinese teas and more.


The place smells amazing - an intoxicating whiff of freshly made gourmet goods in the delicatessen and cake counters plus the scent of new Russian wealth.


International sanctions over Russia's rogue actions in Ukraine, rouble troubles and falling oil prices, however, have knocked some sheen off the super-rich lifestyle.


Elsewhere in GUM, I vie with Chinese tourists for the famous ice cream that comes in creme brulee, chocolate and vanilla flavours (50 roubles or S$1.10).


Ice cream has been a bright spot in Soviet life. In 1941, the Soviets set strict national standards for ice cream that has entrenched its special flavour till now - an extra creamy treat of all-natural ingredients.




The night before, GUM is lit up like a Christmas tree when I linger in the Red Square.


Nearby, the onion domes of St Basil's Cathedral (www.saintbasil.ru/en), already fantastical by day, are suffused with whimsically changing light.


I am told it is the Circle of Light festival (www.lightfest.ru/en) - somewhat akin to the Night Festival in Singapore - and each year, Moscow becomes a canvas for multimedia and light installations.


The relaxed atmosphere, on a Friday evening when nobody is in a hurry, is a world apart from the austere mood of my first Moscow visit, when I was also in town to write travel stories.


Then, rows of disciplined Russians filed past Lenin's mausoleum (now substituted by tourists). The hammer-and-sickle flag (supplanted by the Russian tri-colour), whipped about as if by the winds of glasnost, flew high in the Red Square.


At the time, Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, trying to launch the Soviet Union onto a new road of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic restructuring).


If Russia was on the verge of irreversible change, that story was not yet written and the mood in Moscow certainly could not reflect all the hopes and fears in the trail of the reform juggernaut.


Indeed, Muscovites did not smile much, a veteran Novosti journalist told me then.


"They went through hard times," he said simply. There was the Stalinist terror, the stagnation of Brezhnev's rule and, I would not have imagined then, a new season of pain when the Soviet Union dissolved into 15 republics in 1991 and the economy floundered for years.


Gorbachev, who fascinated me for a long time, resigned in 1991, a year after he won the Nobel Peace Prize.


Though life was hardly peaceable in the past, I saw the softer side of the Iron Curtain in unexpected moments.




An American consultant in the newsroom had cautioned me, ahead of my first trip, about the beady-eyed babushkas (grandmothers) who would report on guests to the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency.


My first encounter with a babushka, tough as a farmer, was in a market. She demanded to know where I was from, then thrust three sunshine-yellow gladioli into my hands as a gift, and I have never forgotten her kindness.


Then there was the young footballer who kissed my hand as I said goodbye.


Throughout dinner, he had tested his earnest English on me, I wrote in my story.


A Bulgarian at the same table laughed and said: "The Russians are beautiful people."


I remember hearing children laugh at the antics of a clown at a circus, where a Michael Jackson impersonator performed the moon walk.


Anywhere in the world, the laughter of kids is pure and contagious, and I recall the emotion of the occasion long after I have discarded my notes, just as I remember the first impossibly complex Russian word a kind soul taught me on the Aeroflot flight to Moscow: zdravstvuite, a formal way of saying Hello.


There was even a mystery caller, but he was not a man in a heavy winter coat and accent from the KGB.


It turned out to be a fellow guest at my no-frills hotel who called my room number to invite himself to drink vodka to my health. I said nyet.


In 2015, my abode is the elegant Hotel Baltschug Kempinski (www.kempinski.com/en/moscow/hotel-baltschug) and the Kremlin, across the Moscow River, is gorgeously framed by the windows in my suite.


Unlike the lodgings of the past, which tended to be somewhere between acceptable and abysmal, the Baltschug Kempinski, built in 1898 and recently renovated, has a lovely aura.


Delicious blini topped with salmon caviar, snipped chives and sour cream is served for breakfast.


Russia has a culinary tradition and I did dine well when I was a young journalist on my first trip. I had been invited by Holiday Inn, now the Royal Plaza on Scotts, ahead of its Russian food promotion.




The economy was closed and I could not take out roubles. And we were warned not to deal with black marketeers like the teen I met.


Penalties were heavy for the Soviet citizen and the traveller might be asked to leave the country.


In those days, when Moscow seemed forbidding, what moved me most during my week-long trip was the human face of Moscow.


I found people who seemed by turns resilient and dispirited, kind and expressionless, joyful like the children at the circus and dodgy like the unwelcome hotel guest.


My second time in Moscow, I have a much shorter window of 48 hours and, regrettably, I engage less with Muscovites.


Still, I relish the scenes of children scooting among the sculptures of a mother duck and her ducklings at the Novodevichy Park.


The playful sculptures were a gift from former First Lady Barbara Bush in 1991, when the Cold War ended.


In the park, too, a Russian baby in a pram plays peek-a-boo with me, reminding me of the children, full of wonder, at the long-ago circus.


And there are Harley-Davidson bikers at another park, while Old Arbat Street, the scene of punks and artists during the perestroika days, is carefree and golden under a scintillating sky when I visit on a Saturday afternoon.


Muscovites and tourists alike are shopping and strolling.


But then the old-school restaurant on the same street, where we have lunch, is rich in nostalgia and possibly also not-so-good memories.


Its elderly waiters, probably in their prime during my maiden visit, seem as dispirited as some denizens I encountered in the late 1980s, including an old woman, alone in a wintry park, who sadly whispers "nyet" when I ask if I could photograph her.


I can only imagine the hard times the waiters might have endured then and may still be enduring.




What is more certain is that my recent trip has restored a memory of my much younger self, who was awakened to the grand possibilities of travel.


Thinking about my three trips to Russia - also including a journey to Kamchatka in the Russian far east in 2012 when we camped on the remote tundra among reindeer herders and walked in summer snow - I know each has been a transforming inner journey, like all good trips.


Each visit has revealed little facets of Russia, an immense land that spells mystique and greatness for Russia-lovers who feel it is their "secret country", a phrase used by travel writer Pico Iyer.


We have unexplained affinities to certain countries. Russia is not quite my secret country, but I can imagine why it appeals deeply to its many sojourners.


My return to Russia this time is also about the joy of revisiting a country.


I have loved my subsequent trips to places such as Jersusalem, Tokyo and Seattle as well as Mount Kinabalu, where I realised the truth of author and ski instructor Lito Tejada-Flores's insight: "You never climb the same mountain twice, not even in memory."


For me, the Moscow I first discovered, just starting to peek from behind its formidable Iron Curtain, is now a vigorous metropolis - gleaming, more light- hearted and all transformed.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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