The Return: Going Beyond the Surface
Then it happened: By a combination of forces only semi-under my control, a government job returned me to Russia in July 1998. The Moscow opportunity opened suddenly after two people left the local office, further reinforcing Russia’s fearsome reputation. I also knew that a friend of mine was coming soon, but he was gung-ho about it (He liked the perversity of going where others feared to tread -- but he also liked living Zaire for two years).
So I left my life of six years living in Washington with three week's notice, with no language training. My old college Russian dated circa 1982 would somehow have to serve again. I was both nervous and excited about what lay ahead. While this was a return to a place I once visited, it was also the start of a new life -- and a journey to a place profoundly transformed by time and politics. I had left the USSR and was now returning to Russia.
As I got off the plane, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of strangeness. There was a sense of familiarity but everything seemed upside down. Sheremetevo Airport was largely unchanged, especially those memorable copper metal tubed ceilings and the ever-present cabbage smell. On the other hand, there was the new "green channel" for hassle free customs. I guess they decided to lighten up on tourists, but not completely -- the immigration scowl was still there.
As a colleague and I drove out of the airport toward Moscow, I saw huge changes. The infrastructure was much better - there were few of the crumbling bridges I remembered from 1990. There were newish looking buses - and not the packed curvy behemoths of years past. There were cleaner streets and a LOT more cars. The colorful signs almost convinced me that advertising was not so bad - it's better than gritty grayness. There was no socialist propaganda - the run-down Hero Worker stuff I saw in 1990 was gone in 1998. Newspapers were learning how to survive in the Brave New Capitalist World. “Komsomolskaya Pravda” newspaper, once the mouthpiece of the Communist Youth League Komsomol was sponsoring a concert by the Rolling Stones!
I drove to my apartment that was located on Leninsky Prospect, in other words, Lenin Avenue. This felt like the old USSR. My place was on the 9th floor - and logically, the elevator stopped at the 8th. After passing through 3 big doors equipped with four big locks, I was in. The place was fairly large with all new furniture, carpet and appliances and basically was quite nice. The area was desirable because it was relatively less polluted and close to the center. I was told this part of town was much better than the areas supposedly contaminated with radiation from the old mini-nuclear reactors that were said to be almost everywhere. Official figures put the reactor number at ten, seven of which were still working. No one would tell where these radioactive places were but certain districts had a bad reputation. I made a note to keep my eyes open for weird looking mutant creatures just in case.
Later on I took a walk and saw many kinds of purebred dogs on the streets (including a Great Dane). Russians were proud of their purebred dogs - and to prevent their champions from being exported by greedy foreigners, pets were required to have a "certificate of worthlessness" before being allowed out of the country. Downstairs on the corner of my building were some very expensive cars (only black Mercedes S600s with Kremlin passes need park here). There were thugs hanging around a place called “Concern Milan”. Concern Milan was a Chechen Mafia group that run Russia’s largest lottery, Russkoe Lotto. These “flatheads” as they were called by expats were body guards for the rich and luckily had no interest in me. I appreciated my insignificance.
The next day I wandered through street markets selling hardware of various kinds. If I were in the market for a sink, I'd be in luck. Most places were in little rows of kiosks along the sidewalk. Each area in town had its specialty markets or “rynoks” that originally sprouted up near a dying state store that existed in the area. As the stores ran out of goods to sell, local entrepreneurs would set up shop nearby to sell the things people had come to buy at the state store. For example, in my area, there was the store called "1,000 Things" that sold household DIY items, hence the rynok. Now, the rynoks were facing more pressure because the stores were slowly getting themselves together. Not only did they have more things to sell, but customer service was no longer an oxymoron -- it had dramatically improved from the bad old days of three stop shopping. Other things had changed. There were many supermarkets -- and copious supplies of food. They even used scanners and accepted credit cards!