AFTER THE IRON CURTAIN FELL MOSCOW WAS DIFFERENT
I had visited Russia before the Iron Curtain fell, and found major differences in the country when our trauma team went in to train mental health workers on trauma psychology in 1998. The visit by the team was to train mental health workers from a number of counties and areas of Russia where there had been on-going conflicts. Our original contacts had been with several workers from Russia who had attended our summer session on “Training the Trainer,” in Columbia and who had worked out the details of our visit to Moscow. Because of my work with law enforcement, we were also presented with an opportunity to visit with police supervisors who were very open about their problems.
Changes in reception
Now that communism was defunct, Moscow was different. This was apparent at passport control. In 1986, the inspection of passports and visas was a slow process. For 3+ minutes the officer stared at me, then at my passport, then at my visa, then at me. Finally he asked, "Is that you?" He then proceeded to repeat the process with each of my traveling companions. The passage through customs in '86 was also prolonged with some people's luggage being conscientiously scrutinized. Luggage was X-rayed and any magazines and books we were carrying were examined. If the books might be unfavorable to the USSR they along with any Playboys and Penthouses were confiscated. This time, May, 1998, our passports received a cursory glance, our visas were quickly stamped and our suitcases allowed through customs with no special notice.
Part of the earlier caution related to the protective stance the government took during the cold war to protect its citizens from information which would confuse them about the condition of their economy viz a viz the rest of the world. Information was the property of the government and citizens were not to disperse it. In '86 few computers existed, telephones were frequently tapped and there was tightly controlled access to copy machines. No one was going to know anything the government didn't want them to know. Newspapers cared little for facts. Communist philosophy was everything. Even memories of the past were unpredictable since "facts" were revised as needed to prove the superiority of the "System," or to bury unpleasantries. In arranging to talk to Soviet citizens privately it was necessary for us to take major precautions not to draw the attention of the authorities. Among the Russians in '86 communicating with outsiders could make you suspect; even eye contact seemed to be a threat.
This time professionals handed me their cards with their fax number and e-mail address and were eager to get together for after-meeting chats. Newspapers abounded; there were 12 daily papers in Moscow, and some of them even made a point of reporting the facts rather than serving as a voice for powerful business and political factions.
In 1986 my wife Carla and I had gone to Russia with a group of psychologists who met with fellow professionals in four cities in the USSR. For the 1998 visit we were 8 members of the International Center for Psychosocial Trauma. Led by the center's director Arshad Husain, from the University of Missouri Medical School, we were there to present a seminar to 60 mental health professionals on dealing with post-traumatic-stress disorders of children and combatants due to the strife in the Caucasus.
Soon after leaving the airport we became aware of the heavy traffic. Beat up Ladas and minivans were sharing the road with newer BMW, VW's, and Toyotas. We sat for long periods waiting for a break in the traffic. If there were any more cars the situation would resemble a Manhattan traffic jam. Previously there had been few cars in Moscow which our Intourist guide in '86 pointed out was because people didn't need them, given the excellent public transpiration system. That system of buses and underground continues to be superb and cheap. The Metro is clean, fast and in places beautifully decorated.
My notes from '86 say, "Too much food, poorly prepared and indifferently served but eatable. Unimaginative, you can predict dinner will be some kind of beef with no spices or onions, mashed potatoes and peas served with a tasteless soup and heavy bread." On both of our visits the food was mostly provided in the places we stayed. The cooking has definitely improved; still too much food, but they have discovered rice, pasta, corn and cauliflower. The soups now have a flavor but beef, often as Stroganov, continues to be a mainstay. Restaurants have sprung up around the city, not only serving traditional Russian food but Spanish, Italian and Japanese and here there is a noticeable improvement in the cooking. The prices are high by my standards but not compared with New York and considerably cheaper than Tokyo.
The long lines of people waiting to buy had disappeared. Lenin's tomb once had queues four people wide trailing into the distance. The tomb is now only open occasionally and Fortune Magazine had a spoof article saying that the body was up for sale to the highest bidder. The article was taken seriously and after Peter Jennings reported it on the evening news Russian Minister Barannikov had to assure an anxious nation the he was not going to auction off the body of their former dictator. Our Intourist guide in '86 had reassured us that Russians did not need to stand in line, that this was simply their way of socializing. They've obviously found new ways to socialize since the breakdown of communism.
A note from my '86 visit: "Beautiful women are at a premium here. They are mostly heavy, especially in the belly, homely and wear mainly dark colors, or dresses with large floral designs on them." What a change, people wear colors now and there are women with Barbee doll figures, tall, very long legs and nice breasts. Many could be modeling the latest styles in a boutique. They still don't smile much, New York faces rather than Dublin.
What else has changed? There are now shops and sidewalk stalls everywhere selling art objects, stone work (earrings, necklaces) carvings, babushka dolls, all at reasonable prices. Small stores selling liquor, cheese, sausage and soft drinks abound--eight in the area around our hotel. Moscow has been cleaned up, buildings painted; it actually looks lush rather than dilapidated.
Some street scenes I don't remember from 1986:
A group of five Cossacks in black boots and uniforms handing out literature to the blare of speaker playing martial music. Cossacks have a scary record of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. They believe themselves to be the descendants of the original protectors of "Fatherland, Tsar and Orthodoxy." This group looks like teenagers trying to create a heroic role for themselves.
A little old lady sitting on an upturned pail, outside a produce store with a few bunches of radishes and carrots on a crate in front of her. The lowest level of capitalism. Four drunken soldiers waving bottles briefly surrounding a foreigner, uttering what seemed like complaints and accusations and then moving jerkily on. In the suburb in which we worked there were numerous baby carriages with handsome children in them, proud looking fancy breed dogs and a few so not so fancy. Partying with the Russians consists of lots of passionate toasts, sad music and many compliments. Gorki Park, with the private entrepreneurs selling you the opportunity to have your Polaroid picture taken with a chimpanzee, monkey, rabbit, horse, baby bear or chicken.
The breakdown of the USSR and the economic changeover has not been without its downside. Since the destruction of the old system the death rate, especially of men has climbed and age of death is the lowest in Europe. There are now more heart attacks and strokes. In Moscow the murder rate has soared. The change has been very stressful, but we were told the death rate has leveled off and the worse may be over.