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The Mysteries of Moscow

Updated on March 18, 2015

Moscow had always been a place that piqued my curiosity for as far back as my memory went. Back in the seventies when I was growing up I associated Moscow with stern-faced old men named Brezhnev or Khrushchev standing above parades of tanks and soldiers in gray outfits marching in lock step to an iron-fisted command.

I imagined that if I ever went there the women would be mostly like Lotte Lenya in the James Bond movie trying to kick Sean Connery in the groin with a knife-tipped boot. Or perhaps I thought if I were ever allowed into the so-called “Evil Empire” I would feel the constant menacing presence of the force George Orwell described as “a boot stamping on the human face forever.”

I certainly didn’t go there thinking I’d see a bunch of happy people eating Krispy Kreme doughnuts and mobbing KFC. Or the former Soviet state department store now turned into a Christmas-light-festooned orgy of designer brand names like Calvin Klein and Michael Kors. Or BMW’s and Mercedes outnumbering tanks by at least a ratio of a thousand to one. But I did.

In the fall of of 2014 I visited Moscow for the first time, flying from New York to Sheremetyevo Airport, about twenty miles northwest of the city center. An Aeroexpress train runs directly from the airport to one of the city’s main rail hubs, the Belorussky Station, about a half hour away. I felt a considerable amount of excitement and adrenaline as I emerged into the gray autumn afternoon chill of Tverskaya Boulevard, a main artery leading into town.

Not knowing any Russian, and at that time having no friends in Moscow, I thought it would be wise to find a hotel as close as possible to the Belorussky Station. About two blocks from the station I reached a tiny place called “The Sleepbox Hotel”, a modern Asian-style hideaway with community bathrooms and beds in small capsules. The desk clerk, a sexy green-eyed brunette with a pierced tongue and heavy mascara, welcomed me with a friendly smile. I dropped my things off, wrapped up in a scarf, and emerged on Tverskaya, a twenty-five minute walk from Red Square.

The bustle of the city was stimulating, the well-dressed throngs of pedestrians impressive. In the distance I saw the famed wall of the Kremlin and the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. To the right of my view was the tomb of Lenin, to the left the Gum Department store, and the carnival-like Cathedral straight ahead. This afternoon would simply be an appetizer. I was planning to explore the area in more detail later that night.

I walked beyond St. Basil’s to a bridge over the Moscow River, and there I saw the most graphic evidence yet of the extent of the change in the city since the Soviet period ended. In the 1978 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, Moscow was said to have “very few privately owned cars, though their number is slowly and steadily rising…. This means relative freedom from serious traffic problems.”

Even though I was in Russia, I couldn’t help thinking in American slang: “It’s a whole new ballgame now, baby!”

© 2015 James Crawford

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