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Moscow Embraces American-style Capitalism

Updated on March 20, 2015

It was late in the afternoon, and Moscow was starting to get really busy. People were in a hurry to go home from their jobs in their fancy Japanese and German luxury cars and hit the nightclubs and concert halls.

I walked along the opposite bank of the Moscow River, admiring the stolid masonry walls of the Kremlin, the emblem of Russian power for the last 700 years. Inside those walls and beneath those mighty towers are five palaces, four cathedrals and the senate building, where the Russian presidential administration is housed.

As I stood on the bridge and looked at the fortified compound across the river I was stirred by the mystique of the scene. For three quarters of a century half the world was ruled, through often arbitrary and authoritarian means, by the egotism and dogmatism of the men who dwelled within those walls. And yet the scene was nothing short of majestic and awe-inspiring.

Back I walked along Tverskaya Boulevard, thirty minutes to the Sleepbox Hotel. The cute brunette clerk with the various body-piercings smiled when she saw me swing open the glass door and come in from the cold. I think the girl either liked me or thought I was the goofiest looking character she’d ever seen in her life. I needed a shower fast. Night was falling. I loped up the stairs and found a stall in the community bathroom. Peppy “world music” pulsated through the overhead sound system while the hot Russian water poured down upon my weary jetlagged head.

When I walked back into town at the tail end of dusk I thought Moscow was the loveliest place I’d ever seen in my life. Though it was cold, the carefree residents of the town were wandering leisurely under streetlamps and a lavender sky.

In no time, it seemed, the sky really was dark and the city, like a grand duchess, adorned herself in her illuminated finery. I entered Red Square to find the Kremlin Walls a glowing burnt red, St. Basil’s cathedral every color of the rainbow, and the Gum Department store, off to my left, wearing a glowing string of pearls.

Of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to go inside and see the Communist store. Would there be bread lines? Would people be lining up in mile-long queues to buy washing machines? Back in the seventies, this is what American school children were told about Russia. Why, the place was absolutely primitive, we thought. No less an authority than the Encyclopedia Britannia, in the 1978 edition I referenced in an earlier article, stated: “Moscow does not have shopping centers with local concentrations of retailing; the usual practice is for shops to be widely dispersed on the ground-floor levels of apartment buildings.”

So, full of American pride, I entered the former Soviet-run mercantile stronghold. Why, what sort of ground-floor level place would this be? I was puffed up with chauvinism. The only problem was, as soon as I entered the Gum I saw immediately that it put to absolute shame every American shopping mall I’d ever seen in my life. Oh, yeah. It was a whole new ballgame now, baby.

The floors, the stair railings, the windows in every shop, every potted plant, every iron light fixture, every wrapped item in every display—all were immaculate. Well dressed clerks were everywhere and every person in every store was better dressed than just about anyone I’d ever seen. Western designer names were in abundance: Ralph Lauren, Estee Lauder, Rive Gauche, Donna Karan. This was Russia? The Russia of bread lines, people with holes in their shoes, and 10,000 people standing in line to get a secondhand Frigidaire?

I had to shake my head back and forth as I beheld this luxurious extravaganza of capitalism. I looked through the window, underneath a marble arch. That was Red Square out there! The Kremlin Wall was a two-minute walk away! Lenin’s tomb was out there, basking under the emblem of the hammer and sickle! What were all these capitalists doing in this place?

Wow, you could have fooled me! I went into one of the shops, poor American sap that I was, and bought soft cheese and crackers and an ice cream sandwich for about 160 rubles. About three and a half bucks. The cashier said something to me in Russian, I paid cash for my stuff, then went and sat down on an immaculate bench inside the mall while my head spun. Of course they were the best cheese and crackers and the best ice cream I’d ever had in my life.

© 2015 James Crawford


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