Letter from Russia
An Odd Oasis
Often enough I had seen the crowd of communist demonstrators become a mob. Their placards were bludgeons to strike someone, anyone, slashing the flimsy wood and cardboard through the air like medieval swords. Now they were quiet. Seventy-nine years after communism swept through this country, ideology and the anger fuelling it seemed to have run out of steam. My media colleagues, fed up with too many past 'Great Revolution Day' parades, fled the chilly Moscow square to jollier bars where vodka was flowing to celebrate nothing more than being there.
But I was drawn by the stillness that formed an odd oasis in the middle of the city's hurdy-gurdy of neon and blistering rock music. About a thousand people, a fraction of their original numbers, stood silently like the last guests at a party they knew would vanish with the closing of the door.
'They accuse us of living in the past,' said a fine-boned woman with silver hair. 'As if we were doing it by choice. Everything around us is very bright and new, but who can afford it?'
A plump dark-haired man broke in, a children's doctor from the suburbs. 'Please, let's not always talk about our own needs,' he said quietly. 'The main thing is that there is no social justice.'
She smiled at him. 'We've always taken that for granted. Even communists had to admit that things went wrong.'
'We're not trying to turn back the clock,' said Yuri, the doctor, glancing around the fringes of the crowd at bustling shoppers carrying bulging plastic bags. 'Everything is too far gone for that. People are used to freedom and a new way of life.'
The evidence was all around us. For the moneyed and the merely curious, stalls and kiosks were filled to overflowing. Newspapers and magazines of every political stripe. Lurid rock videos cheek-by-jowl with classic films. Steaming hot dogs and American cigarettes. Sparkling jewellery smuggled through dark alleyways and fur coats stitched in countries where fur was never needed.
Since the fall of communism, Moscow, and beyond it Russia, was a giant bazaar of opportunity. As night fell the Mafia's signature black cars hovered, disgorging young women in long plastic boots and short skirts. The 'lovelies' took up positions on the pavement, heaving their shoulders in a travesty of flirtation.
Behind us, in the ruined Bolshoi Theatre, the evening crowd was arriving, dodging scalpers selling 'once-in-a-lifetime experiences' of a different sort while penniless unemployed musicians played the street for handouts. Nearby, a casino burst into life with a kaleidoscope of colored lights.
'Oh yes, there's every temptation and nobody will put us in jail if we give in,' smiled Yuri. 'In fact, we'll probably be thrown in jail if we're hanging around here without spending money.'
Moments ticked by and the communist crowd dwindled, an ever-smaller island, irrelevant in the stream of purposeful life. But, I thought, where were these commuters going? To do what? The faces were tense and set, eyes cast down at the pitted sidewalk and elbows fixed like bayonets against the jostling of their fellows.
Olga, the faded beauty who was once an Aeroflot manager, stood her ground. 'There isn't much point in rushing home,' she said.
'My daughter's husband has left her and she's lost her job. My mother – she's very old now – hasn't got the medicine she needs because it is too expensive. I never have a day off because I'm working at three jobs. I have to – my pension won't even feed one person.'
'And you?' I asked Yuri, remembering a recent protest by doctors who had received no wages from the threadbare health system. 'Have you been paid lately?'
He flinched. 'I'd rather not say. As I've told you, my reason for coming here was to take a principled stand against the kind of state we've become. The problem is not my pay; it's the fact that a few people are taking everything. The money is going into a black hole.'
A decade ago, during the time of President Mikhail Gorbachev, Yuri spoke out for democracy. He read banned Western philosophy in secret and when the new openness arrived, proudly quoted what he had learned.
Like others, he watched his savings crumble to kopecks. But he was stunned by the heady freedom of buying his precious books, telling the truth in public without fear of arrest and voting for whomsoever he chose.
Five years later he was forced to admit that democracy never arrived. Now, like Olga, he had nowhere to take his grievances, made all the worse because he felt he had been betrayed. The new Russia had come to town, but he could not afford the admission price.
As we stood talking, I could see a stream of militia men approaching the remaining demonstrators.
'Move!' ordered one, pushing me and the others to the side of the street like a large dog worrying sheep. 'Out of the way immediately.'
As he spoke the hiss of water drowned out the hectic background noise. Three large sanitary trucks bore down on us, sweeping everything out of their path, splashing the crowd with their freezing spray.
'As though we're dirt,' muttered Yuri, shaking his head. Drenched, Olga and I looked at each other. Her eyes were calm, as I hovered between outrage and tears.
For a moment I felt a great wave of anger at the unseen authorities who found it so easy to remove people who were no longer voters to be wooed but a reminder of their own failures. An inconvenience.
But Olga reached out and patted my arm. 'Everything changes, but nothing changes,' she said, smiling. 'We Russians understand that.'
And with a brief wave she was gone, disappearing into the busy evening crowd, swallowed up by a blare of music and sales banter, moving with the hawkers, beggars, businesspeople, bureaucrats, giggling students, surly bodyguards and almost-middle-class shoppers, shoulder-to-shoulder into the unknown future. n
Olivia Ward is Moscow bureau chief for the Toronto Star.
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