The Moscow Diaries I: Lifting the veil

“There are a lot of things happening here in Russia. But not a lot has changed.”

So said Fred Weir, Canadian correspondent to a clutch of international papers who has lived in Moscow for over fifteen years.

I met him last Tuesday, August 28, at the Mayor of Moscow’s office, where my group of eight Canadian journalists had been invited to hear the Vice-Mayor, Iosif Ordgonikidze, welcome us to his city. Seizing opportunity, I asked Fred to join two of my colleagues and I for lunch the next day… and he did.

Listening to his perspectives about life in Moscow and Russia during the past tumultuous fifteen years was important. The Moscow government hosted our trip to the capital, and we’d had the services of an excellent, independently-minded guide who also served as simultaneous translator during our meetings with Moscow officials.

But there is nothing like talking to another Canadian who has lived through the changes.

Personally, because I was in Russia in 1984 with my husband Eric, I was able to notice radical differences on the streets of Moscow.

Back then, Chernenko was in his last days of power. It was only in 1985 that then 53-year-old Mikhail Gorbachev started on his ambitious projects of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness).

The Moscow of 1984 was drab. Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical buildings were worn and tattered. Faces of people on the street were sullen. Clothing was dull: our slides of 1984 reveal that black, dark gray, khaki-green and navy were de rigeur. Lada cars plied the streets. People approached us to barter, hoping get our Western clothing. Moscow’s splendidly artistic Metro underground was dirty, and early morning commuters reeked of vodka. Everywhere were the ubiquitous army and police, who at any provocation or whim would ask any individual they chose to show their papers. And, dominating Lubyanka Square was the KGB building, a building of terror where literally hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives after hours if not days and months of agonizing torture.

Such was Moscow of 1984, when we arrived on the Trans Siberian Express train from Beijing, the capital of China.

So, what has changed?

The Moscow of 2001 sparkles. Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical buildings are refreshed, cleaned; others are draped with scaffolding and nets while craftsmen re-do ornate plastering and restore the glorious tile and bas-relief friezes. People’s faces shine with hope and colour: lipstick and eye makeup — as do fashions — rival any on the streets of New York City. Business people walk briskly, with purpose — while lovers stroll arm-in-arm. Young people sport T-shirts proclaiming their musical passions, their politics: and yes, even punk exists on the streets of Moscow!

No-one approached me to barter for clothing. The famous GUM store, whose design inspired Toronto’s Eaton’s Centre, is home to Colors of Benetton, Estée Lauder and other trendy, Western stores. The Moscow Metro bustles with life… vodka wafts like a memory on the air, but it’s not a heady, overpowering presence as in 1984.

Everywhere, however, the army and police are still visible. And, while sitting in a subway car, happily people-watching while I explored Moscow with two colleagues, a fellow in army fatigues sauntered past. I found myself eye-to-eye with a sub-machine gun casually slung over his shoulder. Also, while exploring, I often witnessed the police seemingly arbitrarily stopping people, demanding to see their papers.

But let’s look again at Lubyanka Square. The terrible KGB building still stands. (I think it should be demolished and a peace park built.) Bathed in the apricot hue of sunset, its classical proportions look breathtakingly beautiful. But because of what it represents — the KGB terror — I this is merely a terrible beauty.

But hope rears its head.

The immense, dominating bronze statue of Feliks Dzerzhinskiy, leader of the Chekya (forerunners of the KGB who were established by the revolutionaries of 1917) which stood outside this building was toppled. It’s removal happened thanks to the energy of a cheering crowd who needed to physically demonstrate their revulsion of, and perhaps triumph over this terrible man whose bronze image symbolized domination, fear and terror.

Dzerzhinskiy’s statue now stands in a peculiar, wonderful park that I had desperately wanted to visit. Called the Graveyard of the Fallen Monuments, Dzerzhinskiy image now stands close by another despot: Stalin.

Behind Stalin’s disfigured statue (his nose has been lopped off) stands a semi-circular “wall” composed of stone heads wrapped in wire, representing thousands of exiled, murdered or tortured souls. Standing to the right of the wall and Stalin, are a group of statues resembling cadaverous bodies of people in concentration camps. Their gauntness is emphasized because these statues are carved of untreated wood that has split and worn with the elements of rain, ice and snow.

The Graveyard of the Fallen Monuments couldn’t have existed in 1984, when I first visited the capital. That it exists today is a testament to real change in Moscow and Russia.

There are winds of hope blowing along the streets of this city where over 9 million people live.

But daily reality is difficult. Most people still live on a salary of perhaps US$100 or so a month, so I was told. My colleague who interviewed a doctor (who warned her that the interview was probably being taped) reported that doctors get perhaps US$125 a month but that the system is so corrupt that they acquire more through bribes.

And good housing is difficult to procure. While flying into the capital, I noted the expanse of rolling fields where crops flourish (actually, the scene resembled the Pontiac). Woods glowed green and, as we made our final descent into the city, lake-side dachas were visible, under construction. Life appears idyllic: prosperous in a green world.

Yes, the dachas seem to show a prosperous time for Russia. But journalist Fred Weir adds perspective: “The opera used to be accessible and cheap. Now 1/3 of the seats are reserved for pensioners and children… but most of these “somehow” get sold to scalpers.”

His words were echoed by our guide, Marina, who sighed when she said she used to love attending many cultural events that are now beyond her reach.

Superficially, Moscow is prosperous. Fred smiled, noting that he’s amused at how far too many visiting journalists’ “hearts flutter too fast when they see internet cafés and McDonalds.”

What such visitors fail to do is scratch the surface and look at the daily life of residents.

And that’s what I was able to do. Through my two-hour interview with Fred, my discussions with a 38-year-old Muscovite named Olga (a friend of one of my colleagues), and through exploring the city on foot, on my own, I was able to lift the veil and glimpse this marvelous city and its courageous people in a realistic way.

The Moscow city officials with whom we met have tentatively invited us back in the spring. I hope to go… to learn more, see more, explore more of this capital that once was one of the jewels of Europe at the turn of the last century.

What was I most surprised with? Freedom. My personal freedom to go anywhere, say anything to anyone. The guides’ freedom to speak frankly of her daily life and realities, her wry sense of humors and running commentary about Russia’s political and other struggles.

What I leave with, on such trips, is a profound sense of privilege. Privilege because I am honoured to be one of 8 Canadian journalists invited on the first-ever Canadian travel journalists’ press trip to Moscow; profound privilege because I am unbelievably grateful to the people of Moscow for taking me into their hearts, sharing their innermost feelings, hopes and passions with me.

Finally, this job of writing is an honour: to share ideas with you, my readers, and to bring perhaps a small bit of understanding here, to your kitchen table, so that you too can share my fascination with the world and its peoples.

For we are all alike. We share basic needs with all peoples of the Earth: we require food, shelter, water to sustain us.

And we also need that food for our souls called freedom: political, religious, philosophical. Long may it grow and thrive in Moscow, as we hope it will continue to do here in our Pontiac.


Katharine Fletcher is an award-winning journalist who telecommutes from her farmhouse north of Quyon. Contact her at