Russia: White, Red and Green

“Hey! There’s a Baskin Robbins right around the corner.” It is December 28, 1992, my first trip to Russia. I’m traveling with six students and an Associate Dean from Beaver College, all participants in a special International Experience course on Russian culture and politics. We began our two-week journey to Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, and Tallinn, the capitol of Estonia. The Soviet Union had fallen exactly a year prior, and we were primed to explore the new Russia.

In addition to their academic achievements, another requirement of the students was a willingness to endure the justly-famed Russian winter. The brutal winter cold, with swirling snow and bitter winds, was as advertised. So was the frosty beauty of Red Square, with the Kremlin walls and Lenin’s tomb to one side, and the distinctive onion domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral at the far end.

Standing in Red Square for the first time, I feel as awe struck by the architecture as by the cold. Here I am, standing at the spot I so vividly remembered from my younger days of the 1950s and ’60s, when Americans watched the massive parades of missiles and tanks, rumbling through the Square, with the Soviet leaders waving mechanically from atop Lenin’s tomb. They, the “Reds”, were the reason I scrambled under my school desk during the “duck and cover” nuclear drills. Now, I am trying to impose those old pictures on the scene before me. My student’s excited call broke my reverie. He had wandered off to explore, and to try to warm up. His discovery was an indication that a year after the Soviet Union’s collapse some things in Russia had already changed quite a bit.

Sitting in Baskin Robbins watching my students and the young Russians who were hanging out there, I felt a strange pang of regret. The Kremlin’s walls seemed somewhat less imposing without the hammer and sickle flying above them. The Russian horizontally striped red, white, and blue tricolor flapped in uneasy juxtaposition with the large communist red stars still fixed on their steel standards atop the walls. Close by the Kremlin wall, Lenin’s austere red marble mausoleum seemed out of place under the restored Czarist tricolor. In stark contrast, Baskin Robbins was clean, attractive, and welcoming. But here I was on an icy day, mere yards from the tomb of the Soviet state’s founder, sitting in the kind of ice cream parlor usually found in a typical American strip mall. I was miles in distance and ideology from “Red Square”, yet right smack in the middle of it.

Not too far away is what, at the time, is the world’s largest McDonald’s. Moscow’s residents have two block-long floors of Big Macs and fries to indulge in. The McDonald’s is located on Pushkin Square, named for Russia’s most revered writer, Alexander Pushkin, whose statue dominates the large plaza. The golden arches tower above Pushkin, literally and figuratively. Our tour guide is Alexandra, a young Russian woman in her late twenties who speaks flawless English. She is blond and blue eyed, quite Slavic, and most fashionably dressed. Although she seems clearly a product of the new, commerce-driven Russia she tells us, somewhat sadly, “My friends no longer say ‘I’ll meet you at Pushkin Square,’ they say let’s meet at McDonald’s square.”

Between 1993 and 1998 I made four more trips to Russia, and each time Russia changed dramatically. I talked with the families that I stayed with and other Russians who would talk with me (most, fortunately, spoke English, as I struggled with their native tongue, being the typical unilingual American). These people described three “Russias” that are simultaneously struggling with each other. The first Russia is the old Czarist and Orthodox Russia of pre-Bolshevik times, the second Russia is the remains of the communist Soviet Union, the great superpower, and the third is a new Russia trying to come to grips with the aspects of capitalism and democracy, which for some have advanced all too quickly.

During this first Russian trip from December 1992 to January 1993 to St. Petersburg, I stay with a family whom I become quite friendly with; we’d get together on my future visits and while I was away, we’d developed a correspondence. Tatyana and Pavel are in their late twenties, and they have a three year old daughter, Paulina. As I grow to know them over the years, I feel that in a sense I journey with them as their homeland rapidly changes. This family exemplifies the struggle Russians face on a day-to-day level, caught between their three different “countries”.

They live in an unbelievably tiny apartment. The place is a welcome change for them, after having lived with Tatyana’s parents on the far edges of the city during the early years of their marriage. I stay in a small living room at the end of a short hall. The apartment’s two other rooms, which also open on the hallway, are a kitchen and the family bedroom, which they share with Paulina. The place is cramped, but it is also warm and welcoming. We often hold dinner until Pavel arrives home, late from work, and then the three of us talk late into the night about Gorbachev, about Yeltsin his presidential successor, and about the economic turmoil enveloping Russia.

Tatyana works with a German entrepreneur doing business in Russia. She spends hours at night perfecting her German. Pavel teaches computer science, but makes most of his money trouble shooting computer setups at various businesses. The young couple works constantly, it seems, but they are happy in that they can afford a VCR and cable TV. Among other American programs, we watch Kojak dubbed in Russian. It’s a bit strange seeing Telly Savalas sucking on his lollypop and speaking in a deep-throated Russian. The Russian version of Wheel of Fortune has an identical version of “Vanna”, only she is named “Tanya” looking pretty, flipping the letters. The commercials, some dubbed and some with Russian speakers, tout American and west European products — from dish detergent to microwave ovens to Snickers. Russians love Snickers. In some parts of the city they double for currency. I use Snickers to pay for taxi rides and to buy old Soviet medals from street vendors.

My next trip to Russia is in the summer of 1993. One Russian winter is enough for me. The economy has worsened. Yeltsin is down in popularity, and for the first time I experience the split between the old communist and the new capitalist Russia in a most personal way. Little Paulina wants nothing more than to have a real Barbie like the one she had seen on TV and in various trendy new western-style stores in St. Petersburg. She has a Soviet-era Barbie clone, called I think Sonia, which looks pretty bedraggled and lacks an extensive wardrobe. On this visit I arrive with a genuine Barbie and some of her new outfits. Paulina is ecstatic. She will quickly become the envy of her friends.

But, as Tatyana tells me, Paulina’s grandparents are not happy with my gift. Although the grandparents are not staunch communists, they still “inhabit” the old Soviet Union. They do not like what they see as the “Americanization” of Russia; the encroachment of fast food, fast cars, designer clothes, and schlock TV. These people endured the World War II siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg’s communist-era name) and they clearly remember the struggle for socialism. For Paulina’s grandparents, Gorbachev and Yeltsin betrayed socialism, and sold out to the Americans. Tatyana is kind enough not to say what her parents think about me, the bearer of the gift. “Don’t worry about it,” she says, “Paulina is happy.” Still, I feel as if I had stepped into a Russian divide which runs right down the center of this small family. Tatyana and Pavel were children in Soviet times, their daily lives were spent traversing between the new capitalistic Russia and the less free, but more secure, Soviet Union. “In the new Russia,” Tatyana says, “I think we can have our (Russian), culture and freedom. My parents don’t want to go back (to the Soviet Union), but they see only the mess now. Pavel and I like the idea of having you visit us. Ten years ago we couldn’t even talk with you in public. My parents will not see the benefits of this change. We may not, either. But Paulina, she will grow up in a different country.” For Tatyana, Russia’s future rests in her daughter’s hands. And in her hands is a brand new Barbie. Would Paulina grow up to meet her friends at the McDonald’s, oblivious to the significance of the statue of Alexander Pushkin which stands in its shadow?

During my 1996 visit I focus on the political dimension of change in Russia. I observe first-hand Russia’s first, truly free democratic presidential election. I am once again back in Red Square in Moscow, again in the summer. In front of St. Basil’s Cathedral’s ancient onion domes at one end of the Square, a small group of elderly citizens, wrapped in scarves and overcoats (they must never feel warm) regale my group. Speaking in Russian and English, they talk about the need “to bring order back to Russia and restore the Romanov dynasty destroyed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks.” We wander across the Square to Lenin’s tomb, where supporters of Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party candidate in the election, tell us that Russia must return to the disciplined days of Stalin and the Communist Party. A short, squat man, sporting a Stalin-style mustache and Zyuganov and Lenin buttons, gestures at the mausoleum and cries out in English, “Lenin has all the answers!” Then he offers to sell us his buttons for five dollars each! Which Russia is he in, anyway? Perhaps he has been influenced by the pounding rock music reverberating off the Kremlin walls, as a Yeltsin campaign rally starts up around the corner of the wall from Lenin’s tomb. This is Yeltsin’s Russia of capitalism, democracy, and western style rock concerts. We are surrounded by throngs of young people, dancing, shouting, and holding up the V for victory hand sign. We are carried along with the flow of a crowd that is happy to have Americans along for the ride. As I look back, the monarchists, and the communists, still work the crowd, but most people just pass them by.

During the summer of 1998, my most recent visit, Boris Yeltsin is still president, having won the 1996 election held during my previous visit. The economy is still tenuous; many stores want dollars or credit cards rather than the untrustworthy Russian ruble, and I find the juxtapositions of the three Russias even more astounding. There is now a Pizza Hut at a particularly attractive spot next to one of St. Petersburg’s many beautiful canals — this in a city often called the “Venice of the north.” Billboards for American cigarettes and soft drinks stand alongside statues of Lenin and orthodox cathedrals. People buy computer software from salespersons who tote up the price with an abacus. Monarchists prepare to bury the remains of Russia’s last Czar, Nicholas II, and his family, in the royal Romanov tombs in St. Petersburg. They were all murdered at Lenin’s order in 1918, and only recently were their bodies convincingly identified. Communists marching in old-style Bolshevik demonstrations in Red Square succeed in squelching President Yeltsin’s attempts to remove Lenin’s body from his mausoleum, rebury him and destroy the building.

I wander around Red Square a final time in 1998. I, and the professors I am traveling with, have just met with a group of unabashed Stalinists, journalists and politicians who publish a fervently communist newspaper which has a large red hammer and sickle adorning the paper’s masthead. Their resentment of America is strong. One of the journalists, eyes flashing behind his spectacles, a Lenin button stuck on his jacket’s fraying collar tells us “Americans should go home. You and your heroes, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, have destroyed Russia. We need a Stalin. We need order and discipline.” During a visit to a Russian Orthodox seminary a priest extolled the post-communist return of his religion, but lamented a new American-style religious freedom which allows an influx of American proselytizers such as Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They even advertise on television,” he says, “which we cannot afford. We are unable to buy back church buildings the Bolsheviks took from us under Stalin.”

One group which is not critical of the new Russia are the young entrepreneurs; men and women, who seem to spend most of their time with us excusing themselves to take calls on their cell phones. They express only impatience with the past Russias which they view as impediments to progress. “My grandfather still visits Lenin (meaning the tomb) every week,” says a young deal maker. Her tone is a mix of sarcasm and wonder at her grandfather’s loyalty.

There are still many statues of Lenin all over Russia. Frozen in time, he strikes a dramatic pose, coat flung back, foot striding forward, arm outstretched, index finger pointing to a future. The last of these statues that I saw as I was leaving St. Petersburg in 1998 was in front of the famous Finland Station. It was here that Lenin returned in 1917 to ignite the Bolshevik Revolution. The statue was indeed pointing at the future, but not Lenin’s future. I followed his perpetual gaze and his pointed finger across the street, above the traffic — to a gigantic Pepsi sign.