MOSCOW – Leonid Brezhnev had a taste for fast, flashy Western cars. So perhaps it’s fitting that Lamborghini, Porsche and Rolls-Royce dealerships have opened near the Moscow apartment building where the Soviet leader once lived.
For a correspondent back in Moscow for the first extended time since 1993, these symbols of luxury are particularly jarring.
Back then, I witnessed the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union amid the political and social reforms unleashed by Mikhail Gorbachev. Seven decades of fear and authoritarian control exerted by the Communist Party had vanished, and there was optimism that life would soon improve under Boris Yeltsin.
Instead, more economic hardship ensued, along with chaos, the rise of organized crime and the plundering of the country’s resources. Vladimir Putin followed Yeltsin, and brought a measure of stability despite the widespread corruption that persisted in his governments.
Now Putin is preparing to campaign for yet another six-year presidential term and continues his quest to restore Russia’s standing in a post-Cold War world. That will include a new, as yet uncertain, relationship with the United States and President Donald Trump, amid an assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russian hackers interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
How does Moscow compare to the city where I once lived? The answer, as with many things in Russia, is in shades of grey, like the skies over the capital in late winter.
GHOSTS AND WRAITHS
Skyscrapers have sprouted amid Moscow’s grimy apartment blocks, and the sleek new buildings appear to be almost photo-shopped onto the landscape.
The empty stores and punishing long lines of the 1980s and early ’90s are gone, replaced by 24-hour coffee shops, supermarkets and pharmacies with helpful staff. Multistory shopping malls are filled with Western retailers — thanks to an economy once boosted by the surging price of oil. But due to a two-year recession in Russia, many of the consumer goods would put a big dent in an ordinary Muscovite’s income.
The outside of the Hotel Ukraine looks much as it did when it opened 60 years ago, one of the Stalinist skyscrapers that dot the capital. When I stayed there in 1990 it was a dark and dingy place, with battered furniture, threadbare carpets and stubborn key ladies, or “dezhurnye,” who monitored the halls.
One of my early assignments that year was at Food Store No. 44, located in one of the hotel’s long flanks. To stem panic buying, shoppers had to show their documents. I can still hear the clerks shouting at customers: “Passports, citizens, passports! Moscow or Moscow region only!”
Today, that large food store has been replaced by restaurants and Italian and German designer clothing shops.
Entering the hotel, I now see sweeping staircases, plush leather couches, gilded chandeliers and marble floors.
Oh, and there’s that Rolls-Royce dealership just off the lobby, where for just $450,000 — or 26 million rubles— you can buy a black 2016 Wraith, drive it onto Kutuzovsky Prospekt, turn right, and wheel past Brezhnev’s old place.
‘FEAR COMES BACK’
Vladimir Polyakov, a longtime aide to Gorbachev, initially balks at listing the many changes in Russia since the end of the Soviet Union. Finally, he laments the demise of his boss’ policy of “glasnost” — or more openness.
“For me, it is media,” the former journalist says in an interview.
Freedom of the press has steadily shrunk under Putin, with all nationwide TV stations under state control and most print media full of adulation for him. Only a few independent media outlets remain from the freewheeling ’90s.
When Putin succeeded Yeltsin in 2000, Russia “was a mess — there was chaos,” Polyakov says. Putin’s initial steps to maintain stability “were right,” he adds, and high energy prices rained money on the country.
Yet hundreds of thousands protested in Moscow in 2011 and 2012, as Putin became president once again. In response, the government restricted demonstrations and prominent opposition activists were prosecuted.
Polyakov says the rollback of freedom of the press — and “freedom in general” — is the biggest change of the past 25 years.
“Fear comes back,” he said.
HOUSES OF WORSHIP
A makeshift memorial to several victims of Stalin’s Great Terror era sits in the courtyard of the Russian Orthodox church known as St. Trinity in the Leaves.
The church, in my old neighbourhood in north-central Moscow, was built in 1651. Russia’s imperial rulers lavished it with gold and icons, but the Communists shut it down, tore off its onion domes and turned it into an ice cream parlour and warehouse.
They also shot its clergymen: Boris Ivanovsky, Ioan Tarasov and Yakov Zelenyak-Kudeiko, burying them in 1937 in Butovo, on the outskirts of Moscow, where some 20,000 “enemies of the people” were executed.
During my time there, the church was slowly being restored to its former glory, like thousands of churches closed or destroyed across Russia. Today, it draws about 200 people to services each weekend.
Crowd-control barriers are needed for a much bigger house of worship just a few blocks to the north: the 18-month-old Moscow Cathedral Mosque. Friday prayers draw thousands throughout the day, watched by police in camouflage. The mosque, embellished with greyish-green Canadian marble, can hold up to 10,000 people and replaced a much smaller one built in 1904.
Asked if there is a call to prayer on Fridays, a security guard replied no, because it was “a Christian neighbourhood.”
There was no such restraint, however, on a nearby Orthodox church, where the chants of its choir blared onto the sidewalk via a sound system.
Signs of Russian Orthodoxy are everywhere around Moscow. A woman sat beside escalators in a shopping mall collecting donations to build a church, and a mini-chapel has popped up inside Moscow’s gloomy Kievsky rail station, where travellers can attend a morning service or light candles as they wait.
In December 1990, the economy was so bad for holiday shoppers that one Moscow newspaper said not even the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus “with his magic powers, can solve the shortages, and his sack may be empty.”
Barbie dolls and tabletop hockey games were the most sought-after toys, but there were none to be found, according to parents I interviewed in Detsky Mir, or Children’s World, the huge-but-vacant department store in Moscow.
Returning there this year, I found an entire Barbie section with scores of dolls for sale, along with a miniature “catwalk” where kids can pretend to be fashion models. In another store, a tabletop hockey game with Russian star Alex Ovechkin on the box cost 3,349 rubles — over $55.
“In good stores, there is always something,” said 37-year-old construction worker Ramzan Sultanov, when asked about the toy selection. “Sometimes you can buy the one that you want, but sometimes they are just too expensive.”
A NEW MEMORIAL
The killing of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on Feb. 27, 2015, on a bridge near the Kremlin shocked many in Russia.
I went there shortly before the second anniversary of his death to see the flowers, candles and portraits of Nemtsov that decorate the spot where his body fell.
Every few days, street cleaners come along and clear these memorials away, but new tributes and flowers soon reappear.
It’s a site I will have to revisit on future trips to Moscow.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Friedman was a correspondent in the Moscow bureau for The Associated Press from 1990-93, covering the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Alexander Roslyakov contributed reporting.