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Modern Moscow, Much Like Delhi

Sudheer Apte Email Sudheer Apte
October 2009
Modern Moscow, Much Like Delhi

Until this year, if someone had asked me what comes to mind about Russia, I would have first thought of its famous writers and artists, the Kremlin, the KGB, and Sputnik. Then I would have remembered Mir Publishers, Moscow. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, when I was growing up in India, you could pick up their beautifully printed Soviet-funded books quite cheaply, mostly in English but also in several Indian languages. I remember reading a story book about Kolyachi Aai (Kolya’s Mother) in Marathi, with watercolor landscapes of tall grasses, and I think I still have tattered copies of Yakov Perelman’s Physics for Entertainment and Mathematics Can Be Fun.

Things have changed since the Soviet era, but what I knew about daily life in modern Russia came almost entirely from a few scenes in The Bourne Supremacy. So when my employers wanted to send a few of us to Moscow for a week to work with a software outsourcing company, I wasted no time packing.

The H1N1 flu scare gave us some excitement when we landed in Moscow: before we could get off the plane, the attendants announced that we should keep sitting for a while. Some Moscow officials would first board the aircraft to inspect us. Two uniformed women soon came on board, handguns drawn and pointed at our heads. Their “guns” turned out to be only laser-guided infrared thermometers, which they used to scan the passengers’ ears one by one. Once this inspection was done, we were free to disembark. As a Russian colleague mischievously said to us later, “Welcome to the Russian Federation!”

The city of Moscow reminds me of Delhi: the same wide boulevards, the same energy, and, though it scarcely seems possible, even more aggressive driving. On our first day, we saw four separate fender benders. And this was in the summer, with clear weather and dry roads. Traffic jams are legendary.

Unlike Delhi, Moscow presents a language barrier to non-native speakers. The staff in our fancy hotel spoke English, but once you left that bubble, it was all Russian, all the time. One Russian speaker among us, and one English speaker in the Russian party, were key to our communication system. They were like Amitabh in a double role—no scene was complete without one of them in it! The engineers there could speak technical English, but they struggled if pulled out of that comfort zone into small talk about the weather or about what they did on the weekend. For the longest time, their office manager, Petra, wanted to tell me something funny but had to wait until we got one of the translators involved. It turned out that when she went to college in the ‘70s, all her girlfriends had crushes on Raj Kapoor and watched his movies multiple times.

It seems very few people, either from India or America, have been to Russia recently, but there’s no shortage of rumors about the country. Some people had warned me that my passport would be confiscated and there would be “minders” assigned to follow me everywhere. None of this turned out to be true. There is a requirement for all foreigners to register their passports with the authorities; our hotel staff did this for us quickly, and we kept our passports with us at all times.

The channels on television were completely in Russian. So were the business and traffic signs. And unlike in Western Europe, the letters are not written in Roman script, so you can’t just sound them out and try to guess. The smartest thing I did before my Moscow visit was to spend a few hours familiarizing myself with the Cyrillic script. This modest investment paid off handsomely when we went out into the city.

I would peek out of the car, wide-eyed like a kindergartner, trying to pronounce every sign that went by.

“Tsveti?” I would say, and Alexei would answer, “Flowers.”

“Prodookti?” — vegetables.

“Dinamo?” — the name of a train station.

Alexei, a father of three, was patient with me. In many cases I didn’t need his help, because the signs were simply English words, pronounced with a Russian accent and spelled out in Cyrillic, the way signage in Maharashtra spells out ordinary English terms like “Pinge’s Classes” or “Lakshmi Transport” in Devanagari. Some Russian words are very similar to their English equivalents: “tooalet” is toilet, and “stop” is stop. The most common such sign is what looks like “pectopah,” which is simply “restoran”—restaurant.

If you are a strict vegetarian in Moscow, you will have to play the usual snakes and ladders with the menus, because animal parts lurk in the most innocuous of places: soup stock and salads are not necessarily safe from pork pieces or mutton. It is possible, though, to eat well if you stick to certain cuisines.

Every evening we would sample one of Moscow’s excellent restaurants. There appear to be very few Indians (I never saw a single person who looked like they could be from the subcontinent), and when I asked our hosts about that, they said foreigners were more likely to live in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-biggest city. They asked me if I would like to visit an Indian restaurant, thinking I was missing home food, but I quickly nipped that idea in the bud. I wasn’t about to waste a meal on some Muscovite’s idea of Mughlai food.

No, what Moscow has to offer in spades is a tremendous variety of foods from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. We ate at a Georgian restaurant, which does have vegetarian options: various types of tandoori-like bread called “puri,” vegetarian versions of a delicious herbed and spiced soup called “kharcho,” containing plum puree and grated walnuts, and a kidney bean-stuffed bread called “lobiani.”

Besides Georgian and Russian, the other distinctive cuisines represented in Moscow’s restaurants are Ukrainian and Uzbek. All of these cuisines are related, and all have outstanding selections of fish, pork and mutton dishes, as well as a variety of soups, including the famous borscht. If you have not tried borscht, you owe it to yourself to find or make some. Made from beets, cabbage and a whole lot of other things, it requires no meat and can be so hearty as to make an entire meal by itself with a little bread. The Ukrainian restaurants, in particular, have dark rye breads so soft and delicious that you can make a whole meal out of them, too. They also serve “pelmeni,” which are dumplings similar to momos.

These restaurants, of course, also serve drinks—a lot of drinks. There is no tradition of beer; the few beers served in restaurants are imports from Germany or Belgium, but the harder alcoholic beverages are mostly indigenous. The Russian reputation for drinking vodka is well-deserved: I had no idea there were so many types of vodka. Russian restaurant menus will often separate “non-vodka liquors” into their own section, leaving the vodkas sprawled across multiple pages. I was regaled with stories of visiting foreigners who imbibed a bit too much and had to be carried back to their hotels.

But the under-reported gems of the Russian table are their traditional soft drinks. The one I liked most is called “kvass.” It is a brewed amber liquid that looks like beer and is served in pitchers, but it is mild and sweet, suitable for children as well as adults. The most common variety is made from dark bread and fruits. It has a refreshing, frothy goodness that reminds me of the mildly fermented palm drink neera sold throughout the Deccan. I have been searching for kvass in the United States ever since I got back.

Moscow is a giant city, flat as a pancake, with a tiny hill in the center. This hill used to house a small hamlet, which is now the Moscow Kremlin, a fortress behind a tall, red wall overlooking the Moskva river. When we visited in May, the city was surprisingly green. Its architecture is very clearly European; its two distinctive features are the famous brightly colored, onion-domed churches, and the Soviet-era concrete buildings. I didn’t see any stand-alone houses in Moscow; many buildings are over ten stories high. Just like in Indian cities, residential, commercial, and industrial uses are often mixed together in the same neighborhoods. Right in downtown Moscow, on the bank of the Moskva, sits a huge set of smokestacks of a power plant, now defunct.

The Moscow underground Metro, the busiest in the world after Tokyo’s, serves seven million passengers daily. This system is a historical treasure and a living object of pride. We took the opportunity to travel downtown using one of the spoke lines, the Zamoskvoretskaya. Much of Soviet-commissioned art was ponderous and empty, but these railway stations are marvels of engineering, architecture, and art. We got off at the famous Mayakovskaya station just to admire its beauty. It not only shows the peculiar arches and columns common to most of these stations, but also bright Art Deco mosaics in the ceiling whose light reflects off marble and tile on the walls.

Also in common with Delhi is the ostentatious display of wealth and privilege. Until I went to Moscow, I didn’t even know what a Mercedes Maybach was, but when we were coming out of a Ukrainian restaurant off Leningradsky Prospekt, my colleagues started pointing and talking excitedly. There stood four or five of these black cars, together costing at least a million dollars. Each car had a uniformed chauffeur sitting inside, waiting for the owners to return from a nightclub on the very expensive Tverskaya Street. The wealthy may also shop at Gucci and Prada, anchor stores in the GUM, a swank mall in the Red Square that was once an old government market building.

This open show of money is one aspect of today’s Russia. It is easy to get the sense of a country and a people on the move. Making fun of Soviet times is a common sport today, but when the system was opening up in the ‘90s, there was much anxiety about the chaos and criminality that followed it. Today, people seem relieved to have “strong” leaders who will impose and enforce limits.

One of their frustrations is that Western Europeans and Americans don’t appreciate either their scientific achievements or the sacrifices made by the Russian people during World War II. The eastern front between the Nazi Axis war machine and the Soviet Union is not often covered in PBS newsreels. It is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War, which claimed the lives of 30 million people, many of them civilians. This war and its effects occupy a central place in the country’s narrative. When we saw the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Kremlin, there was always a crowd. Russian newlyweds often lay flowers there in gratitude.

What occupies today’s Russia is a newfound appreciation of pre-Soviet history. The Tsars’ treasures of gold, horse carriages, and Fabergé eggs take up entire rooms in the Kremlin Palace museum. Similarly reinvigorated is the Eastern Orthodox Church, which, suppressed under Stalin, is undergoing something of a revival, a rarity in modern Europe. As Shakespeare said, there’s a tide in the affairs of men.

As for my beloved Mir Publishers, they are much smaller now and no longer publishing the kinds of translations they used to. With Soviet propaganda no longer creating a demand, there’s simply no money in it. Instead of bringing home some books, I stopped at a cart on Tverskaya and picked up a set of “matryoshka” dolls for our kolu.

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