Dingy it is, but at least Russia's still human
Saturday 14 October 1995
The four Russians were half-way through their second bottle of vodka, having dispensed with a bottle of Martini, when they beckoned me to their table.
"Felix, my friend, sit down," said Sergei, a young furrier, after I'd introduced myself. Philip is not an uncommon name in Russia but my hosts were uninterested in attempts to correct them. "Tell me, Felix, what do you think of Russia? It's a good country? Not like America?"
Even if my Russian had been fluent, and even if Sergei's attention had not wandered to the leather-clad female singer in the corner, there was no way this question could be answered.
How would I have explained that it is possible to miss Californian waiters, the aproned gymnasts who bound from table to table accompanying every calorie-cleansed plate of salad with a story about their real careers in Hollywood.
How would Sergei, a burly man who skins rabbits to be made into hats, have reacted had I pointed out that the three grim barmaids smoking behind the beer taps lacked any apparent desire to cater for their handful of customers.
If there is one aspect of Moscow life that is striking to the newcomer, particularly one from the United States, it is the gap that still exists between Russia and a truly consumer-orientated society. All those stories about Russia's growing middle class, supermarkets packed with champagne and lobster, and yuppies cruising around in BMWs, are true. But at street level, where according to the World Bank as much as a third of the population lives below the poverty line, daily life remains closer to Soviet times than to the West.
Given the lack of wealth, it is surprising that Russians often seem to have little appetite to make a profit. It took me two attempts to persuade a dingy restaurant near my apartment that the reason I had walked in the place was to have a meal. (The first time they simply turned me away).
In the grocer's a few blocks away, a sparsely stocked store where the cashiers still use an abacus, staff waved away my request to buy bread and cheese. I was interrupting their lunch, they said. When I then retired to a cafe, the elderly waitress seemed put out that I had disturbed her viewing of a dubbed television movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. She agreed to bring me a bowl of soup, or more accurately, a bowl of hot water with an egg floating in it.
This paralysis, the by-product of 70 years in which the pursuit of profit was seen as criminal racketeering, has its refreshing side. America's hunger for the dollar can be even more exasperating than Russian gloom.
In LA the bogus vocabulary of the salesman has permeated every walk of life. Shop assistants in California's giant electronic stores now are known as "sales counsellors". When we recently decided to get rid of the rats in the roof of our home, we called a pest control company. No, we couldn't hire a rat catcher, the company said. We would have to go on a "monthly rodent assessment programme" (complete with a monthly fee).
Perhaps the most heartening reminder that Russia has an element which is lacking in the pre-packaged, push-button world came when a colleague invited me to a barbecue at an old wooden dacha outside Moscow, a small slice of paradise that Stalin set aside for top nuclear scientists. As Costya, her husband, prepared the food, it was clear that this gathering could not have taken place in southern California.
A: It was raining (no Californian would have dreamed of being outside in wet weather).
B: Costya did not have a barbecue, not even one of those $3 use-once- and-throw-away kits. He built a real fire, without a single instant-igniting barbecue briquette.
It was with this in mind that I began to answer Sergei's question. Too late. The furrier was on his feet, bursting into folk songs. "Stand up, Felix!" he said, waving his glass of vodka at me. "Let's toast Russia and America." So we drank to them both.
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