Out of Russia: Reflections on the faded colour of Communism

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MOSCOW - Perhaps it was the new paint job in the hallway that did it. Or maybe it was the back copies of China's People's Daily stuffed in my Moscow letter-box the other day. They were meant for the Chinese businessmen in the flat next door but his box was full. The postman dumped them in mine instead.

Deja vu hit me like a sledge- hammer. I hadn't seen a copy of the People's Daily since leaving Peking two years ago. In China I read it every day. I had to. But kicking the habit was not difficult. The dreary organ of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee is not a paper I ever miss at breakfast.

It was the new coat of paint, though, that really took me back. The wall of my old apartment building in Peking was exactly the same colour. It's difficult to describe the shade: a faded, fetid green with the dull, antiseptic gloss of a hospital corridor. It has a smell to match. More even than red, this is perhaps the true, universal emblem of Communism.

Until I came to Moscow, it had seemed a uniquely Chinese phenomenon, part of what Chinese leaders like to call 'socialism with Chinese characteristics'. Red is the symbol of an ideology. Vapid green, though, suggested far more: a code of enforced drabness designed to dull far more than just China's walls. But then I came to Moscow.

Now I know better. What had seemed so much a part of China's unique road to socialism was never really Chinese at all. It is Russian or, to be precise, Soviet - the stack-a-prole apartment blocks, the grey carpets of concrete, the overstuffed armchairs, the walled compounds with surly guards in brick shacks at the gate, the special compounds for foreigners. All of it, down to the colour scheme and garbage chutes, come from the same source. This is not Marxism but Moscow.

How different things might be if Chinese leaders had imitated according to their personal tastes instead of their ideological faith. Deng Xiaoping, like many other Chinese revolutionaries, spent his youth in Paris. He still raves about the cooking. No one ever raves about the food in Moscow. But it was to Moscow that Mr Deng and his colleagues turned when they needed a blueprint.

Li Peng, China's Prime Minister, was sent here to study engineering; Jiang Zemin, Communist Party general-secretary, did a stint at the Stalin Auto Works. They and thousands more copied everything they could. And only when Moscow decided not to let them copy the nuclear bomb did they stop. They packed their bags and went home.

The colour of the walls in Peking still speaks of what they took home with them. My bet, though, is that they won't be sickly green there for much longer. But in Moscow, at least at No 16 Dmitriya Ulianova Street where the Independent has its office, they are slapping on a fresh coat of the same old paint. Red, of course, has been deleted from the palette. The more insidious, insipid shades, though, seem here to stay.

In China they have been in retreat for a long time. I took my first trip there in 1980. I arrived by train from Hong Kong. The first stop was Canton, a city smothered by grey, sticky grime and only just beginning to shake off the madness of Maoism. Along every street, though, there were small family workshops: women at sewing machines, men bashing metal into primitive pots and pans. Red flags and banners were everywhere; they still are. Socialism, though, even in 1980, was a flag to be waved not followed.

I have been in Moscow for five months, and have walked for hours along back streets and main roads. Not once have I looked in a window and seen anyone making anything. There are shops selling Danone yoghurt, Marlboro cigarettes and Cadillacs along Tverskaya Boulevard; kiosks peddling everything from imported vodka to vibrators on nearly every street corner; hawkers selling anything they can get their hands on in the metro. Of course, there are factories too. The Zil Auto Works belches smoke and the Bolshevik Sweet Factory churns out biscuits and cakes. But nowhere is there what I saw in Canton 13 years ago and what can now be seen in every village or town across China.

'The Soviet Union today is China tomorrow,' Mao Tse-tung declared to his countrymen while Mr Li and Mr Jiang were in Moscow learning how to build the future. He was wrong. But so were many others. China only borrowed socialism. Russia created it. Peking kept the wrapping but dumped the contents. Moscow is trying to jettison both. But, until something new can be created, the walls will stay sickly green.