Out of Russia: Ugly scenes as Communist gloss comes off

MOSCOW - Russians have been building Potemkin Villages ever since Prince Grigory Potemkin erected his first fake facade in 1787 to impress Catherine the Great.

The Communists, of course, were masters of the craft. And there was never a better showcase for their talents than the great Cold War carnival: US-Soviet summits. They were huge festivals of fraud. Pot-holes were hastily repaired; shops were stuffed with fresh produce and, for those Muscovites living along the route of the presidential motorcade, there was even the promise of a new coat of paint for the house.

No such luck now. Pot-holes gape wider than ever. The only fresh paint I've seen for President Clinton is a slogan daubed on a blotchy yellow wall opposite the US embassy. It reads: 'Americans get out of Russia.' President Clinton is unlikely to see it. He decided to avoid the ambassador's residence and support US business by staying across the Moscow river at the Radisson Slavjanskaya Hotel, an oasis of antiseptic order in this anarchic city. Prince Potemkin would have approved.

Mr Clinton last visited Moscow nearly a quarter of a century ago. Then, the Beatles were still in business and any copy of Pravda would have told Mr Clinton that the US should get out. Out of Vietnam. Out of Cambodia. He would have agreed. But never would such sentiments have been daubed on a Moscow wall. This would have violated protocol. Polemics, like summit courtesy, had their Potemkin rituals. Now things are a lot more direct.

The barbed wire of the gulag has been lifted, but so too has the veil that used to distort Russia's view of the outside world. So long as Soviet media ranted about the injustices of capitalism, the American Dream was safe: an echanting distant land of blue jeans, bubble-gum, big cars and jazz. Russians put their faith in a simple axiom - believe the opposite of what you are told. Even the party was infected. Yuri Andropov was said to love Louis Armstrong, Leonid Brezhnev American cars. Nothing special about that now. There is a showroom full of Cadillacs and Chevrolets on Tverskaya Street. Every hood in town has one. McDonald's does a roaring trade. But somehow the mystery, as well as the magic of America, have gone.

Axiomatic cynicism lingers. Television, radio and newspapers used to pump out propaganda. To some extent they still do. It is different, but scarcely closer to the reality of most Russians. A sultry blonde jumps from a flaming building in a flimsy night-dress to promote an investment fund; another wiggles her hips, sucks a cherry and tells which nightclub to visit.

Television ads push an alphabet soup of banks, investment funds and alien luxury goods. Even the vodka is imported, along with the cat food and special toothpaste for sensitive teeth. I don't know if such ads drum up much business but they have succeeded where dedicated ideologues failed. America has lost its lustre. Some Russians even believe in Communism.

Many find comfort in Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Mobbed by television crews as he stomped through Russia's new parliament, the State Duma, this week, Mr Zhirinovsky had this mocking message for Mr Clinton: 'If your country is very weak and you want our help, we can help you, Mr Clinton.' Near by, another belligerent nationalist, the television journalist Alexander Nevzorov, babbled about Washington's dark hand: 'Many Russians understand that America was behind the tragic October events and many other unpleasant things in our life.

'We will prove that interpretation is correct and that Russia is not as weak as they think.' The theme has countless variations. It reaches its apogee in the columns of Al Kods, a very odd and ferociously anti-Semitic newspaper. Its December issue ran a full-page article under the bold headline: 'America has no Future.'

All this belongs to the fringe. But it is fringe that can no longer be dismissed as lunatic. The dividing-line is shifting fast. Slavophiles have always believed in a Holy Russia, distinct from and superior to the soulless rationalism of the West. Many liberals now flirt with the same idea. Grigory Yavlinsky, who dreams of becoming president, is young, speaks English and comforts himself with a framed New York Times article praising his talents. But, asked what he would say to President Clinton, he offered this testy advice: 'Remember this is Russia. Russia is different. This is not America.'

Gone is the American Dream, or at least the hope that, some day, Russia might share it. 'Jeans, chewing-gum and Pepsi-Cola, we missed them all until our children started to say Barbie instead of mother,' writes Alla Perelova in the magazine Week. Her nationalism is melancholy. 'We rejected our own pride, our logic, our food. But having tested all foreign drink, one reaches the conclusion that vodka is still the best . . . We could show off the best we had, though we made jokes about window-dressing. Now we miss it.' Prince Potemkin would, no doubt, have understood exactly what she is talking about.

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