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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'