Diary notes, trip to Moscow – St Petersburg, 6 – 16 October 1992
There’s an excitement, sense of greed in the air. You feel it at the power breakfasts in the Hotel Radisson-Slavyanskaya, where Americans are wheeling and dealing, smacking their lips over the billion dollar contracts awaiting completion. The consultants, real estate brokers, lawyers have moved in like locusts to serve the manufacturers, oil and minerals companies that are opening shop as Russian and CIS laws change in favor of foreign investment in primary as well as in hi-tech industries. Mostly these guys are going to stick their fishhook in one another’s ass. But for now they are hopeful carpetbaggers; they gladly show off their few words of acquired Russian in greetings in the lobby. They eagerly swap tips on where to find broads and rental apartments while sweating it out in the hotel sauna.
Out on the street the rampant commercialism is felt at every step – from the street beggars and kids ‘cleaning’ windshields at traffic lights, to the forest of kiosks at each metro station and along major boulevards like Kutuzovsky Prospekt and Novy Arbat. The Old Arbat is one vast flea market onto which the flotsam of wrecked empire washes up. – from fur hats and Orenburg shawls, to Lomonsov factory porcelain, to oil paintings, to banners of Communism, old war and political medals of merit, icons, samovars, caviar and vodka, old pre-revolutionary bank notes and coins, false blank passes for KGB and Central Committee members! The black market has become the mainstream. Meanwhile state stores stock more and more imports. You can buy Philips consumer electronics for rubles. Fresh chicken is ubiquitous – better looking than anything I remember in the past and available at a price about 8 times cheaper than in West Europe.
The kiosks sell all sorts of cheap liquor from East Europe and most anywhere. Belgian beer turns up at 80 rubles per can. The exchange rate if 310 rubles / $1.00 at the bank. And the private hanks will convert the other way as well. Foreign goods tend to be cheaper in rubles than in currency.
The Moscow real estate market is really hot. Foreigners are scheming to get out of the overpriced hotels and into more affordable accommodations. I speak to the head of the Société Générale Bank rep office, Mr. Van Wemmel, who says some Belgian construction people are successfully doing renovation work on Moscow buildings for the sake of foreigners. The problem continues to be uncertainty over who really owns the land. No one is really impressed with the existing 99-year lease scheme. All await a decree from Yeltsin allowing full and clear title to land. Van Wemmel himself spent time in New York and Belgium, and engaged in real estate speculation. Says slyly, you’ve got to be ready everywhere to pay under the table to municipal officials to get permits to do what you want.
I take in a fair dose of culture: see an excellent production of Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet at the Stanislavsky Theater in Moscow, notable for the positioning of the orchestra in mid-stage so that there are a foreground and background on which dancing takes place, and dancers pass from one to the other over ramps cut amidst the orchestra. Also see a terrible production of Don Carlos by Verdi at the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg.
Also buy a fine still life in oils by a contemporary St Petersburg academic painter. To avoid border hassle, I ship it home to Brussels on UPS. Surprisingly it arrives the next day in impeccable condition.
One curiosity of this trip is my meeting in Sheremetievo with former ITT colleague Luigi, who arrived on the same Austrian plane from Vienna. Looks the same as five years ago, only plumper and nearly bald. The past weekend he was in Brussels for the regular get-together of ex-ITT managers. He is now preparing for a visit to Russia by Rand Araskog, ITT chairman.
The weather provides some surprises on this visit. October 11-12 we have full-blown snow storm. I leave the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg Sunday night to find 6 cm of fresh snow on the ground and a blustery wind. And it stays on the ground for a couple of days.
In StP I meet with the director of the House of Cinematography, our new landlord for the UPS office. He tells me about their project to do a film interview with opera singer Galina Vishnevskaya (wife of cellist Rostropovich) and enactment of her biography. She agreed subject to their also filming an interview with family friend Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Rumor has it that Solzhenitsyn is taking up residence in Moscow – his wife has been in town shopping for a townhouse.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]