How Moscow met the new millennium, 1 January 2000

Teaser for “Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s

Diary notes, Moscow, Monday 3 January 2000

Another bright and cold day, the fourth day in succession that we have enjoyed our cross country skiing at Meshcherskoye. It all started the last day of the old year, on Friday, when I came home from the office for lunch and then we drove out for an hour on the trails, where fresh 15 cm of powdery snow awaited us.

New Year’s eve we celebrated first at the Bolshoi Theater, where I took a pair of $1,000 seats in the first balcony. Just to try it on. This was the first time in the history of the Bolshoi that the seats were removed from the parterre and loges to make way for a ballroom floor and dining tables. All the salons were opened to the public. Here they set up hot and cold buffets. In each salon costumed actors enacted tableaux intended as a backdrop for the guests to photograph themselves.

The theater itself is magnificently decorated and most festive. Regrettably the organizers have lacked imagination to make the event deliver its promise. They have not given much thought to their clientele, only to what they themselves do well.

Accordingly we are treated to an evening of cameo performances just as the Bolshoi has always provided to the Kremlin bosses. The difference, which they seem to have missed, is that tonight the audience consists of many paying guests in addition to the state freeloaders. And at $1,000 to $1,500 a ticket we expect our needs to be catered to.

The whole program is far too serious, far too cultural. They give very little room to the audience to participate. Finally, we are invited to join a waltz and after three minutes on the dance floor, we are reminded that this is an historic moment when the profane have been allowed to dance here, then we are asked to sit down and have a rest! Here is that complacent guardianship mentality of the Soviet school marm.

All the concern over the damage the new Russians might cause was totally misplaced. The audience is very well dressed, mostly married couples, with a fair sprinkling of young children in elaborate formal wear. Not a chance of scandal or misbehavior here.

Our neighbors in the adjacent stall are Cyrill Negré from William Peters/Malesan wines and one of the top managers from Arthur Andersen who is involved in the Bolshoi Theater fund raising work.

Our loge neighbors are both doctors; she is the cardiologist for the troupe of the Bolshoi Theater. Very sober indeed.

At our entrance we meet and shake hands with the outgoing British Ambassador, Sir Andrew Wood. He is here to receive thanks from the Bolshoi administration for his work in assisting their tour of the UK this past season. On the 2nd he will be celebrating his 60th birthday and on the 3rd he leaves for retirement in the UK.

The food is splendid. Catered by the Marriott. Heaps of black sturgeon caviar, lobster, oysters, cold sturgeon, tropical fruits. Hennessy are sponsors, but only at our insistence do we get a bottle of Moet and Chandon instead of the awful Mondoro sparkling wine. Here in this little deception we see the reflection of the bad habits of the past.

This day, Friday, 31st December was remarkable for the morning announcement of the retirement by Boris Yeltsin. A coup de foudre. Totally unexpected, but in the tradition of this master of surprise.

Yeltsin and his team have shown yet again their brilliant grasp of politics. By this act, Yeltsin is putting in place his chosen successor Putin at the moment when the victory in the Duma elections is fresh, cutting the period for presidential elections down to three months from the previously scheduled six month term, thereby putting the opposition at greater disadvantage. For the whole of the electoral period, Putin will be given the chance to be seen as presidential. And this just after the break-up of the Fatherland/All Russia coalition. It is textbook politics. We are all stunned.

It is the also the best New Year’s present anyone could have given to Russia. To enter the new millennium with a young, 47 year old president, a consolidating constitutional order, a peaceful transition of power from a president still alive and in control of his faculties.  And a curtailed presidential period, bringing forward the clarity that business needs for investment to resume.

We rather expected that the Bolshoi ball would turn out to be a feast of the victors. We anticipated that Putin and his team would be there. However, in the end we were mistaken. There was Seleznyov and a few other Duma politicians, but no one from either the RF or city of Moscow governments.

Instead, the audience seems to consist of business people and others close to the Bolshoi theater. The businessmen probably are involved in sponsorship of the theater in one way or another.

About Putin’s whereabouts there were rumors he had gone up to his native St Petersburg for the holiday. Only on Saturday morning was it clear he had done something far more sensible, actually brilliant: he had flown down to the border with Chechnya to rally the Russian soldiers.

We dance a fox trot, valse anglaise, tango on the floor of the Bolshoi. Then we take another stroll through the salons.

The ballet numbers, especially Aniashvili’s Dying Swan and the Polovetsian dances from Prince Igor, are very appealing. The operatic numbers, distorted by amplifiers, are irritating, really disappointing. The soloists and orchestra sound like a bad recording.

And so, at 10.45 pm with little sense of regret we departed from the Bolshoi and headed over to the Metelitsa casino to join my colleagues at the party we, United Distillers, are sponsoring.

To my disappointment most of my Russian team have abandoned us on this evening. Mike is there with his wife, adopted son and friends. As is External Affairs consultant Dmitri Andronenko and his wife, with whom we share a small table just next to the stage.

Here in the Metelitsa, where tickets cost only $500 per person for this evening, the audience is younger, more lively. We are treated to a brief show at midnight, then it is all music. The audience is swept by the disco fever and all are out on the dance floor. Intolerable noise level. By the time we leave at about 3 a.m., I am suffering, have ringing in the ears. Still it is good to be in the midst of this pulsating throng after the dull formality of the Bolshoi.

It is worth noting that the city is calm, the police directing traffic around the center are relaxed, well displosed. Many streets have been closed to traffic for a large pedestrian gathering.

When we get back to the apartment Larisa exchanges new year’s greetings with daughter Alexa, who is celebrating with her fiancé in the south of Belgium.

On Saturday we rose late. In the evening we drove down to Red Square and join the crowds. A steady snow is falling and the square looks fabulous, a movie setting. Strollers. Glamorous display windows of GUM. We walk up to the newly renovated Gostinny Dvor complex. The surrounding buildings are nearly all also renovated and the ensemble is positively enchanting. Even Larisa puts aside her disdain for the capital and expresses pleasure and admiration at the transformation.

Sunday. A good skiing day. More fresh snow. Temperature at minus four.

Monday. More good skiing. In the evening we take a leisurely supper with Tolya Silin. He has just completed running the city’s millennial celebrations. Says that Luzhkov has earned his defeat. He has surrounded himself with flatterers and yes-men so that he is insulated from political realities. He has stooped to every challenge and detractor. Lacked political judgment.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble.  “Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s” will go to press in six weeks]