National Geographic : 1997 Apr
S THE SUMMER OF 1991. THE SOVIET REGIME WAS CRUMBLING LIKE WEEK-OLD BREAD, AND MY WIFE AND I WERE SCHEDULED to fly home to New York for the last time, end ing a nearly four-year stint in Moscow-mine for the Washington Post, hers for the New York Times. The flight was scheduled for August 18, a Sunday. A few days before, I had interviewed Aleksandr Yakovlev, who had been Mikhail Gorbachev's closest aide throughout the perestroikayears. The "forces of revenge" within the party and the KGB, he said, were preparing a putsch. I didn't know what to make of his comment except to put it in the paper. The next day, at a party with some Russian friends on the Mos cow River, we talked about Yakovlev's pre diction. My friends and I agreed-a coup seemed far-fetched. The Soviet Union, after all, was no banana republic. "But I will tell you one thing," I said, in the plummy tone of one rehearsing his valedic tory. "Check out Moscow in a few years, and there will be shopping malls everywhere." "You've gone nuts," said my friend Sergei. "Oh, you're right!" Sergei's wife, Masha, said mockingly. "Downtown will look just like Fifth Avenue. Be sure to visit!" So that was the consensus: no coup, no shop ping malls. The world would change, to be sure, but Moscow could forget about Sears, much less Saks Fifth Avenue. A couple of days later the first prediction went sour. There were tanks parked not a hundred yards from my front door on Kutuzovsky Prospekt. The DAVID REMNICK is the author of two books about Russia: Lenin's Tomb, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, and Resurrection,just published by Random House. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker. Freelance photographer GERD LUDWIG, a frequent contributor to the magazine, lives in Los Angeles. He documented life in the former Soviet Union in "A Broken Empire" (March 1993). coup was on. (It was over three days later.) Less earth-shattering to historians, per haps, is the fact that the second prediction "the shopping malls vision," as my friends dubbed it on the spot-came true far more quickly than I had imagined. Capitalism may be creeping only slowly and erratically into provincial cities like Tambov, Stavropol, and Vologda, but in Moscow the signs of money are now everywhere: advertisements, bill boards, finishing schools, neon, Nikes, and, by God, shopping malls. To visit Moscow in the five years since the collapse of communism and the Soviet state is to be thunderstruck on a daily basis. Street names change overnight, erasing honors given decades ago to Bolshevik warriors; youth gangs form, recapitulating, in their way, the history of young people in the West-Hippies, Punks, Grungers, Skinheads, Metal Heads, Tolkienites; a gay bar opens down the street and features "transvestite night"; the Luba vitcher Hasidim set up a synagogue and are lobbying the government for possession of a trove of manuscripts stored away for decades in the damp corners of the Russian State Library; the Hare Krishnas come jangling across Red Square trailing clouds of incense; a 19th-century downtown apartment building is cleaned out by mafiosi who have decided "to privatize" the place. The involuntarily gentri fied are told, not asked, to accept an apart ment so far from the center of town that it is nearly in the center of Minsk. The changes reach to the most basic stuff of everyday life. Lines are rare now, but there are more home less living in underpasses, train stations, city parks. The body politic has eroded so quickly that the Russian body has followed suit: The life expectancy of an average Moscow male is Dressed to sell, models strut the latest styles in nightclubs, stepping into the void left by state controlled fashion. Last year Russian designer Elena Souproun presented her first collection, including this gown priced at $5,000-two years' average wage in Moscow.