7.02.1997

All Men Are Equal in Poverty

Moscow is a grand old city. The city has changed significantly since I was last here, for one it is extremely crowded now. It resembles New York in some ways. It is also beastly expensive. We arrived and sat at a small cafe for breakfast, of pancakes with caviar, eggs and orange juice (actually, only I ate caviar, the rest had pancakes with butter, not being too enthused about fish eggs in the morning). The bill came to $60 for five people! Since then we always checked the menu first, but it was still harsh. Our hotel, the Belgrad, was right off the Arbat. The street is lined with stalls selling tourist trinkets, artists selling paintings and cartoonists. Its cobbled streets give it the European look, not really found elsewhere in Moscow. It seemed to be a good place to be at night, but it poured the only night I spent in Moscow, and I went to sleep reluctantly at 11 PM, watching Bernie Shaw of CNN talk about the “Hong-Kong Handover”. What will they think of next? The Congo Chaos!!

I have always tried to assimilate. Well, at least externally. I was one of the boys at Kharagpur, for sure, wearing rubber slippers to class. At Boston, I wore a tweed jacket with leather patches, hung out on Harvard Square reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In Alabama, I drank beer and shot pool with the good old boys, all dressed in Harley Davidson T’s. In California, I drink mango smoothies with 50 gm of bee pollen, wear shades and look cool. In Red Square, Moscow, it was easy to assimilate. The area was full of tourists taking photographs, and I joined the gang. Click - St. Vasilis. Click - A group of young Russian militia men. Click-Young girl dancing in front of Lenin’s mausoleum. Snap-umbrella shop in the GUM. Click-Tsar cannon inside the Kremlin. Click - Post perestroika Russian rebel youth in torn jeans. Bang-Accident with hawker selling Moscow T-shirts). The camera I am using now has no zoom feature, and I try to create the frame by walking around with my eye to the eye-piece. I have run into Byelorussian peasants, street-walkers in Minsk, ADL honchos, Naroch tourists. My favorite Russky phrase is “pzhalsta, prastitye” (please, excuse me).

The old Soviet architecture is striking. If Van Der Rowe (spelling?) visited Moscow, he must have gone back feeling ill. This is definitely not “less is more”, this is “big is beautiful”. The main building at the Moscow State University stands like a staggering Goliath, by mere presence crushing all the applicants that stand before it, waiting for results from the entrance exams. It probably has more rooms than the entire Kharagpur and Duke University campus buildings did. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs is monumental, as I look at it from my hotel window. The unique style, with the star on top. The Kremlin has the highest church in the whole of the former Soviet Union. It was impossible to build a higher one in the land. I like the word “impossible” the way it is mentioned by a former Soviet Union resident. Vladimyr said that it was impossible to construct a higher church. Why impossible, I asked him. Well, it was made a law that no one could build a higher one. A physical capacity was reduced to null by a mere law. They tried to build a higher church in the Ukraine, but were forced, forced to reduce the height of the cross in order to meet the decree.

At the Moscow State University, all buildings are entered from the side doors, the front ones are barred. This happened from the time of the October Revolution. At that point, only the gentry entered from the main door, stepping on plush carpeting. The doors were blocked since then, and all men were created equal. Dave asked Vladimyr “So Lenin never really understood the concept, did he? All men are equal, but Lenin was more equal than others.” Vladimyr said “No, Lenin understood, in his special way. The way is that “All men will be equal in poverty”.

I also visited the Exhibition for Achievements of the Nations. This place, with very striking architecture, and many beautiful fountains, have buildings that were dedicated to exhibitions , as I mentioned before, of achievements in the fields of physics, chemistry, education, agriculture, metallurgy, and the cosmos. The place is now a giant “mela”, selling JVC TVs and Vidal Sassoon shampoo. The saddest is the building dedicated to Cosmos. It is almost empty, with one end having the remnants of a magnificent model of the Lada, and a towering photograph of Yuri Gagarin. It used to be a great museum, but now there is no money to heat it in winter. The place is a little dilapidated, and looks like an old hangar. Actually, it looks a little like the missile silo that I crawled into over at Kostiny. It is sad because this is truly one of their achievements and a lack of funding has lead to the decay of this monument. On the wall is a quote by Lenin which I mis-phrase (it was in Russian). “Man has learnt and will continue to learn many secrets of the environment and through his knowledge will strengthen the same environment”.

In Moscow, they consider Minsk to be provincial, which may be true. Also, they hold it in very low esteem from an aesthetic point. “Stalin architecture” said the street vendor on the Arbat.

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