Roland Merullo

Amid new glitz, an old humility in Moscow

(AFP/Getty Images)
By Roland Merullo
June 7, 2010

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OVER THE PAST 20 years, Moscow has probably changed more than any city in the world. For someone who spent 28 months in the former USSR but hasn’t been back to the capital since 1990, the city is all but unrecognizable. Glitzy skyscrapers have taken the place of hideous Soviet apartment buildings. The once sleepy ride from Sheremetyevo airport to Red Square is now a traffic-choked festival of signs advertising everything from sushi to so-called gentlemen’s clubs. You see Bentleys, Rolls Royces, and flashing neon where you once saw Soviet-made, Rambler-like Volgas, and political sayings — “Lenin Lived, Lives, and Will Live!’’

The statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, notorious father of the Soviet secret police, has long ago disappeared from the city center. Main thoroughfares and Metro stations have been renamed, communist heroes out, old Russian place-names in. Ancient, onion-domed churches have been painstakingly restored, and goose-stepping guards now march hourly to the tomb of the unknown soldier instead of to Lenin’s mausoleum.

During the Cold War, the United States government organized large exhibitions on American life and sent them around the USSR as a means of countering Soviet propaganda. Fifteen thousand people a day came through the doors of these shows. Between 1977 and 1990, I worked on three of them, as guide, general services officer, and director, living in places like Irkutsk, Tbilisi, Donetsk, Novosibirsk, Tashkent, and Rostov on Don, in addition to Moscow, Kiev, and what was then called Leningrad. Despite the KGB harassment of those years, and the great swaths of bureaucratic heartlessness that marked the Soviet landscape, I found most people to be remarkably hospitable.

On one level, we were bitter enemies, missiles aimed at each other’s cities, our submarines playing deadly games of chicken. But many people there operated on a different level. They took the risk of inviting us into their homes for modest dinners, or meeting with us on park benches to have the kinds of conversations they were not allowed to have at work. For a young man, there was an essential lesson — a spiritual lesson, I want to say — in these encounters. I learned to look beyond the labels we put on people. I saw how, even oppressed by a murderous state and an enforced poverty, some Soviets were able to preserve their fundamental decency.

After the fall of communism, all we seemed to read were stories about oligarchs making billions while war veterans sold their combat medals for food. Though I was overjoyed at the fall of the former regime, I suspected that at least part of the old soulfulness had been lost. So, for 20 years, my wife Amanda and I (we had worked there together on the second and third exhibits) made no attempt to go back.

But 18 months ago, John Beyrle, a close friend and fellow exhibit worker, was appointed US ambassador to Russia, and when he asked me to come back and speak to Russian college students, I could not refuse. Amanda and I took our young daughters along, knowing it wouldn’t be a restful trip, but wanting to show them a different piece of the world.

In the traffic-choked streets, beside the Maserati dealerships and restaurants where you can easily drop $300 for dinner, we regularly encountered the openness and soulfulness that, for me, will always be associated with the Russian language. It is a kind of intentional innocence, a resistance to the twin temptations of cynicism and bitterness.

The women who cleaned rooms in the once-moldy, now-magnificent Metropol Hotel gave us smiles to light a whole day. The rector of a university I visited, a woman who makes less than a 10th what I make in a month, insisted on taking me and two embassy workers out for a lavish lunch. A hired driver talked to us about the pain of his wife’s death. Restaurant hostesses made our non-Russian-speaking daughters feel at home. Self interest? Maybe: gone are the days when tips were considered a capitalist insult. And there is still a dourness to many Russians in public. But there is also this particular brand of sincerity and humility, a human-to-human recognition that transcends all differences.

In front of Moscow’s Kiev Station, in the middle of a parade of hurrying commuters, I stopped a middle-aged woman and asked directions. She answered with great care, taking an extra minute to look over the map we had and make sure we didn’t get lost. In her voice and eyes and manner, there was an unsentimental tenderness, an implicit acknowledgment of our shared citizenship in a kind of secret human nation. When we parted ways, I turned to my daughters and said, “Did you notice how that woman spoke to us? That’s why we came here.’’

Roland Merullo is currently working on a book about a Boston private detective.

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