Meetings & Conventions: A Russian Misunderstanding
A Russian Misunderstanding
BY DAVID GHITELMAN
Freedom -- and change -- are ongoing processes easier said
When I visited Russia for the first time three years ago,
everyone there assured me things would get worse before they got
better. Believing that centuries of Czarist oppression followed by
75 years of Communist tyranny inclined them to a
no-longer-justified pessimism, I was not convinced the prediction
was accurate. The Russians were finally free and at peace. Surely,
prosperity could not be far behind.
Of course, I was wrong. Even if no one could identify where the
trouble would come from, the Russians knew that bad news was just
around the corner. About a month after I left, the pointless,
brutal and debilitating war in Chechnya began.
When I went back to Russia last October, peace had finally
returned to Chechnya. Still, I was far from optimistic. In
particular, I was concerned that while my first trip had included
stays in both the Russian capital of Moscow and Saint Petersburg,
my return would take me only to Moscow. I remembered Saint
Petersburg as a singularly beautiful city, a former imperial
capital filled with sparkling palaces and graceful canals that
fully deserved its nickname, "the Venice of the East."
Moscow, in contrast, I recalled as gray and forbidding. On that
first trip, we'd had little time to explore the city on our own. I
wondered if that was simply because our hotel was so far from the
center of activity or because the streets were unsafe for
foreigners. And if Moscow was too dangerous for travel writers on a
press trip three years ago, I imagined it was sure to be worse
after three years of war, political uncertainty and social
Again, I was wrong.
With plenty of time on this last trip to traipse about Moscow,
both day and night, I felt perfectly safe. What's more, the city
had recently undergone a full-scale facelift for the September 1997
celebration of the 850th anniversary of its founding. On the basis
of my four-day visit, I have no idea if the average Russian's -- or
Moscovite's -- life has improved since 1994. But visitors to the
city, and meeting planners considering bringing groups there, will
find they have more and better options today than they did just
three years ago.
One of the most striking improvements is a newfound appreciation
of, and confidence in, things Russian. Consider just two
examples:On my first trip, hoteliers repeatedly, proudly and without
prompting told me that all the food they served came from abroad.
Local supplies were just too uncertain. On my return, no one
boasted about using imported produce. When I asked, I was told that
while some food still had to be brought into the country, most of
what was served was Russian grown. Even the bottled water, which on
my first visit had been exclusively French or Swiss, was this time
almost always Russian.On my 1994 trip, I was taken to mediocre Tex-Mex restaurants in
both Moscow and Saint Petersburg. On this trip, I dined at two
Russian-themed eateries. The first, the Khlestakov Restaurant,
inhabits a re-creation of a 19th-century provincial inn that
originally served as the setting of a recent film version of
The Inspector General, Gogol's classic satire of the
corrupt Czarist bureaucracy. The second was the restaurant at the
Tretyakov Gallery. This museum, reopened after an extensive
expansion and renovation in 1995, is home to the world's greatest
collection of Russian art, including exquisite icons. The
restaurant's interior recalls the medieval Czars' brightly colored,
arched-ceiling rooms in the Kremlin Palace.
Moscow's facelift, unfortunately, wasn't able to eliminate the
enduring spirit of Russian bureaucracy that survived the Czars, as
well as the Communists, and will probably outlast capitalism, too.
While Moscow is a prettier city now than it was three years ago, at
least two major projects undertaken for the 850th anniversary
remained unfinished as of last October. They are the reconstruction
of the Saint Savior Cathedral, which was torn down by Stalin in the
1930s, and the construction of an elaborate underground mall next
to the Kremlin. Actually, the exteriors of both are more or less
complete, you just can't go inside.
As travel writers, we were curious about when these projects
would be finished. At a briefing in the Moscow Press Club, however,
a city official assured us that they were finished. A dozen or so
guests of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow hear
mass once a month in the cathedral. And French President Jacques
Chirac, in town the previous month for the anniversary party,
toured the underground mall and said it was just as nice as the
underground mall next to the Louvre.
"But when will the mall and the cathedral be open to the
public?" we asked. The one member of our group who spoke Russian,
an émigré, repeated the question in the official's native language.
The bureaucrat didn't understand. Gogol would have. *
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