February 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: A Russian Misunderstanding February 1998 Current Issue
February 1998 OBSERVATIONS:

A Russian Misunderstanding


Freedom -- and change -- are ongoing processes easier said than done

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 dissolution.

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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