Thursday, November 28, 2013

Moscow Re Deux -Part 1

The last time I was in Moscow was 30 years ago when Russia was part of the Soviet Union and Communism was in all its glorious failure in its ability to provide consumer goods to its populace.  The change I experienced was astounding and almost on a par with changes in Beijing during the same 30 years.  Thirty years ago Brezhnev was still in power although as an ailing dictator.  There were very few cars outside of the government cars, the Zil and Chika whose drivers drove in special lanes in the streets at top speed blasting their horns at the rare driver who trespassed into the privilege zones.  Government run hotels still had door men to check for your hotel pass and floor ladies who job was to hand you your room key in exchange for your pass.  They of course also reported you for anything unusual such as not sleeping in your room and showing up in the early morning hours to change your clothes and take a cold shower (due to lack of hot water).
If you were so luck to actually find something you wanted to buy in a department store, the process required standing in line 3 times. The first part was to nudge and slide your way pass other comrades to get to the counter where solemn faced women seemed to compete for the most put upon person in the world. You pointed to an item you wanted to buy.  They would reluctantly write the name of the item and price on a thin piece of paper and hand it to you.  Then you had to find the cashier and stand in line to pay and obtain a red stamp on our paper.  Then you when back to the dour-faced automatons repeating the nudging and sliding process to arrive with your stamped receipt to pick up your prize.
And the black marble mausoleum home of Lenin’s Tomb was once the darling of Red Square where long queues were routine even during bitter cold days.  The tomb of the Unknown Soldier was alongside and on the hour, Soviet soldiers goose stepped in dramatic fashion to perform the changing of the guard.
Arrival at Sheremetyevo Airport in the 80’s consisted of dark, mostly empty corridors that funneled you in front two serious minded officers in full uniform who like to play waiting games before reluctantly stamping your passport.  Then on to the baggage pick up which typically lasted an hour before the accordion doors rose and your luggage tumbled out.  Next, was the custom inspection where I once had every single bit of my possessions examined at length, including having a box of raisin bran opened, to assure nothing contrary to the national interests of the Soviet Union might be smuggled in.
Thirty years later Judith and I land at Domodedovo Airport, one of three airports serving Moscow.  It is like any other modern European airport, complete with high end and extensive duty free shops.  Our luggage arrived within a reasonable time, we found an ATM to get new rubles and then learned getting a taxi was a hassle due to the need to negotiate a price.  The best price we could find was equal to $80 U.S. and the first indication that our money was not going to provide the amount of value we were used to.  Taxis are very expensive in Moscow, but everything was expensive by Chicago standards.
Due to a lightning storm caused delay at O’Hare we missed our flight out of Frankfurt to Moscow.  We were rebooked on a flight 4 hours later which caused us to arrive in Moscow after midnight, reaching the Metropol Hotel about 1:15 AM.   It was a very long day.
Knowing the hotel breakfast would be a grand feast and very expensive, we ventured out and found a local restaurant near the completely restored GUM department store that lines one side of Red Square.  A quick glance into Red Square revealed that a stage was set up facing St. Basil’s church with the fencing taking up about one half of the square denying access to Lenin’s tomb.  Then we found out that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier had been moved around the corner just outside the Kremlin Walls.  
So the glorious leaders of the Revolution and intelligentsias of Communism and the Soviet Union appear to have lost their semi-deification.  Gone were the numerous statues and posters of the glorious leaders.  In contrast, in China, statues abound of Mao who is still revered in spite of his leadership as one of the cruelest despots the world has known.  His face is still on all Chinese currency.  But I digress.  
Our main objective to Moscow is to see glimpses of the Tajikistan male community who have migrated to Moscow to eke out a living.  My wife, Judith helped to sponsor a Tajikistani doctor’s initial study related to drug and alcohol use and the spread of HIV within their lives in Moscow and how the spread occurs when the men go back to the homes to the women in Tajikistan.  The doctor, whose name is shorted to Mabot who I came to greatly admire, arrived at our hotel with a Tajiki friend with a car and we drove for an hour in heavy traffic to a huge bizarre where the Tajikistani’s main job was to keep the variety of shops supplied with goods.  Almost all the goods sold came from China and the prices were bargains compared to the rest of Moscow.  The photo below is just the start of many long columns of shops selling any article of clothing possible.  The yellow sign says “shapke”, if I remember my Cyrillic alphabet correctly. 
The man who runs this bizarre is a very wealthy person as he takes a cut of every transaction.  The Tajiks make enough money to live, buy drugs and alcohol and pay for sex and still have money to send home to their family.  Some develop relationships with Russian woman while in Moscow and a few single men have permanent places to live.  As do men everywhere, the use of condoms is not embraced and many Tajiks are mostly ignorant about how HIV is transmitted.  They have no insurance and no little access to HIV testing facilities. The stigma of being found HIV positive is also a deterrent to want to be tested.  Little of no help is given to them by the Russian of Moscow government.
The Russian people as a whole are xenophobic and mistreat minorities who are mostly former members of the Soviet Empire.  Being Muslims also is a negative. Sometimes the police beat them, take them to jail, and take their money.  These men’s lives are difficult.   What would be interesting to know is what life is like back home in Tajikistan for the women who live with few men around.
After meeting with a couple to Russian officials on Sunday, we were free to pursue some basic tourist sites.  We started with the on-off bus which was probably a mistake given the traffic congestion during a rainy day consuming so much time and the bus not really going to specific places of interest.