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What Life Was Like on Moscow’s Streets After the USSR Collapsed

Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images

As we all know, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is no more. It has ceased to be. It has rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. It is a late Union. Bereft of life, it is pushing up the daisies. It is an ex-Union. (It’s not just “resting,” either.) The landmass it formerly occupied is now taken up by new countries with old names, such as Russia, Ukraine (out, damned the!), Kazakhstan, and Byelorussia, which I half expect, once capitalism takes hold, to rename itself Sellhighrussia. Yet even though the corporeal and temporal actuality of the Soviet Union has ended, the Soviet Union is not nowhere. It has simply moved to a different plane of existence. It has fled to the realm of myth and mystery, of fright and fable, where it abides with other empires that must be imagined to he believed (whether or not they were ever real)—empires good and empires evil, empires like Atlantis, Ancient Rome, the Middle Kingdom, Oz, and the Third Reich.

Of course, even when it was alive the Soviet Union was a fabulous kingdom, a place of the blackest black magic. How could it have been otherwise? After all, here was a country founded upon a vast and elaborate fantasy, the fantasy of the Workers’ Suite, a fantasy sustained not only by the cruel and bloodsoaked apparatus of fear but also, and above all during its wickedest decades, by the blind goodwill of millions of believers within and without its borders. The literature of and about the Soviet Union was steeped in weird phantasmagoria. Almost every word of Soviet journalism was fiction disguised as fact; by the same token, any Soviet writer wishing to publish a bit of honest social analysis had to disguise his facts as fiction. Many of the books written in praise of the Soviet Union described an imaginary place. Some of the most eloquent attacks on it did likewise, albeit in a more conscious way—Zamyatin’s We, Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984. The most spookily on-target visual portrait of the pre-collapse USSR is Terry Gilliam’s great cult film Brazil. The movie has nothing directly to do with the Soviet Union (or with Brazil either), and I doubt that Gilliam had the Soviet Union in mind when he made it. He captured its essence all the same. It you want to know what the texture of this very odd country was like before the fall, see Brazil.

I’ve been here three times now. The first time, Moscow seemed to me less like a foreign city than an alien planet—a planet that had developed along amazingly similar lines to earth. This faraway planet, like our own, is populated by bilaterally symmetrical bipeds who, like us, garb themselves in clothing differentiated by gender, use four-wheel motorized vehicles for transport, live in boxlike structures, and consume grain-based products for both nourishment and recreation. They have equivalents of almost everything we have—shoes, newspapers, traffic lights—yet there is always something about these everyday items that makes them seem utterly strange. It’s hard to say which is more eerie, the resemblances or the differences. They have shops, for example, but the signs on the outside say harsh generic things—PRODUCTS, REPAIRS, MILK, PHOTO—and inside there are only drab, empty display cases and coiled lines of shuffling people. That was three years ago. It’s still basically the same, only now this exotically gray planet has begun to be colonized by earthlings.

Three years ago, there were still a few big signs of the COMRADES! WE ARE BUILDING COMMUNISM variety to be seen. On my second visit, a year and a half ago, I saw only one sign of this type—red background, block letters—but when I asked someone to translate it for me it turned out to say YOUNG PEOPLE! INVEST IN HIGH-YIELD SECURITIES! This time, the signs are advertising Mars candy bars, Hyundai cars, Panasonic electronics. The consistent thread is that all the signs, whether communist, perestroika-ist, or post-communist, advertise things that are either nonexistent or unavailable.

Some other changes. The lines at the state stores are longer than they were eighteen months ago, but elsewhere there is much more evidence of non-state commerce. The Metro corridors and the passageways under the broad Moscow avenues are lined with card tables where people sell books, magazines, scarves, flowers, chewing gum. cans of German beer. There are musicians on the subway, too—another absolutely new development. Homeless people, too—ditto. Three years ago the hot newspaper was Moscow News, which had emerged from decades as a weekly for tourists published by the Novosti Press Agency to become the voice of glasnost. A year and a half ago it was Commersant, a business weekly. Now it’s Moscow’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta (The Independent), a sober thrice-weekly broadsheet, and St. Petersburg’s Chas Pik (Rush Hour), a spunky afternoon daily. Three years ago, an American in Moscow felt utterly invulnerable. Now every foreigner knows someone who’s been mugged or burgled. But Moscow still feels a lot safer than New York.

If you have dollars and a few Russian-speaking friends to guide you, the Commonwealth of Independent States is, for the moment, a vacationer’s and shopper’s paradise. I traveled here on frequent flyer miles courtesy of Pan Am (another institution that has gone the way of the USSR) and stayed in the apartment of a friend of a friend. A couchette on the night train to St. Petersburg set me back about 26 cents’ worth of rubles; on the return trip I bought a whole four-passenger compartment. Lunch for three at a “cooperative” restaurant (pickled veggies, not-bad pizza, cognac), about 38 cents. Reverse-chic Soviet neckties at TSUM (Central Universal Stores), the Gimbel’s to Moscow’s Macy’s, the more famous GUM (Government Universal Stores), a nickel each. Subway rides, about two-tenths of a cent each. The whole nine-day trip has cost me about $200, mostly for gifts and meals for Russian friends and souvenirs to take home.

I’ve been asking people if Communism left anything worthwhile behind. Everyone gives the same answer: the Metro, the legendary Moscow subway that served as an argument-clincher for a generation of American communists. True enough: the Moscow subway is the only Soviet institution that is indisputably the best of its kind in the world. Like the pyramids of Egypt, the temples of the Incas, and the Roman colosseum, it has a brutal splendor that transcends the moral squalor of its origins. A Russian friend adds something else to the list: the “Seven Stalinist Sisters.” the mock-gothic, wedding-cake skyscrapers that dot the cityscape. “I hate them, myself,” the friend says, “but my eight-year-old daughter loves them. She says they’re magic castles. She says gremlins and goblins must live there.” A wise little girl.