By Geoff Winestock
A visit to Moscow, like many great cities, offers a chance to immerse yourself in its fascinating, tumultuous history.
Moscow is unusual however because you can get a feel not just for the distant past, the medieval world of Ivan the Terrible or Napoleon’s campaign of 1812, but also for the dramatic events that happened there in our lifetimes. The city was the setting for many of the crucial moments that ended the Cold War. I was lucky enough to witness some of them personally when I moved to the city in 1992 to work as a newspaper journalist.
Almost every street corner has a reminder of how fast things changed over the course of the seven years that I lived and worked there. We used to say it was a place where you could go to sleep and wake up in a different country. I arrived in June 1992 about five months after the Soviet Union split into 16 countries and the Communist Party was banned. It was the period when the old structures collapsed and were replaced by Wild West capitalism and mafia rule both within and outside the government. The city was on its knees. The only reliable places to go out for lunch were a few western hotels and the newly opened McDonald’s.
On the other hand, however strange this might sound, it was also at least briefly a time of unprecedented free speech, democracy and hope for many Russians. There are so many extraordinary memories. Today Moscow’s wide main street, called Tverskaya, is lined with luxury boutiques, but in that summer of 1992, it was the scene of what for many Muscovites was an embarrassing but exciting first step in capitalism. At that intermediate time, the Soviet planned economy had stopped working but ordinary people were still terrified they might be sent to a gulag if they started up a private business.
The month before I arrived, the mayor of Moscow had tried to break that impasse by signing an order allowing anyone to sell anything – without fear of being arrested.
And so I remember ordinary Muscovites tentatively taking up positions in lines kilometres-long on the pavements of Tverskaya, holding up a pair of boots or a saucepan or a plastic bottle of cooking oil. Muscovites, many of them affluent, stood in these endless lines holding their spare stuff in fear and hope.
The ruble fell in value by 3,000 percent that year. Some months it fell by half its value. People lost their savings in the bank, which was tragic. There was also a bizarre side to it – it became almost impossible to use the pay phones. It was supposed to cost 5 kopeks to make a call but the central bank stopped minting the 5-kopek piece because it was worth far less than the metal.
Politically Russia was torn between a pro-western pro-capitalist group led by the drunken president Boris Yeltsin and a group of Communists and ultra-nationalists, known commonly as the “red-browns” who were based in the Russian parliament then still known as the Supreme Soviet. After endless wrangling to pass even basic reforms, Yeltsin in 1993 issued a decree dissolving the parliament, however the red-browns ignored it. After a month of scuffles, the red-browns launched a coup.
I was on my way to the gym when I saw a convoy of trucks with men carrying guns and waving the hammer-and-sickle flag driving along Tver Street. I later realised they were on their way to attack the television centre. Many people including a western journalists died during that incident but luckily I was assigned to cover what was happening on Red Square near the Kremlin.
Today, the great square flanked by St Basil’s Church and Lenin’s Tomb is packed 24-hours a day with tourists and young people, but that night as my wife Louise and I walked toward the Kremlin it felt too empty. Suddenly we heard steps and saw a dark figure approaching. It was frightening, but then to our relief a male voice said “I work for the Dutch embassy. On a night like this it would be better if we worked together.” We patrolled the streets towards the Arbat and near the Tass news agency building where guns had been fired, wondering if the army would side with Yeltsin or the red-browns and if the red-browns won, would they let us stay in Moscow. We could wake up in another country.
The next morning, at dawn tanks started firing into the parliament building and it was clear the army had backed Yeltsin. The fighting lasted for a few days. A curfew was imposed on a city of 12 million people. We went to sleep in our apartment to the sound of occasional gunfire. It was the start of the move towards authoritarianism that eventually led to the rise of Vladimir Putin.
Despite this, the 90s was probably the coolest decade ever to live in Moscow. It was a time of liberation when people suddenly felt truly free. The newspapers were lively and cheeky. People who had been trapped behind the iron curtain all their lives were suddenly free to travel and eager to meet foreigners. They poked fun hilariously at the New Russian gangsters who were called “red jackets” because they wore garish expensive European blazers. Under the Soviets, rock and roll was seen as western decadence but suddenly Moscow’s people could enjoy the latest trends.
Early in my stay I went to one of Moscow’s first dance parties in the Planetarium next to the Moscow zoo, a hall dedicated to the Russian space program. It was called the Gagarin Party in mock honour of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space who was a Soviet icon. The name Gagarin Party is a trans-language pun. Partiya only means “political party” in Russian but is used here with the English sense of “gathering for fun.” At the party, hundreds of Muscovites danced to house music, spilling outside onto the snow. My specially printed Gagarin Party T-shirt is still one of my favourite souvenirs of that time.
When I walk around Moscow today, I am stunned by how calm and normal it has become. Sometimes I miss the craziness of those days, but there are other charms. At least now there is an overwhelming choice of places to go to lunch.