Russia – Then and Now


It has been 33 years since I stood in Red Square.

In the last three decades, Russia has had multiple leaders. It has reconstituted itself into the Russian Federation, still the largest country in the world, losing 15 former states to independence. With Moscow on top of my husband’s bucket list, it made sense that we make a slight detour from a recent trip to Scandinavia to check it out. The changes have been massive since 1985.

Mike and Laurie at Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral

When I visited Moscow in the early 1980s, my mother and I came as members of the first People to People women in business delegation. We were among more than 30 women from throughout the U.S. We came from all walks of life, varied backgrounds and a majority of the states. I was a newspaper journalist and my mother a small business owner. Our task was to meet with business women in Moscow, Kiev and St Petersburg. We were to exchange ideas about the status of women in the workplace. All of us had prepared speeches, most of which were met by polite applause and unreadable faces. To this day, I am not certain if our American ideas were laughable in the face of Communism or if the Soviet women were simply acknowledging the presence of the dark-suited officials “escorting” our delegation from meeting to meeting.

The USSR had just boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles as payback for our withdrawal in 1980. Officials of the U.S. and Soviet Union had resumed arms control talks. American student Samantha Smith, who famously wrote Soviet chief Yuri Andropov requesting peace and subsequently was invited to visit the USSR, had recently died in a tragic plane crash at the age of 13. Konstantin Chernenko also had passed away, passing the baton as general secretary of the communist party to Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev was busy ushering in the final stages of the Soviet Union as its last supreme leader, soon to give way to Boris Yeltsin as president of the independent Russian state. (Yeltsin would go on to resign in 1999, handing the post to then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who went on to win the 2000 presidential election and has remained in power since.)

The Moscow of 2018 bears little resemblance to the bleak, drab city of the 1980s. It is a bustling metropolis void of the somber, downcast faces I remember and empty of the legions of armed soldiers visible on every corner. As honored guests we still were consumed with the knowledge that we were being watched by – and sometimes accompanied by – the KGB. Now they are called the federal security service. There is a scarcity of armed officers anywhere, let alone Red Square. And the Kremlin is open to visitors six days a week.


Diorama shows layout of the Kremlin Palace and Gardens

Locals say life is better, freer, though there are still issues. They refer to the era of iron-fisted control – the 70 years leading to the dissolution of Russia in 1991 – as The Soviet Era, capital letters sliding off their tongues accompanied by looks of distaste akin to acknowledging a bad smell. One woman reminds me of the only hotel reserved for foreign visitors, where our delegation was housed; the two-star Intourist hotel in the center of Moscow. I remember my mom being entertained about the “postage stamp” towels and barrack-like beds. Ironically, it stood next door to the historic National Hotel where my husband and I stayed on our recent visit. The Intourist was imploded nearly 20 years ago to make way for a modern Ritz-Carlton. The National was nationalized in 1917 and proclaimed the “First House” of the Soviets. It later became a residence of the Bolshevik government, and many key communist leaders lived there, included Vladimir Lenin.

intourist hotel

National Hotel on left, Intourist on right.

In 1985 there was one “approved” store to shop in that did not have shortages of consumer goods – the renowned ГУМ (GUM) department store on Red Square. This excursion was the only time we were unescorted, but I imagine the store was well-covered by cameras and security police. Mom and I scrambled to find a few trinkets to take home, mainly the traditional nesting Matryoshka dolls and beautifully painted black lacquer boxes. Clerks used a wooden-beaded abacus to add our purchases, and looked at one another in amusement when the foreigners asked to buy the abacus as well. GUM still exists today, seemingly untouched on the outside, but inside has evolved into a haven for high-end shoppers seeking Gucci, Saint Laurent and Givenchy. After the Soviet Era, GUM was privatized and in 2005 was purchased by a Russian luxury goods operator. As a private shopping mall, it was renamed in such a fashion that it could maintain its old abbreviation and thus still be called GUM. However, the first word Gosudarstvennyi (‘state’) has been replaced with Glavnyi (‘main’), so that GUM is now an abbreviation for “Main Universal Store”.

ГУМ (GUM) department store on Red Square

St Petersburg was still Leningrad when our women’s delegation visited. It was renamed in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Kiev, I remember my mother and me stealing away from the group to have dinner at the home of a local writer. His daughter had been among the Soviet delegation. She had been singled out by a dark-suite, sun glassed man for a “talk” as we moved within the group from one location to another. Her father, a charming, middle-aged man, asked me to smuggle out a manuscript. I confess that I declined. I wasn’t sure my mother was prepared to pay the price for the reckless acts of her rebellious daughter. Since then, Kiev has become part of the independent country of Ukraine. We didn’t make it to Kiev on this trip, but now, wandering the streets of modern Moscow, I wondered if the independence of the Ukraine brought him freedom to publish.

We laugh as we pass by Moscow’s centrally located McDonald’s, considered a high point of our tour route. The tour guide pulls over, frantically flipping pages in a book of collected photographs. She beams broadly as she comes to a black and white photo. It is of the McDonald’s, the first in the country, the day it opened in 1990. She pointed to the serpentine stream of people – more than 30,000 – and tells us she and her father waited all day to enter the store then bought one of everything on the menu.

Later we pass the site of what was the largest swimming pool in Moscow when I visited three decades ago. Now it is the site of Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. At the turn of the 19th century, the cathedral’s smaller predecessor stood on the same site. In the 1930’s the Soviet government was in the midst of its doctrine of state atheism, a period of government-sponsored programs of forced conversion to atheism conducted by the Communists. While most organized religions were never outlawed, religious property was confiscated, believers were harassed, and religion was ridiculed while atheism was propagated in schools. Although personal expressions of religious faith were not explicitly banned, there was a social stigma, and it was generally considered unacceptable for members of certain professions (teachers, state bureaucrats, soldiers) to be openly religious. During the first five years of Soviet power, the Bolsheviks executed 28 Russian Orthodox bishops and more than 1,200 priests, while many others were imprisoned or exiled. Most seminaries were closed, and the publication of most religious material was prohibited.

Moscow Pool on left, modern-day Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on right

In 1931, the cathedral was blown up and construction started on what was to be a gigantic “Palace of the Soviets.” By 1941 only 500 churches remained open out of about 54,000 in existence prior to World War I. The soviet high-rise was never built, as the project was abandoned due to a lack of funds, problems with flooding from the nearby Moscow River and the outbreak of war.  The flooded foundation hole remained until Nikita Khrushchev ordered it transformed into the largest open air swimming pool in the world. The Moscow Pool, as I knew it, existed until 1994. Under Gorbachev, the decision was made to rebuild the cathedral on the site and the modern-day Cathedral of Christ the Saviour was consecrated in 2000.

Though much of the old “Soviet Era” has slipped away, there clearly remains a Communist regime in charge of the country’s political system and human rights management (including LGBT rights and media freedom). In particular, such organizations as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch say Russia still have inordinate restrictions over the political rights and civil liberties of its citizens. Freedom House, an international organization funded by the United States, ranks Russia as “not free,” citing “carefully engineered elections” and “absence” of debate. Russian authorities, of course, dispute the claims, calling Freedom House reports “prefabricated” and alleging that human rights issues have been turned into a political weapon in particular by the United States.

Meanwhile, there is the issue of Russian interference in the U.S. elections. It surprises me that the tour guide looks to the left, then the right before answering my query. “As long as Russia is Russia, the United States will be of interest,” she says slyly. It is the end of the conversation.

I end my reverie, coming back to 2018. Moscow is busy, colorful and full of life. It disappoints my European-born husband, who expected the Russia of my past. But inwardly I am thrilled for the country’s inhabitants who finally are tasting at least some of the freedoms we all take for granted.

By far the world’s largest country, Russia covers nearly twice the territory of Canada. It extends across the whole of northern Asia and the eastern third of Europe, spanning 11 time zones and incorporating a great range of environments and land forms. We have been treated to a miniscule experience of modern-day Russia and there is no way to know how representative it is.

Still, we savor the moment. It is a vibrant country, filled with fascinating, complex people. But make no mistake, Russia remains under Communist rule. It has the fifth largest army in the world, the largest tank force and stockpile of nuclear weapons, the second largest fleet off ballistic missile submarines and the only modern strategic bomber force outside of the United States.

Russia has not won my heart. It is not likely I will ever return.