One of the many surprises in this massive, lumbering capital city is the palpable energy and ingenuity of the people who live here. The formal Soviet system may grumble at change and muffle initiative in blankets of bureaucracy. But there is an informal system at work, one as chaotic and irrepressible as human nature.
The spirit of free enterprise is thriving, and not merely in the semi- official peasant market, where private farmers sold their hothouse tomatoes last week for $5 a pound. It is part of the psyche of the Muscovites, a people with rising expectations and Western tastes in a second-world marketplace.
In seven days on these streets, I have seen some of the most passionate shoppers that a mall-weary American could imagine. It is rare for a Muscovite to pass one of the stands set up on street corners or in doorways without checking the contents. When a line forms at a shop, there is a universal urge to find out what's for sale. Even my translator, walking our rounds of formal appointments, veers automatically into a shoe store that is expecting a shipment, and then, catching herself, backs out in embarrassment. Nearly every private conversation with an urban Russian turns to prices. How much does a shirt cost in America? A good coat? A tape recorder?
The stores are not empty of goods. The state supermarkets have enough staples to satisfy hunger, if not relieve boredom. A constant, defensive refrain from a Soviet companion is, "We have that too; we have that too." The Soviet Union makes almost anything made in the rest of the world, but in quantities that tease the imagination and whet the appetite. As an American friend here reminds me, "They make 10,000 toasters a year."
To my Western eye, an extraordinary amount of time and interest is invested in getting hold of something scarce and desirable. I am regaled with boisterous stories about the search for food for a party, a good pair of boots for the winter, tickets to the theater. Americans may work to acquire the money to buy these items, but in Moscow it is equally important to have contacts, to develop a relationship with the butcher, to exchange and share with friends, to know someone with access to a Beryozhka store where goods are sold for foreign currency only.
The enormous vitality of this second system, this private sector, contradicts the Western stereotype of Soviet citizens as dependent and passive. The state may regulate production, distribute housing and control wages, but in the reality of everyday existence, the struggle to enrich life is met with imagination, flexibility and a passion largely lacking in public life.
Indeed, if there is a collective spirit in Moscow it is not in the government, but in the effort to get something done despite, around, over, under the government. The difficulties, the daily hassles throw people -- families, neighbors, friends -- into webs of interdependence.
Even as a visitor, I catch glimpses of this. I try to change my hotel reservations and encounter a barrier of new rules. To change a reservation, I must pay for the whole stay all over again. This is crazy, I tell the clerk, using my most useful Russian phrase. We smile at each other, she demurs, cuts through the reddest of tape and suddenly, unofficially, it's done. One way to move the immovable is to appeal directly for the commodity in great demand in this city: help.
At the same time, I begin to sense and share the Muscovites' pleasure in personal victories. A woman tells me in great and ironic detail about her month-long campaign to get the right travel papers. A success story. The third item we try to order from a restaurant menu is actually available. I applaud. I dredge up a telephone number in this city without directory assistance, where telephone books are at a premium, and I cheer.
But it's also clear to this outsider that much too much creative energy goes into these victories: beating a bureaucratic obstacle, chasing a shortage. The energy siphoned off from work or public life is as obvious as the sight of government workers standing in grocery lines at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I don't envy the new leader who wants to change these systems in the cause of productivity.
Finally, I begin to understand the joke that was told to me my second day in Moscow. It's about a man who wants to leave the Soviet Union because he is too happy. Why, a friend asks, would you leave if you are happy? "Well," he explains, "if I go to the store for good meat, and I find it, I'm so happy. If my television breaks, and I get it fixed, I'm so happy. If I find a shirt in my size, and it even fits me, I'm so happy. All this happiness is killing me."