Casino Moscow: A Tale of Greed and Adventure On Capitalism's Wildest Frontier
By Matthew Brzezinski
The Tupolev sat on the tarmac, looking rusty and risky. In the glow of airport spotlights it hulked like a museum piece. All around it, the driving snow formed a white curtain.
Already the storm had delayed several flights to Moscow, the runway-clearing crews finding their plows no match against the Siberian storm front that had howled unimpeded over thousands of miles of steppe and was now laying waste to Kiev.
The small airport lounge was filled with stranded travelers. The air around the little bar grew thick with smoke, the bar stools heavy with surly customers. They were the usual suspects on the busy Kiev to Moscow run: Russian businessmen, burly and blustery, shouting orders on their mobile phones; Ukrainian factory bosses, drab and gray-faced, swigging duty-free Johnny Walker straight from the bottle. Mafia princesses, all lips and legs, on their way to their monthly shopping sprees in the Russian capital, spiced up the otherwise bland mix.
A few Westerners rounded out the passenger list. A German traveling salesman, looking as though he'd rather be in LÜbeck, sat glumly by himself. Near the gate, two youthful British investment bankers bent twin corporate haircuts over a three-day-old copy of the Financial Times of London.
The Financial Times, like the European edition of the Wall Street Journal, cost seven dollars a pop in Kiev, and was available when it was available at the gift shops in only two hotels. On my stringer's salary, I couldn't even afford to buy the paper, and would splurge only if I had a story on the front page to gloat over. I'd been in print enough in the months since my run-in with Buzz that the call from management had finally come in late 1996, bumping me up to Moscow. Ironically, I had Buzz partly to thank for my promotion; the story I wrote about my mugging had finally gotten me noticed. Still, I was anxious to get to the Moscow bureau just in case my editors had second thoughts.
One after another, cancellations of international flights sounded from the loudspeakers in the rafters. Malev, CSA, and Austrian Airlines had decided to wait out the storm. The Hungarians and the Czechs weren't about to hazard their shiny new Boeings in this weather. The Austrians were risk-averse by nature and seemed only too happy to call it a night.
A group of dejected Czech engineers collected their carry-on bags. With a collective sigh, they made for the exit. Their reunion with beloved Prague still medieval and majestic despite the plague of McDonalds and Dunkin' Donuts franchises unleashed by the market forces of the "velvet revolution" would have to wait until the sky cleared.
I was just about to give up hope of ever ditching Kiev when the P.A. system announced, with a clear tinge of national pride, that Ukrainskie Avialinie flight 62, destination Moscow, was ready for boarding.
"Nastoyashiye lodchiki ne bayatsa snegu" chortled a middle-aged man next to me. "A little snow never scares real pilots." He was puffed out with patriotism, beaming at the rare opportunity to take a poke at the wimpy West. Soviet-trained airline pilots, it was proudly said, could fly any plane in any weather conditions. This misplaced bravado along with chronic spare-parts shortages was among the chief reasons jets were falling out of the sky in this corner of the world. The eight hundred-odd "Babyflot" airlines spawned by the breakup of the Soviet flag carrier Aeroflot had such abysmal safety records that in 1994 the International Air Transport Association had taken the unusual step of recommending train travel as the least life-threatening form of conveyance in the former Soviet Union.
We piled on to the ancient Tupolev and wedged ourselves into its narrow and much-patched seats. The Soviets must have taken the inspiration for their cabin layouts from their overstuffed housing designs. Like anyone over six feet tall, I had to fold up like an accordion to squeeze into the seat, my chin cozy between my knees, my neighbor's voluminous gut spilling over the armrest and into my lap.
Out the porthole, I could see a muffled figure sweeping snow off the Tupolev's pointy wing. This was Ukrainian Airlines' idea of de-icing. The cabin lights flickered and dimmed, and with a lurch the plane taxied out on to the runway. All the while the Russian businessmen yakked on their cellular phones, shouting into the mouthpieces and cursing the storm's static interference. The stout stewardess made no attempt to silence them; the Tupolev's avionics and instrumentation systems were too primitive to be affected by wireless phone signals, the fast-talking entrepreneurs too crass to heed a woman's warning.
As we bumped through the cloud cover and slipped into the starry blackness above, my thoughts drifted ahead to Moscow. Nearly five years had passed since I'd last seen the Russian capital. That had been in the summer of 1992, at the height of the Great Depression that ravaged the region after the implosion of the Soviet empire. Back then Moscow had the feel of a city devastated by war. Its streets were clogged with broken-down buses, its shops empty and full of dust. The people seemed ragged and shell-shocked. Everywhere one looked, there were signs of crisis: the ruble, officially equal to the dollar during the Soviet era, was free falling, suffering hopeless, hundred-fold devaluations. Hyperinflation raged out of control. Prices, long set by the state, soared so alarmingly that pensioners, once lucky to have squirreled away fifty thousand rubles for a comfortable retirement, could do no more than buy lunch with their life savings.
In those days, Moscow looked the same as how I imagined Weimar Germany must have appeared after the First World War: defeated and despondent. It was almost impossible to picture the city as the capital of a superpower that had inspired such fear and awe only a few years before. One scene in particular stayed with me from that visit. It unfolded on a little back street behind the Bolshoi Opera and the large, and largely empty, TSUM (Central Department Store). All along this lane, old people stood shoulder to shoulder under the blazing sun, selling personal effects. One elderly woman clutched a lamp. Another held aloft a duvet. A kerchiefed babushka proffered a winter coat. Chipped plates, tarnished silverware, old shoes, ancient transistor radios, ragged gowns, and even an old man's war medals were thrust at me. It was the image of one woman, though, that etched itself most deeply in my mind. She was a tall, thin lady of perhaps sixty, once pretty, now drawn and faded like the buildings around her. She was dressed in black, and her frock hung loosely on her bony frame. She trembled. And, in one emaciated hand, grasped a single furry slipper.
The pilot announced our final approach. What changes, I wondered, had five years of capitalism wrought in Russia? In Kiev, the time had brought marginal benefit mostly power blackouts, hot-water outages, and the occasional epidemic to go with the shortage of hypodermic needles. The few Westernized outposts that had managed to sprout from the rubble in Ukraine served only as depressing reminders of the dereliction around them. But at least in Moscow I probably would not have to boil water for my bath.
Once again, we hit the cloud cover. The snow was coming down hard here too; I could barely see the strobe light blinking at the tip of the plane's wing. The old bird shuddered and emitted metallic groans. We descended into the gray turbulence for what felt like forever, but there were no visible signs of Moscow: no highways, no factories, no outlying towns, nothing to announce the coming of a metropolis of ten million people.
The plane continued to shed altitude. I strained my eyes for any evidence of life below, yet all I could see was falling snow, illuminated in ghostly diagonal sheets by the Tupolev's yellow landing lights. My stomach tightened. The other passengers also grew silent, as if the reality of landing an aged jetliner in a white-out had suddenly struck everyone. Soviet planes were not equipped with radar homing systems to guide them to pinpoint landings like the latest generation of Boeings or Airbuses. The Sovs depended more on hand-eye coordination, which was fine in clear weather but made matters somewhat trickier when you were barreling blind at five hundred miles an hour.
"We'll probably have to turn back," volunteered my corpulent seatmate. "Chort (damn)," he cursed. "I have important meetings to go to."
So did I. I was supposed to meet Roberta at the airport. Roberta worked for the World Bank in Moscow and was the main reason I was so keen to move to the Russian capital. Career ambitions notwithstanding, I was following my heart. That both my personal and professional aspirations converged so conveniently was a happy coincidence.
I had first made Roberta's acquaintance some eight months back, in the cowshed of a muddy collective farm nestled amid the slag heaps and coal basins of eastern Ukraine. A press junket had brought us to that blighted farm, the first agricultural concern to be privatized in Ukraine since Stalin's murderous campaign to collectivize the countryside starved seven million peasants to death in 1933. My job had been to record this belated miracle of reform for the Journal. Roberta's role had been to convince the dunderheads in the Ukrainian government that transferring land into private hands was neither heresy nor part of a great Zionist conspiracy as many Ukrainian officials stubbornly believed. It had taken three years of pleading and cajoling (to say nothing of disastrous harvests) for Kiev to finally agree to experiment with private farming. And so the press was summoned to celebrate this great victory for progress.
At twenty-nine Roberta was two years my junior, but outranked me by several rungs in the rigidly cemented hierarchies of our respective organizations. She had made a name for herself at the World Bank convincing skeptical Ukrainian politicians that it was not a strategic necessity for the government to own every barbershop and gas station in the country. This she accomplished in part by bombarding surprised ex-communist officials with charts like: "Percentage of Filling Stations Owned and Operated by the New York City Municipal Government: Zero." She also drank with them at their sodden banquets, endured their sexist, rambling, and often incoherent toasts, flattered and joked with them, and swore like a sailor when they got out of line until finally they conceded that for a Westerner, a woman, and a Jew, she wasn't half bad. Once they considered her a buddy, they listened to her advice, since everything in Eastern Europe depends on personal relationships. Regulations, protocols, and conventions mean nothing in nations governed by fiat rather than law. Trust, in such arbitrary systems, means everything, and confidence with the Slavs was best built through shared shots of vodka.
Roberta, who had little affinity for the hard stuff, had alternately sacrificed her liver and surreptitiously poured her drinks into potted plants in order to win permission to organize the country's first government-sponsored foray into capitalism. She had made other sacrifices to the cause of economic reform, most notably contracting a strain of the bubonic plague, which earned her mentions in the Washington Post and the Financial Times. She'd also picked up and moved to L'vov, a crumbling, forgotten outpost in western Ukraine, where running water and heat were only available four hours a day, gasoline could only be bought if you had an official "honored invalid of the Soviet Union" card, and luxuries like drinkable milk had to be hauled four hundred miles by train from Kiev. The auctions of small state-run shops and restaurants she set up in L'vov in 1993 eventually served as the model to shift more than seventy thousand small enterprises throughout the country into the private sector. The work won her promotions to Washington and then Moscow, where her division of the Bank, the International Finance Corporation, was now investing in already-incorporated Russian factories.
I hoped Roberta had gotten word of the flight delays and hadn't spent hours at the airport. The plane couldn't have been very far from the airstrip because it was slowing down sharply, its turbine engines losing their high-pitched whine. Still, I saw nothing but white outside. Not even the strobes were winking now.
Then out of nowhere blinked a blue runway light, and a second and a third in rapid succession. The engines suddenly screamed to full power, and I felt the back of my skull slam into the headrest as the Tupolev's nose abruptly jolted skyward.
We had overshot the landing strip. Mutters and groans filled the cabin, but no one spoke. After some minutes of steep climbing, the captain's voice came over the crackling intercom as he explained matter-of-factly that owing to the poor visibility we would try one more pass at the runway and if that failed would return to Kiev.
God, sooner death than another night in Kiev. Many of my fellow travelers appeared to be of the same mind. "Davaiy! (Let's do it!)," my neighbor encouraged the pilot loudly.
We skidded to a stop ten harrowing minutes later. The seventy odd passengers, myself included, broke into wild applause. There was whistling, and even some foot stomping (probably resulting in structural damage). Cheering successful arrivals is customary in Eastern Europe, but the standing ovation these pilots received was truly deserved. They were indeed worthy standard bearers of the life-is-cheap Soviet daredevil tradition. Few American or Western European pilots would have contemplated (or been cleared) to attempt such a stunt. Still, I was overjoyed to have finally arrived in Moscow.
The cabin doors were thrown open, and a gust of wind drove snow into the thinly carpeted passageway. An aged yellow bus rattled up to the plane. On its dented side, faint lettering spelled "Berlin Tempelhof." Either we had gotten very lost in the storm or the Germans had shrewdly unloaded their decommissioned buses on the Russians in the guise of humanitarian aid.
Aid was big business in the former Soviet bloc, and about as cynical an enterprise as you'll find anywhere. Most of America's donations to former communist countries ended up in the silk-lined pockets of local officials or Washington's so-called "Beltway Bandits," the aid contractors and consulting firms that worked on a waste-promoting cost-plus basis. What little did trickle down to people in need often verged on the bizarre, like the forty tons of facial cream delivered to Tbilisi at the height of Georgia's bread shortage.
A quick look at the red neon sign over the terminal reassured me that the plane had not strayed. The sign spelled Vnukovo, with the last letter o burned out. Vnukovo was one of five civilian airfields serving the Russian capital. During the Soviet days, it had been a connecting hub for flights to the Union's fourteen other republics. But the Soviet breakup in 1991 had transformed the domestic airport into an international port of entry, for which it was clearly not designed, as I was about to discover.
The old German bus hissed to a halt in front of a small door at the rear of the main terminal. We were ushered up a slushy steel staircase, which opened on to a narrow cinder-block corridor. I felt like we were sneaking into a hotel through the service entrance.
At last we emerged into a smoky hall where a seething mob, dressed almost entirely in long, black leather coats, pressed up against a series of makeshift glass booths manned by border guards. There was much jostling, pushing, and shoving at the end of the lines. Two small Armenian women, dripping with gold, were engaged in a fierce quarrel. They flung words at one another in a language that sounded vaguely Arabic.
The light in the hall was wan and cold, and in the tobacco haze the dark faces of the travelers seemed leached of their color. Whole families, children perched atop suitcases, brooded impatiently, waiting to enter Russia.
But the line didn't budge because all the passport booths were empty, the border guards having apparently decided to take a cigarette break en masse. This was starting to feel like renewing my driver's license back home. Twenty minutes passed, and another ten. When the refreshed-looking officials finally ambled back to their places, a violent argument broke out at one of the passport-control booths. An agitated man, ashen despite his heavy five o'clock shadow, was led away by two unsmiling officers. Apparently his papers were not in order. I fingered my passport and visa, a nervous reflex I had developed since moving to the former Soviet Union.
"Yerevan?" The question fell from the painted lips of an attractive woman in her mid-twenties. She wore the olive-green tunic of the Border Patrol Forces and a Russian tri-couleur patch was pinned to her elegantly cut uniform jacket.
"Where are you flying from?" she repeated sweetly.
I told her.
"This way please." She turned with a smart click of her high heels.
I whisked through passport control and then customs without the slightest complication. Apparently the hassles and harangues to which Armenians and other dark-skinned travelers from the Caucasus were subjected in Vnukovo did not apply to respectable Slavic-looking lads like me.
An hour later Roberta and I were entering the city limits.
"Well," she pressed, "what do you make of the new Moscow?"
I stared out the Volvo's tinted window, consumed by the enormity of what I saw. Leninsky Prospekt unfolded massively before us. It was a busy, eight-lane boulevard, bordered by the same ugly buildings I remembered from five years ago. But the structures now sparkled amid an explosion of neon, nudging the eye toward an endless array of imported goods displayed in the stores on their refurbished ground floors. Finnish furniture, French fashions, Italian marble countertops, cookware, name-brand jeans, stereos, and household appliances basked under the soft, flattering beams of halogen spotlights.
Though it was almost nine and the storm was still mercilessly lashing the city, most of the stores were open for business. Shoppers, muffled against the windy deluge, slogged along the slippery concourses, lugging large shopping bags (the kind Kievites dueled over) and scattering out of the way of the miniature snowplows that cleared the sidewalks, leaving narrow trails for people to follow to the next store.
The boulevard teemed with traffic. The buses that plied the route had also gone commercial. One was painted entirely in pink and purple, and advertised Mattel's latest Barbie-doll collection. Another flew Pepsi's red-and-navy corporate colors. A third depicted a happy blond kid biting into a giant Kinder-Chokolad egg, the accompanying text promising parents a toy surprise inside every German-trademarked treat.
The Teutonic presence was strong; Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis growled impatiently at the traffic lights. They were not the second-hand models East Europeans bought in Berlin or Amsterdam; these still had that fresh-from-the-factory look about them. Billboards recommended all sorts of German goods, brands of exercise equipment, and car alarms that boasted of their nemetskoe kachestvo (German quality) even as signs for Lufthansa, the German national airline, trumpeted its business class.
The magnitude of Moscow's makeover was overwhelming. It was hard to imagine that this was the same city I had seen in '92, when at this time of the night, there had been nothing but darkness and gloom.
We passed a series of modern glass structures housing the branches of banks with giant, illuminated logos reading Alfa, Most, and Inkombank. Roberta volunteered that these were private and hugely powerful new financial giants. Outside one of the glitzy branches, an electronic board flashed the ruble exchange rate in large red digits. The ruble stood at just over 5,200 to the dollar, much battered since the last time I'd been here, when a dollar bought just over two hundred rubles. But after half a decade of decline the Russian currency was now holding steady, Roberta said, so steady that the Kremlin was considering lopping off all those silly zeroes the ruble had sprouted during the hyperinflation years.
As we approached the city center, and the traffic thinned a little, I recognized a soaring and unmistakably "Socialist Realist" steel sculpture memorializing Yuri Gagarin's first space flight. Across the street, in front of the white marble Central Bank building, a three-story-high bronze statue of Lenin brooded on its snow-covered pedestal. Beside the Father of the Revolution, a chrome all-night diner, ringed in art-deco neon and straight out of an Route 66 postcard, advertised a special on Philadelphia Cheesesteak subs. The diner had come completely pre-assembled in a cargo container from Florida, magically appearing one morning at Lenin's foot.
What would he make of all this, I wondered? There was an element of delicious irony to all the commerce on a street named after Lenin. Come to think of it, why was his name still on street signs? Hadn't communism been discredited?
"It's not easy to get rid of a god," Roberta explained. "To many Russians, Lenin stands for everything that made them proud of the Soviet Union, like beating the U.S. in the space race. They don't blame him for what went wrong with communism."
This didn't fully satisfy me. "What does Volodya think?"
At the sound of his name the driver's head popped up attentively. The International Finance Corporation, or IFC,as it was better known, like the rest of the World Bank, had diplomatic status in Russia and kept a fleet of chauffeured vehicles at its staff's disposal. Volodya had started working for the IFC carpool after many years of faithful service with the PLO legation in Moscow, where his charges had included one side-armed passenger by the name of Yassir Arafat.
Volodya listened to the translated question and shrugged noncommittally: "It's difficult enough trying to get around with so many more cars on the road nowadays. Why make it worse by confusing people with new street names?"
Traffic, sooner or later, crept into just about every casual conversation in Moscow. The streets, broad as they were, had been designed primarily for public transportation, military parades, and propaganda marches. Moreover, some maniac at city hall had mapped out the traffic patterns so as not to permit any left turns. The reason, it was said, was that a Politburo member had once been struck by a vehicle making a left. That had the sound of an urban legend, but there was nothing fanciful about the bottlenecks that brought Moscow traffic to a frustrating standstill. The number of vehicles registered in the capital had more than doubled since the collapse of communism, when waiting lists for new automobiles had stretched so long that people actually paid more for beat-up second-hand models that they could drive home right away.
You can learn a lot about a country from the cars its citizens drive. The makes I saw around me in Moscow fell into two categories: Soviet clunkers such as boxy Ladas, accident-prone Volgas, and indescribably pathetic little Moskvitches; and top-of-the-line Western imports with sticker prices easily topping a hundred thousand dollars. There was very little in the form of the low-end Fords and Fiats and Skodas one saw in Warsaw, Prague, or Budapest to indicate the emergence of a middle class. The streets of the Russian capital spoke only of haves and have-nots.
I was relating this observation to Roberta when the blinding high beams of a convoy pulling up fast behind us forced Volodya to swerve into another lane. A procession roared by at twice the speed limit, sending a wake of slush onto our windshield. The column was led by a black Toyota Landcruiser filled with large men. Despite the cold, they drove with their back windows open. Directly behind the big jeep, a Mercedes limousine cruised past, a flashing blue police light pinned to its wide, sleek roof. Another Landcruiser brought up the rear. The three cars were spotless, as though they had just been driven off the showroom floor.
"Look, a minister," I pointed, excited at my first brush with Russian officialdom.
"Nyet, bankir," corrected Volodya. "It's a banker."
Noting my puzzled expression, Roberta took a few minutes to bring me up to speed on recent events in Russia. This was how I first came to hear of the Bankirshchina: "The Reign of the Bankers," the period of economic boom Moscow was now experiencing, under the stewardship of a group of powerful business barons. To Russians, who are pessimists by nature, the word's untranslatable root had an unmistakably ominous sound, stemming from Tsar Ivan the Terrible's raping and rampaging Oprichnina and Soviet secret police chief Ivan Yezhov's purging Yezhovshchina.
The message was that no good could come of the Bankirshchina, which, by the look of things, seemed like Slavic superstitious bunk. Moscow was enjoying unparalleled prosperity; that much was obvious to the naked eye. The city was open to outside influences like never before in its history; satellite dishes, thousands of foreigners, multinational corporations, cultural exchanges, and even the Internet were all bringing in new ideas and money to a society that had long been closed.
The era had its genesis in the economic enfranchisement of the great privatization programs of the early 1990s, during what was probably the largest transfer of property and power in recorded history, when the wealth of Soviet Russia was returned, after seventy years of state control, to the people. The scope of the giveaway was breathtaking, and not only in the form of personal freedoms. No other nation on earth was blessed with Russia's natural resources. She possessed nearly half of the world's supply of natural gas, and almost all of its precious nickel. Her Siberian fields were studded with diamond and gold reserves second only to South Africa's. Only Saudi Arabia produced more crude oil than the USSR's bottomless wells. Russia had vast deposits of copper, magnesium, uranium, and virtually every mineral needed in the production of heavy industry. Her mills churned out more aluminum than any country other than the U.S. and enough rolled steel to flood world markets for a decade. No other nation could boast of more farmland, or bigger fishing fleets, or longer rail systems than Mother Russia.
Almost all of this was put up for grabs in the 1990s, as were the apartments, office buildings, department stores, and restaurants of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and cities across a dozen time zones all the way to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Factories producing every imaginable widget, rocket, or food product also landed on the auction block, as did timber concessions and lucrative export and banking licenses. The sum of the stakes was bigger than anyone's wildest dreams.
Russia's problem was that the scale of the transfer was unprecedented. Poland and the other former satellites in Central and Eastern Europe had had a two-year head start over Moscow in their transition to a market economy, and faced far less daunting obstacles. Before 1989, the People's Republics of Poland and Hungary had tolerated some private enterprise and property ownership (what the Hungarians called "Goulash Capitalism") and thus had already established some free-market traditions. Their economies were more service-oriented and less geared to heavy industry and raw material production, and thus lent themselves more easily to privatization. And the Central Europeans had the added advantage of bordering the rich European Union, where soaring labor costs were driving industrial giants east to invest in the Polish and Czech factories whose skilled work forces came cheap and didn't grumble about dental plans and vacation pay.
The task of finding a way to privatize Russia fell to a team of President Boris Yeltsin's advisers led by a portly economist by the name of Yegor Gaidar and his shrewd, self-assured protégé, Anatoly Chubais. It was the brilliant Chubais, the master intriguer, who emerged as Yeltsin's favorite and the gatekeeper to all the riches in Russia.
The dirty details of the privatization scheme would be revealed to me later, but that first evening in Moscow it certainly seemed to be paying dividends for a great many Russians. I had, in the space of an hour, seen more Mercedes and BMWs here than anywhere else in the world.
As we crossed the Kamennyi (Great Stone) Bridge, and the great, heaping ice slabs of the Moskva River slid beneath us, Roberta resumed the history lesson. Though Russia's privatization had been anything but fair, the West, she said, had supported it on the grounds that the sooner Russians owned property the quicker they'd abandon the ghost of communism, turn the moribund economy around, and start acting like civilized Westerners.
The principal beneficiaries of Chubais' privatizations turned out to be a clique of young bankers. Most had been in their late twenties and early thirties when the Soviet Union fell apart, and had moved swiftly to seize opportunity during the very brief window when anything was possible. Banking was a rough business during the early, and violent, days of the transition. During the Great Mob War of 19931994, hundreds of gangsters died in spectacular shoot-outs and assassinations. In those days, the lines between legitimate businessmen and the Mafia were often too blurry to distinguish. Between 1992 and 1995 car bombs and contract killings had claimed some three hundred bankers' lives, and financial sectors and spheres of influence were disputed with the ferocity of America's bootlegging battles during Prohibition.
By early 1996 the turf wars had subsided and a league of super-bankers some more legitimate than others had emerged from the fray. It was said that this select group held within its ranks the future Kennedys and Bronfmans and Rockefellers of Russia, only with Slavic names Potanin, Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky, Gusinsky, and so on. Very little was known initially about these new titans of finance, or how they had amassed such vast fortunes in what seemed like a blink of an eye. The presidential race during the summer of 1996 changed everything, though. Yeltsin's miraculous come-from-behind reelection bid made these entrepreneurs household names in Moscow, because everyone knew they had made the triumph possible and were set to reap the rewards of victory.
Faced with the unappealing prospect of jail and property seizures that would have surely followed a win at the polls by communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, Russia's richest men had decided to rally around the one candidate who could keep their newly acquired fortunes secure. As much as a hundred million dollars was secretly funneled into Yeltsin's campaign coffers, and the full, fawning force of the nation's newly private newspapers and television networks was forcibly conscripted to do his shilling.
Yeltsin boogied with Russia's biggest rock stars at free concerts funded by his contributors, kissed babies and babushkas alike at collective farms and coal mines where months of wage arrears were quietly settled from slush funds, and was careful to have his alcohol-induced heart attacks off-camera. Never in the history of Russia had a leader so shamelessly prostrated himself before his people. But it worked. The world held its breath as the final votes were tallied, turned a blind eye to a slew of electoral irregularities, and hailed Russian democracy with expressions of tremendous relief when Yeltsin defeated the unpalatably Red Zyuganov.
Beholden and bedridden after emergency quintuple bypass heart surgery, the Russian leader gratefully retired soon after the election to a leafy sanitarium on the outskirts of Moscow, and was not seen for months on end, which suited his backers just fine. In his absence, the reins of government were left to his trusted but bland prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the wily technocrat Chubais, and the seven all-powerful men who had bought the president another four years in the Kremlin.
These bankers, with their private armies, fleets of planes, industrial empires, and media and intelligence-gathering networks, were known as gruppa siemi, The Group of Seven, and later simply as "the oligarchs." They were Russia's real rulers. And despite some grumbling that they dipped into the state treasury from time to time, their presence reassured the West. After all, went the reasoning in the White House and Whitehall, having a bunch of businessmen in charge of Russia was a big step up from the communists who had stormed around the Kremlin for most of the century.
Such was the state of affairs in Russia in late 1996, as Volodya dropped me off in front of my new home, a tall, granite, slate-gray structure of elegant and imposing design, not too far from Red Square, on the stately and sought-after Bryusov Lane.
Bryusov, having recently recovered its old moniker (it was named after a minor communist functionary in Soviet days), took its name from a famous pre-Revolutionary composer. To get there, one turned right off Tverskaya Street, just before the big McDonalds across from the main post office, and drove under the shadow of a large Stalinist arch cut through a spooky building of Gothic inspiration. The street was narrow and crowded owing to its central location and status as home to the Soviet cultural elite, the narodniye artisti (People's Artists) who in appreciation of their talents had been awarded the big apartments usually reserved for the party elite.
Roberta rented our Kremlin-view pad from Nadya Bezsmiertnova, a prima ballerina whose last name means "immortal," one of the greatest legends in the Bolshoi ballet's storied history. It was said that Brezhnev had been enamored with her, and worried so much she would defect to the West that he did not allow her to perform abroad.
Bezsmiertnova was married to Mikhail Mikhailovich Gabovich, also a Bolshoi dancer and a contemporary of Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the threadbare early nineties, the star couple had moved to their dacha among the silvery beeches of Peredelkino, where Boris Pasternak once wrote, to supplement their meager retirement pensions with a little rent money: Four thousand dollars a month to be precise, which Mikhail Mikhailovich requested that Roberta deposit in his London bank account.
Ballerinas and bank accounts in Britain? Mercedes and four-grand-a-month apartments? After the poverty of Ukraine, this was all a bit much to digest.
More surprises followed. Our apartment was nothing like any I'd seen in the former Soviet Union. There was no tattered and mildew-stained, red-patterned wallpaper to make you feel like you'd descended into the depths of hell. The windows, unlike those in my pad in Kiev, did not have cardboard blocking broken panes. The kitchen was modern and neatly tiled and included a dishwasher, an appliance I'd almost forgotten existed. Burled-maple Biedermeier antiques glistened in the parlor. These were huge matching pieces, each weighing hundreds of pounds and doubtless worth tens of thousands of dollars, with a massive beveled mirror that reflected the setting's opulent glory. Mikhail Mikhailovich had proudly informed Roberta that the entire dining room set had been looted from Austria by the Red Army after the Second World War and brought to Moscow by a general who later fell out of favor with Stalin.
To help Roberta celebrate my arrival, our chivalrous and irreproachably well-mannered landlord had bestowed upon her two hard-to-come-by tickets to the Bolshoi.
We went the following evening. Gisele was on the program, the same ballet I'd seen performed five years ago during my first visit to Moscow. At that time the theater had been shabby, with grimy scaffolding from ongoing renovations concealing its fissured neo-Romanesque façade. The work had since been completed, the cast-iron chariot and four-horse cortege over the portico was meticulously restored, and the whole majestic front was splashed with cozy, pink light.
The audience had also undergone a remarkable transformation. Gone were the graying American retirees in Bermuda shorts and sensible shoes, the camera-clutching tour groups from England, and the prim Muscovite mothers, who had no doubt scrimped so that their daughters could see Russian culture in its highest form. In their stead sat row upon row of American and British bankers, lawyers, and accountants in somber, fashionable suits. Those Russian daughters, I could not fail to notice, had grown up in all the right places. They snuggled with the emissaries of foreign finance, and shot one another catty, competitive glances.
The most beautiful women sat with the beefy Russian businessmen. These pencil-thin molls favored form-fitting body suits patterned after various feline predators. They toted chic Fendi bags from which they plucked tiny cell-phones with long, painted nails.
Mobile phones chirped, rang, and buzzed incessantly throughout the performance, while hushed conversations in several languages echoed from the four corners of the gallery. I understood now why Mikhail Mikhailovich had told Roberta he never went to the ballet anymore. Yet I did not find the vulgarity repulsive. It was tantalizing, theatrical. Even the sinewy ballerinas fluttering about the stage were either too wrapped up in their routines to complain about the ruckus or had long ago realized that the real show at the Bolshoi was now the audience.
After the final curtain, we nipped across the street to the Teatro Mediteranneo restaurant for a midnight snack. This establishment was next to a casino and the security guards that barred its doors eyed us suspiciously, relaxing only when they heard the reassuring sound of our American English. Inside the clientele was much the same as at the Bolshoi, and the lush decor would not have looked out of place in the better districts of Manhattan or Milan. Roberta ordered the pasta salad. I had a bowl of tomato soup. The soup alone cost seventeen dollars.
I was still reeling from sticker shock when we walked home. What frightened me most was how little the five years I'd lived in Warsaw and Kiev had prepared me for Moscow. Journalism had taken me from the red light districts of Berlin to the smuggler's corridors of western Bulgaria, from refugee camps in Budapest to U.N. peacekeeping missions near Kosovo. I thought I'd learned something about this region, and that this knowledge was transferable. But it was clear to me right from the start that Moscow had its own mysterious rules of engagement.
Outside our podyezd or entrance, a dark-green Cadillac idled. Roberta said it belonged to a gentleman who lived a few floors below us. Actually, she corrected herself, he drove a Mercedes 600. The chauffeured Caddie was for his pretty redheaded wife.
Somehow, I doubted the neighbors here would be rummaging through my trash. Actually, I now felt outclassed. And yet I was secretly pleased with my elevated surroundings, as if they were a just reward for all those years of sleeping in hovels, working for next to nothing, for the pleasure, really, of witnessing history. But all that amateur stuff was behind me now. Henceforth I would be living large, earning a real salary and hobnobbing with the bright lights of Russia. A self-satisfied glow warmed me as I slid between the crisp sheets of our two-hundred-year-old sleigh bed.
Already Moscow had begun to cast its spell on me.