(Read part one and part two).
It is July of 2011 and I am 31 years old. I arrive in Moscow to find that the airport is bigger and newer than I remember. I am here to meet my mother for a river cruise; some friends had invited her to join their college reunion, and I am tagging along. Our cruise ship is a far cry from the one I took twelve years ago; like everything else, it, too, is bigger and newer. The chocolates on the pillow are dark and smooth, much finer than anything I'd seen during my previous trips. Mom arrives, and we have a late dinner; gone is the black bread and the tiny water glasses and the miniscule paper napkins. The world has changed.
In the morning we head out to tour the city. On the way I see a billboard for the techno-pop duo Ruki Vverh, who we'd listened to avidly back in college; in October there will be a 15-year-anniversary concert. Fifteen years? Are we really that old? Yes, we are. The traffic is immense, the boulevards packed with cars. There are luxury vehicles and mid-range cars and SUVs, cars of all makes and models. Later someone tells us that the number 1 car in Russia is the Ford Focus, although there are still plenty of the boxy old Ladas. We arrive at Red Square in the blinding sunlight, St. Basil's Cathedral looking much as I remember it. A little smaller now, perhaps. A line of people snakes all the way down one side of the square and past the State Historical Museum. They are waiting to visit Vladimir Lenin in his red-and-black mausoleum; he only sees visitors three or four days a week, from 10am to 2pm, something like that.
Everywhere there are people, more people, still more people, tour groups with their radio receivers and flags and matching badges. I'm one of these tourists this time, not a student, and it is a strange feeling to be herded about and coddled with air-conditioning and four-course lunches and dinners. Everything is bigger. Everything has the air of being just-renovated or rebuilt or in the process of being renovated or rebuilt. The Communist-era Hotel Intourist where we stayed last time has been torn down and replaced by a Ritz-Carlton which will run you approximately $2,000 a night. The exchange rate is not much more, about 28 rubles to the dollar; in 1999 it was about 26 rubles to the dollar - but everything costs at least four times as much, now.
One morning, we walk through the Novodevichy Cemetary in the pouring rain, and I find Bulgakov's grave again. No roses today, but I take another photo, in focus, this time. I stand on Sparrow Hills, for the third time now, and look down on the changing city below, new buildings springing up everywhere like toadstools after a storm. We take the metro and I find that the escalators no longer seem to move as swiftly as I remember. At the Tolstoy museum, a unexpectedly cheerful docent at the door chatters away; to my shame my Russian is mostly forgotten and I am not sure what she is telling us. But her smiling kindness is a far cry from the grim babushkas who guarded the museums a generation ago. Our last morning in Moscow, we head to the Tretyakov Gallery and rush through the art-filled rooms at a brisk trot. I am not ready to leave yet; I wish I had a few more days. But there is more awaiting us, and it's time to go...follow me, my reader, and only me!*
to be continued...
*from The Master and Margarita.