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Jewish World Review Sept. 18, 2000 / 17 Elul 5760

Don Feder

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Consumer Reports


In Red Square --
quiet flows the Don

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- MOSCOW | For the first-time visitor, Moscow is surprising. OK, you don't expect KGB agents in trench coats peering around the corners of buildings. But cell phones and Mercedes?

Take Red Square. From the site of May Day parades, reviewed by doddering politburo members, it's become a tourist trap. The Red Army never attacked with the determination of street vendors selling military caps, Matryoshka dolls and Soviet-era stamp collections from duffel bags.

Lenin is still snug in his pyramid-like mausoleum. But just across the square is the GUM department store, formerly the home of socialist shopping at it finest -- interminable lines to purchase high-abrasion toilet paper and other quality products.

Today, GUM is an upscale mall with stores like Christian Dior, Estee Lauder and Benneton.

Back in the square, for a few rubles you can have your picture taken with a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Karl Marx. ("Here I am in Red Square, discussing the labor theory of value with the father of scientific socialism.")

This is the latest incarnation of a city that was already ancient when Columbus set sail.

In the 13th century, Moscow's princes held back Mongol invaders. Not quite 200 years ago, Russians burned the city to give Napoleon a pyrrhic victory. Nazi Panzers were at the outskirts of Moscow 60 years ago.

Russia's historic capital has finally fallen -- to market forces and Western fashions. On the streets, men in business suits talk on cell phones. Young women, who stunningly demolish the unflattering stereotype of Russian femininity, look like they stepped out of the pages of Vogue. Fashionable restaurants offer more than borscht and blinis at New York prices.

Fifth Avenue it isn't. The pathetic mingles with the prosperous. Old ladies beg in the streets. Once, the state cared for all of their needs. Now, pensioners receive the equivalent of $5 a month.

While much in evidence in its capital city, Russia's prosperity is currently confined to a thin crust of the population. With 30 percent of all the world's resources, Russians have the per-capita purchasing power of Guatemalans. It will take decades to undo the work of Lenin and his successors.

Still, the city bustles and Muscovites seem to be enjoying themselves, without being entirely sure of where their nation is headed or why.

And there's more than materialism at work here. The churches, gorgeous with their onion-shaped domes and golden icons, are packed. St. Basil's rises over Red Square like a fantasy from the Arabian Nights.

My guide on a tour of the Kremlin told me that, as a teen-ager, she was a communist Young Pioneer. Now she professes a different faith, as the tiny cross around her neck attests.

Moscow's real wealth is historical, cultural and spiritual. See the Kremlin's cathedrals of the Assumption and Annunciation, tour the State Armory (with Catherine the Great's jeweled coronation dress, Faberge eggs and the Crown of Monomakh -- presented to a Moscovite ruler by a Byzantine emperor), or visit the Tretyakov Gallery (which rivals Europe's finest museums) and you begin to understand Russians' pride in their country, at once so splendid and tragic.

In the new Moscow, the comical, commercial and spiritual coexist. In restaurants in Western hotels, mafia-types with their close-cropped hair and turtle necks carouse. Every weekend, lzmaylov Park becomes a bazaar to rival the marketplace of old Baghdad, with block after block of cheap souvenirs and exotic antiques.

But the soul's hunger is no more satisfied by consumerism than it was by 5-year plans and massive Soviet architecture.

The Russian Orthodox Church has just canonized Czar Nicholas II and his family as martyrs to communism, and the government has officially brought back the Order of St. George as the nation's highest military decoration.

Young and old crowd the churches. Opiate of the masses indeed. Lenin, who thought future history would be a postscript to his revolution, would be astounded by it all. It's difficult to say what he'd find more appalling -- shoppers buying luxury items from the bourgeois he despised or the faithful lighting candles to the G-d he tried to overthrow, both within sight of his tomb.

JWR contributing columnist Don Feder's latest books are Who is afraid of the Religious Right? ($15.95) and A Jewish conservative looks at pagan America ($9.95). To receive an autographed copy, send a check or money order to: Don Feder, The Boston Herald, 1 Herald Sq., Boston, Mass. 02106. Doing so will help fund JWR, if so noted. He is also available as a guest speaker. To comment on this column please click here.


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