Rocket From Russia

Photos by Steven Leigh MorrisOn the flight home from Moscow earlier this year, I was seated by the window next to a taciturn, distinguished-looking man of about 50, who noticed my intermediate-Russian-grammar book. After a couple of grounded attempts to start a conversation, he asked to see the book, explaining that he had once been a linguist. Speaking in Russian, he introduced himself as Viktor and spoke about his family in Moscow. Slowly, Viktor abandoned fluent Russian for tortured English, practicing for his weeklong stay in America, I suppose. After I revealed that I had been making annual trips to Moscow since 1991 in order to visit my wife’s family there, Viktor pointed out a woman in the middle aisle and two men on the opposite side of the plane. They were all Russian scientists, he said, traveling to California to put the finishing touches on a rocket that would soon be ferried out of Long Beach to the equator, where it would be shot into space, sending a communications satellite into orbit. You might have to be a rocket scientist to fully understand how one flings a ton of steel through the atmosphere so that people can better speak to each other, but you don’t have to be a poet to get the metaphors: An American launcher propels a Russian rocket that, in phases, sheds its skin. This casting off is the destiny not just of the rocket, but also of the country that built it — whether it be plates of steel, a political ideology or a few republics. April 1991: A Soviet theater company has invited me to Moscow to be a playwright in residence. Communist Russia: Relatives in Delaware said I shouldn’t be going to enemy territory. A woman behind the Sheremetyevo Airport’s lost-baggage retrieval desk writes out a receipt on carbon paper. Not a computer in sight. Cars are covered in mud from the spring rain. The freeway from the airport cuts through birch groves punctuated with billboards for the new, private banks. Forests yield to apartment towers. I’m taken directly to the Theater on Spartacus Square, a studio theater where they’re holding the curtain for me. Bleary-eyed, I nod to the young woman, Lena, who hands me my program. I’ve been assigned by the government theater to live in her home — she’s the only company member who speaks tolerable English, and she has a spare room. The play is an avant-garde allegory for the Soviet Union, set in an insane asylum. At the post-show reception, the artistic director asks me if I understood it. I explain that after a 14-hour flight, I probably wouldn’t even have understood My Fair Lady. Lena has a small fifth-floor apartment in the Izmailovovo District. Her parents, Vladimir and Bronya, live downstairs. By Russian standards, they’re rich. Bronya teaches music at a local school. Vladimir is a composer and arranger who conducts one of Moscow’s most prestigious American-style jazz bands. He has a shock of thick black hair, and a mustache that makes him resemble Stalin — slightly ironic, since the dictator took Vladimir’s father away in the middle of the night. Vladimir’s in top health and walks to work five miles each way to the sumptuous Estrada Theater. Lena says he keeps a stash of thousands of rubles in a mattress. But what’s the use of all that money if there’s so little to buy? He’s traveled to other countries on official business, but never beyond the Soviet Union. No permission. He tells a story about being at an official dinner in a Vietnamese restaurant — of being seated, “as only the Communists could arrange,” with an English and a German woman. None of them understood any of the others’ languages, so they all sat there silent, smiling stupidly at each other. Finally, with nothing better to do and feeling like a penguin in his tuxedo, Vladimir took a bite from a hard-boiled egg on his plate, instantly realizing that the egg was rotten, and “tasted like a turd.” What to do? He was an official representative of the Soviet government. He couldn’t just spit it out — even into a handkerchief. He says the women stared at him, smiling, as he turned crimson swallowing the rotten egg. When the chill of her shyness toward me thaws, Lena’s 8-year-old daughter, Sasha, shows me her tetradi (homework books) and one day takes me to her school. I sit through an English lesson, to hear 25 Russian third-graders recite in unison, “I am very fond of tea.” A teenager in a red T-shirt emblazoned with a gold Cyrillic insignia CCCP (USSR) dribbles a basketball up and down the gym floor. I attend a music institute and listen to an orchestra of teenagers rehearse a Vivaldi oboe concerto, exquisitely. There’s a conspicuous absence of neon and billboards. This is probably what people mean when they describe Moscow as “bland.” All the shop signs are discreetly built into the buildings in a uniform blue and white. American dollars are a subterranean currency on the streets. A box of Marlboros can get you a cab ride anywhere in the city. Inside the cab, you’ll hear Rod Stewart, or Sting, or the B-52’s crooning “Roam if you want to . . .” as the cab careens through Moscow’s back alleys. Fifteen American dollars buys a three-course dinner for four with champagne. One day, Lena enters a pastry shop through a rear entrance, hands the proprietor a single U.S. dollar bill, and we walk out with a huge slab of butter, two loaves of fresh black bread and four cakes. The shelves of the pastry shop are empty, but there’s considerable traffic through that rear entrance, where shoppers in bulky coats and shapkas (woolen caps) protect packages from the snow while trudging quickly toward the nearest bus stop. Chechen-run farmers markets, or reenocks, adjoin almost every subway station in the suburbs. A butcher with a bloodied apron hacks a side of beef with an ax. The novelty of the fresh meat draws a crowd. Pigeons rip open cellophane bags of sunflower seeds. The merchant bangs a shovel on a post; the birds fly off. A sparrow gorges on raisins from an open wooden box. Another bang of the shovel. The sparrow hops to a tin roof, waits, then returns to the raisins as Muscovites haggle with the butcher over the price of the beef, and Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” blares over a loudspeaker. The seller tallies up bills on an abacus. The Soviet empire extends from Yalta to Kiev to Uzbekistan, and President Gorbachev wants to preserve the Union. In France, they chant “Gorby” in adulation. In Moscow, he’s largely reviled — too intellectual and snobby. Jokes and art and commentaries all skewer Soviet communism. And there’s a line around the block to get into the downtown McDonald’s. I stumble onto a rally near Red Square. Tanks rumble through the streets, and unarmed soldiers — teenagers with frightened faces — try to barricade a crowd that’s chanting, “Yelt-sin, Yelt-sin, Yelt-sin.” December 1991: Lena has invited me back for a visit. With the stroke of a pen, Boris Yeltsin sends the Soviet Union into oblivion, to a deafening silence on the streets of Moscow. They’ve draped Gorky Street in holiday decorations — neon snowflakes and twinkling lights that hang across the boulevard, “Happy New Year: 1992.” The place may be bankrupt, but workmen still clear the snow with amazing efficiency, and the subways keep barreling along through ornate stations with noble statues of Soviet workers and other heroes. There’s talk of reconstructing the Russian Orthodox churches that the Soviets let fall into disrepair. Suddenly, everyone’s found religion, like a new coat. For New Year’s dinner with Lena’s parents, Vladimir rises from his chair and asks Lena to translate his toast. His voice swells and descends like a one-man Duke Ellington band. He speaks for a good seven minutes. “Translate,” he says, finally, to Lena. “Oh, he’s talking about family,” Lena says. “That’s it?” Vladimir complains. “A 10-minute speech you boil down to one line?” “Sorry,” Lena says to me. “He’s talking about family and prosperity, and how he hopes that Russia and America can be friends.” We all toast the New Year. December 1996: The Chechen war grinds on, and indoor American-style shopping centers are slowly replacing the Chechen-run open-air markets. Bar-code scanners are taking the place of the abacus, and you can find computers in government offices and some homes. Food is again fresh and plentiful — yogurts imported from Germany, cigarettes from Finland — though exorbitantly expensive for salaried workers who aren’t speculating on the black market or organized crime. The underground, or back-door, economy has evaporated. Shopkeepers face jail sentences if they’re caught accepting valyooti (Western currencies), and undercover agents are keeping them honest. Meanwhile, statues of Lenin have been toppled across the land; Leningrad has gone back to being St. Petersburg. In Moscow, officials snatched Gorky’s street away from the poor guy, re-naming it Tverskaya Street, but prostitutes still huddle there on the ice, smoking and shivering in miniskirts and thick coats. Blazing neon and flashing lights lure customers into casinos, while decrepit Orthodox churches are now laced in scaffolding, waiting for a face-lift. Lena finally has a private bank account, from which she uses a ready-teller machine to withdraw cash. And the crowds at McDonald’s have grown noticeably thinner. America is no longer a novelty, and Russia’s free-market experiment isn’t bringing the instant prosperity people had expected. The criminals continue to prosper, and everyone else continues to struggle, just like before — but without national health care and publicly funded higher education. At least now they talk about it openly in the press. “Svolochee ee vorree,” Vladimir tells me, describing Yeltsin and his band of “bastards and thieves,” who grabbed state oil and energy reserves in a national giveaway called privatization. But Vladimir’s got his own problems. Earlier in the year, on one of his long walks to the Estrada Theater, his knees started buckling. As the months progressed, he began to lose feeling in his legs because of a malady that no doctor can explain. Now he’s paralyzed below the waist, confined to a cot in a back bedroom. Bronya changes his bedpans and helps him shave. He tells me he thinks he’s dying. August 1998: Lena and I are now married. IKEA has built a superstore, just off the freeway from the airport. Furniture outlets and repair shops are now a thriving industry, thanks to the citywide penchant for remodeling Soviet-era apartments. Glass-and-concrete edifices of new banks and oil companies have risen along the banks of the Moscow River. I’m with Lena when the ready-teller screen informs her that her account has been blocked. Perplexed, she goes to her bank. There’s a mob at the door, and authorities are using a megaphone to order people away from the building. At other banks, windows are smashed, and the army is on the streets. The economy has just gone into default, the ruble is plunging by the hour, and nobody’s doing anything to stop it. This is the Russian equivalent of our 1929 stock-market crash. Lena had warned her dad to convert his stashed rubles into dollars, but now it’s too late. The entire family has suddenly landed in poverty. President Clinton is in Moscow, urging Yeltsin and the Russian people to continue on the path of reform. I see the speech on television. Clinton looks as lost as the rest of them. December 31, 1999: We spend New Year’s Eve at the sixth-floor, Novogirieva District apartment of Lena’s lifelong friends Irena and Felix Zacharov. The economy’s collapse has put a crimp in plans to remodel their tiny apartment, still lined with ancient, crumbling wallpaper and warping, fiber-wood bookshelves. Felix is a subcontractor for a German pharmaceutical company, and business is slow. After showing me his desktop computer, he takes me for an afternoon spin in his Mercedes, while fielding cell-phone calls from clients. Irena, who works for terrible pay at a clinic, complains that Felix spends too freely. Back at their apartment, a small TV beams out lip-synching pop singers and audiences who dance in the aisles and give standing ovations. TV commercials are growing longer, more sophisticated and more frequent. Pop star and national treasure Alla Pugachova sashays in miniskirt and boots against a backdrop of neon snowflakes between ads for Orbit chewing gum. Felix’s 17-year-old son, Alyosha, a lady’s-man-in-training, suggests that the old communists and pensioners who complain about poverty and the collapse of morals should, to borrow from American idiom, get with the program. As the New Millennium reaches across Eastern Europe, Sasha, now 16, dances with Irena and Felix’s teenage daughter, Katya, the pair of them bouncing up and down in the tiny kitchen to Lou Bega’s “A Little Bit of Mambo” — over and over — until both of them are sweat-drenched and gasping for breath. December 31, 2004: On the signs outside money-exchange booths across the city, you can see the U.S. dollar sinking into the west against the Euro. Many Eastern European traders don’t even want to deal in dollars anymore. Some say the new Russian economy is rising. Local manufacturing has returned, and Russia has forged new strategic alliances with China, Iran, Turkey and India, in what may be the frontline of a new world order, largely based on the flow of oil. Who knows? Felix and Irena’s apartment sparkles with new cabinetry and appliances, including a German water purifier, a microwave oven and a notebook computer with high-speed Internet access. Pop star Pugachova again helps Russians ring in the New Year, this time on a wide-screen TV. Vladimir and Bronya now live on a monthly pension of about $125 each, plus Bronya’s wages from the school and Vladimir’s commissions for musical arrangements. He didn’t die, nor is he dying, though he’s still mostly bedridden. They can now have a passport to travel to any corner of the globe they can afford. Which is nowhere. “Tell me,” Vladimir asks in Russian, while plugging an old black-and-white television into an adapter on his lap. “In America, is it really true that the police are harder on black people than anybody else? What kind of governor is Schwarzenegger? Did you ever meet Sharon Stone? Is Nelson Riddle still alive?” Though President Putin has accrued centralized power and media control unparalleled here since the days of Stalin, his popularity appears to have been shaken by a series of missteps, starting with mishandling the aftermath of the Chechen terrorist attack on schoolchildren in Beslan, then his government’s dismantling of Yukos Oil Co. and the consequent chilling effect on foreign investment, then prematurely congratulating the losing candidate in Ukraine’s presidential election. Muscovites don’t seem to care much about the scandals down there in Kiev or the West-vs.-East tug-o’-war over who will control what used to be the Soviet breadbasket. As for assassinations of political candidates — attempted or successful — in Russian history that’s just business as usual. Ukraine is just another Russian satellite that fell out of orbit. What concerns Muscovites is the prospect of a NATO army at Russia’s doorstep. Mikhail Tsyeryshenko and his wife, Ekaterina Semonova, are hosting a party at their Ismailovsky Park District apartment. He’s an actor from Kiev, she’s a pop star. With shaved head, he does a comic performance at a large table lined with guests. Aping a comic on TV, his eyes bulge, and he slithers down in his seat until his round face disappears behind the table. Ekaterina sits in a corner nursing a migraine. More fish salads. More cognac. In Ukraine’s election, Mikhail voted for the losing, Moscow-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovich. He doesn’t trust revolutionaries or revolutions, he says, whether they’re orange or red or any other color. He gulps a shot of cognac, savors the aftertaste, picks up a small Ukrainian flag that was planted by his place setting and dabs his lips with it. The night before my flight back to America, I’m sitting with Vladimir, listening to a Chopin concerto drift in and out of static on an old radio that’s tuned to the one Moscow station that still broadcasts classical music. Vladimir’s world is musty quarters lined with ancient Russian wallpaper: two old televisions, a disconnected V-shaped antenna, a radio, a stack of newspapers, books, and photographs on the wall of Lena as a child and young, dashing Vladimir at a podium with a baton. But on this night, Vladimir, now puffy-faced and ruddy-cheeked, holds himself upright by clutching a crossbeam placed above his cot. Vladimir is upset. Lena sharply rebuked Sasha for necking with her boyfriend in public, and now mother and daughter have stopped speaking to each other. “How can they not speak to each?” Vladimir asks, quietly. “Family is all we have. If we don’t love each other, don’t speak to each other, then we’re all just strangers.” The Chopin disappears in static. Vladimir moves the radio antenna to the right until the music returns. Somewhere near the equator, maybe now, a Russian rocket blazes into the stratosphere, shedding its skin, in order to keep rising. Whenever I speak with Vladimir from L.A., sometimes on a cell phone, I think of that rocket, and of at least one satellite that didn’t fall out of the sky.

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