Whiling away my holiday time in snowed-in Varna called for desperate measures, and, as usual, Stephen King came to the rescue. The book is called ''11.22.63", and it is about a guy who goes back in time to try to stop the assassination of President Kennedy. Great read, but what really intrigued me was the way King is able to evoke the America of 1958, which is the year his time-traveler hero started in (Kennedy was murdered in 1963.). I was there, so I can vouch for King's accurate portrayal of the times. Lots of stench and cigarette fog. No computers or mobile phones. Some good folks and a lot of mean ones, same as now. But a helluva lot simpler. No need to pass three security checkpoints to enter a football stadium, public school or library.
Somehow I was reminded of the fact that I first came to Moscow ten years ago, in 2007. Allowing for a one-year absence when I had to go back to America to bury my mother, I have been here ever since. And so, because in our civilization we seem to count things in units of '10', one might wonder what has changed since I first touched down here a decade ago? How is Moscow different? (Probably in the regions very little has altered, but Moscow is another country.)
Foremost would be the expansion of the geography itself. I am in the metro all the time and you only need to look at the map. In virtually all directions (except on the northeast red line — where I live) there are two or three new stations and no sign of it ending. Also, there seem to me more and more Asian people in Moscow. I can attest to this because, for some reason, Asians used to strike me as being different or somewhat exotic. Now they are just as boring to look as as everyone else. Must be because they have saturated the scene. But it's not a problem. In fact most of them seem to have no personality at all. (Of course I am wrong, but that is the general impression their impassive faces leave.)
The Moscow mayor has run amok with development, and, to give him his due, the city has become more attractive in many ways. But a lot of it just seems superfluous, especially in the squares surrounding the metro stations, and I suspect that all this digging up the surfaces and laying down of the same kind of marble-resembling slabs (most of it totally unnecessary), is a smokescreen of some sort, a means of directing money into the designated pockets. Such is Russia, but is it really that much different anywhere else? Furthermore, the mayor has gotten rid of the kiosks, the small shops, many of the marshrutkas. The word is out that the trams will be next.
And, though some might argue in favor of such search-and-destroy wholesale demolition (most of it carried out in the wee and murky hours of the night), I despise it. Maybe I am just an old fart longing for the 'good old days' (which never seemed especially wonderful while they were actually unfolding), but there is no doubt that such liquidation has inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of people and put many out of work. And for what? So that parts of Moscow and the metro stations no longer look like Saigon? Bullshit. For me, those shops were never much of an eyesore, and they were extremely handy. Take Cheesty Prudi, for example. There is nothing remotely beautiful about that igloo of a station. but there it stands now, naked as a fat Eskimo. Why?
This is a city of old people, particularly old women. All day long I see them tramping and slithering along, dragging their little carts behind them. Now, minus the neighborly old shops, they must drag their burdens a lot further. Likewise, the subways leading into the metro stations are mostly barren. Why? Because the old kiosks were "fire hazards?" More bullshit. The real idea simply seems to be to drive the lower end guys completely out of business and direct the general unwashed mob to the government-controlled chains. A world without laughter or character.
The vanishing marshrutkas? Supposedly. these measures were taken because they were unsafe (BS higher and deeper). When were they ever safe?
Especially infuriating is how whole city blocks are dismantled (always in the deepest freeze of darkest night) and then the ruins sit there untouched for months, leaving merely a wasteland where not long ago real people were doing real commerce. For this we also have our horse's-ass of a mayor to thank. Look, it's OK to knock something down as as long you are ready to put something up in its place.Promptly. But not in Moscow. Who knows what the real agenda is? When you ask such questions of 'the man in the street'', people just shrug their shoulders. Nobody knows or wants to know. Nobody cares or wants to care. Longstanding Russian mentality.
On the bright side, there is a new circle line (a splendid achievement) and many more fitness centers. When I first came to Moscow, it was hell trying to find a place to work out. Mostly the only fitness facilities were in the center and vastly over-priced, designed only for the wealthy and their gilded strumpets. Now they are abundant –and being in good physical shape is trendy. Every once in a while, fashion gets it right.
But the biggest change by far is in the arena of mass communication. Time was, Muscovites actually read books on the trains. Then the mobile phones and social networks took over. Smart-phones. Smart watches. Smart refrigerators. Smart everything. Total information overload. Maybe one of these days someone will invent 'smart sex'. You can have a 'virtual' orgasm without going near your partner. Brave new world.
The sad fact is that technology, here as elsewhere, has created a population of addicts. In the world of 1958, where Stephen King's hero finds himself, people had their problems but at least they did not spend their entire waking lives staring at small screens. Black and white TV (even then they called it the "boob-tube'") and that was it, buddy. And I can remember a time walking down Broadway in Manhattan where a fellow was ambling along shouting at the top of his lungs. Everyone thought he was crazy. That's because he was crazy. Today people do it all the time and I still have to look twice to see the wires coming out of their ears and mouths. Just your everyday 'phone-chat, it turns out.
I have noticed that the phone mannerisms of men and women are different.The 'man with the plan' type of guys scream into their horn — trying to sound important.The women just babble a stream of drivel and prattle. Come on, nobody begrudges these people their conversations, but enough is enough, and the fact is, it is getting harder to sit on a train, bus or tram without playing unwilling host to somebody's bellicose or monotonous phone gig. I try to use it as an opportunity to improve my Russian-language listening skills. Mostly I just get pissed off. .
And in the classrooms where I teach, in the cafes where people go ostensibly to meet socially, in the fitness centers where folks clamber presumably for a workout, some of them just text, text, text, and text. They obviously feel that they have their fingers on the pulse of the world. To me they are just behaving like idiots. The big joke is that people actually con themselves into believing that they have a million friends. They have a million virtual friends.
The fact is, the facade of the financially-solvent world, the glittering surface,and, above all, a tirelessly marketed illusion, a billboard fantasy, has changed the image of things, but mostly people still, like it or not, face the same life-obstacles: dreary work, tedious relationships, and the onset of old age and ill health. For the most part, people are just as bored, just as frustrated, and just as angry, as they were in 1958. Quite possibly more so. They merely use their gadgets to kid themselves into thinking they are not. The only difference is that now, if you happen to wander into the wrong nightclub or shopping center, some Islamic bastard might blow you to Kingdom Come. Or Allah Come. But even that is becoming a commonplace event.
So I guess not that much has really changed when you come to think of it. But there are still some spring and autumn days that reach into my heart, pretty girls with uncorrupted smiles, a friendly face or two. Unexpected mirth and joy and togetherness when you least expect it. That's probably why I like the street markets when and where I can find them. The raucous voices cry out with life, and in the meaty, yawning women, there remains a magnificently vulgar sensuality. It is not pretty, but it is not DEAD. I would far rather mix with these 'sordid' vixens than sit in some over-priced chain-restaurant,picking at tiny portions of rice next to a bunch of faceless corporate wankers.
The point is, however, that the joys I speak of, the spontaneous little miracles of daily life one is blessed to encounter, are magnificent NOT because they are the result of some kind of "progress"'. It is rather because they are TIMELESS.
I still see young couples walking in the park, weather-permitting, with child and dog. And I catch in their faces a kind of blind optimism that almost brings tears to my eyes. I find that now, in 2017, I have almost forgotten how to do that, how to cry. (Maybe it's because I don't drink as much as I used to). This tells me that. as long as I sometimes have to fight back the tears, I still retain the art of existence and some, albeit waning, ability to love. The smiles of young lovers can make an old man sad, but they also rekindle an instinctive faith in something that is as vital now as it was in 1958.
====Eric Richard Le Roy====