From Russia With Love

FM'S MOSCOW CORRESPONDENT SIGNS ON

The dull red walls of the Kremlin loom large in the center of Moscow as a reminder of this country's powerful Russian past. Yet as one walks away from the Kremlin and down Tverskaya Boulevard--Moscow's main drag--one wonders whether the Kremlin still serves its original purpose. Built as a fortress in the 1150s, it was supposed to protect Moscow from foreign invasion.

Today in Moscow, however, the foreign invasion is in full swing. American consumerism is fast consuming Moscow's population. The perestroika-era novelty of Gorbachev sneaking McDonald's and Pepsi through the gates to a hungry population has begot a deluge of American products. Today, the area behind the Kremlin looks quite a bit like Times Square. Sanyo and Coca-Cola signs light up the night sky. Russians chow down at a McDonald's only a few blocks from the Kremlin, while a Pizza Hut a few blocks further down Tverskaya Boulevard faces a statue of Pushkin, Russia's national poet.

Moscow has reached a level of Westernization that would make even Peter the Great squirm. It seems as though for every Lenin statue hauled down after the fall of the Soviet Union, a dozen Western products have muscled their way into the lucrative Muscovite market. The "McLenin's" T-shirts sold to tourists around Red Square are a telling souvenir.

Despite these immense changes, however, many Americans still think of the Gorbachev era when they think of today's Russian market. They still bring their extra blue jeans and Beatles tapes here to sell on the street. Not only are products like these readily available, but many stores in Moscow carry products I have never even seen in America. Virtualny Mir (Virtual World), an electronics store, boasts products like a fifty-inch high-definition television with DVD players and a strobe-lit dishwasher with a transparent front. After six years of Western companies cultivating the idea of conspicuous consumption here, the Russians are finally catching on.

Jean MacKenzie, a columnist for the Moscow Times (one of two English-language dailies in the city) wrote after a year's leave of absence that "in just one year, Moscow has moved from the grimy, chaotic, Kafkaesque city to a slick, sleek, world-class business capital." As an example of this drastic difference, one study-abroad program's information booklet--published only a year ago--tells its American students that they can avoid being "pegged quickly as an American" by wearing inconspicuous non-brand name American clothing. However, Karen Bradbury, a coordinator of the program, said that this information is already "out-of-date." "Now Americans are the worst-dressed people in this city," she said. A Russian is just as likely to be wearing a Reebok hat or a Starter jacket as an American. Probably more likely; who wears Starter jackets in America anymore?

In Moscow's stores and advertisements, consumer culture has an in-your-face showmanship. In America, we seem to have moved away from glitziness to an age of smug, oblique advertising. American advertisements do not even bother to show the product anymore. Rather, Madison Avenue delivers an inexplicable barrage of post-MTV cuts and images. In Moscow, the advertising is every bit as conspicuous as the consumption. Opulence is in. The endless parade of television ads for health products, from Head & Shoulders to Centrum to Trojans to breast enlargements, shows in painstakingly detailed diagrams exactly how beautiful and healthy these products can make you. If, that is, you can show them the money.

These products pack Moscow's several malls and posh stores. Products that do not make it into these classy establishments spill onto the streets. Around every metro stop and in every underground crossing are makeshift kiosks and tables, called, lapki, that sell newspapers, fruit, books, CDs, videos, clothing, hats, groceries and whatever else the market will bear. This is capitalism at its rawest. Muscovites no longer need to wait in line for stale bread, and they know longer need to trade kitschy revolutionary pins for American blue jeans.

The American press has reported a great deal about the ostentatiousness of the Russian mafia, but in the past year or two the number of participants in the Muscovite consumer revolution has extended beyond this exclusive group of leather jacket-wearing, cell phone-toting, Mercedes-driving mafiosos. Though there are still many Russians who cannot afford these goods, many Russians besides mafiosos are joining the consumer class. The term Noviye Russkie, or New Russian, which used to apply only to the small crop of crooked Russian multi-millionaires, is becoming harder to define. Soon it may refer to a large comfortable middle class of Russians who enjoy the prosperity of consumerism. Such a middle class, though growing, does not yet exist. Since the fall of communism, the latent class divisions of the Soviet era have risen to the surface. As one expert on Russian society told me, "Never have so many people become millionaires in so short a time as in Russia since 1991 while most people have remained so poor." Ideally, though, this prosperity at the top may eventually trickle down.

Should the proud Russian people worry that they may lose their unique culture? Should the men in the Kremlin protect Russia from this 21st century form of foreign invasion? What will happen to the famous tormented Russian soul of the country's past? For, as MacKenzie writes, "Who has got the time to contemplate Dostoevsky when there's a living to be earned?" One cannot say right now. Today's foreign invasion of goods is just another chapter in the long history of Russia's struggle with the West, from Peter the Great building St. Petersburg to the Cold War. As in many other countries in the growing "global market," Russians are starting to resent America's cultural imperialism and all its superfluity. Let's see what happens when Nike asks the people at the Kremlin whether they can sponsor Russia's immortal soul.