| In bright paint
The broad Moscow boulevards were lined with huge and majestic “Stalin Apartments” and government office buildings. Apparently, there was an acute housing shortage during Nikita Khrushchev’s regime and he had hundreds of “Khrushchev Apartments” built. These were big, poorly constructed cement and asbestos blocks. On the broad avenues, one saw few cars, those that plied mostly belonged to politicians and officials. The underground metro was and still is grand, there were no visible slums or beggars and Bollywood movies were popular with Muscovites. The performances in Bolshoi were in full bloom and the Russian circus was the best I had seen anywhere. India and the Soviet Union enjoyed a special relationship and the rupee-rouble trade was an important aspect of that relationship.
With the passage of time, Gorbachev was displaced by Boris Yelstin; the Yelstin years have now been overtaken by the leadership of President Vladimir Putin. While India’s special relationship survived the break-up of the Soviet Union, the changes in India and Russia seem to be creating a void about India in the Russian mind space. Russia is more and more preoccupied with its relations with Europe and in India we tend to be more preoccupied with the economic progress in China.
There is only muted criticism of the old communist regime with a touch of nostalgia amongst the elderly. During our stay, we saw only two statues of Lenin — one in Moscow and another in St Petersburg — and none of Stalin except his face on a banner in a painting of a collective farm in a museum. The shabby Khrushchev Apartments are being demolished and replaced by modern skyscrapers with basement parking. In the centre of Moscow a huge area is being demolished and rebuilt as the new financial centre or, as the Russians like to call it, the “City”. This is a bit ironic, considering the mess the Russian Banks are in.
India and Bollywood movies are the stuff of the memory of the middle-aged and older Russians; the younger generation is turned out in the latest Western fashions and flock the night clubs and multiplexes to watch American movies. The Bolshoi performances remain as spectacular, although the theatre is being shut for one year for major renovation in preparation for privatization.
During our stay, there was a Russian-European Union summit meeting held in the Kremlin, followed by a joint statement by Putin and Romano Prody, with the usual homilies. The meeting was supposed to be a preamble to Russia’s admission to the World Trade Organisation. The event made headlines. The editorial, that day, dealt with the question of how the US and Europe should deal with a not yet fully “democratic” Russia. Their response — as they deal with China!
The pace of dramatic changes in Russia came up, once again, after a few days when Putin delivered his annual State of the Union message to the members of the presidium. Russia’s priorities, he said, were housing, health care, education and employment and to become a major developed country in ten years’ time. Putin emphasized the need to speed up the reforms process in order for Russia to achieve a growth rate of 7 per cent per year. In order to do this, Putin declared, Russia has to supplement its huge natural resources (Russia’s proven reserves of crude are reported to be larger than Saudi Arabia’s) with growth in manufacturing and trade, raise productivity, curb tax evasion and widespread economic crimes.
The latter refers to the ongoing battle to bring to book the oligarchs who are alleged to have indulged in largescale plunder of national assets, with the connivance of the state, during the Yelstin years.
Putin also emphasized the need to aggressively attract more foreign investment. In order to raise the level of foreign investments, Putin referred to the need to tone up Russia’s legal system and processes. While doing so, he reassured the Russian people that the current system of governance was best suited to the needs of Russia, and warned the West to desist from interfering in the internal affairs of Russia. Interestingly, he referred to Russia’s bilateral relations with the United States of America, Europe, India, China and Japan as being vitally important.
The next day, the local media was fairly sharply divided in their support or criticism of Putin’s speech. The Russians I spoke to were cautiously optimistic about Putin’s ability to deliver. I am not sure whether the Indian media reported Putin’s State of the Union speech. It would have been quite an eye-opener considering the ongoing debate on economic reforms in India.
In Moscow, old grim state-run hotels are being pulled down and are being replaced by international chains to provide modern amenities to business and leisure travellers. But some old landmarks remain intact. A leisurely stroll through Gorky Park on a sunny day is as pleasurable as it always was.
It remains unchanged except for a corner which is cordoned off to store the statues of all the former heroes of the Soviet Union. The other familiar landmark is the old KGB headquarters on Dzerzhinsky Square. The sparse roundabout in front of the building is now flower bedecked and cheerful. Behind the KGB building is the KGB Officers Club which has been converted into the KGB museum.
We were given a conducted tour by the director, a retired KGB colonel. It was a fascinating experience. The KGB uniforms, the spying aids, the life story of the famous and not so famous spies and counter-spies from Abel to Blake and many others tell a stark story of the Cold War days. The Americans provided their spies with such perfect forged Russian passports that it took several years for these to be detected. The staples in the American forgeries did not rust while those in normal Russian passports did. The cloak-and-dagger work of spies continues, but now the targets are economic crimes, drug-mafia and terrorists. In pursuing the new targets, the colonel told us they have made a common cause with their former enemies. A KGB operator gets to retire at the age of 45; in the past very few survived that long. The chances, it seems, are much better now.
On the last day, I took a leisurely stroll across the Red Square. It was a sunny day and hundreds of visitors were milling around. There were hardly any people lining up to enter Lenin’s mausoleum. In the old days, long queues of people used to wind around the Red Square, patiently awaiting their turn to catch a glimpse of the father of the Russian Revolution. Now the visitors are more interested in the colourful onion domes of the revived and politically influential Russian Orthodox Church.
I learnt that Duma in Russian means the abode of wise thinkers, called Dumayats. The Dumayats of modern Russia are certainly succeeding to help Russians think and act as individuals, after several decades of being spoon-fed by the state. There is much we in India can learn from the economic transformation taking place in Russia — maybe even more than from China. A nation’s political philosophy and social commitments do not have to be mired in history in order for it to embrace reforms which deliver greater good to its people.