Consumerism ousts communism with flamboyance - By Chandan Mitra Back   Home  
They haven't externed Vladimir Illych, although he has been threatened with removal from his resting place and burial deep under the earth. What they've done is probably worse - made him irrelevant. Russia's new capitalist prosperity almost taunts the embalmed body that lies forlorn, deep within a crypt in a small granite building on Red Square, just outside the Kremlin wall. In this, my third visit to Moscow over two decades, I finally managed to catch a glimpse of the remains of the man, once the idol of millions and undoubtedly an icon of the century that has just gone by.

On my first visit to Moscow in 1982, high noon of the Soviet Empire under the commanding presence of Leonid Brezhnev, the queues outside Lenin's mausoleum extended beyond 2 km even in biting winter.

I was in Moscow in the last week of December, the city was sheathed in knee-deep snow and daytime temperatures hovered between -10 and -15 degrees Celsius.

Yet, thousands of people would wait patiently, some even overnight, to pay obeisance to the spirit of the man who had replaced God in a system determined to exile organised religion outside its frontiers.

Mainly visitors from the less developed republics, these tattily-clothed peasants often carried infants in their arms, hoping physical proximity to Lenin's magical aura, even if only chemically preserved, would bless their new-born.

Now it takes precisely five minutes to whizz past the revolutionary leader's remains. It's dark and slushy as you descend two levels into the crypt. A few soldiers stand guard, directing occasional visitors to keep moving on. The handful of Russians that still file past the glass-encased body do so more out of curiosity than reverence. Virtually nobody walks down the alley above where a succession of Soviet heroes, from Stalin to Andropov (with the crucial exceptions of Trotsky and Krushchev) lie buried.

Much of today's Moscow heretically mocks at the Soviet legacy. Bang across Lenin's mausoleum is a huge supermall where trendy shops sell everything American.

Lissom Russian salesgirls attractively dressed in latest fashions, peep out of the sparkling brand outlets, oblivious to the history of the Red Square.

The old Czarist gates that Stalin had removed to allow the Red Army, complete with tanks and missile carriers to parade through the Square have been rebuilt with meticulous care in classic 18th Century style.

Some years ago, in an act of crass vengeance, the new occupants of the Kremlin had, in fact, decided to hold rock concerts on the cobbled expanse of the Square. Mercifully, heritage activists raised a cry, arguing that the fragile structures around it would crumble under the assault of decibels. Now neither concerts are held there, nor does the Army (no longer Red) file past to the frightening unison of clicking jackboots.

Interestingly, November 7 is still a holiday in Russia. But we were quickly disabused of the notion that even its present rulers revelled in the memory of the Great October Revolution of 1917. "The meaning of the holiday has been changed," Russia's Transport Minister seated beside me at the official banquet at the Kremlin on Tuesday night, reassured. "Now it is observed as a day of national unity and reconciliation," he explained. What fascinated me this time was that Russians were increasingly finding it possible to coexist with their history. They did not hesitate to refer to Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev and Brezhnev.

They pointed to the many good things Soviet leaders did to improve the people's lot. But they also stridently criticised the atmosphere of terror and mistrust on which the Soviet system prospered. Our guide in Moscow, Irina, for instance, said the best thing Krushchev did was to build thousands of apartment blocks to house homeless people after World War II. But she said the buildings were cramped and badly planned. She had finally managed to buy a spacious flat recently, some years after it finally became legal to own property. Her parents had bought a big, two-storey bungalow in the countryside that was "much better than the dachas" of times past. Moscow is now a flourishing western city - a far cry even from what it was in 1994.

Then it was a classic case of an old system unable to die and a new one unable to be born. Finally, new Moscow has emerged out of the abyss of the past. The people are happier, there is a lot of cheer that's visibly around. Neon signs announce the arrival of consumerism with flamboyant impatience. Every conceivable brand shrieks out its presence from brightly-lit shop windows and back lit hoardings. But casinos and nightclubs, too, abound. In these, foreigners are allowed free entry, obviously in the expectation that they will spend their wads of dollars. However, the indecent craving for the greenback that I encountered both in 1982 and 1994, has been tempered. With more opportunities around, the desperation to make a quick buck seems to have abated. As we stepped into Radisson Slavjanskaya Hotel Monday afternoon, we were struck by the presence of two ravishingly attractive, long-haired girls in blue miniskirts and matching, tight tops. Over two days I realised they were walking promotions for the casino-cum-nightclub of the hotel and their job was to hand out literature about their employer to potential customers. Capitalism comes with a price. The commodification of women is just one such.
Published in DailyPioneer. When I was a kid, I used to read Soviet Union and other Russian magazines (my dad subscribed to them) I always wondered about Russians, their begger-less economy, equality and wanted to go to Russia one day. Now with these changes, it is no different from any western country.