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From: Bela Lubkin
Date: Sun, 14 Sep 1997 02:33:28 +0000
Subject: Three 5000-rouble stories [RESEND]

ADMINISTRIVIA: we had a bunch of mail problems last week -- if you sent anything to me or Sandy and didn't hear back, you should probably resend it. Also, if you did not receive either of the previous newsletters, "Off To Yaroslavl..." (Aug 21) or "Yaroslavl, part 1" (Sep 3), please let me know. I'm trying to learn the dimensions of the mail problems. :-(

> Date: Sun, 7 Sep 1997 21:28:51 +0000

(Picture) 5000 Rouble Notes

This Thursday I had three little 5000-rouble events. (5000 roubles is about US$0.85 at the current exchange rate.)

This Friday, Saturday and Sunday were the official celebration of Moscow's 850th birthday. (Last night they had a huge multimedia spectacular at Moscow University, put together by Jean Michel Jarre. Our metro station is about a mile from the site, and it was completely insane. They had all three escalators running upwards, so you couldn't possibly have gotten down into the station from above. The nearest crosswalk on Leninsky Prospekt had several policemen trying to prevent the press of hundreds of pedestrians from forcibly stopping traffic by crossing, despite the heavy traffic.

(Picture of crowds crossing street) (Picture of people riding on top of a full trolleybus) (Picture of crowds crossing street) (Picture of crowds crossing street)

As I write this, Sunday evening, they've just finished telecasting Luciano Pavarotti live from Red Square. It was quite a blast hearing him say "Spaseeba" (thanks) with an obvious not-Russian accent ;-)

There are a lot of fairs and events going on before and after the official 3 days. A street faire was supposed to be starting Thursday and running for about a week, so we thought we would go check that out before it got too crowded. It was supposed to be on Manezh Square, just outside the Kremlin and next to Red Square.

Well, when we got there it just wasn't crowded enough. Obviously we had misunderstood the flyer we'd read, or maybe the flyer was wrong. There were a few stands selling doughnuts and things like that, but nothing like the full street faire we were expecting.

So we decided to see what was happening on Red Square, instead. The first thing we noticed when we got there was that the "church that wasn't there" was officially open. This church was torn down by Stalin to show the state's contempt for religion. Our "Three Days In Moscow" guide book, printed a couple of years before the Soviet Union dissolved, doesn't mention it at all. Well, it's been completely rebuilt since the breakup. They're still working on the interior, but the outside was all shiny and new, ready for the birthday party.

(Picture) Church built in 1636, demolished in 1936, and rebuilt in 1993 - before repainting
(Picture) Sandy at church built in 1636, demolished in 1936, and rebuilt in 1993 - after repainting

Turning around, we saw that the main area of Red Square was barricaded off. A small crowd was watching a movie in the far corner -- we guessed they were performers for the weekend, learning their roles. As we watched, a column of soldiers wearing what looked to me like Napoleonic costumes marched into view, past us, and back towards the movie.

(Picture) Napoleonic French Soldiers marching on Red Square with Lenin's Tomb and the Kremlin in the background
(Picture) Napoleonic French Soldiers marching on Red Square with Lenin's Tomb and the Kremlin in the background

Then we noticed four solidiers in old field wear -- khaki fatigues, one with a positively ancient looking khaki field pack. We guessed they were "extras" for the festivities. Near them was a man who looked strikingly like Lenin, complete with the short-cropped beard and jutting chin -- also probably a performer.

Sandy wanted to take their picture. To avoid trouble she decided to ask permission first. The soldier she asked answered "Pyat tyisich!" (Five thousand!). Sandy responded "Hah!" and then, as he turned away, "Capitalist Pig!", which we thought was hilariously funny. As we laughed, the soldiers walked off through Resurrection Gate towards Manezh Square. We took a couple of pictures of the resurrected church (sorry, I don't know its name), then headed off in the same direction. Nothing interesting was happening downtown, so we decided to go to the Exhibition Center, where an international book faire was just starting.

When we got to Manezh Square on our way to Okhotny Ryad metro station, we noticed that the soldiers were standing near the entrance to the Alexandrovsky Gardens. Sandy resolved to sneak a picture of them anyway. As we fumbled with the camera, one and then another of them watched us. By the time we got the picture, they were walking towards us -- but walked past, and as they passed, the nearest one gave me a broad wink.

(Picture) Revolutionary? Russian soldiers

So we took the metro to the exhibition center, VVTs. We'd never been there and were surprised to find how huge it is -- probably close to a mile square.

(Picture) Elaborate fountain at VVTs

We eventually found our way to the book faire an hour before closing time. It turned out to be just like any other trade faire -- lots of exhibitors, not much of interest. (All the time here, I've been hoping to find Tin Tin books in Russian, but no luck. I've got Russian copies of The Hobbit, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland...) One Indian publisher was also selling food; I got some interesting potato-rice curry wrapped in cabbage leaves, with cucumber-tomato-onion salad on top.

After the book faire, we stopped at a shashlik stand in the VVTs. I wasn't hungry, Sandy got an order of pork shashlik (shish-kebob). (Their menu offered beef, pork and I think chicken, but pork was all they actually had -- this is typical...)

With all the things they piled on (bread, ketchup, "salad" that we didn't want, consisting of raw onions & dill) plus a half-liter bottle of Coke, the bill came to 32000 roubles. I dug out 35000 roubles (3 10000 notes, 1 5000). The serving girl wanted to know if I had 2000, because she didn't have change (this is also typical). While I was digging around for 2000, she put the 35000 into her till. I finally determined that I *didn't* have 2000. So she said, why don't we get this 1/3 liter can of Coke instead of the 1/2 liter bottle, and the total will be 30000? Ok, fine. We traded drinks and then I waited for her to return the other 5000 roubles.

And waited.

Finally I tried to explain: the total was 30000, I gave you 35000, where is my 5000 change? She misunderstood me to be complaining about the 30000 total. I wasn't too happy with that either, but that wasn't the point. She'd just disappeared 5000 roubles of my money! We kept arguing past each other for a while -- the serving girl reinforced by the cook, trying to show how the bill added up to 30000 (which I already knew), and me trying to explain to her that she'd ripped me off for 5000 roubles. Finally the cook, who spoke some English, somehow grasped what I was saying. The serving girl didn't believe it at first, but she dug in the till and found that the top 4 bills were 3-10000, 1-5000, and I guess that settled it for her.

She gave it back and we sat down to eat.

Finally, we walked back from VVTs to the metro station, VDNH, which is the former name of the VVTs exhibition center -- it seems like the names of a quarter of the metro stations, streets and landmarks changed when the USSR became Russia. (I don't know why they didn't also change the metro station's name -- they certainly changed plenty of others. Okhotny Ryad used to be Prospekt Marksa -- Marx Street.)

Anyway, we were familiar with the VDNH station area because it's just a block from the Hotel Kosmos, where we spent the first week in Moscow, while looking for an apartment. So I knew that if I looked carefully, I would probably find a babushka selling roasted sunflower seeds -- a service which is sadly lacking in the area of our apartment.

Sure enough, as we got almost to the corner where we would enter the metro, I saw three old ladies across the street, looking like they were selling something. I think they sort of half-disguise themselves because their sales activities are almost certainly illegal. I saw three old ladies sitting on a low fence, each with several tattered old brown paper bags in front of her. They're pretty quick to gather up if a policeman comes along, and less incriminating than an actual pushcart.

The street was pretty busy, and I couldn't see to cross it because of the buses queued on our side. As I was debating whether to check, I noticed one of the babushkas was eating sunflower seeds. Bingo! So I waited for a bus to leave, making a gap that I could use to see my way safely across the street. The babushkas watched with interest.

I went to the middle one, who was still eating sunflower seeds, and tried to explain what I wanted. I didn't know the word. The lady on my left kept interrupting with "khleb, khleb!" -- she was selling bread. I wasn't interested, but couldn't communicate the idea "No thanks, we have a lovely loaf of bread at home that we baked ourselves yesterday, and besides, I can get bread *anywhere* in Moscow!"

Finally the one on the right understood what I wanted. The one with the seeds fumbled around in one of her bags, found the sack of seeds, and showed me her cup. These street vendors of roasted this-n-that always sell it by the cup. Hers was rather small, about the size of a 150-gram yogurt cup. I asked how much, and she said 1000 roubles. Ok, that was fine -- I'd been paying 2000 roubles for a larger (but not twice as large) cup in Yaroslavl a week before.

So I dug in my wallet and found a 5000-rouble note. "pyat stakana, pazhalsta" (five cups, please). I had my own plastic bag, saving her a bag (or the trouble of folding a cone out of newspaper, as many of them do). Five overflowing cups wiped out her supply -- she tossed the remaining handful or two into my bag.

Then they asked me where I was from, Germany or Italy? America was a surprising answer to them. I haven't figured out whether this is because Americans are rare or because I have more of a continental accent. I'm often guessed to be German. They wanted to know what I was doing there; I said I wanted to learn Russian. So the one on the right corrected my grammar. ;-}

We caught the metro and went home.


PS: someone said to me that he hadn't sent any comments because he figured we were swamped in comments. Not so! We're lucky to get one response per newsletter. Speak up!

All text and pictures copyright 1997 Sandy and Bela Lubkin, all rights reserved.