Business Boom Is Intoxicating for Muscovites
- By Richard Lourie
- Mar. 17 2008 00:00
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You wouldn't have known by looking around Moscow that March 2 was election day. The ratio of strictly commercial to political ads was 10,000 to one. You had to peer intently to find an image of President Vladimir Putin or Dmitry Medvedev. Of course, why waste good rubles on placards and posters when the outcome was never in doubt?
In the end, commercial interests simply trumps the political.
"Boom" was the word on people's lips. Driving me around town, a friend recites the cost of square meters in downtown Moscow like a mantra that intoxicates him. A young woman happily brags to me that Moscow has become such a 24-hour city that you can buy electronics in the middle of the night. Politics is predictable, boring and dangerous. The economy is unpredictable, exciting and dangerous.
Turnout is what counted in the election, the authorities' only worry that people would stay home in droves. One young doctor told me that he wasn't allowed to discharge any of his patients on election weekend -- it was easier to get them to vote lying in bed than out gallivanting around.
After watching returns on television, I asked the doctor: "What channel should I watch? NTV?"
"No," he said. "MTV."
I laughed, but later that week sitting in a Shokoladnitsa Cafe, I watched a young couple both wearing earphones plugged into one laptop and realized that, as in the United States, the young people at the cutting edge were highly unlikely to get their information by sitting in front of a large piece of furniture.
The Kremlin had seized control of yesterday's technology. Of course, control can be imposed on the Internet, but not without risking serious damage to the free flow of information that is the lifeblood for a 21st-century society, for a country's standing in the world and for the loyalty of the most productive class.
Since there was zero possibility of any nesting-doll equivalent of a "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline, the matryoshka manufacturers had Medvedev dolls ready from day one. I bought one outside the entrance to Red Square. By the laws of physics -- if not politics -- Putin had to be smaller than Medvedev to fit inside him. Putin was followed by Yeltsin, but then there was a sudden skip to Stalin who proved to contain, like the seed of it all, a tiny Lenin. "But where's Gorbachev?" I asked the salesgirl. "There wasn't room for them all," she said with a laugh.
I got another explanation for his absence a little later. In Russian cities, I have the habit of hailing gypsy cabs -- meaning any citizen hard up enough to need to make a few rubles on the side. They're cheaper than cabs, and you get a chance to talk to people you wouldn't otherwise meet.
I stepped off the curb to face the flow of oncoming traffic, and my first thought was -- Where am I? Rodeo Drive? Nothing but Bentleys, Mercedes, Lexus. BMWs, Hummers, Volvos. Hardly the sort whose drivers would interrupt their brilliant careers to make a quick 200 rubles.
Finally, an old car pulled over and a deal was made through a half-opened window. The driver was in his late 20s -- "too young to have worked in the Soviet Union" as he put it. He was noncommittal about Medvedev: "We'll see, we'll see," but then followed a passionate outburst on Russian leaders. "I don't trust any of them. They're never in touch with the people. Gorbachev was the worst. To forbid Russians to drink -- what was he thinking of? As soon as he put the dry law into effect, everyone -- bosses, workers, me, everyone -- set up a still in their house. That was more than 20 years ago. And you know what? To this day I've kept mine, and in good shape too. You never know."
Reassured, I overtipped.
Richard Lourie is the author of "A Hatred For Tulips" and "Sakharov: A Biography."