A Moscow State of Mind

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I first set foot in Moscow 40 years ago last week, on Dec. 23, 1968. Do I really need to point out that nothing has changed?

On the macro level, things remain exactly as they were: Moscow is run by well-entrenched apparatchiks and assorted Kremlin favorites, virtually all of whom are nominally patriotic, essentially apolitical and genuinely interested solely in the protection and advancement of their own interests. Ho-hum: 40 years, 400 years -- who's counting?

These worthies were immortalized by Nikolai Gogol well over a century ago. Being surprised by their persistence and prosperity from regime to regime to regime, world without end, would be as naive as discounting Gogol's summary of the nation's eternal abundances: idiots and bad roads. If some benighted soul claims he can "prove" to you that roads were worse and idiots more plentiful in 1968, demur in the manner of the United States' own idiot-in-chief: Raise your eyebrows, smirk myopically and burp up, "Bring it on." Unlike Ol' Smirky, you'll be right.

On the micro level, meanwhile, your average Moscow neighborhood remains firmly under the sensible heels of its latest generation of babushkas, who are no worse than the 1968 models at explaining to everyone else how they should live. In my particular micro-district, advice is only a warm-up: The militant grannies queue up in platoon strength at our bus stop, derrieres akimbo and elbows set on stun, with the clear intention of keeping lesser mortals like me off any crowded bus that might deliver us somewhere on time.

And you ask why I live here.

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But enough on the eternal verities of Russian life. Let's look at the particular reality of Moscow in 1968 -- or at least the reality perceived by a 19-year-old visitor speaking next to no Russian, with an undergraduate attention span and the constant diversions of a rollicking tour group. Yes, with few compunctions about alcohol, personal hygiene or dating people unfamiliar with English, our jolly crew of 50-odd Christmas-break escapees from various study-in-Europe programs set off on a 16-day blitz tour of the Warsaw Pact nations because ... because ... they were there. Who better to make a fair and balanced assessment of what Moscow was really like?

Or not. Anyway, the following images remain with me from Dec. 23 to Dec. 26, 1968, in this fair city:

• Masses of uniformed people, beginning with soldiers eyeing you from behind AK-47s, as you filed off the plane;

• Huge, squat, ungainly buildings, with giant ads for communism on top;

• An ill-clad population whose street face seemed to have three default positions -- angry, suspicious and angrily suspicious;

• Lenin here, Lenin there, Lenin almost everywhere, on billboards, buttons, murals, money -- even chocolates; and

• An all-enveloping gloom, a great darkness that seemed to go on forever -- until we got to Leningrad, where it did.

In 25 words or less, Moscow was a big, cold, exotic and intimidating metropolis, the best view of which was in the rear view mirror of your airport bus. Needless to say, I had to come back.

And come back I did, two score times and more -- as a student, exhibit guide, researcher, exchange teacher and interpreter before settling here as a resident in 1994. I would never contemplate a change of citizenship and have always found the question both amusing and vaguely offensive, but I've thought of Moscow as home for years now, for better or worse.

And what, exactly, is the better? "Nothing has changed" is a joke, of course. Beyond the eternals, so much has changed -- so dramatically that those 1968 impressions must sound utterly alien to people who never saw Soviet Moscow. But that's just the outside. The interiors of today's city reveal even greater differences. The insides of a supermarket, a restaurant, a bookstore, an apartment or even a pocket -- maybe especially a pocket, if it's cradling an iPhone or a BlackBerry -- resemble their 1968 analogs infinitely less than do such interiors in London or Paris.

And that makes a world of difference for me, an "internal expatriate," who would never remain here out of mere perversity or a mysterious teenage crush. It's a mess, but it's our mess -- and, indeed, my mess. And somehow it works. As cities go, I heart Moscow much more than New York.

So here we are, Moscow, four decades later. Shall we celebrate? Tradition says the 40th is the "ruby anniversary" and card makers commemorate it with mawkish verse on the red of roses, hearts and even embarrassment, tee-hee. Forget that. Moscow is a tougher mistress, a no-holds-barred lady wrestler better suited to rubied-up doggerel of a hardier sort, especially during a crisis. You know, something like

Roses are red
Violets are ominous
The economy stinks
But at least we're not communis'!

Yeah, what crisis? Here, says Moscow, have a few belts of this, lie down on the divan and recall 1968. You'll feel better in 10 minutes, guaranteed.

In this city, like nowhere else, you take real pleasure in what's gone even as you're waiting, ever hopeful, for something better. This peculiarly Moscow state of mind was described by Vassily Aksyonov as a faith in the "sole yet powerful charm" of the city's climate, both literal and figurative, which inexplicably invokes a spirit no Muscovite can abide without: expectation. Somehow, while living here, despite it all, you know the wait is worth it.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.