ESSAY: Don't Believe Your Eyes on Street of Deception
- By Anatoly Korolyov
- Dec. 10 1997 00:00
Everyone who comes to Moscow for the first time is bound to take a stroll along the Arbat. This is the capital's most famous street among tourists. It is forbidden to drive a car here and there is not a single traffic light. The street belongs entirely to pedestrians.
But beware of walking on the Arbat. It is a street of traps for fools and simpletons. You risk being duped and cheated at every step. Sometimes it seems to me that the Arbat is a symbol of contemporary Russia, where deception has become the norm.
Let's take a walk down this street of crocodiles and hucksters. As soon as you turn the corner you are surrounded by tables with countless matryoshki. Thousands of wooden dolls goggle at you with their round eyes. Whatever your tastes may be, there is sure to be one for you. Some are huge, others are small. There are black ones with gold and multi-colored ones, happy ones and sad ones. The price of a matryoshka can start at $100 and go as high as $1000.
Many guests of the city consider these dolls to be a typical Russian folk toy. Alas, this is not the case. The matryoshka was invented by the modernist-style artist Sergei Malyutin at the turn of the century for an exhibition in Paris. The amusing doll was an immediate sensation among foreigners. They saw in them the spirit of Russia, while the Russian people remained absolutely indifferent to them.
The matryoshka is not to be found in Russian villages. True Russian folk toys give off a sound. They whistle. And this whistle is made of clay. The toy's secret is that it must be inexpensive and simple. If one gets broken, it is easy to make another. But you can be sure you won't find such genuine toys on the Arbat for any money.
Let's go further along the street. There you have former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev himself. To be more precise, there is his double in a black suit, white shirt and tie and with his world-famous birthmark on the forehead. Next to him are Stalin with a pipe and Tsar Nicholas II in full-dress military uniform and shiny boots. These are three dodgers with whom anyone who wishes can be photographed for money. You can even hug them. The price of the picture is moderate. Gorbachev costs least of all; the most expensive shot is with the tsar.
Next to the false general secretary are people selling hot shashlyk prepared directly on an electric grill. Go past them. Even if you're very hungry. Don't buy any. This is no shashlyk. Few people know that the word shashlyk does not mean grilled pieces of meat on a skewer. Rather, it denotes smoke. In the Caucasus, shashlyk is the name given to the particularly heady smell that comes from the fat of sheep meat dripping down onto hot wooden coals in the brazier. The falling drops blaze up into thick, bluish-gray clouds of smoke. That smoke rises up and permeates the skewered meat. The smell is what is called shashlyk. There is nothing of the kind on the Arbat.
So let's move on. The crowd is getting thicker and thicker. This Muscovite Montmartre lacks for nothing. There are portrait artists with their easels, people with scales for those who are watching their weight, fortune tellers, astrologers and a fakir lying on a bed of nails. There is a monkey on a photographer's shoulder, aboa constrictor and, of course, a Russian bear that is chained and muzzled. The latest hit on the Arbat is a real live camel with hanging lips.
As the 19th century fiction writer Kozma Prutkov once wrote, "If you see a buffalo in a cage with a sign saying it is a tiger, don't believe your eyes."
Don't believe your eyes on the Arbat. Artists never draw the truth. They will without fail embellish your portrait with sweet lies. They will make you more beautiful and younger. And the scales lie and flatter those who have decided to find out how much they weigh. Even if you're wearing an overcoat and carrying a briefcase, you'll weigh less there than at home. Fortune tellers and astrologers are sure to tell you that you have a fine future to look forward to and that all misfortunes are behind you.
Finally, there is the House of Actors whose large sign looks out over the Arbat. This is also only for show. Throughout the entire huge building, only a small hall on the second floor and a few rooms on the seventh belong to actors. The rest is rented out to various companies. Otherwise, there would not be enough money for the association to help modern theater and feed, shelter and care for old actors.
This is the true face of the street, on which everything is for sale. In short, the Arbat is an accurate sign of the times. In modern-day Russia, lies, deception, flattery, and fakes characterize the nature of relations between buyer and seller and the government and its citizens. Some people will constantly try to swindle you, wrap you around their fingers, palm off counterfeit goods on you and cajole you -- all in order to pass off wishful thinking for reality.
The State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, has drafted many laws on granting privileges. The state extends privileges to those who fought in Chechnya, to the disabled, to those who live in the north and others. But the state is simply in no financial shape to carry out the hundreds of noble resolutions that are made. Everyone understands this full well, but the Duma continues to sell us on the need for handouts and exemptions. The Russian president and mayor of Moscow have publicly vowed that they would not run in the next presidential elections, but no one believes them any more than they believe the scales on the Arbat. First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais swears that his friend Alfred Kokh, the former privatization chief who received $100,000 for a book he had not written, is honest. Like the fakir on the Arbat, the Russian reformer is laying his naked back down on nails, but no one believes it.
Everyone pretends to tell the truth and we all pretend that we believe. Why aren't there any red lights on the street of deception? Why don't we put a stop to the lies?
Let's get away from the Arbat. But stop! What do I see? Coming toward us is a group of American tourists who are happily tossing wooden abacuses in the air. They were lucky. They bought a really truly authentic thing. Such antediluvian calculators are used in hundreds of Russian provincial cities to this day.
The last step on the Arbat is behind us. Incidentally, Arbat is not a Russian but a Tatar word. And specialists on place-names are still debating what it in fact means and how to translate it.
Anatoly Korolyov is a writer whose most recent book is "Eron." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.