Try to Imagine Moscow With No Gorbachev

Given most Russians' hostile regard for Mikhail Gorbachev, it comes as no surprise that the tenth anniversary of the former Soviet leader's rise to power came and went here last week with little fanfare.

One can argue about whether perestroika, with or without Gorbachev, was inevitable for a country that in 1985 was near collapse. But what if it wasn't? What would Moscow, without perestroika, without Gorbachev, be like today?

Just imagine this:

Moscow, March 10, 1995, late afternoon. You arrive on one of Lufthansa's twice-weekly, but nearly empty, flights. A passport-control officer glares at you and your visa.

After several pointed questions -- "What is your purpose for coming to the Soviet Union?" -- you make it through, although you are sweating profusely. You are met by a "business colleague" -- a higher-up in the Soviet Committee for Trading with something or other. (You can't remember because the name is so long.)

He takes you in his rattling, chauffeured Volga to the Hotel Sport. It seems there is a Festival of Communist Youth going on right now, and most of the better hotels (the Mezh, Ukraine, Intourist) are booked.

You check in. You drag your bags past a set of cheap couches where several fat men in black fake-leather coats are pretending to read the newspaper but actually watching who comes and goes.

You finally make it to your room, where the radio attached to the wall is blaring a speech by General Secretary Viktor Grishin that you can't turn off.

You don't bother with a shower because the water is off and the towels are the size of a postage stamp, so instead you decide to go see your Russian friends, a family whose daughter emigrated to the United States years ago. They can't leave because the father is an engineer at a factory that makes soap for the army.

Naturally, you can't call them from your room, so, escaping the gaze of the fake-leather coats, you slip out of the hotel and walk to the metro, where you pull out one of the two-kopeck pieces you save for every trip and drop it into a pay phone. You agree to meet on the platform at the Marksistskaya metro stop tomorrow night.

The next morning, the Committee for Whatever's Volga picks you up. There is no traffic on Leninsky Prospekt at rush hour except for various apparatchiki heading leisurely to work, so you make good time. Your goal is to sell 100 knitting machines for use in textile mills around the country. How convenient that you can settle it all in one set of negotiations, rather than having to run all over the country from mill to mill.

After three hours, the room is filled with cigarette smoke and you have only sold one knitting machine at a price so deeply discounted you can't believe it yourself. These guarded bureaucrats want to "see how well it works" before buying more.

Tired, you head back to the Sport. You look in the lobby for a newspaper. What you'd really like is a thriller about what life in the Soviet Union would have been like if those younger Politburo members Gorbachev or Boris Yeltsin had beaten Grishin for the job back in 1985. All you can find is Pravda and Sovietsky Soyuz magazine. In resignation, you go back to your room, turn on the TV and watch the 30th Party Congress.