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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Big Questions To Ponder on Life in Moscow

A few years ago, I blush to recall, I came to Moscow with the idea that I would be able to unravel the "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside in enigma" that is Russia.


I was at a dinner in a luxurious Connecticut house, with a Russian writer, an American who had translated Solzhenitsyn, and the daughter of a woman who may or may not have slept with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. I was leaving for Moscow in a few weeks, and the air was thick with the wonderful aura of Russia in exile - grand ideas and quixotic ventures, at a safe and comfortable remove.


I was discussing the deeper significance of Dostoyevsky's "The Brothers Karamazov" with my dinner partner to the left; on my right the topic was a new production of Chekhoy's "The Seagull". Suddenly someone asked me what I was going to do in Moscow. Flushed with the heady conversation (and quite a bit of wine) I recklessly answered "I will find the soul of Russia".


Instead of solving Russia's "cursed questions", though, I, have become obsessed with a whole batch of less exalted queries. These include:


Why do apartment buildings have kody, or entrance codes, when this just seems to be an invitation to knock out the side panels on the door?


Why do Russians spend days every winter stuffing their windows with foam rubber, instead of designing frames that fit?


Why is there a sign on the dirty gray windowsill in my hall that reads, "Careful, wet paint"?


Why are there ashtrays in this country that have a "No Smoking" sign emblazoned on the bottom?


Why are there neat strips cut out of the streets at random intervals, forming perfect collecting grounds for the copious rain we've been having this summer?


Why is only one door in each set unlocked, and why do sets of double doors open only in a maze pattern? (I realize that Russians will answer: "To keep in the heat", but this explanation loses at least some of its validity in July.


Why is the hot water turned off every summer? In my old apartment house on Leninsky Prospekt, they dug up the pipes every June, allegedly to clean them out. I no longer find this surprising. What amazes me, rather, is how they always managed to replace the road surface complete with the original potholes. How do they do this?


Why do Russians buy tomatoes for $6 a kilo in hard-currency stores, while fresher, riper tomatoes cost 1, 300 ruble at the market?


How do newspapers have the nerve to publish statistics saying that the minimum sum necessary for survival is 19, 000 rubles per person per month, while the minimum wage is 7, 770?


A Russian friend of mine, when peppered with my outraged questions, would shrug his shoulders, smile wryly, and say, "You've been here so many years, how can you still be surprised at anything? " To which I invariably replied, "When I stop being surprised, I'll know I've been here too long".


Last weekend, when I heard the news of the precipitate ruble exchange, I shrugged my shoulders, smiled wryly, and thought, "Now I've heard everything".


I'm tempted to catch the next plane out.