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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Pragmatic Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears




Moscow is not only characters from society pages, bankers, bandits, rulers and deputies. Moscow is rather the very simplest people who now work, work and work, and spend their vacations not on the Canary Islands, but at their modest dachas and tiny garden plots. In Moscow, if you want to live well, know how to stay on your toes. It is hard to live in Moscow. In Moscow, people have always had to be on the ball. For "Moscow does not believe in tears," as another Russian saying goes, which is also title of a famous Soviet melodrama about a poor provincial Cinderella who arrives in the capital and who, under the leadership of a powerful fairy by the name of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, finds happiness in the end.


I myself, like the heroine of the film, came to Moscow from Siberia in worn-out shoes 35 years ago. Nothing changed for years. We all believed that "Lenin's kingdom would have no end," to use the expression in the suicide note of the hunchback from a short story by the Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin, who managed to flee from the Bolsheviks.


Simple Muscovites used to be seized with intense boredom when they went out at night on the ill-lit streets of their city, which were decorated with banners that glowed in the dark saying "Glory to the Soviet Communist Party."


Year after year, on May 1 and Nov. 7, the Lenin Mausoleum was embellished by familiar bigwig figures, and Red Square by triumphant "workers representatives" carrying red banners and huge portraits of the same "people's servants" who were standing on the mausoleum.


But this was only the outward appearance of Moscow. Everyone knew that not everything was so simple and that under the surface volcanic passions were stirring. The Communists were fighting for power and bringing one another down for the sake of their careers; underground millionaires were accumulating wealth; anyone who wanted could acquire in Moscow any of the most "anti-Soviet" books; the ideas of Marx and Lenin did not get in the way of prostitutes, hard-currency traders, thieves and bandits on one hand, and heterodox philosophers, writers and artists on the other, as well as honest residents who spat on any ideology.


The changes did come. The maelstrom of time swept up Moscow: the collapse of the Soviet Union; the failed putsch of 1991; the showdown with the parliament of 1993; the bankrupt financial pyramid schemes; the shooting at the White House; the idiotic war with Chechnya.


Moscow emerged from this maelstrom. Moscow was preserved. Incomprehensibly, it is once again among the ranks of energetic, beautiful cities where people want to live. Freedom is a more prominent aspect of the city than totalitarianism or nationalistic narrow-mindedness.


I am not speaking of politics. Thinking about it is repulsive. I don't have economics in mind either, on which I have no thoughts. I'm talking about the spirit of the city and the people settled here. These people curse the government and count every kopek until their next paycheck. They look back with nostalgia on the stable, totalitarian days when meager wages were paid on time and there was order in the city. But I would go so far as to say that these people are feeling fine.


They are doing well for various reasons. Not only because Moscow has low unemployment and relatively high incomes but also because, for example, the streets have finally become clean after decades of being buried in dirt. I can't help but remember an incident in which, as people were up to their ankles in melting dirty snow and waiting in line for bananas among discarded cardboard boxes, papers and cigarette butts, they suddenly forgot their troubles and all pounced on an American who was trying to photograph them. "Slander! You've come to our country to slander us!" some veteran yelled while shaking his cane at him. "Off to the police station with him," a woman seconded him.


I was once severely reprimanded by a fellow citizen for my hopeful view. "You're exaggerating," he told me. "And what about the poor people who rummage Moscow garbage bins in front of the eyes of the entire world?"


"That's precisely what is for everyone to see," I responded immediately. Earlier, a police officer would have arrested this poor person and sent him beyond the city limits. Don't take this for cynicism, but previously it would have made no sense for even the poorest to go rummaging through the garbage. But now he can find an unfinished can of beer, an opened package of salami, old jackets, broken televisions and other objects.


I believe that no one really wants a return to communist Moscow, even the Communists themselves. What sense does it make to be nostalgic about the past when any heedless step threatens to deprive them of their party cards and ruin their careers?


Moreover, everything seems to have stabilized in Moscow, which has become particularly evident during the past year. Theaters and concert halls are full again. People lead intensive night lives in clubs, discos and casinos, where New Russians put down huge sums of money acquired from no one knows where. But even the New Russians who drive about in big American cars have begun to drive more delicately and don't show their disdain for the domestic-made cars of the Muscovite "middle class." It is clear that in their milieu politeness has become prestigious, and rudeness a sign of bad taste.


Caretakers of the past are filled with gloomy forebodings and cry over the collapse of the Soviet Union and imperial Moscow. But Moscow doesn't believe in tears. After 70 years of communist dominion, Muscovites seem to have finally come to the proper conclusion: "God helps those who help themselves." They are now more interested in their own problems than in "building communism," geopolitical ambitions or even outer space, which the Soviet government strove to explore rather than provide its subjects with civilized living conditions or even tolerable roads.


Working, raising children, giving them an education and living life as free people and not "slaves of the Communist Party" or of some new leadership: This is what concerns average Muscovites.


You can reprove Muscovites for this, and accuse them of pragmatism and selfishness, but it should be remembered that they were for many years at the epicenter of a destructive, radioactive power and still did not all manage to become mutants of communism. Both Muscovites and the rest of Russia, where the problems are greater, will survive. A sales clerk I know who works from morning until night in a kiosk had it right when she told me: "Don't let them tell you lies about how we in Moscow are growing fat and living in the lap of luxury. If you want to be happy, work toward it."


Yevgeny Popov is a writer whose works include "The Soul of a Patriot." He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.