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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Russia's Avid Month of May




May Day has come and gone, leaving me with a bad case of emotional indigestion.


It seems a sin to complain. I enjoyed myself immensely -- along with hundreds of thousands of other Muscovites, I strolled the warm, sunny streets, or sat in outdoor cafes sipping cappuccino and watching the world go by. I rode boats up and down the Moscow River, admiring the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and sneering at the kitschy horror of Peter the Great astride his boat.


But through it all, I couldn't shake the distinct feeling that something was slightly off.


First on my discomfort list was the weather. Barely three weeks ago we were buried in snow, with spring a far-off dream. Now, suddenly, we had bypassed the balmy season altogether and sailed right into summer.


I don't want to hear about global warming, El Ni?o, electromagnetic storms, or any other trendy, rational explanations. I know exactly what has caused the crazy shift from blizzard to burn. It is Russian maximalism, that ever-endearing capacity to swing from one extreme to the other in a dizzying, illogical swoop.


I shouldn't be surprised that this quality has finally infected the climate. It has taken over every other facet of life. Anyone who spent a few hours in the city center on May Day saw ample evidence of this polarity.


Take, for example, the demonstration on Teatralnaya Ploshchad, where maximalists of every stripe jostled for a place in the sun. The day supposedly belonged to the Communists, and their wilted red flags and limp cardboard signs did, in fact, predominate. But they were leavened with swastika-armbanded fascists, passionate monarchists and end-of-the-worlders, all cashing in on the free-floating hostility that seems to be an integral part of fin-de-siecle Russia.


I am fairly uncomfortable with Communist crowds -- the aging faces with their desperate eyes seem rather pathetic -- but a glance at the lovingly restored Stalin placards or the "death to the bourgeoisie" signs is enough to dry up my sympathy immediately. Nor do I have too much in common with the leather-suited, shaven-headed toughs selling Limonka and other hate-filled trash. So I stayed on the fringes.


I had plenty of company, since the players in this little morality play were vastly outnumbered by the spectators -- a mostly good-natured crowd with ice cream and balloons, gazing at the ideological dinosaurs as if they were exhibits in a museum.


It hardly seemed possible that just a few years ago the West was so terrified of these hopeless has-beens that it was ready to excuse any excesses by the "democratic reformers" in the name of avoiding a Communist revanche.


They needn't have worried. I am supremely confident that Russia will not, as the saying goes, "step on the same rake twice." It is quite capable of thinking up totally new and more interesting ways of shooting itself in the foot. Just take a look at the gubernatorial elections in Krasnoyarsk, where a nationalist, militaristic, xenophobic general is set to sweep the polls. Now if that doesn't send a little frisson down Western spines, they haven't been paying attention.


But back to May Day.


Tiring of philosophical extremism, I wandered down to another hotbed of wretched excess: the new shopping center on Manezhnaya Square. It was, in its way, just as unreal as the lackluster demonstration around the Karl Marx statue. Capitalism has largely replaced communism as the religion of the new generation, which has embraced consumerism and greed with the same blind fervor their great-grandparents reserved for socialism.


Manezhnaya has become a prime tourist attraction for New Russian wannabes, who cruise the corridors and dream of a time when they will be able to drop $1,000 for a watch or $50,000 for a sable coat. It's a signpost to the bright future that is lurking just around the corner -- if not for them, then, surely, for their children and grandchildren.


The problem is, I find this group just about as unappealing as the crowd up the street.


It bothers me that Russians can be so childishly pleased with the mediocre offerings of Western glitz to the detriment of their own, much richer culture. I saw a modestly dressed older couple at Manezh who had probably spent much of their month's entertainment budget on a slice of pizza and a coke. The woman was reminiscing fondly about the first time they had visited McDonald's.


It was almost enough to send me running back to Karl Marx.