Report on a trip to Moscow to attend the International Meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists

by Richard I. Gibson

MOSCOW, July 1992

Moscow 11 months after the "coup" and 8 months after the dissolution of the Soviet Union seems a lot like an overgrown, slightly decrepit college town in the US in the 1960s. Mini skirts and the huge, unadorned high-rise concrete apartment and office complexes contribute to the feeling, along with fairly uniform, Corvair-like cars.

On the whole, the people look well-dressed, if slightly out of style (I fit right in). Lots of plaids and striped shirts on the men, solid and flowered dresses on women. The central part of the city was quite clean (not Singapore-clean, but better than most US cities of even one-twentieth Moscow's population of 9 million). There were fewer poor, homeless, beggars in evidence than in downtown Denver or Dallas. Nonetheless, the average Russian worker's pay remains about 250 rubles per month, with most professionals at perhaps triple that. Wages have not increased with inflation as prices have; officially, the inflation rate is supposed to be about 15%. But in actuality things are pretty wild and uncontrolled -- the exchange rate for the ruble went from 135 to the dollar to 166 during the week I was there (and officially, a year ago, the rate was 10 to the dollar)[and now, August '96, around 5000 to the dollar], while prices at McDonalds went up 23% between Friday and Saturday. A Big Mac, fries, and a coke for 186 rubles was a good deal in terms of dollars (about $1.20 on that day), but it is obvious that a Russian making 750 rubles a month can't spend a week's pay on one meal! They say the Moscow McDonalds is the cheapest in the world (in dollars), the busiest, the most profitable, and the biggest (19 cashiers -- minimal to no waiting on the days I visited). A packet of catsup cost 13 r and 16 r on Saturday.

Another price item: sometime in the past six months the cost of a subway ride increased from 5 kopecks (100 kopecks to the ruble) to 1 ruble -- a 20-fold increase, announced on a Friday, in effect the following Monday. I'm amazed that there was no revolution over that alone, but I guess after 70 years you can get pretty accustomed to government decrees. The subways, by the way, are clean, architecturally magnificent, and efficient.

Dollars were more popular than rubles almost everywhere -- I didn't even change any money for the first 3 days I was there. The Sovincenter hotel complex, shops, and restaurants only take hard currency (i.e., foreign), as is made very clear at the entrances. I bought a packet of 16 postcards for $3 (a fair price by our standards, about 20 apiece), but the labeled price was 1 rubles -- about 1.1 that day, for the whole packet. With a few other cards, my bill was $5.10. My change from $6.00 was two more postcards, 10 pfennigs, and 5 pence.

The town is a real mixture of the ancient (especially around the Kremlin and a few old churches), "Stalin gothic" (huge spired buildings in a pseudo-art deco style), and "post-Stalin modern" (the ugly early-sixties looking offices, store complexes, and apartment flats with lots of steel and concrete and big block letters calling out the name of the place). I saw no private single-family homes anywhere while in Moscow; they exist as spots for foreigners and (formerly) for rich party members in the distant suburbs. The town has lots of trees (but not that many flowers, as one might see in many cities of western Europe), and the view from the plane showed big forested tracts all around Moscow.

The few gas stations have long lines 100% of the time, including all night long. I was told gas costs about 25 a liter, or about $1/gallon, so it's pretty expensive for the locals, but there were still quite a few more cars than I expected. One TV channel carried listings that appeared to be "want ads" of sorts, and included Russian-made used cars for 3000-4000 rubles (less than $40.00! but anywhere from 5 to 15 months' pay for a Russian).

The TV in the hotel had 5 Russian channels plus CNN; two of the Russian channels carried quite a bit of live Olympics coverage. The TV included no US sit- coms, but there was one dubbed soap opera (Santa Barbara, I think). I saw a bit of a Russian-made cowboys & Indians movie -- the Indians, portrayed by Russian actors, were as Caucasian as the cowboys. And they spoke Russian equally well (I guess). The hotel was unquestionably high-class, western, and not even that overpriced (at $200/night) compared to similar hotels in central cities around the world (probably cheaper than London, for example, and not much more than Los Angeles after you add in taxes, parking, and tips). Included were the standard little plastic things of soap, shampoo, toothbrush, Bic razor, and a well-stocked mini-bar (with a small boxed orange juice as expensive as a beer -- $3.50). The only notable non-western item was the toilet paper, which was sort of a thin, newsprint-like version of lunch bag material.

In the central Hyatt-like atrium (glass elevators, inside trees, etc.) was a huge pillar topped by a giant metallic golden rooster which crowed every hour, followed by giant metal dancers coming out of doors in the pillar to dance in celebration (yes, it was slightly gaudy, but these are characters out of Russian folklore and children's stories). For some reason I didn't suffer much jet lag going over; perhaps the fact that the sun set about 9:50 pm helped. Moscow is about at the latitude of Copenhagen, just a bit south of the latitude of Juneau, Alaska. The weather was nice, warm to hot (85) and breezy, warm nights, occasional showers.

The meeting I was in Moscow for was sponsored by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. More than 1000 scientists attended; about 350 or so were from the west. It was an interesting experience, and I got my name displayed a lot (chaired a session, gave two poster and one oral presentation), but it is pretty unlikely that I'll ever make as much money because I went, as it cost me to go. Still it was pretty fascinating to be in Moscow. The convention included a guided tour of the Kremlin, which is almost unbelievably ornate in its Greek Orthodox churches and cathedrals, as well as the (originally) defensive walls and towers. More recent (czarist) meeting halls are imposing too, though 19th century in style. After the tour, we had a general meeting in the Hall of Congresses, a 6000-seat auditorium (it's not the meeting hall of the Supreme Soviet, but close), followed by a reception upstairs with traditional Russian hors d'oeuvres and balalaika entertainment, then back to the auditorium for a command performance by the Kremlin Ballet Company (considered second in quality to the Bolshoi) of the ballet Ruslan and Lyudmila. While I'm not really into ballet, it was visually entertaining and mentally freaky to be watching ballet inside the Kremlin walls.

The hotel was about two blocks from the Russian White House, the parliament building that was defended last August and the site of Boris Yeltsin's speech from atop the tank. The three citizens who died last year were killed about mile from my hotel; there is a memorial there now, and lots of flowers are deposited daily. The street that is the main business axis of the west part of central Moscow, Kalinin Prospect, was named for the head of state of the USSR from 1924-46. Since last August, it has been renamed. A few (but noticeable, if you try to get around by using street names from old (1991) maps or subway station names) places have been renamed, especially the most hated (such as the founder of the KGB, who had a street and a subway station named for him -- they're different now). But there are still plenty of monuments to Lenin to be found, and he's still in his tomb.

Probably more exciting that the architectural masterpieces of the Kremlin was being in Red Square itself -- walking the length of the square (and it is both long and wide) in front of the reviewing stand behind Lenin's tomb, right where missiles used to parade, was quite an experience. St. Basil's Cathedral, at one end of the square, is the multi-domed church with the diverse onion-shaped towers that is always photographed. Inside there is no big open space, but rather a maze of passages connecting several small worshipping chambers. After that it was off to McDonalds. McDonalds was the best meal I had in Moscow, because I sort of lived off the munchies provided at the convention affairs -- I refused (except on Friday night, out to dinner with some Amoco friends) to spend $50 for lunch in the hard- currency cafes, and I didn't have the courage to try a Russian restaurant by myself. One evening I went to the grocery store in the Sovincenter complex, and got some cheese & bread and a soft drink called Chino. Whatever Chino is, don't ever get it - - tastes awful, and it must be based on prunes somehow, because it puts ex-lax to shame. The hotel cost included a self-serve breakfast which was OK, but included a lot more vegetables and fish than I'm accustomed to for breakfast.

The convention culminated with a tour and reception at the former palace of Catherine the Great, in the southeast part of the City. The place is in the process of being re-built, not from recent war damage, but to the original plans. Catherine had the place demolished after it was finished -- either she didn't like it or she was pissed at the architect or something, I didn't quite figure it out. Anyway it is a sort of rococo pink-brick-and-white-mortar complex of buildings, arches, bridges, towers, and what have you; it will be astonishing when complete. We were met by a military brass band, costumed dancers and singers, strolling musicians, and mounted horse men and women; after the food and drink, we wandered the palace grounds and bought souvenirs if desired, and then were sent off with a rather immense fireworks show.

At the meeting itself I met quite a few Russians who were interested in my stuff; the language barrier was sometimes insurmountable (it is a myth that everyone in Russia, or at least professionals like geologists, speaks English: some have none, and quite a few have less English than I have Russian) but usually some level of meaning got shared. I had to have 5 or six vodkas with the Russians in the booth adjoining my poster session; it was fun and friendly and they all gave me little gifts (I gave everyone in my session the pair of US stamps from 1975 commemorating the Apollo-Soyuz flight). The Russians in the meeting, and Russians in general, smoke cigarettes like there was no tomorrow -- I'd say 90% of the people smoke, and the smokers smoke 100% of the time. The only line I saw in the town was perhaps 50 people long -- at the tobacconists.

Souvenir hunting takes place on Arbat Street, a pedestrian mall about 1 miles long. It is lined with various shops, but the real entertainment is the little stands that fill the middle of the street. Probably the most popular items are the Nesting Dolls (either Russian leaders or traditional babushka type) with 5 to 15 or more painted figures inside the next larger one. Also lots of lacquer-ware boxes, chess sets, T-shirts of western things in Cyrillic (Pepsi, Hard Rock Cafe, etc.). Very popular among the Muscovites is anything western -- lots of American university T- shirts, as well as professional sport teams. Novy Arbat Street (formerly Kalinin Prospect) is sub-parallel to the souvenir kiosks of Arbat Street, and is more popular with the locals. Here you can buy everything imaginable, from food and drink (including live crawdads) to binoculars, pets, condoms, cameras, shoes, lace, books of all sorts, stamps, cigarettes ("original American quality"). You also saw a lot of people who were essentially selling their lives -- the war medals of the grandfather, the old dishes, even the new dishes. Everything is available in Moscow, but the prices (even when in rubles) are out of the reach of many. For example, a nice dress shirt in a shop window was for sale for 116 rubles -- under $1.00 at the exchange rate of the day, but as much as a weeks' pay for some.

The westernization extended to the radio; it was a bit bizarre (but commonplace) to get in a taxi with the radio blaring some BeeGees hit from the 1970s. The Russian TV had occasional rock videos, mostly of local talent, sometimes other European groups, sometimes in very western styles (Rap, heavy metal), but I didn't see any Guns'n Roses. The first time in McDonalds there was a protest march in progress, an anti-meat, pro-animal rights demonstration -- "Perestroika is for animals too" in Russian and English. There was more signage and labeling of things in English (on the street, not in the Hotel where English was universal and Russian virtually absent) than there was in New Delhi. I think they should just make the dollar the official currency and go from there.

In terms of logistics, everything on this trip was fine. There are more entry and exit formalities than in the US, but nothing was time-consuming. My baggage was x-rayed 3 times on exit -- they are pretty concerned about valuable stuff not being taken out. I had 379 rubles that I had been unable to change (banks closed) and I was sort of worried about it because it is still illegal to take rubles out of the country, but all I had to do was sign my name on the line where I declared the rubles. They were worth about $2.50. Flying to Moscow via Brussels was pleasant, because Brussels is a pretty small airport so there was minimal hassle. En route to Moscow, there seemed to be a fitting event: we flew directly over Berlin, and the cleared area that bounded the former Berlin Wall was clearly visible from 33,000 feet.

All in all it was a memorable experience.

1992 Richard I. Gibson
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Richard I. Gibson, Gibson Consulting - 301 North Crystal St. - Butte, Montana 59701 - Phone/Fax: 406-723-9639 - E-mail