An actor navigates new Russia

York documents his experiences in a changing country

Threading through towering, bumping thunderstorms, our plane heads over the Baltic in the direction that Napoleon, Hitler and so many other ambitious invaders had taken before. A welcoming, if watery, sun floods the scene as we disembark at Sheremetyevo, one of the five airports around Moscow.

An attractive, uniformed girl — a change from the suspicious military of the past — welcomes my wife Pat and I. Bags are retrieved and, once through customs, we are greeted by a longhaired young man, who introduces himself as Vlad. Bouquets are presented and we are ushered to a waiting group of journalists and photographers who explode into flashing action.

I make some platitudinous statement to the TV camera about the importance of co-productions in international understanding, and say how much I’m looking forward to getting to know the new Russia. Is this the first of my contractual interviews, I idly wonder?

There are definite changes to be seen. Recent construction is everywhere, and advertisements shout and blandish from all quarters. There seems to be a plethora of new malls, as well an an Ikea. It all looks brighter and more confident. The well-dressed crowds — there’s hardly a headscarf in sight — are enjoying their early August weekend.

As a banner on its facade proclaims, the National Hotel is celebrating its 100th birthday. Now taken over by the Meridien chain — a sign of the internationalism currently sweeping Russia — its young, efficient employees, speaking impeccable English, bustle and, yes, smile. What a world away from Soviet times when grim, ancient crones inhabited every hotel floor, scrutinizing each coming and going.

Depositing our bags, we go outside to maintain what has become a ritual on arriving in Moscow: a renewed visit to Krasnaya Ploshad, Red Square. Only a few paces from the hotel, the huge historic space is still exactly as depicted on the lacquer-work box, purchased on my very first visit to Moscow in 1973.

The only difference is that now the Romanoff double-eagle has replaced the steeple-topping red stars, and there’s been some rebuilding of structures torn down by the Communists to facilitate the entry of military parades, replete with huge ballistic missiles.

In particular, the beautifully restored Resurrection Gate now frames a grand entry to a square that today seems unusually empty. We discover that it has been cordoned off and partly closed — because of Chechen terrorism, a passer-by informs us. Lenin, that arch-terrorist, looks even more isolated in his lonely tomb.

In Old Russian, the word “red” also meant “beautiful” and Red Square fully lives up to this latter interpretation when we return for an evening stroll, enjoying on the way a string quartet and a singer performing sonorously in the underpass. Everything is remarkably clean with trucks regularly hosing down the streets. The weekend is a big time for marriages, the square a lucky place, and white-gowned brides haunt the scene like refugees from a Chagall painting.

There is one sad, sobering sight. The collapse of the Soviet Union’s social security system, under which pensioners were reasonably well off, has meant that many have had to swallow their dignity and come here to sell goods to enable them to survive on their now almost worthless pensions of around $50 a month, and even less in the provinces. Old ladies hawk cans of beer and cigarettes, finding ready takers.

Apparently the endemic alcohol problem has only worsened with the burgeoning prosperity that replaced the old fatalism. Russians are simply drinking more and dying at an even earlier age — on average at 59 instead of 61.

Just as Muscovites have been doing since the 18th century, we promenade along the tree-lined Tverskoy bulvar, passing elegant classic mansions, including the East-West Hotel where several of our crew are staying, and the ones now housing the Pushkin Drama Theater, with students learning lines outside. The vibrant colors of the renovated buildings are unexpected. I’ve seen several movies about Moscow that have been shot in Madrid, Prague, Toronto, Montreal — even Dundee — and they mostly get it wrong by playing up the gloomy granite rather than these airy, stucco fantasies.

The looming modern pile of the New Moscow Art Theatre, however, one of he city’s seventy-two theaters, is a rude intrusion into the prevailing classical sobriety. I was glad to learn that after an uneasy period of adjustment, unsubsidized theater is now booming, maintaining one of the great glories of Russian culture. Cuts in government funding, moreover, have meant less official interference in the arts. As in the west, this has led to a lively debate about how far private funding and market pressures should be allowed to erode the old classical repertory system.

Stopped on the street, we are invited by the proud owner to inspect his sumptuous new Italian restaurant full of gilded gondolas, grottos and damask drapes, with bathrooms like small renaissance chapels. Inside businessmen huddle over deals like consiglieri plotting vendettas.

We finish up outside another — the Cafe Pushkin where, on our last visit, we had the pleasure of dining on its superb Russian cuisine with the distinguished director, Nikita Mikalkov, and Vanessa Redgrave, both in town for the Moscow Film Festival.

Situated in four floors of a 19th century house, with waiters dressed in costume of that era, the restaurant has a menu written in Old Russian — but with distinctly modern prices.

Crossing the Pushkinskaya ploschad, or square, we turn and head towards the Kremlin, down the slope of Tverskaya ulitsa, the main road to the north. Passing the mayor’s imposing office as well as some busy stores and restaurants, we return to the National Hotel that has anchored the bottom right-hand corner of the street for the past turbulent century.

Extracted from “Are My Blinkers Showing?: Adventures in Filmmaking in the New Russia” by Michael York (Da Capo Press 2005)