Orlando Figes

When I returned to Moscow last June, it was clear from the start that the atmosphere of the place had changed considerably since my previous visit in the winter of 1985. Even the customs officials at Sheremetevo Airport behaved differently. The enormous influx of tourists since Gorbachev came to power must have softened their attitude, for they were no longer interested in the old ritual of spilling out the contents of my bags, and trying without any knowledge of English to tell which of my bedtime novels could be deemed ‘anti-Soviet’. They simply pointed to the bag filled with books (‘any porno-journals?’), and waved me on with a smile. I remember wondering whether this meant that the pornographic treatment of women – and Western women at that – was now considered more harmful than defamation of the Soviet Government, or whether the customs officials had merely become black-marketeers in girlie magazines and videos. Six months and three trips to Moscow later, I am still not sure of the answer.

On Pushkin Square the new atmosphere was very obvious. It is here, next to the Moscow News building – Moscow News is the country’s most sought-after radical newspaper – that people come after work to talk politics in the gruppirovki. It is, in effect, the Muscovites’ Speakers’ Corner. Most are passers-by curious to hear what others have to say. But there are also representatives from Armenia, the Baltic, the unofficial political clubs in Moscow, and the KGB. It is not hard to start up an argument, especially on one of the regular topics – the nationalities question or political democratisation – provided you have a loud voice and are prepared to make some controversial claims. There is a large element of street theatre in all this – people arguing for the sake of argument, rediscovering the joy of self-expression after years of self-repression.

I went for the first time just before the Party Conference in July. At six o’clock, the square was already packed with people. In one of the largest groups, an impressive young woman of about thirty was holding forth on the ills of the one-party system and its inability to reform. She claimed that Stalinism was an unavoidable consequence of the October Revolution. A man standing next to me, who must have been about her age during the reforms of the Sixties, tried to find out which of the political parties that existed in 1917 people would now support: the Kadets, the Socialist Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks, or the Bolsheviks. Few seemed to know the difference: ‘We don’t know our own history,’ a young man called out. Some repeated an argument they had probably rote-learned at school, or heard on television, that in the West power is shared out among the political parties in the corridors of parliament. A little stout man of about forty, who was probably from the KGB, kept insisting that the reforms should be carried out by those who knew best – namely, the Government: the system could be opened a little, but a multi-party democracy was equivalent to anarchy. I fear this began to sway the silent majority when a few moments later four hippies broke into the group, calling on people to join the Party of Free Sex and Rock-and-Roll.

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