Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#3 - JRL 2006-13 - JRL Home
Context (Moscow Times)
January 13-20, 2006
The Circle of Time
A new book finds that 100 years ago, life in Moscow wasn't as different as you might think.
By Michele A. Berdy

For the curious reader of Russian, there is no dearth of books about Moscow, from reprints of Ivan Zabelin's classic 1904 study "The History of the City of Moscow" and Ivan Kondratyev's 1893 "Moscow of Old" to the tales of old Moscow by Vladimir Gilyarovsky, that most affectionate chronicler of Moscow's more sordid dens and their denizens. Or you can choose from a plethora of contemporary strolls about the city and into its past by journalists and historians -- not to mention hundreds of memoirs, historical monographs, collections of travelers' tales, photo albums and guidebooks. It would seem that there wasn't anything left to write.

And yet two historians and journalists, Vladimir Ruga and Andrei Kokorev, have produced a delightful new book that fills a niche we didn't even know was empty. "Everyday Moscow: Scenes of City Life From the Beginning of the 20th Century" is a literary time machine that catapults readers back to the Moscow of 100 years ago. It is filled with stories about the daily life of the city's rich, poor and middle classes, lavishly illustrated with drawings, paintings, photographs, advertisements, newspaper caricatures and ball and theater programs. In inviting prose with well-chosen quotes from a variety of sources, including hundreds of newspaper accounts, Ruga and Kokorev follow the seasons of the year, starting with the city's New Year's celebrations and ending with Christmas, then celebrated on Dec. 25, as Russia still followed the Julian calendar. On the way, they offer excursions into Moscow's bygone worlds of shopping, advertising, public and private transportation, law enforcement, housing and entertainment -- from the sublime (charity balls) to the ridiculous (lady wrestlers in the Hermitage Garden).

Of course, much of that Moscow is gone. A tram no longer crosses Red Square, with a stop in the center by the statue of Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky (now moved to a spot in front of St. Basil's Cathedral), and traders no longer put up booths on the square by the Kremlin walls on the Sunday before Easter. Horse-drawn double-decker trams with an open upper deck (called "imperials") are no longer tugged by nags up the steep slope of Rozhdestvensky Bulvar. The flea market of Sukharevka, where Prospekt Mira now begins on the Garden Ring, is long gone, as is the annual mushroom market that once stretched along the Moscow River embankment by the Great Stone Bridge -- where you could buy a pound of choice dried mushrooms for 40 kopeks. Petrovsky Park (near Dynamo metro station) is now a small sliver of the original sylvan park, where dandies swept out of coaches into restaurants to hear gypsy music all night and merchant families promenaded to show off their marriageable daughters all day. Gone is the citywide fair of Maslenitsa, or Shrovetide, and the crowds of simple churchgoers filling the cathedrals of the Kremlin on Easter night.

But gone, too, are the tenements and shanties that once filled with city with stench and disease -- and whose back lot privies produced, after dousing with lye, salable fertilizer. Gone is the mud that made crossing Teatralnaya Ploshchad impossible without the loss of a boot, as are the shops and booths selling game that once covered Okhotny Ryad -- and, with them, the bane of the traders' existence. Here Ruga and Kokorev quote Gilyarovsky: "No one keeps cats in Okhotny Ryad, because the rats here are bigger than cats and pay them no mind. ... They keep dogs instead: fox terriers and plain old mutts. Almost every booth has one or two of these canine rat catchers." Some of Moscow's past is definitely best gone and forgotten.

But as you read "Everyday Moscow," you see that much has remained the same. You get the feeling that if you could put a Muscovite of 1906 and a Muscovite of 2006 in the same room, you'd hear the same rants, the same complaints, the same litany of Moscow misery. A turn-of-the-century Moscow newspaper warned readers against buying fish from street vendors: "They sell spoiled goods; some of the fish may even be contaminated. But because they sell the fish for prices several kopeks cheaper, they do brisk business with the poor. Even Moscow's middle class buys from them."

Spoiled goods weren't the only consumer complaint. Ruga and Kokorev, who have an eye for Moscow's eternal irritations, list almost 20 methods of cheating customers at the produce scale, each with its own special name and technique, such as weighing the produce on thick paper, switching weights or holding down the scale with a finger. One trick, called "doing pyrotechnics," was a sleight of hand by which cheaper goods were exchanged for better ones behind the customer's back. Perhaps it's not called that these days, but who hasn't come home from the farmer's market with a paper sack of rotting tomatoes instead of the plump, blemish-free ones paid for?

And companies today might be using ads from the early 20th century as guides as they warn against fakes. "If you want to take home real Nizhenskaya Rowenberry Vodka," one ad reads, "Pay attention to the differences on the labels, not the similarities!"

Muscovites a century ago complained about the indecent foreign fashions women wore, such as jupes-culottes "straight from Paris" -- long, loose pants often covered by an overskirt, which were apparently so scandalous they stopped traffic. They moaned about the dangerous trams nicknamed "Moscow guillotines" for their sad propensity to slice off limbs as they roared through the city at the dizzying speed of 12.5 kilometers per hour. When cars appeared, they complained about the drivers and demanded that the authorities punish violators. How gratifying to know that the banker Ryabushinsky's driver spent two months under arrest in 1909 for "high speeds, the car's noise and backfiring." (Don't we wish some rich banker's driver would spend two months in the slammer for a car alarm that screamed all night long?) All the same, city residents complained about the indifferent police -- then called the politsiya -- and the police responded with their own complaints about low pay: "We guard your safety day and night. We're paid little for a difficult job, while life gets more expensive."

Muscovites complained about the impossibility of finding a decent apartment for a reasonable price, and the misery of slogging out through snowdrifts to see a summer dacha that turned out to be a shed unfit for habitation. And they complained vociferously about janitors who failed to keep streets clean during the winter. "There are hills of ice in the middle of the street, water is dripping everywhere, mostly from the roofs onto the heads of pedestrians. ... Even the newly constructed buildings have roofs that extend to the middle of the sidewalk. Water drips from above, while hillocks of ice underfoot make it impossible to walk down the street." And we thought this was a post-Soviet lament!

Despite its delights and fascination, "Everyday Moscow" is a bittersweet read. It's sad to read of traditions that are gone forever and holidays no longer celebrated, except as historical curiosities. It's disconcerting to realize that if the city authorities haven't figured out how to plow the streets in over 100 years, they aren't likely to figure it out this winter. But it is a delight to see photographs of familiar landmarks and read of the same post-Christmas sales (in the same stores, if now with different names). And it is certainly a delight to know that cat-sized rats no longer infest the city center and outdoor privies do not waft their scent over courtyards. In the end, there is an odd comfort in reading the same communal complaints about the city, to sense the continuity between pre-Soviet and post-Soviet Moscow. We may come and go, but Moscow -- with its impossible traffic, flashy entertainment and endless delights -- is eternal.

"Everyday Moscow: Scenes of City Life From the Beginning of the 20th Century" (Moskva Povsednevnaya: Ocherki Gorodskoi Zhizni Nachala XX Veka) is published by Olma-Press.