Lucy Ash L reports on the changing face ofthe USSR.
A few hours before Matthias Rust made his famous landing. l was standing by the Kremlin wall eating an icecream. It was a sunny April day. everything seemed normal: the constant stream of brides laying their bouquets at the Eternal Flame of the Unknown Soldier: the patient queue waiting for a glimpse of Lenin‘s remains and the provincial shoppers hurrying home with bulging string bags.
By a masterly stroke of irony. the reckless German teenager in his tiny Cessna plane breezed into Moscow on Border Guards Day - the day which celebrates the Soviet Union‘s invincible frontiers. Irreverent Muscovites now call Red Square ‘Sheremetevo Terminal 3’.
As triumphant fireworks exploded in the night sky all over the capital and Rust was hauled off for questioning. the Western press corps buzzed with gossip and excitement. The next day. a UPI correspondent with whom I was staying. rang his contact at the Soviet news agency TASS hoping for an official statement. ‘(‘all back in a couple of hours.‘ said the Russian journalist. So he did— but this time the voice on the end of the phone was less helpful: ‘What plane'.’ I’m afraid I do not follow you — sorry.‘ So much for glasnost.
The words glasnost. perestroika and raschetnost (openness. restructuring and acCountability) appear with such monotonous regularity in newspapers that many Russians have long grown immune to them. Britain's young unemployed pay as much attention to Thatcher catchwords like 'Freedom of choice‘. ‘self-help' and ‘free enterprise.’
The limits ofglasnost are painfully clear with thousands still languishing in the camps. an undisclosed number of troops in Afghanistan. scanty coverage of the Chernobyl trial. a monolithic bureaucracy and the insidious power of the KGB. But there have been some encouraging signs.
The Soviet press remains fairly boring. but compared with the turgid columns I used to read in (‘hernenko's time. it scents pretty racy stuff. Nikolai Shmelev’s recent article in the journal Nor-y Mir. a blunt attack on Russia‘s economic ills and her ‘ideological virginity" caused a minor sensation. A lively debate on the official version of history which glosses over Stalin‘s worst crimes
is also in progress. But there are also more juicy corruption stories. more angry letters posing awkward questions and features on previously invisible problems like drug abuse. prostitution. vandals. and AIDS. or SPID as they call it.
One striking change is the gradual birth of street life. Dozens of brashly-coloured pavement cafes have sprune up. With their combination of sickly sweet coffee and hard~boiled eggs. they may lack Parisian elegance. but on Moscow's interminably long avenues. it‘s nice to find a place to sit down. I welcomed the portrait painters. breakdancers. skateboards and B rylcreemed quiffs on the pedestrianized Arbat.
The city is noticeably more fashion conscious and Western journalists rush about like crazed ornithologists eager to spot and label a new ‘youth cult‘. Hard-core punks are mainly found in
Leningrad but the odd pair in full bondage gear can be seen limping through Gorky Park. Heavy
4 The List 7 — 20 August
.etal fans or ‘Metalisti‘ are far more plentiful and so are the body-building Lyuberi who helped the police beat up Jewish refuseniks demonstrating on the Arbat. Named after a small town outside Moscow. the clean-shaven Lyuberi are intensely chavinistic— Russia‘s nearest equivalent to the National Front. Hippies. punks. Goths. and even tough Metalisti avoid them like the plague. because the Lyuberi despise all fads from the Wild West.
Paralytic drunks slumped on park benches have become a rarer sight. But few believe alcoholism. the country's worst social problem. is really on the decline. Gorbachev‘s move to restrict off-licence opening times has resulted in more wasted hours waiting in line. On buses and the metro stops are announced by loudspeaker and one joke goes: ‘This stop — wine store. Next stop — end of the queue.‘ Plenty of drinking goes on behind closed doors. A friend of mine suffered a terrible hangover after a long booze-up in the steam baths with a circus monkey trainer.
But in Moscow‘s one and only jazz club no alcohol is served — under strict order of the Konsomol. the organisation for ﬂedgling Party members. At the Blue Bird cafe in Chekov Street. jazz fans are treated to a glass of fruit juice with icecream ﬂoating on top and red caviar. Run by a feverishly energetic 26 year-old Armenian. the Blue Bird is one of the most exciting new places in Moscow. It is a relatively independent. so-called ‘self—financing' venue but is not allowed to charge enough to pay musicians. even the top-class ones. so everyone performs for free. Much to Vartan Tonoyan‘s regret. jazz nights are limited to Wednesdays. must end at 1 1pm and the place seats only 80 people. 'lt‘s so frustrating—l could fill this place every night of the week ten times over. Gorbachev‘s got the right idea — I like what he‘s trying to do but all these petty middle men keep getting in the way.‘
The Blue Bird provides a desperately-needed outlet for new talent and is a place where young musicians have a chance to play jam sessions with the experts. When I was there a 17 year-old Georgian boy managed to sweet-talk his way inside and stunned the club with his brilliant piano-playing. There were plenty of clubs in post-revolutionary Moscow but by the late Thirties most had closed and in the last years of the Stalin era. it was forbidden even to use the word ‘jazz‘ in print.
The arts have benefitted greatly from Gorbachev‘s reforms. Long-censored films and novels are now openly available. After years of dog-cared precious imported copies. Pasternak‘s Dr Zhivago is at last officially available. Paintings of the Twenties and Thirties. once branded decadent. are on display and avant-garde work is replacing heroic coalminers and portraits of smiling farm workers in contemporary exhibition halls. Walking into a show called ‘()bject' was like going back to the Sixties — surrealist sculptures and Dadaist jokes suggested older Moscow artists are making up for lost time. One bizarre exhibit charted the moulting of a cat‘s whiskers. another was a satirical figure of Moscow's notorious fortune-teller. Juno. complete with ﬂashing Christmas tree light eyes.
But the installations and mixed media work in another show. held in the foyer of a tower block. had a distinctly Eighties‘ feel. As you came in a 15 metre-long strip cartoon running from the ceiling down the wall and along the floor. presented an unorthodox history of art through the varying fortunes of Malevitch’s Black Square. There were also some lurid lilac. red and green punks drawn in the old Lubok folk art style. A punk dancing in a sea onyrillic script is now also a proud member of Soviet society: ‘()ur Punks Are
Tougher Than Tanks‘.
Above: The prestigious masthead ot Pravda—Organ otthe Central Committee of the KPSS (Communist Party otthe Soviet Union).
Right: Man on the underground in Mosiru'oretsky district. central Moscow.
The sketch was drawn by artist Tabitha Salmon during a visit to Russia last year. when she set off to capture the lives otordinary Russians on paper.
An exhibition oi workthat she did through this visit is being shown atthe
Netherbow Arts Centre. High Street (venue 30) duringthe Fringe.