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David Carlson's Virtual World

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    Story and photos by David Carlson
© Copyright 1995 - All rights reserved
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8 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 22, 1995

There are soldiers in the lobby.

It’s nothing to be alarmed about. Really. It’s just another odd thing about Russia, and it shows not everything has changed.

When checking in to a hotel, you don’t get a key. Instead, it’s a cardboard pass, one color for Russians, another color for foreigners. This card is required to go inside the hotel beyond the outer lobby. In some places, you need one to get in the door. The soldiers check the cards. They’re there all hours, and always they inspect the cards. Sometimes, only sometimes, they check baggage and briefcases as well.

St. Basil's in Red Square
St. Basil’s Cathedral, occupying one end of Red Square, is one of the most famous landmarks in all of Russia. Each spire is topped with a gilded cross that faces east.

Once past the soldiers at the Mir (Mir is Russian for “peace”), there are three minuscule elevators, the kind that are common in Russia’s large cities. They are only about three by four feet, so it’s a squeeze for three people, one with baggage.

The elevator creaks and groans its way slowly upward. Then, when off, you can get the key. If you’re a foreigner, you get it from the keeper of the keys, the “Key Lady.” She’s always there, 24 hours a day. She’s usually older, matronly and wearing no makeup, what Americans would picture as a Soviet-style woman. The Key Lady sits at a desk commanding a view of the entire hallway. She looks at the card, opens a drawer and hands over the key. Sometimes, only sometimes, she smiles.

I’m not sure where Russian guests get their keys. They stay on separate floors, segregated from foreigners. Their floors, I learn, don’t have Key Ladies, but they, too, must have a card to pass through the Mir.

It’s creepy. Soldiers. Key Ladies. Hotel passes. What a country! Imagine what it was like to visit the Soviet Union before Perestroika.

As soon as you’re out of sight, I figure the Key Lady writes down the time. I’ve never seen it, but I just know they do. Why else would they be there? Who do you suppose gets the report?

I guess it’s a system that goes back to the Soviet era. Full employment, you know. Everyone had to have a job, and, after all, it was a great idea to know exactly where all the foreigners were, and when. It’s no stretch to figure the Key Ladies reported to the KGB. No stretch at all.

10:30 a.m., Sunday, Oct. 22, 1995

On the outskirts of Moscow lies Ismaelovo Park. Built for the no-show 1980 Olympics, it once housed sculptured athletic fields intended for the earth’s finest athletes; it’s now a vast, muddy, flea market that attracts virtually every Western visitor who passes through town.

Although it is bone-chillingly cold and snow flurries are waltzing on a dagger of a wind, the market is a hubbub of activity. Admission is 1500 rubles, roughly 30 cents. Inside the gates are hundreds of ramshackle booths manned and womaned by entrepreneurs who call to passers-by in their best, broken English.

Ismaelovo and other favored-by-the-West attractions are places where Russian arts and crafts still are celebrated. There are matrioschi, the famous, wooden dolls which nest inside one another. They’re still displayed in the traditional designs — little, kerchief-clad girls with rosy cheeks, and whole families from Grandpa to papoose, each generation just small enough to fit inside its predecessor. But right alongside are designs targeting Americans. There’s the Olympic “Dream Team” with Michael, Magic and all the rest. There’s the Seattle Supersonics, a set of six including the coach. The best is the complete set of Russian leaders, 10 in all, from Yeltsin to Ivan the Terrible. Cost? Twelve bucks.

Other booths feature hand-painted lacquer boxes, beautiful, blue-and-white porcelain dinnerware, earrings, jewelry, watches, and tons of Soviet-era memorabilia — military uniforms, belts, hats, medals and coins.

Given the freezing temperatures, today’s hot sellers are the traditional Russian hats called “ooshankah,” which means “hat with ears.” They’re available in every material from wool and rabbit to muskrat and mink.

One of my companions, a New Yorker, buys a mink one for $80. He figures he’s pretty slick, whispering that he saw one last week at Nieman Marcus for more than $300. His transaction takes about 15 minutes as two Russian salesmen pull out ooshankah after ooshankah, fluffing the fur like showmen, placing each on the guy’s head with a flourish until he makes up his mind. Then, there’s four or five minutes of haggling to seal the deal. I hang back as he walks away.

"These Americans. I love," one salesman says to the other gleefully. Still fingering the four new twenties, he offers me the same hat for $60. Then, he shrugs. I never tell the New Yorker.

As I retreat to the exit, the various vendors continue their assault.

"Please, mister," says one. "Window 95. CD-ROM. Fifteen dollar."

I walk over. A single CD, pirated no doubt, contains Windows95, Microsoft Office Professional 95 and the latest version of Corel Draw, a high-tech graphics program. U.S. value? More than $600. As I walk away, the price comes down, eventually to $7. I shake my head no. "Amazing country," I think to myself. "Too bad I’m not Bill Gates’ lawyer."

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