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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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1 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 22, 1995

It’s lunch time at Patio Pizza.

From the looks of the crowd, standing six deep to wait for a table, this is one of Moscow’s hip places. It’s a pair of good-sized rooms with high ceilings, ceramic tile floors and a stout, wooden bar. The room in back gives the place its name. It’s the "patio," covered in glass, which slants from the front room’s high ceiling to the windows at back, just like the atrium at a stateside Wendy’s. This is about as close as you get to outdoor dining in Moscow, given its geographical situation, which is almost sub-arctic.

Street vendors in Red Square
Street vendors in Red Square hawk snapshots and film to Russians and tourists alike. At left is Gum, the famous department store that once supplied the Soviet upper class. It’s now packed with small shops that cater to the entrepreneurs of the new Russia.

The tables are close. When seated, it’s a strain to eat without bumping your neighbor, and interesting neighbors they are. If Russia has haves and have-nots, these are the haves.

One look at them — and the menu — tells you that. In a city where pay averages about $3,600 a year, Patio Pizza gets $6 for a shot of vodka and $17 for an upscale pizza pie, a 12-incher at that. And there’s nary a tablecloth in sight.

Our driver, a 30-ish fellow, is not at home here. He hadn’t wanted to come in, but our group enticed him by offering to buy his lunch. His order happens to come first, and he’s apparently never had pizza before. He eats it with a knife and fork, first the toppings and then the crust.

Two tables over is a trio of young Russians, two men and a blonde woman, early twenties by the look of them. One of the men, decked out in a black leather sport coat, is working a cellular phone, constantly. It rings. He answers, talks for a good 10 minutes and then makes another call. When he hangs up, it rings again. This continues for the entire 90 minutes we’re in the restaurant.

"Mafia," says one of my Russian friends. "The only Russians who can afford cellular phones are the mafia."

The mafia, he explains, is the biggest concern of everyone Russian. It’s everywhere, ubiquitous.

But it’s not like The Godfather or the Gambino family. The Russian mafia is more like disorganized organized crime. It’s lots of smaller groups that control villages or city blocks or some particular commodity. I guess it’s more like American street gangs than Al Capone owning Chicago.

That doesn’t make it any less serious, though.

Fifteen months ago, the mafia was on the mind of every Russian I talked with. They felt it truly possible the thugs would take over completely. Those making a good living in the newly capitalistic society took great pains to hide that fact. They knew the mafia would want a cut.

It’s not so bad now. Either that or the Russians are so used to it that they’ve almost come to accept it. Most say the mafia still is a major factor — perhaps the biggest factor — affecting the success of a capitalistic Russia, but they don’t expect it to overthrow the government. Right now, they’re more worried about whether Communists will win the next parliamentary elections.

Even so, a Russian tells me: "Biggest fear for me is that while driving around in my rusty, old, Russian car, I smack in to black BMW. Then, some Russian guy will jump out with cellular phone, and I’ll be good as dead."

I tell him that American auto parts stores and toy shops sell fake cell phones. He asks me to send him one. "If I have cellular phone, too, guy in BMW will think I’m in some other mafia. They’ll leave me alone to avoid starting a war."

Then, he shrugs.

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