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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

The Way It Was

Marc Barrie (in Moscow)

first arrived in Russia in 1989. Prior to that I had lived here on and off from 1979 to 1981, when my father was a military attache with the US Embassy.

He retired from the Army in the mid- 80s and came back in 1988 to open the AlphaGraphics franchise on Gorky/Tverskaya St.

By the time I arrived, he had moved on to work with a company called Satra, which amongst other things was the exclusive exporter of Lada brand cars to the West. He eventually was in charge of a division called Satra Aerospace which worked in the Soviet/Russian aviation industry, and specifically with a sports plane they called the Sukhoi 26, which was considered to be the best aerobatic plane in the world at that time.

We lived in an apartment on Mal. Nikitskaya (ul. Kachalova at the time) that belonged to some Soviet folk singers that my father knew through some friends. I drove a series of Zhiguli cars and then Volgas that I rented from a cooperative venture based in the Moscow hotel for $4 a day including insurance.

One of the clearest memories of that time when I first arrived was attending the November 7th parade on Red Square. Dad got us passes for the bleachers dead centre on the square in front of GUM, and I remember us having to clear at least seven police checkpoints to get that far. That may have been the last time that all those tanks, rockets, etc. were part of the event.

We had an associate membership at the US Embassy AECA, and ate breakfast there most Saturdays. For the most part I didn’t hang out too much with the ex-pat community at that time, preferring a group of Russian friends who spoke practically no English— thereby giving me a crash course in Russian. At the time there wasn’t anything (officially) open at night except for a few hotel bars such as the infamous “Snake Pit” Heineken bar in the basement of the Intourist (now replaced by the Ritz) hotel on Tverskaya. What ex-pats did for fun was the embassy bar circuit.

Tuesday night was the German Embassy club and when the bar closed a group would end up in the kitchen drinking with the Embassy guards. I remember later printing some “Kitchen Party” T-shirts for them. Wednesday and Saturday were at the British club on Kutuzovksy, Friday was the best of all with the Canadian, Australian, and US Embassy bars open, and finally the New Zealand Kiwi club on Sunday night.

All of these places simply required a Western passport, but the US embassy required that you be escorted in by a US citizen, and later by someone who actually worked there such as the marines. This resulted in folks who wanted to get in trying to find Americans at the other clubs to follow over, or usually just hanging out at the security hut at the Embassy while the marines made trips back and forth from the bar to escort people in. Every now and then entire crews of stewardesses from Pan Am would arrive.

Traffic was non-existent. Late at night you would see maybe one or two cars on the Garden Ring. The main reason, other than the fact that very few people owned a car, was that there was nothing open at night to drive to. In 1990 there was a cooperative state store opened near Taganka that sold simple stuff like bread, eggs, meat and some snacks at night. If you ran out of alcohol there was one place to go however: taxi parks. The one we usually went to was located under the bridge near the white house. You would pull up, get someone’s attention, and they would open up the trunk of a taxi to reveal cases of vodka, cognac, and champagne. Of course they never had all three but always something or other.

Buying gas was a real problem due to shortages. Lines at gas stations were several hours long during the day, and maybe an hour long in the middle of the night. I used to go late at night and fill up jerry-cans which were then stored on the balcony. Once in a while I would get some diplomatic gas coupons which could be redeemed at special gas stations. The only problem with that was not having a diplomatic or foreign plated car to pump the gas into. This wasn’t a difficulty when driving my dad’s company Mercedes, but a bit more of a problem with my Russian Zhiguli rental car. In the latter case I would park a couple blocks away and show up with a jerry-can saying the car ran out down the street.

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