I knew that I was going to be in for a few surprises when I returned to Moscow after more than twenty-five years absence. Way back then it was a part of the Soviet Union, the communists were in power, there was a shortage of everything from toilet paper to shoes and long queues stretched out along the pavement as soon as it was rumoured that a delivery of some sort of food was in the offing.
I won't bore you with the details of how it felt to be followed around by a Hollywood-designed trench-coated Russian KGB man, nor how if you approached a native Moscovite to ask directions they backed off in fear of their lives because they might be seen talking to a foreigner. But I will say that despite all the traumas and hardships to which the Russian people were subjected during that period, their humour seldom deserted them.
Humour was more often than not political and the jokes were told only with intimate friends for fear of any stray traitorous ears which, as we all know, led to the dreaded knock on the door in the middle of the night. Anti-Nomenklatura jokes were subversive and frowned upon.
One such story at that time was about Brezhnev who did not like the Russians laughing and telling jokes. He sent out a KGB man to bring him a typical Russian who laughed at subversive jokes so he could straighten him out. The man was taken to his dacha just outside Moscow.
“Nice place,” the man said to Brezhnev as he looked around at the luxurious furnishings. “One day, all this will be yours,” Brezhnev responded.
“Now that is funny,” the man said as he doubled up with laughter.
One of the biggest changes that I saw was that Moscow has become a sightseer's paradise. All the magnificent churches and buildings have been, or are being cleaned and restored to their former beauty, Red Square looks superb, the old and new circuses are as popular as ever, there is a proliferation of cars that now cause havoc during the rush hours and the supermarkets and shops are fully stocked with everything from toilet paper and shoes to food.
Jokes continue, but they are no longer uniquely political, and as written proof, here's the one that I was told at the Moscow Clock & Watch Salon.
Sergei Mikhailovich is struggling down the escalator at the Tsvetnoi Bulvard Metro station in Moscow with two very large and heavy suitcases when a man standing just behind him asks the time.
Sergei Mikhailovich sighs, puts down the suitcases and glances at his wrist.
“It's a quarter to six,” he says.
“Hey, that's a pretty fancy watch!” exclaims the stranger as they step off the escalator.
Sergei Mikhailovich brightens a little. “Da balshoe spasibo. It's not bad. Look at this,” he says and points to a time zone display that covers the 24 time zones as well as 50 major cities. He then presses another pushbutton and a voice says “Il est quatre heures moins quart à Paris,” with a perfect Parisian accent. Another pushbutton gave the time in Japanese.
The man is amazed by the features of the watch and stands with his mouth open in admiration. “That's not all,” adds Sergei Mikhailovich as he touches a section on the sapphire crystal and a tiny map of the Moscow Metro system appears on the display. “The flashing dot shows our location by Global Satellite Positioning.”
“You have to sell me the watch!” the man says eagerly.
“Oh, it's not for sale. This is only the prototype and I'm still perfecting it,” Sergei Mikhailovich explains. “Look at this,” and he plays the FM radio receiver, shows the sonar device for measuring distances, the paper printout of data and, astonishingly, how to play audio recordings of books.
“You have to sell me that watch!” the man pleads.
“No, I can't; it's not completely finished,” Sergei Mikhailovich tells him.
“I'll give you 50,000 roubles for it!”
“No, no, it cost me more than that to make.”
“100,000 roubles then!”
“I'm sorry, I can't it's only the prototype and ...”
“I'll give you 500,000 roubles for it!” And with that, the man takes out a wad of notes and peels of the amount. Since the prototype cost about 100,000 roubles to create and develop, Sergei Mikhailovich quickly calculates that with the 500,000 he can make two more and have them ready for the Russian market within just a few months.
The man offers the money to Sergei Mikhailovich. “Come on, take it. With 500,000 roubles you’re making a handsome profit.”
“Okay,” Sergei Mikhailovich pockets the money, takes the watch off his wrist and hands it to the man.
The man straps it on his wrist and starts to walk away,
“Just a minute,” Sergei Mikhailovich calls after him. The man turns around and Sergei Mikhailovich points to the two suitcases he was carrying.
“Don't forget the batteries.”
A Happy New Year to you all ... from Russia with love!