Coffee and Ideological Maxims in Moscow

Victor Pogostin

© Copyright 2021 by Victor Pogostin

Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash
                                   Photo by Rachel Lees on Unsplash

Coffee in Moscow may be as good as anywhere else, but did you ever try to buy it in the same bar of the same hotel, and yet in two different countries and even in different epochs? Well, I did. 

On the eve of the May Day--"International Day of Workerís Solidarity"--festivities I, like thousands of fellow Muscovites, was awakened by the bravura songs praising the symbiosis and the achievements of the proletariat, the working intelligentsia and the collective farmers and set out on what we called the "gastronomic adventure." This was a euphemism, not to be confused with consuming delicacies, for ransacking the city food stores in search of food. 

When the dusty sunset was closing in on the city, I felt exhausted. The day was nearing its end and so were Gorbachevís perestroika of the early 90s and the scarce supply of food in Moscow stores. Coffee was no exception. Having failed to buy it in the stores, I figured I could get it at a hotel bar. The "Intourist" hotel stood at the very mouth of Gorky Street, towering over the Kremlin and the city center like an obscene middle finger amidst the two- and three-storied 19th century dwellings housing an old "National" hotel on the one side and the Ermolova Theatre on the other. 

The communist maxim insisted: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." Well, I certainly had both, the need and the ability to enjoy a cup of strong coffee. The hotel bar was in the front lobby and, after passing through a close order of heavily built and slightly tipsy doorkeepers; I made my way to a high stool by the bar counter. While the bartender worked on the coffee machine, I lit my pipe and prepared to enjoy my espresso. It finally came, steaming and aromatic, in a delicate china cup. To save time on getting the bartenderís attention, I offered to pay for it right away.

"Dollar fifty," the bartender did not even look in my direction, consumed as he was by the other more prospective liquor-ordering customers.

"And in rubles?"

"We donít accept rubles here. Itís a hard-currency bar."

I turned around, for the first time paying attention to the visitors--a good sprinkling of hard-currency clients--and realized I was in a "foreignerís only" establishment. In the Soviet Union, there were plenty of the sort--bars, restaurants, supermarkets, even clothes stores restricted to the Russians and servicing the hard-currency tourists and a small diplomatic and western business community.

"How about fifteen rubles?" I tried. With the black market price at about six rubles for a dollar, I figured he wouldnít resist. But the spoiled brat was intent on teaching me a lesson.

"Dollar fifty." I bet I saw him grin.

"Well, then, take it back." And he did. The steaming, aromatic cup went straight into the barís sink. At least one of the communist maxims proved wrong.

Six years later my work assignment brought me to Moscow. This time, I was traveling with a Canadian passport. Change was in the air in Russia. True enough, the Soviet Union was dissolved, perestroika was long forgotten and the night news commentator was talking about war in Chechnya, investments in Moscow Realty and Mediterranean cruises and the Rotary Club in Russia.Even the "International Day of Workerís Solidarity" was now called the "Day of Celebration of Spring and Labor."

Change or no change, the "Inturist" was still there. Heavily built and heavily tipsy security guards now reinforced the slightly tipsy doorkeepers. I checked in on the night ending the "Spring and Labor" festivities. Out of my 20th floor window, the former Gorky Street now renamed Tverskaya, the restored "National" hotel now called Le Royal Meridien National, the Ermolova Theatre, the old Moscow University buildings and the Kremlin lay down below, with rainbow reflections from the huge neon ads splashed on the green roofs, wet from rain. 

I felt excited anticipating new encounters with the familiar yet changed places in my home city, but it was late and there were several family visits planned for me the next day. Having quenched my excitement with a triple scotch, I called for a 7 am wake-up call and coffee to the room, watched the news frequently interrupted by ads offering imported delicacies and even organic coffee, and went to bed.

A heavy knock on my door awakened me at about 7:30 am. Through a peephole I saw one of the security guards.

"What happened?" I asked in English.

"Time Sir," said my wake-up call and slowly walked back to the elevator. My coffee never came. Well, some 20 floors down there was the still-not-forgotten front lobby bar, and this time I was one of the privileged hard-currency holders.

The bar was there all right. I made my way to a high stool by the counter. While the bartender worked on the coffee machine, I lit my pipe and prepared to enjoy my espresso. It came, steaming and aromatic, in a plastic disposable cup. To save time on getting the bartenderís attention, I offered to pay for it right away.

 "How much?"

 "Hundred and fifty rubles."

 "And in dollars?"

  "No dollars here. Itís Moscow."

  "I know," I said. "I was born here."

  "We all were." I bet I saw him grin.

 I looked around. The scenery was the same, only the visitors different--a good sprinkling of new rich sipping morning Champagne, some with their pre-money wives, others with their post-money mistresses. Something did change after all and the bartender made an effort to be helpful.

"You can change your dollars in a bank. Itís just around the corner."

 "Can I bill it to my room?"

 "Sorry, it is "cash only" bar."

 "Take it back then." And he did.

The steaming, aromatic cup went straight into the barís sink.

 Well, this time a Rotarian maxim "Service Above Self--He Profits Most Who Serves Best" failed in the new Russia. 

 I heard recently, the "Intourist" hotel was pulled down. I may soon be back in Moscow and who knows what ideological maxim I might see fail this time. I have quite a few to test. After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Victor Pogostin was born in Moscow. He graduated from The School of Translators of the Moscow State Institute for Foreign Languages, worked as translator for the Soviet Trade Mission in India, taught Russian Language and Culture course at the Aligarh Muslim University, served in the Long Range Naval Reconnaissance Aviation of the Northern Fleet. After his return from military service defended his PhD dissertation on Ernest Hemingwayís Nonfiction. For many years he worked in the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences, while working as a freelance author/translator for national newspapers and literary magazines throughout the former Soviet Union. In addition to translating fiction and nonfiction into Russian, he has compiled, edited, and written introductions and commentaries for over a dozen books by North American authors, including the works of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. In 1993 he relocated to Canada with his wife and son. My non-fiction has appeared in The National Post (Canada), Canadian Literature magazine, Russian Life magazine (Vermont) and The Epoch Times (US & Canada editions), As You Were, the journal of Military Experience and the ArtsĒ (US)

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