Moscow's Expat Ironies

How does an expatriate view his native country after a near 30-year absence?

November 29, 2003

How does an expatriate view his native country after a near 30-year absence?

My apartment in the center of Moscow was literally surrounded by history. Outside my window was an austere-looking brown edifice.

It used to be the seat of Josef Stalin's General Staff headquarters during World War II.

From one of those offices, the Soviet leader directed the Soviet war effort against Germany. Stalin's suspicious nature and concern for personal safety bordered on paranoia.

There reportedly was a special tunnel dug under the city, so he could be driven here from his country villa outside Moscow.

Before I came, I read two best-selling books by British historian Anthony Beevor, Stalingrad and The Fall of Berlin.

After that, it was very tempting to try and figure out behind which of those windows historic military decisions were made.

Actually, my apartment building in Moscow is intimately linked to World War II. The building dates back from 1945 and has a decorative motif of red stars running along its façade.

It was built for Soviet rocket scientists — probably using the labor of German prisoners of war.

It was a common practice in the Soviet Union to use millions of Germans remaining in Soviet captivity — in the years after the war — to repair the damage caused by the German invasion.

After the war, Stalin promoted himself to Generalissimo — convinced that it was his own military genius that allowed the Soviet Union to prevail.

But he also had plenty to be grateful to his scientists and engineers for. The owner of my apartment was on the team that developed the famed "Katyusha" rocket.

The awe-struck Germans nicknamed it "Stalin's organs" because several launchers were mounted in line on the back of a truck.

The "Katyusha" was among the first Soviet weapons to be clearly superior to German armaments. It was also the world's first rocket-propelled missile.

Incidentally, many of those who designed the "Katyusha" were Jews — including the owner of my apartment.

After he first got a prestigious apartment as a reward for his services, my landlord was fired in the late 1940s — because he was a Jew.

At the time, Stalin's policies were turning increasingly anti-Semitic. My landlord was lucky to avoid a labor camp, but spent a few years working as an engineer at a candy factory.

The story comes full circle. I emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1974 — mainly to escape official widespread anti-Semitism.

Nearly three decades later, I returned to rent that apartment. The property was given by Stalin as a reward for services to the Communist cause.

Now, it affords his heirs a life of property-owners. They, in turn, rent it at a steep mark-up to a "capitalist." Speaking of a mark-up, the apartment was truly nice and stuffed with antique furniture.

There was an upright French piano with candelabra — and a bookcase with legs in the form of dragon claws.

It was rather cheap by New York standards. But all of my Moscow friends thought I was nuts to pay such an astronomical rent.

My Moscow friends were in awe of what they viewed as my astounding wealth. It felt nice to be considered rich.

But at the same time, this material difference may have been the only instance where I still glimpsed remnants of the extraordinary respect accorded Westerners in the Soviet Union. Soviet propaganda tirelessly abused capitalism —especially to the United States.

No wonder private Soviet citizens, locked as they were behind the Iron Curtain, felt an almost supernatural respect for Westerners, especially Americans.

In post-communist Russia today, there is almost none of that respect left. I cannot say I was treated the same as a Russian citizen. This is what I found out when I went to register at my local police station.

Dozens of documents were still required, in triplicate, for even the simplest transaction.

For all the post-Soviet reforms, Russia remains tremendously bureaucratic. And yet, the cops were overjoyed to see me.

The cause of their delight soon became clear. They were hoping to shake me down for a fat bribe.

Some of the disgruntled old-timers said they wouldn't have dared — had Stalin been alive today. But, like it or not, a U.S. $100 bill slipped to a sleazy police official is a small price to pay to get speedy service.