View: Memories of a trip to Moscow dialectically dematerialized can bring a smiley in these times of Hot War

It was 1993. The Soviet Union was dialectically dematerialized, Yeltsin was in the Kremlin, and all was well in the post-Cold War world. Or so my wife Bunny and I thought. We decided to embark on a “special excursion operation” as tourists to the land of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky, where taxi drivers sang “Awara hoon!”

In our limited information, Russia was an open book. And when we got to Moscow, we found it was an open book, but its pages were blank, or had Cyrillic script that we couldn’t read. Thanks to the hospitality of an Indian contact, we were accommodated for free in a guest house located in a high-rise building in the suburbs of Krylatskoye. How to get there – where was where? – to Red Square, to the multicolored bulbs of Saint-Basile’s Cathedral, to Lenin’s mausoleum? This too was an enigma, shrouded in mystery, inside an enigma.

At the nearby metro station, a gang of touts were selling cards for 4,000 rubles (about 30 paise) a pop. But the cards were also in Cyrillic. Our host had arranged a car and driver – a 64-year-old unreconstructed Stalinist named Yuri who spoke no English and whose favorite word was “Nyet!” driving an old Lada.

For $30 a day – a princely sum in rubles – Yuri drove us, along with an 18-year-old art student, Palina, aboard a shotgun and as a performer, largely to hone her skills in conversational English. We drove to Red Square, gazed at its vastness, a frozen sea of ​​black stone, snapped snapshots of the onion domes huddled in a confabulation of turbans, stood in line to view the mortal remains of Pharaoh Lenin.

It was lunch time. This was passed to Yuri via Palina. I spotted what looked like a bar. “Pivo,” I said, Russian for beer, pointing. “Niet,” Yuri said, and continued on his way. He took us to a restaurant that accepted American Express in three languages. The cheapest item on the menu was a soup for $7. On the way back to our apartment, Yuri led us to a Finnish supermarket selling Dutch cheese, American cigarettes, Swiss chocolates. All payments in US dollars. “I want Ruski’s stuff for Ruski’s rubles,” I said. Palina and Yuri had a brief powwow. “Ruski’s things aren’t good for you,” Paulina said. ‘You buy here.’

For a small packet of charcuterie, a crusty bread, cheese, and a bottle of the cheapest plonk I could find, I paid 18.75¢, almost the equivalent of a school teacher’s monthly salary. Russian. Could we afford such forced expenses? To borrow Yuri’s favorite word, “Nyet!” »

On the way back, Bunny looked carefully at the signs and billboards. “Take your notebook and write,” she said. I did as instructed. Bunny, having recognized the Pepsi logo, deciphered the Cyrillic characters for P, E, S, and I. I noted their Cyrillic forms.

Bunny spotted several establishments where people ate and drank that had what sounded like PECTOPAH in their names. She deduced, correctly, that PECTOPAH was “restoran” – closer to the original French word for restaurant – in Cyrillic. Now, added to Pepsi’s P, E, S, and I, we had Cyrillic for R, T, O, A, and N. Using this alphabet matrix, Bunny deciphered the 33 letters of the Cyrillic alphabet.

The next day we paid Yuri his $30 and said ‘Spasiba’ and ‘Do svidaniya’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘Goodbye’ to him and Palina. And explore Moscow on your own, with our 4,000 ruble metro map. And, yes, we saw Swan Lake at the Bolshoi. It was glasnost, perestroika and Gorby’s unofficial birthday rolled into one. All thanks to Bunny who cracked the Pepsi code.

Although the two use different versions of the Cyrillic script, Ukrainian and Russian are very different languages. I wonder if the cunning Ukrainians deliberately misspelled the road signs to thwart the invasion launched by a new Vladimir. And what better way to compound the semantic confusion than by spelling the Pepsi logo as COKE?

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