Chita: Scenes from Lenin Street, 10 Years Later
For the past couple of days, David and I have been wandering along Lenin Street, Chita's main thoroughfare. In 1995, we did a whole story about the sights, sounds and smells of the street -- and ten years later, I'm finding that everything feels very familiar.
The pink granite Lenin statue still hails the rising sun each morning, and the old ladies still sell jars of berries and bunches of dill. There's still an intriguing mix of Siberian cottages, boxy government buildings and pre-Revolutionary mansions. But on closer inspection, a few subtle differences start to appear.
For one thing, there are more storefronts along the street, and the quality of goods they're selling seems higher. There are even a couple of new high-end arts and crafts stores, one of which sells fancy picnic baskets for the unheard-of sum of 4600 rubles -- about $165, what some Russians earn in a month. There are also numerous stores selling computer goods and several Internet cafes. Even the kiosks appear to be in better shape than they did a decade ago.
That said, Chita has not undergone the transformation that, say, Khabarovsk has. After we'd been to Vladivostok and Khabarovsk, I found myself thinking that Russia as a whole had changed far more than I'd expected. I couldn't believe how different people looked -- better dressed and healthier than in 1995. And most importantly, it felt like the air of pessimism -- or perhaps more correctly, fatalism -- that once seemed to permeate most Russian cities had lifted somewhat. Vladivostok and Khabarovsk hadn't suddenly become European cities, but there was something undeniably different about them.
Then, we got to Birobidzhan. Apart from its new municipal jewels -- the synagogue, the fountain in front of the Philharmonic, the renovated train station -- Birobidzhan felt very much like it did ten years ago. There's a heaviness there, something indefinable but undeniably present. We saw more people drunk in public, and more who appeared homeless, than we had in either of the other two cities. The air of newness and possibility that we'd felt in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk seemed absent there.
Chita seems to fall somewhere in the middle. Our host here, Pasha, told us that four years ago, "The mood of the people used to be: 'How can I get through this? What do I need to do to live?' People would get tired just thinking about things as simple as how to get food." But now, he says, "I've noticed that people's faces are brighter. Young people -- and people in general -- are lighter in spirit, because it's possible to relax more. You can see it in people's faces."
We've visited four cities, and so far the rule of thumb seems to be that the bigger ones have experienced greater change. Perhaps this is not surprising; in any country, the big cities will be the fastest to change. It will be interesting to see whether this trend plays out in the next seven cities.
In the meantime, on Lenin Street in Chita, the new rises next to the old. Next to the Soviet-era "Udokan" movie theater, with its abstract mosaics and hand-painted movie posters, is a bright new gardening store called "Seeds." Near the old women selling their produce, the "Solarium" tanning salon is opened for business. And looming over a small Siberian cottage housing a beer bar is a huge new building hosting a "luxe" dentist and the "Philosophy of Beauty" aesthetic center.
The one thing I miss from 1995 is the modest little outdoor café that served shashlik (shishkabob) and beer. It was there that we met Yura and Yura, two pensioners that gave us the most fascinating interview of the whole first trip. Though it's not really apropos to this Road Story, I wanted to end with it for posterity's sake, if only to relive the comments on Dean Rusk -- not your average topic of conversation with Russian pensioners.
Tomorrow, a surprise posting: You tell us where to go!
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