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.

Photo Gallery: Although a statue of Soviet leader V.I. Lenin still presides over Chita's main street, there have been some subtle changes to the life of the city. (David Hillegas)

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.

Photo Gallery: Lenin Street, Chita's main thoroughfare, is home to vendors, shops and kiosks that represent much of the city's life. (David Hillegas)

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!

By Lisa Dickey |  September 21, 2005; 12:17 PM ET
Previous: Chita: Fifteen More Minutes of Fame | Next: Tell Us Where to Go!


Please email us to report offensive comments.

I agree with Yura, Americans don't read enough Bret Harte.

Posted by: Rebecky | September 22, 2005 11:48 AM

From today's installment of the russian Road Show:

"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."

OK, so go ahead and end with that comment
about Dean Rusk. We're all dying to hear it.

Posted by: Dan Archer | September 22, 2005 12:56 PM

When we were in St. Petersburg in 1995 many businesses were poorly identified from the street - at least from the tourist point of view. It would seem this has changed, or is it my imagination.
We are continuing to enjoy each day's story and photos. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: SJ | September 22, 2005 03:37 PM

These stories are clearing out some cobwebs in my brain. My wife and I spent 1994 and 1995 in Moscow and St. Petersburg when I was on assignment there with a DC-based consulting firm. I most recently returned to Moscow this past March and found that although there have been many superficial changes (advertisements on the streets and the like) many things have remained the same. I went to visit the apartment building I rented those ten years ago just to take some photos and ran into and old Russian neighbor walking his dog outside of the building. He actually picked up on a conversation we last had in 1995. In a milisecond, it seemed that I was instantly transported back in time...all of the sounds, smells and cold associated with Moscow in March hit me at once.

Posted by: Goyo | September 22, 2005 04:51 PM

I traveled thru St. Pete and Moscow in 1996. Have
you encountered any of the wooden Russian dolls
yet ? I forget their proper name.


Posted by: bill simpson | September 23, 2005 07:17 AM

Dan - Click the link above for "Yura and Yura" to get the quote. And Bill, yes, we've seen the "matryoshka" dolls -- they're everywhere in this country! You can now get them with just about anyone portrayed -- basketball stars, the Simpsons, Harry Potter characters...

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | October 13, 2005 07:48 AM

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