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April 28, 1999
Tverskaya Street is Moscow's thoroughfare of glitz and glamour. Along Tverskaya, whose eight lanes begin near Red Square, stand the new Marriott and Sheraton Hotels, the mayor's office, the Versace store and the Sandra Star Boutique, and some of the priciest apartment buildings in Russia. With all that glitters along Tverskaya appearing to be gold, many Russians have rushed to dub it Moscow's "Broadway," probably intending to emphasize qualities more characteristic of New York's Madison and Fifth Avenues.
One recent evening I set out on Tverskaya Street for a stroll from Byelorussia Station down to Red Square. The wedding-cake skyscrapers of the Stalin era jut, halogen-lit, into a sky purpling with the onset of dusk. Poplar-seed puffs drift through the balmy air; near to the ground they are stirred into eddies by the passage of Mercedes and Volvos and chugging Volgas.
I step inside a gleaming glass kiosk to buy a soft drink and am met by four flak-jacketed officers of the Tax Inspectorate. They tell the proprietor that I am to be the last customer; they order him to ready his business permit and tax documents. He rushes to comply. The officers nod curtly to me as I leave, then they slam the door. I look back: they are shoving the proprietor up against his Snickers display and candy bars are raining down on him from jiggling shelves.
I walk on, entering Mayakovsky Square with its stark bronze statue of the poet. Two militiamen approach me in its shadow. They wear bullet-proof vests; their automatic rifles swing from their shoulders. They salute. "Vashy dokumenty, pozhaluysta." ("Your documents, please.") I produce my passport -- they examine it and wave me on. The militia is always combing Tverskaya for non-Muscovite Russians in town without the right papers, whom they can either arrest or shake down for twenty-dollar bribes.
I pass the Marriott. A pair of privates, their faces peach-fuzzed and pleading, are coming my way. "Uncle," they ask me, "can you spare a cigarette?" I tell them I don't smoke. They are making rounds collecting cigarettes for their senior officers, as is the custom in the Russian army. The next man they stop gives them each a Marlboro.
Near Pushkin Square ahead there are more militia patrols, and there are street cafés where thugs sit, smoke, guzzle beer, and swear mafia slang. Next to the Pushkin statue, young men wait for their dates, holding single, plastic-wrapped roses.
It is dark now. Neon and halogen building lights flick on and wash over Tverskaya in radiant, blue-green-white waves. I descend into an underpass, stepping by a peroxide-blonde young woman peering nervously at the street from around a corner. The underpass is lined with fortune-telling babushki and their flickering candles, scruffy artists who will sketch your portrait for a few rubles, and, most strikingly, a crowd of girls in platform heels, polyester miniskirts, and gauze blouses -- a buzzing assembly of teens numbering two hundred or more in this spot alone. They are prostitutes, girls from the hardscrabble provinces who have come to sell sex in the moneyed capital. Lookouts guard the underpass stairwells and warn of approaching militiamen; they also direct seekers of love to godzilla pimps who set prices, collect the cash, and dole out the women.
I emerge from the underpass. From there I hope to see the Kremlin but instead find still another crowd of hookers filling the sidewalk. As I move along I end up rubbing shoulders with them and their pimps; I look down to avoid eye contact; I see leggings and square-toed Gucci loafers and emerald-painted toenails; I am lost in wafts of cheap perfume and Gaultier cologne and sweat.
There is a piercing whistle of warning -- a lookout must have sighted the militia. A stampede begins, a lusterless rush of hundreds of miniskirts and platform heels into the underpasses and alleys off Tverskaya. Suddenly, with the crowd gone, a vista opens up before me: the Kremlin with its brick walls, crenellated and floodlit and medieval, and beyond, the gilded cupolas of its grand cathedrals, the most spectacular sight in the land.
A few minutes later, the girls filter back out onto Tverskaya for business as usual, and I start my walk home.
Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow, and is the author of Siberian Dawn (1999). He contributes regularly to The Atlantic Monthly and files frequent dispatches for Atlantic Abroad.
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