Much of Muscovites’ time went into trying to guess where to get what they wanted or needed.
For vodka, it was often restaurants because they still received supplies. I did best at the Rossiya Hotel, a huge, ghastly 1970s cube n
eighboring the Kremlin. Approaching the kitchen’s back
entrance, which faced the Moscow River and where one or more waiters were invariably
loitering, dragging on cigarettes, you’d ask how much they would be willing to sell, then haggle
over the price. A bottle cost roughly the equivalent of a dollar in rubles, several times more expensive than the official price.
, or wheat vodka, was among the smoothest to be
had, and you could often get several bottles. If a restaurant failed, you’d try another or a store’s
back entrance. Foreigners had the option of frequenting one of a handful of seedy hard-currency bars, most of which were in hotels from which ordinary Soviets were barred. Burly KGB bouncers stood at the doors, stopping any locals bold enough to attempt to enter. Russians told me they could
differentiate by looking at people’s eyes: those of foreigners weren’t dulled by weariness and
resignation. Among the most popular haunts was the smoky bar in the basement of the 1970s Intourist Hotel near the Kremlin, now the site of the Ritz-Carlton. There, Western would-be entrepreneurs seeking business deals mingled with shady criminal types, prostitutes and foreign
students. It wasn’t a place where you’d want to spend much time, but you could b
uy as many big cans of Lowenbrau beer as you wanted if you could pay for them in dollars. And some foreign embassies gave weekly parties. One of the most popular was held at the German embassy, where most foreign passports got you in and beers cost two dollars. Arriving in Moscow had transformed me from an impoverished college student into royalty. In addition to the relative wealth my few dollars conferred on me, stories of my life in the land of freedom and plenty made me interesting to Russians no matter how boring I actually was. Utterly cynical about their government and society and no longer afraid of punishment by the authorities, the young people I met were keen to snap up any bit of knowledge I could offer about the West. The collapse of the Soviet
system’s mores and strictures, which took place far
more quickly than most people realized at the time, gave them a great sense of personal liberty. Free time was spent foraging for food and drink to serve at parties, which were usually held in the apartments of parents summering at their dachas. Their crumbling world made life a great adventure. Outside Moscow, alcohol was even harder to come by. Visiting nearby Zagorsk, the site of one
of Russia’s four most important monasteries, I spent a day exploring
the beautiful town before spotting a state restaurant that was miraculously open. I was with my friend Kolya
television correspondent with whom I’d soon travel to Vilnius—
who persuaded a dark-haired waitress to seat us, which she did grudgingly, although we were the only patrons. Then she disappeared, leaving us to pore over a menu filled with a long list of the usual dishes: beef entrecote,
. Having made our choices, we waited ravenously for the waitress
in vain. After some time, it emerged that she and the rest of the staff were busy carting crates of beer from the kitchen to a van outside. Finally persuaded to approach our table, she patiently listened to our orders before sternly informing us that all the men
u’s dishes were
unavailable. What about starters? we asked hopefully. Those too. Okay, what about two beers? Now irritation blazed from her eyes. There was no beer.