Appearances, as we all know (or should know), are often deceptive, just as one’s memory is often fallible and by no means a sure guide as to what one has really and truly observed.  It may be that I was not sufficiently observant when I first visited Moscow in the summer of 2003.  I must confess, however, that what most amazed me when I returned to the Russian capital two years later was to find its most famous avenue, the Tverskaya Ulitsa, visually transformed by dozens of advertising streamers strung high above the broad sidewalks and the teeming car-crammed thoroughfare below.

The Tverskaya Ulitsa—so named centuries ago because it was the broad “street” that led in a northwesterly direction from the redbrick walls of the Kremlin up a gradual incline and onward across the plains and rolling hills to the town of Tver, some 70 kilometers distant—has long enjoyed a reputation comparable to that of the Champs-Elysées in Paris or of New York’s Fifth Avenue.  It resembles neither, being fronted for the most part by huge stone buildings resting on massive dark-gray granite foundations, many of which to this day are adorned by metal plaques reminding pedestrians that, in this or that imposing edifice, there once lived (and often died) a duly rewarded “hero of socialistic labor.”  But truly to appreciate the outlandishly capitalistic transformation that the Tverskaya Ulitsa has now undergone, one would have to imagine Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, not temporarily festooned with overhead streamers honoring Saint Patrick or some triumphant American general (now a very rare species) returning from the wars, but permanently crisscrossed with broad overhead advertisements.

These extraordinary displays, I noted, sang the praises of, among others, such fashion heavyweights as Sonia Rykiel and Hugo Boss; encouraged gamblers to scoop up $100,000 by betting on the Paris-Dakar across-the-Sahara automobile race (not actually scheduled to begin until three months later, in December!); recommended BusinessWeek (white letters against red) as being “the most read business journal in the world,” now available in a Russian-language edition; vaunted the green-streamer virtues of a soon-to-be-opened “Acme of Taste” supermarket and, a little farther on, a lavish “Exhibition of Furs,” presently embellishing the pedestrian walkway of the Novy Arbat.  And so on.

Most of these overhead streamers make an appearance for a few days, being promptly replaced by others advertising some new sale or notable commercial event—each enterprise almost certainly having to pay through the nose for each day of public display.  But I could not help noticing one permanent feature: There was not a tall lamppost on both sides of the lower and more elegant stretch of the Tverskaya Ulitsa that was not adorned by a small but compelling poster urging pedestrians to invest in Samsung cell phones.  When I commented on this phenomenon to a Muscovite friend, he said, “The reason why almost everyone here now owns a mobile telephone is simply because the regular telephone circuits in Russia are so lamentably backward and out of date.”

Just how much the famous Korean manufacturer had to shell out to acquire this monopoly-display privilege on the lampposts of the Tverskaya—after having scored an initial publicity triumph by having a huge SAMSUNG sign hoisted over the flat rooftop of the Lenin Library—is, of course, a closely guarded secret.  But it is one of the many ways in which the present, unquestionably dynamic mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, has been able to enrich himself and his friends.  These include his no-less-formidable wife, Yelena Baturina, herself a bustling tycoon who happens to be one of Moscow’s 33 billionaires.  (When a wildly imprudent American journalist named Paul Klebnikov let this and other black cats out of his bulging bag by having the complete list of these billionaires published in Forbes, the inevitable comeuppance was not long in coming.  In July 2004, he was shot to death as he was walking to his office by a gunman firing through the open window of a car—a crime later conveniently attributed to Chechen thugs.)

There was a time, half-a-dozen years ago, when Luzhkov, given his popularity with the inhabitants of Moscow, fondly imagined that he could be a creditable candidate for the presidency of the Russian Federation.  No longer.  President Vladimir Putin has made it amply clear that he does not particularly care for certain Russians who are too rich and politically ambitious—the classic example of this dislike being the way in which Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the multibillionaire boss of the Yukos petroleum company, was suddenly arrested, jailed for months, and finally sentenced to years of imprisonment in distant Siberia.  (As a courageous journalist, Serghei Dorenko, scathingly remarked in a radio broadcast over Ekho Moskvy, the Russian capital’s sole remaining media island of genuine free speech, the obsequious haste shown by the judges in “carefully” perusing a 450-page document during a supposedly sleepless night reminded him of a dog “bringing slippers to the master.”)

In the existing circumstances, the sheer wealth of Yuri Luzhkov’s wife is regarded by political connoisseurs in Moscow as a liability rather than as an asset, since an embarrassing legal investigation into the ways in which she managed to pile up such a colossal fortune could always be started against her by a judicial system that is nothing more than a tool of the Kremlin.  An independent-minded and autocratic thorn in the presidential flanks of both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, Luzhkov, who has learned to tread warily in the dangerous field of Russian politics, has emphasized his loyalty to the existing setup by conspicuously joining Putin’s majority Yedinaya Rossiya (United Russia) party.

Vladimir Putin’s plans as regards his choice of a successor for the next presidential election, set for 2008, have long been a carefully shrouded  mystery.  The Kremlin insiders who constitute the source of his power would mostly prefer to have him stay on as president for a third term—something that is presently forbidden by Russia’s constitution—simply because it would enable them to retain their present influence and the juicy fruits of power.  But Putin so far has indicated that he is not prepared openly to violate the constitution.  In the meantime, he has very cleverly arranged to promote or demote various members of his entourage, in order to maintain his authority as a supreme arbiter.  In this respect, he has undoubtedly proved himself a skillful political operator.

The price that Russia has had to pay for the privilege of being governed politically—that is to say, with an eye to political rather than to economic success—has been enormous.  According to the official figures, monotonously trotted out by the Ministry of Finance, Russia has been maintaining an annual growth rate of between six and seven percent; but the real figure, according to many experts who prefer to speak privately, is closer to three percent.  Nothing could be more misleading than Moscow’s present building boom, with skyscrapers rising like stalagmitic pinnacles over various parts of the gigantic city’s horizon.  The salaries paid to policemen, so vitally needed to maintain honest law and order, are so dismally low that they resort to bribes to make ends meet.

Low salaries even affect the workings of the national parliament, the Duma, whose elected representatives receive no more than 86,000 rubles (roughly $2,900) per month, making them the hapless victims of scandalously omnipresent, bribe-offering lobbyists.  One outraged deputy, Nikolai Pavlov, recently staged a press conference to denounce this disgraceful commerce, roundly declaring: “All our parties are the hired mercenaries of the oligarchs [i.e., of the bigwigs of huge oil-and-gas, diamond-extracting, metallurgical, and timber concerns] because the oligarchs sponsor our election campaigns.  Small and medium-sized enterprises in Russia don’t have the money to do so.”

While, according to the official figures, Russia’s average per capita income was supposed to have increased in 2004 by $1,000—to reach a figure of $9,230 per year—in reality, the vast majority of Russians were trying to eke out a living on $300 per month.  In a U.N. report listing the average per capita income of 177 different countries, Russia slipped in one year from the 55th to the 62nd position—well below the levels of neighboring Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

Thanks in no small part to the deterrent effects of the Khodorkovsky affair, the tens of billions of dollars of foreign investments needed to modernize Russia’s backward infrastructure—in particular, the rusting rails and freight cars of the country’s vast and vitally important railway system—have not been forthcoming.  It would be a gross exaggeration to say that all of Russia’s political elite are living in an economic dreamworld, but Russia’s international prominence as a major producer of petroleum and natural gas—the country’s sole significant exports—has unquestionably fostered the illusion that the country need not be overly concerned by problems of elementary maintenance, which also affect antiquated pipelines.

Like the streamers so blatantly strung across the Tverskaya, the signs of increasing affluence are undoubtedly there, and the number of automobiles, most of them imported from other countries, has been rising at an impressive rate of ten percent per year.  At the same time, however, the corresponding increase in necessary road surfacing has been painfully inching its way forward at a rate of 1.5 percent per annum.

What matters above all is the semblance of prosperity, needed to persuade the general public and foreign visitors to Moscow that things really are getting better—a characteristic paradox perhaps most aptly described by the noted political economist Boris Kagarlisky as “a kind of dynamic paralysis.”