When you visit a foreign capital for the first time, sooner or later you are likely to be asked the question: “What do you think of our country?” or “What is your impression of this city?”  In St. Petersburg, which I had visited in May, I had a ready answer: Everything there (the worst as well as the best) struck me as being monumental.  But when, a few weeks later, I reached Moscow, I had to find something even more superlative to describe my sense of awe, admiration, and surprise.  I summed up my mixed feelings in a standard reply, to the effect that I was “sovsyem srazhyon gromadnym razmahom”—“utterly overwhelmed by the massive dimensions” of  Russia’s capital city.

I have traveled enough around the continent of Europe to be able to say, I think with reasonable accuracy, that there is nothing quite like it and that, in terms of size and urban sprawl, Moscow dwarfs every other European capital.  Berlin, with its ten-kilometer-long extension of Unter den Linden, which stretches from the Brandenburg Gate past the Tiergarten all the way to the suburb of Charlottenburg and beyond, has exactly one long thoroughfare wide enough to accommodate eight lanes of traffic.  Moscow has more than half a dozen, which radiate out like giant arteries in all directions from the vicinity of the Kremlin: like the prestigious Tverskaya Ulitsa, which extends almost without a curve all the way to Tver, 120 miles away, and even on to Petersburg beyond; or the broad thoroughfare that bears the proud name of Field Marshal Prince Kutuzov, which takes you due west past the forested village of Peredelkino (where Boris Pasternak had his modest, chalet-style dacha) and, later, past the far more fashionable suburban village of Zhukovka, where the bolshiye shishki (“big shots”) of present-day Russia now have or are building their country houses in well-guarded woodlands presently valued at $40,000 per sotka (the standard 100-meter-square plot used here in real-estate transactions).

Indeed, to find something similar to Moscow in terms of metropolitan dimensions, you have to leave the Continent and look to a city such as Los Angeles—which, unlike Moscow, has no clearly defined center but covers an urban area as large as Holland.

The Russians have a lovely word for broad—shiroki—which also carries the characteristically Russian connotation of “generous.”  There are, to be sure, streets that are fairly narrow in the oldest part of Moscow, notably in the picturesque area directly east of the Kremlin known to this day as the “Kitai Gorod”—the “Chinese city,” where, from the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584) on, Tartars and other merchants were allowed to camp and peddle their wares.  By and large, however, those who undertook to aggrandize the capital of all the Russias were possessed of an unquestionably shiroki spirit—one most spectacularly displayed today by Moscow’s energetic mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, with his controversial love of high-rise apartment buildings that are so huge that they are veritable towns constructed in a vertiginously vertical dimension.  (Moscow wits have dubbed these architectural experiments in habitational gigantomania “Ryesinski Empir”—a new (neo-Napoleonic) Empire style named after its most enthusiastic promoter, Vladimir Ryesin, a famous Soviet bridge-builder who is now deputy mayor in charge of urban development.)

And since we are dealing with matters of urban space, I would like to put in a good word for what, even more than its broad thoroughfares, holds this huge city together and enables it to survive as a megalopolis: an admirable and—rare indeed in this Gogolian land of administrative sloth and Kafkaesque bureaucracy—a surprisingly efficient subway system, used almost every day by more than nine million Muscovites, which puts to shame those of New York, London, and even Paris.  Long before coming to Moscow, I had heard of this “absurdly” ornate metro system, in which no two stations are alike, all having been designed to vie with one another in the lavish variety and inventiveness of their frescoed murals, mosaics, and medallions, many with sculpted ornaments and marble-faced columns, not to mention art déco lighting fixtures embellishing and illuminating their majestic vaults; what I saw, however, far surpassed my expectations.  Many of these stations, designed in the 1930’s to imbue the citizens of the Soviet Union with a sense of patriotic pride and veneration for beauty calculated to put them into the proper mood for positive achievements in factory and office work, have remained masterpieces of 20th-century art, and the fact that they were actually commissioned, or at least authorized, by Stalin in no way detracts from their artistic merit.

Indeed, I think it can be said without exaggeration that the Moscow metro system was the Soviet Union’s greatest achievement.  If it had been as successful in other fields of architectural and engineering endeavor, the history of its poor, downtrodden citizens would have been radically different.  This vast, bicontinental country would long since have had an automobile industry worthy of respect, with the kind of modern highways that Hitler gave the Germans and Mussolini, his Italians.  Nor would the vitally important railroad, telephone, and postal services have been allowed to degenerate to their present levels of dismal decrepitude.  For the most astonishing thing about the Moscow metro system is that, like that of St. Petersburg, it is up-to-date and efficient.

The distances between subway stations tend to be great (two to three times longer than those of New York or Paris, more like those of London), but the time gap between incoming trains—rarely more than three minutes, indicated on a second-by-second clock above the tunnel entrance—makes New York’s subway system look like a relic of the 19th century.

When I asked a Moscow businessman, who had kindly invited me to dinner at a sumptuous Uzbekistan restaurant, why a country capable of running such an efficient metro system had not been able to mass-produce an automobile capable of rivaling the German Volkswagen, he explained that the main reason was not a lack of skilled and inventive engineers: It was because the entire Soviet system was geared to military aims and production.  The Russians, it should not be forgotten, had managed to design and build what tank experts regarded as the best armored troop-carrier in the world.  In our world, however, this is no longer what really matters.

This is a valid explanation, so far as it goes.  There is no denying that, when the Soviet authorities were willing to invest on a massive scale, they were able to achieve spectacular results—notably in the field of rocket propulsion.  When, in April 1961, their astrophysicists put the world’s first astronaut, Yuri Gagarin, into space, many Russians naively believed that the long proclaimed Bolshevik dream of the 1930’s—dognat i peregnat Amerikoo (to catch up with and overtake America)—was at last coming true and that, as Nikita Khrushchev put it in his gruff Ukrainian way, the Russians were now going to “bury” the Americans.  The illusion was short-lived, however, because nothing fundamental had been done to modernize planning and production in other industrial fields.  The present dramatic fall from general favor of the Lada is the result not simply of its relative absence of sophistication, compared with West European cars, but, above all, of a phenomenon I had already noticed in St. Petersburg: the prestige enjoyed by products that are foreign, and, thus, new, “exciting,” and not boringly Soviet.  (The influence of that intangible, statistically unmeasurable factor of collective “boredom” in the momentous events that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 cannot, I think, be overestimated.)  What has so far proved to be an indelible stigma for the luckless Lada, in the eyes of Russians rich enough to be able to buy a new car, is the fatal fact that it has remained the automotive product of a stifling regime that was repudiated by at least three quarters of the inhabitants of the Soviet Union.

Because of the extraordinary width of Moscow’s major thoroughfares, a large number of underpasses were built at strategic intersections to keep pedestrians from being run down by reckless drivers.  But what surprised and delighted me—this was not something I had read about in the newspapers—is what has happened to these underpasses, particularly where they also serve as metro entranceways.  Within the last eight years, virtually all of them have been invaded by a kind of underground shopping culture: tiny booths or “kiosks” (as the Russians call them) that offer every conceivable object for sale—from pipes, cigarette lighters, clocks and watches, camera film, medicines, soap, toothpaste, lipstick, socks, shoes, sweaters, scarves, sexy (and unsexy) underwear, and furry shapkas to flower and vegetable seeds, books, CD’s, videocassettes, telephone and internet cards, as well as “pregnant” Russian dolls in brightly painted woodwork, which, when opened, reveal a smaller one inside.  (These peasant artifacts now include, in an ingenious form of lèse-majesté, wooden effigies of President Putin, which, when opened, reveal a smaller, then an even smaller, and finally a diminutive Vladimir.)

Far from being frowned upon, these subterranean shopping galleries in now well-lit underpasses were encouraged by the municipal authorities as a gregarious antidote to the violent muggings and hooligan attacks on pedestrians that were so rampant during the chaotic lawlessness of the early 1990’s.

A similar development—a form of “nomadic capitalism”—has sprung up more or less spontaneously aboveground, along many, often tree-lined, sidewalks broad enough to accommodate wooden shacks and booths.  Nature, as the saying has it, abhors a vacuum—here caused by a dire absence of shopping space.  We should not forget that, in the Soviet Union and in other Sovietized countries geared to (often shoddy and unsaleable) production rather than to popular consumption, the amount of space per capita made available for shopping was among the lowest in the entire world.  When the artificial constraints were finally lifted in the early 1990’s, there was simply not enough space available to meet the impatient demand of enterprising souls wishing to set up shops—on the ground floors, for example, of antiquated plants and factories, administrative buildings, and even research institutes.  The resultant vacuum was filled by sidewalk vendors, who now peddle everything from sausages, cheeses, meat, and fish to lemons, oranges, early strawberries, and tomatoes from Spain and grapes, melons, and eggplant from Uzbekistan, which has recently replaced strife-stricken Georgia as a major supplier of fruits and vegetables.

What Russian journalist Alexei Varlamov has called “dacha agriculture”—the intensive cultivation by the relatively well-to-do of private plots of land to provide for basic nutrition in vegetables (potatoes, cabbages, carrots, beets, cucumbers, onions, etc.) and cherries, strawberries, and other varieties of berries found in the extensive woodlands surrounding Moscow—has ceased to exist as a means of survival.  Those fortunate enough to own them drive out to their dachas for long weekends or stay there for weeks on end between May and September (summers in northern Russia are short) and do their gardening as a kind of hobby intended to provide culinary additives to what they can now find in shops and small supermarkets.  As a clever housewife explained to me with admirable concision: “Previously there were no foodstuffs—whence no shops!”

Whether this constitutes an “economic revolution” is an open question.  I think that it does—but not for personal reasons.  One day in central Moscow, I was seated in a well-designed buffet alluringly named a Press Club—itself a remarkable example of Muscovite initiative in the field of gastronomy—when an attractive receptionist working for a petroleum company undertook to remind me: “Just think!  Fifteen years ago, we were still having to stand in long queues to buy smetana!” (the sour cream beloved of northern Russians, who like to spread it on almost anything, above all on and in their borscht).  Such queues have disappeared.

Today, the most spectacular Russian achievement in the art or craft of supersalesmanship is, with little doubt, the gigantic Gorbushka supermarket, located not far from the Izmailovsky Park, in the southwestern suburbs of Moscow.  “Gorbushka” was the popular name given to a Soviet community center for workers, which, in the mid-1980’s, youngsters wishing to let off steam began renting for rock-’n’-roll sessions.  Repeated attempts by the Soviet authorities to check this insidious invasion of “Western cultural decadence” in the “Club named after Gorbunov” (its full official name, featuring some obscure hero of communistic exemplarity) only resulted in enhancing its prestige.  This thriving black market in illegally imported and pirated products became such a public scandal that the area was regularly closed by the authorities on Saturdays and Sundays to thwart weekend buyers and black marketeers.  When the Soviet system began to crumble in the mid 1990’s, the frustrated black marketeers decided to become respectable salesmen—first by renting space in the nearby headquarters building of the Rubin factory, which had previously been the sole authorized manufacturer of TV sets for the entire Soviet Union.  Then, they proceeded to build a brand-new, four-story edifice in the vacant compound behind the Rubin factory.  At least 200-yards long and as many wide, this rejuvenated Gorbushka became a gigantic supermarket exclusively devoted to selling ultramodern electronic hardware and camera equipment, radios, TV’s, videocassettes, CD’s, and every known (and unknown) brand of computer.  I have never seen anything like it, certainly not in congested Paris or London.  Indeed, for reasons of urban space alone, I doubt that anything remotely comparable exists elsewhere in Europe.  Moscow’s Gorbushka has already become an irresistible magnet for shoppers from the Balkans and Eastern, Central, and even Western Europe, who flock here in droves.

This bustling supermarket unquestionably is breathtakingly dynamic.  But is this dynamism in itself a sure sign of robust health?  One thing becomes pathetically apparent to anyone energetic enough to visit every nook and cranny of this fabulous bazaar: Virtually all the items of electronic hardware on display are of foreign manufacture.  Like the huge posters advertising Philips or Heineken, which now proudly sit like storks—or like vampires?—atop certain public buildings along the Moskva River, could it be that the gigantic success of the Gorbushka is less a sign of Russia’s economic strength than a symbol of its enduring weakness?