One of the sights that most amazed me as I approached the center of Moscow for the first time was a huge poster, stretched across the flat rooftop of a large building not far from the Kremlin, boldly advertising PHILIPS in large letters that needed no further explanation.  Not to be outdone by the famous electronics manufacturer, an enterprising Dutch firm, farther up the Moscow riverside, reminded beer-drinkers that HEINEKEN was the best antidote to thirst.  Another prominently placed poster proclaimed the excellence of BERLONI—hitherto unknown to me, but apparently a major designer of Italian kitchens—and then, in even larger and longer letters, came that electronic powerhouse, PANASONIC.  Beyond doubt, however, the boldest and the least inhibited of these commercial exhibitionists was SAMSUNG, with a poster so gigantic that it almost dwarfed the Kremlin’s nearby Troitskaya bashnya, its Trinity Tower.  A poster, furthermore, which, more than any other, can be regarded as a mocking symbol of the crushing triumph of capitalism over communism, since it straddles the long flat rooftop of the “Leninka”—the Muscovites’ ironic nickname for the large Lenin Library that was erected long ago to honor the memory of the 20th century’s most prolific and earthshaking political pamphleteer.

Am I naive in daring to express such a sense of bewilderment?  Possibly.  I find it hard to imagine, however, that the French government and the Paris city hall would allow huge posters of this kind to be erected along the banks of the Seine, and indeed almost within a good vodka bottle’s throw of the Elysée Palace; any more than I can imagine the British government allowing similar posters to crown one or two of the stately edifices of Westminster or Whitehall along the Thames embankment, or the Bush administration and Congress tolerating such intrusive advertising in the vicinity of the White House.

Far be it for me to suggest that the present government in Moscow—that of Vladimir Putin—should take an even tougher line than the one it is already taking with its self-serving “oligarchs,” in a move to mitigate the capitalistic desecration of the Moskva riverfront.  But what these clamorous posters really symbolize is less the flagrant triumph of “free enterprise” in post-Gorbachov-and-Yeltsin Russia than the enduring weakness of a shaky regime, unwilling to defend the architectural integrity of its ancient capital center for fear of being accused of harboring “retrograde,” neocommunistic inclinations.

Next to those huge posters, nothing in Moscow, I think, more graphically illustrates the hidden weaknesses of the young Russian Federation than certain products of the architectural gigantomania that was, for a long time, the pride and hallmark of Soviet-Stalinist modernity.  I am not referring to the steepled skyscraper, housing a number of the University of Moscow’s faculties, which rises like a lighthouse of learning over Moscow’s western horizon; nor even, near one end of the pedestrian Arbat, to the upward-thrusting, stalagmitic monster—a real masterpiece of “Soviet-Gothic” architechtonics—which still houses the bureaucrats of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

No, I am referring to the mastodons of hotelization that were erected, not only in Stalin’s time but later, as concrete symbols of “Soviet might.”

One of the ugliest of these touristic dinosaurs is the once-prestigious Moskva, which was built in the 1930’s as a posh hotel, almost exclusively reserved for party apparatchiks.  It was designed by two architects, each armed with a different plan, both of which Stalin absentmindedly approved and countersigned—with the odd result that it is an almost bicephalous curiosity, with two quite differently designed façades emanating from a somewhat disjointed body.  Now shunned by foreign businessmen and others, who prefer to meet their Russian counterparts in one of several far-smaller but more-alluring Marriott hotels, the Moskva will likely disappear as an unwanted relic of the Soviet past.

Far more difficult to demolish—for reasons of sheer size—is the greatest of these architectural behemoths, a gigantic block of concrete, 250 yards long by as many wide, which Khrushchev and Bulganin had the bad taste, in the mid-1960’s, to plant on the hill that slopes downward from the redbrick walls of the Kremlin toward the Moskva River.  The largest hotel in all of Russia, and possibly of the world, it contains (according to the Moscow Encyclopedia) 5,374 beds (in Russian, myesta, meaning “places”)—with 12 long stories in the main hotel block and 11 shorter floors above it in a squat square tower, which offer even more spectacular panoramic vistas, toward or away from the Kremlin.

Curious to see how the present overlords of Moscow were trying to maintain such an oversized monstrosity, I decided to treat this concrete leviathan to a personal inspection.

I found the ground-floor lobby almost empty of clients, with flustered hostesses who were embarrassed when I asked them for a hotel folder indicating current prices for bedrooms, etc.  (They had to write the information on a slip of paper.)  Wishing to enjoy what I had every reason to believe was a spectacular view over the Moskva riverside, I took an elevator to the 12th floor and walked past an interminable series of closed doors, without a client or even a maid to disturb me.  (In Soviet times, I would, of course, have been greeted, first of all, by the usually female watchdog guarding each floor.)  Finally, I found the restaurant-café.  It, too, was empty.  Apparently nobody in this gigantic hotel, or from elsewhere outside, was at all interested in enjoying the view—which was truly spectacular.  If I was surprised to find such a well-located restaurant-café empty, however, even more so were the two girls behind the bar to see a couple of clients unexpectedly appear.  My request for a Cinzano was met with a puzzled look, and, in the end, I had to walk over to the bar and point to the bottle.

If the huge posters that presently grace (or perhaps disgrace) the Moskva riverfront are in reality signs of weakness rather than of robust economic strength, so, paradoxically, were the statistics published in early May of this year by Forbes which revealed the astounding fact that Moscow presently holds the record as the city with the highest concentration of billionaires in the world, with 36 duly registered.

The reason why this statistic is a sign of weakness rather than of broad-based economic strength was revealed in the same Forbes article, where it was pointed out that two thirds of these fortunes had been made in the field of petroleum, natural gas, and metallurgy; and that, whereas in the United States an estimated 227 billionaires account for only six percent of the GDP, Russia’s 36 billionaires account for almost one quarter—24 percent—of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.  One of these Russian fortunes, interestingly enough, had been amassed by Yelena Baturina, the enterprising manager of a huge construction consortium named Inteko, who happens to be the wife of Moscow’s equally dynamic and forceful mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

The basically unfavorable disparity became even more glaringly apparent when one descended below the billion-dollar mark to the category of those who are merely multimillionaires—for here the Forbes investigators could find only 64 Russians who could boast of possessing fortunes exceeding $200 million—figures immediately contested by some of these embarrassed (because tax-dodging) plutocrats and by the Moscow newspaper, Vyedomosti, which likes to regard itself as the Wall Street Journal of Russia.

Significantly, not a single billionaire was a resident of another major Russian city.  This, too, is a somber sign for the future.  Anyone who has traveled extensively in Russia has been able to see for himself the extent to which this vast hinterland is, compared to Moscow, an underdeveloped and often neglected desert.  Whereas Moscow, like a monstrously overgrown heart, continues to attract and to pump in about one million new inhabitants a year, other cities are dramatically declining.  In May of last year, a Swedish social worker, who was trying to enlist local help on behalf of homeless street urchins in Saint Petersburg, showed me a printed pamphlet, based on official statistics, that predicted that Russia’s second-largest city would, at the present rate of attrition, have been reduced from a population total of around four million today to two million in 2009.

It was because he shrewdly realized that, to be truly popular in Russia, he needed to espouse the cause of the tens of millions of impoverished Russians who continue to live at levels of bare subsistence (or even lower) that Vladimir Putin last year condoned, if he did not actually order, the melodramatic arrest and incarceration, on tax-evasion and other charges, of the country’s wealthiest billionaire, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and of his chief financier, Platon Lebedev, who, in little more than a dozen years, had transformed the Yukos oil company into Russia’s foremost petroleum conglomerate.  It is no exaggeration to say that this readiness to clip the wings of some of the country’s most extravagantly wealthy plutocrats did more than anything else to ensure Putin’s landslide victory in the presidential election of last March.

The price that Russia—and, more specifically, the Moscow intelligentsia—have had to pay for the new political and economic “order” that Vladimir Putin and his closest collaborators (quite a few of them former agents, like himself, of the Soviet KGB) have been imposing on the country is a definite curtailment of the uninhibited “free speech” that reigned during the heady, chaotic days of Putin’s predecessor, the easygoing Boris Yeltsin.  The essence of this new policy is the realistic belief that, to control Russia during the critical transition period lying immediately ahead, the Kremlin must control the major TV channels—which have a nationwide audience—while allowing Moscow newspapers (whose readership and political influence are limited) the right to indulge in “constructive” and “responsible” criticism.

The crackdown was launched by Putin not long after his first election to the presidency in March 2000, with the liquidation of an hilarious TV puppet show (“Kookly”), which had been mercilessly mocking Russian bigwigs, brilliantly inspired and scripted by Russia’s wittiest journalist, Victor Shenderovich.  The two major stars had been, inevitably, Boris Yeltsin, who was not overly upset by the comic antics of his marionetting alter ego, and his successor, the tight-lipped Vladimir Putin, who was not at all amused.

Because its owner had dared to support Boris Yeltsin’s candidacy for a second presidential term, and because of the scathing criticism to which Putin himself was subjected for his initial nonchalance in the dramatic sinking of the Kursk submarine, the NTV television channel was closed down, and the “media magnate” Vladimir Gusinsky was thrown into prison, charged with embezzlement and “illegal privatization of State property,” and finally forced into exile.

Forcibly expelled from the TV screen, Shenderovich staged an astonishing comeback as a caustic commentator on daily events for another—the TVS—television station, in a program humorously entitled Besplatny syr (“Free Cheese”).  By the late spring of last year, this program—pointedly devoted to “the leaders whom we have elected”—had won an unprecedented popularity, with more than eight million viewers every Saturday evening.  When the Putin ax finally fell and TVS was forcibly closed down in late June 2003, it was on the absurd charge that the TV station was insolvent and about to go bankrupt.

Interviewed by a Figaro correspondent, Shenderovich robustly declared:

If you strip somebody and lay him out naked in the cold, with trussed-up hands and feet, you can say, true enough, that he died of a pneumonia infection.  But he will none the less have been the victim of an assassination.

He added: “TVS was not liquidated for financial reasons, as the Powers that Be assert, but for having laid claim to the status of an opposition TV network, in a country where this is no longer possible.”

(Ingenious and, for the time being, indomitably popular, Shenderovich has since been offered a major weekly slot with Radio Echo Moskvy—now generally regarded by intelligent Muscovites as the most outspoken, free-debating, politically, economically, and culturally active radio station in Russia—with a program sarcastically entitled Plavlenny syrok, a tiny dash of processed cheese.)

The success or failure of Vladimir Putin’s announced plan to double Russia’s GDP within the next ten years—the present rate of growth is eight percent—may well depend on his ability to reduce, if not to eliminate (probably impossible), the extraordinary level of corruption that still exists at virtually all levels of Russian administration.  An important first step in this direction was taken by the Kremlin, even before Putin’s reelection, when the salaries of policemen—which up till then had averaged a dismal 3,500 rubles ($100) per month—were significantly increased, thus providing them at last with an incentive to be relatively honest maintainers of public order rather than uniformed bandits obliged to resort to bribes, threats, and extortions in order to supplement their meager incomes.

I happened to be in Moscow in mid-June of last year when the minister of the interior, Boris Gryzlov, acting in consort with high-ranking officials from the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Interior Ministry’s own “security” department, and the FSB (the post-Soviet “Federal Security Service,” which, with relatively few changes of personnel, has replaced the once-notorious KGB of Yuri Andropov and others), staged raids on no fewer than 40 offices, apartments, suburban dachas, and banks owned, occupied, or frequented by officers of Moscow’s Criminal Police and the so-called Ministry for Extraordinary Situations, which Boris Yeltsin had established to aid persons in distress and the victims of natural catastrophes.  The astonishing thing about these raids was less the lackluster results—the arrests of six Criminal Police officers and of a lieutenant general of the MChS—than the carefully planned publicity accorded to the event by the Ministry of the Interior, which, for once, tipped off selected journalists in advance.  As the newspaper Kommersant commented in an ironic headline: “The internal affairs [the ministry’s official Russian title is “Ministry of Internal Affairs”] have come out into the open.”

That the raids were above all an elaborate publicity stunt was obvious from the start.  The authorities, a Muscovite explained to me, “had to enlist the cooperation of the press to try to persuade the public that they are really serious in their determination to clean up the police forces in this country.”  A few weeks before in St. Petersburg, strenuous efforts had been needed to maintain an “exemplary” semblance of order during the tercentennial “summit” celebrations organized in late May by the city’s most famous “son,” Vladimir Putin.  Thousands of byesprizorny (vagrant and homeless) street urchins were accordingly rounded up in advance and quietly transported to a small tent colony some distance beyond the city limits.  In effect, it was a concentration camp for juvenile delinquents.  In addition—to the intense annoyance of offended Petersburgers, outraged to be regarded as incapable of handling their own security affairs—thousands of officers and agents from Moscow’s Criminal Police were dispatched to the former imperial capital to impose a draconian “order” on a virtually fenced-in city.

The truly Gogolian magnitude of what is, in effect, an exceedingly complex politico-juridical and security problem was dramatically illustrated in July of last year when Moscow’s prosecutor, Mikhail Avdyukov, was “kicked upstairs” to join the staff of the Russian Federation’s prosecutor general, Vladimir Ustinov, on the grounds that the Moscow office had covered up or fabricated evidence in no fewer than 9,000 cases, including 43 murders!

In the long run, the success or failure of Vladimir Putin’s economic policies is likely to depend on his ability to instill a spirit of what is now being called “patriotic capitalism” into businessmen unscrupulously interested in enriching themselves by the many methods available.  It will continue to be impossible for the Russian state to build up properly paid police and military forces if well-to-do citizens, particularly businessmen, go on finding subtle ways of not paying the taxes the federal government needs to fund such essential services.  As Georgi Satarov, probably Russia’s foremost specialist in matters of administrative graft, has pointed out, the amount that ordinary citizens pay out annually in bribes—about $3 billion—is roughly half of what they pay in income taxes, while the sums that astute businessmen pay out in bribes to keep their enterprises running smoothly (about $33 billion) was, in the year 2002, almost half of what the federal government was able to collect in revenues.

Is it surprising that a politician who has to grapple with such monumental problems should occasionally lose his calm?  What has amazed many Russians and often made his jittery interpreters tremble in their polished shoes, however, has been the crude vulgarity, a kind of mixed jailbird and army-barracks slang, that Vladimir Putin has occasionally employed when harassed by journalists about the most intractable, the most insoluble, the most nightmarish of his problems: the present and future of the Caucasian province of Chechnya.  Four years ago, in Moscow, he lost his temper, called the Chechen rebels “bandits,” and declared: “We’ll kill them all in the toilets!”  Later, during a press conference in Brussels, at the end of a meeting with leaders of the European Union, he lashed out at a correspondent from Le Monde who had dared to ask him why so many innocent civilians were being killed in Chechnya: “Come on over and have a look, and we’ll arrange to have you all circumcised!”  In July of last year, after a  Moscow pop concert had been unexpectedly rocked into bloody chaos and confusion by Chechen suicide bombers, Putin declared that he and his men would dig out such vermin “from their cracked and fissured cellars, and exterminate them.”

Even George W. Bush, in announcing (like Putin) that his forces would weed out the terrorists from every one of “their dark nooks and crannies,” never went quite that far.  Not yet, at any rate.