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Moscow on the Make


Dawn, with its shafts of light and hints of redemption, doesn't really happen in Moscow. At some point the black of night dissolves into the gray of day. Long trucks full of beets, cabbage and the first spring melons start rumbling across the broken pavement to their destinations at scores of city markets. People rouse themselves, drink tea, then shuffle across the snowy ground to 500 trolley stops and subway stations.

Because this is a Monday, Chalva Tchigirinsky, a real-estate developer, slips into an immaculately tailored gray-checked suit from Harrods, slides into the back of his silver Mercedes and–trailed closely by a chase car carrying three bodyguards–begins the hourlong ride from the dacha he rents for $35,000 a month to the center of the city he is trying to rebuild. As always, he has spent the weekend out among the century-old stands of birch trees, sipping French Champagne, relaxing in a sauna that was once visited by Stalin and taking a break from the furious intensity of his normal routine in this, one of the world's most furiously intense cities.

Moscow was once a city of cobblestones, lilacs and church bells. That gave way to vulgar skyscrapers, pompous squares and soulless factories. Now it is a city of astonishing extremes and volcanic activity. The opulence is breathtaking and the poverty is staggering. There is enough neon to rival Reno, but the biggest and most important of the many new buildings under construction is a cathedral. Prostitutes literally line the tawdry streets at midnight, but it has been at least 200 years since faith has been as important or as apparent here.

The emerging Moscow–frantic, aggressive, devoted above all to the pursuit of the dollar, is more than the sum of its disparate cliches: it is quite clearly a city of license, of danger and despair. But it is also a center of culture, of yearning, of true possibility. Moscow is so radically different from any other place in Russia that at times the gigantic metropolis seems like a country unto itself. Two-thirds of all the foreign investment in this huge land is centered here. So is most of the cash, crime and corruption. Suddenly, Moscow has become brasher than New York, faster than Tokyo, more clannish than Beirut.

A week spent floating through the lives of just a handful of the city's 10 million residents–the fabulously wealthy Tchigirinsky and four people who couldn't have less in common with him–might not capture the complexity and contradictions packed into the 400 square miles of Moscow today. What could?

Yet together, these five people–the city's most successful developer; a lonely old woman struggling to survive on a pension; an immigrant baker battling his way into the new middle class; a brilliant but troubled young piano student, and Russia's first Playboy Playmate–provide enough threads to experience the rich tapestry of this constantly changing city. Not all have prospered in the new Moscow. But none wish to walk away. In less than a decade these five–and millions like them–have made themselves new. Once numbed by the leaden certainties of Communism, they are now propelled by change. This week, all five have opened themselves to intrusions that most Muscovites shun: nothing is off limits. Their meals and habits, their family feuds and professional disasters are all on display. So are their aspirations, their achievements, their friends.

It is unusually cold for the first week of April, even in Moscow. Tengiz Dzhidzhelava is on the move early today. By 7 A.M. he has left the cramped four-room apartment he shares with eight people. Slight and prematurely gray, the 34-year-old engineer from the former Soviet republic of Georgia has come–been driven really–to the big city to seek his fortune. Tengiz hops on trolley No. 73, which will take him to the bakery he owns at the Butyrsky Market, one of dozens of such markets scattered about the city.

Moscow is always on edge, but something special hangs in the frosty air this morning. Just as Tengiz leaves for work–and not far away–two police officers stop a taxi to check the driver's documents. Routine business, particularly if the driver is a dark man from the Caucasus. Instead of turning over the papers however, this man produces a hand grenade, which you can buy on the street here for less than $5. Shouting ''I'll blow you up,'' he tosses it at the cops, ditches his car and runs. Somehow only the fuse explodes, lightly injuring one of the officers.

Tengiz is hardly delayed by the commotion. By 7:30 he has fired up the giant brick oven that Georgians have used for centuries to bake lavash, their pizza-shaped bread. Modeled on ancient drawings of beehives, the oven will take more than an hour to warm up. Until then there are three 150-pound vats of dough to knead and roll into one-pound loaves. Tengiz and his four assistants will sell 600 loaves of the bread today, each for 3,000 rubles (about 50 cents).

After he buys his four tons of flour, pays everyone's salary and the rent, Tengiz must still, like virtually every other shopkeeper in town, come up with his tribute for the mob. Yet, even taking that into account, he will take home nearly $700 this month–about five times the average Moscow salary.

''When the Soviet Union collapsed things just fell apart in Georgia,'' where his 27-year-old wife, Leila, and two children still live, he says. ''I was never going to work. Look around this market. Nobody here started out hoping to sell fruit.''

Tenquiz struggled to make it to the university. Having succeeded, he assumed he would pass an uneventful life in Georgia, the first educated man in his family. ''But I'm not complaining,'' he says. ''I couldn't make money like this anywhere else. My kids are going to have a better life. It's just not the way I expected it to be.''

Masha Tarasevich also finds herself having been treated strangely– and not unkindly–by fate. A savvy brunette with killer legs and a beeper that never stops, the 24-year-old Masha hit the big number last year when she became the first centerfold for the Russian edition of Playboy. In a competitive city filled with the world's most beautiful and available women–they are commonly called dostupniye dyevochki, ''accessible young ladies''–Masha became the ''it'' girl overnight.

She didn't plan to make history; it just sort of fell to her. Not usually a Playboy reader, she bought a copy to read an interview with Cindy Crawford. ''She is my ideal,'' Masha says in her best Dale Carnegie voice. ''Sensual, smart, successful.

''I saw the ad for the first Russian centerfold and I thought I would win,'' she continues matter-of-factly, weaving her cherry red Lada through the horrendous midday traffic and listening intently to ''Erotica'' by Madonna on the tape player. (''Oh, God, I respect her so much,'' she says.) ''I got scared about Playboy for a while,'' she recalls. ''I wondered if it would define me. I asked my boyfriend and he told me I just have to respect myself. And I do.'' So Masha, shown in various stages of undress in, among other places, a subway stop (Revolution Square), a snowdrift and a bathhouse, quickly earned herself a special niche in New Russian history. (''I think of them as art,'' she says, mouthing the official line of centerfolds the world over. ''These pictures are about feminine beauty.'')

A budding singer who studied ''rock music'' at college in her hometown of Minsk, she is riding her centerfold fame as far as it will take her. Masha has already been to Los Angeles to see ''the mansion'' and to meet ''Hef.'' She plays violin (as anybody who has seen her naked photos in Playboy will surely remember), and her first music video is called ''Maestro Paganini.''

Masha, who prefers to be called Maitri, her spiritually inspired, ''Buddhist'' stage name, is looking severe but cool this afternoon in arty black glasses, blue jeans and cowboy boots. Her lipstick is too red and there is too much of it, but nobody who sees her is going to complain.

When she shows up at the Playboy office to ask them to help promote her music, the guard on the ground floor practically starts to salivate. ''Do you have any of those pictures on you?'' he asks. Masha blinks, tugs at her gold hoop earrings and blows by him like he's made of stone. ''Moscow is the greatest city in the world,'' she says, obviously flattered by his attention. ''It's like that old Frank Sinatra song: 'If you can make it here, you'll make it anywhere.' Isn't that how it goes?''

Not everyone considers Moscow a bliss factory. Today, as usual, Mira Pavlovna Ivanova got up at 6:30 so she could beat her hated daughter to the bathroom. At 8 A.M., just as Masha is starting her morning stretching routine across town, the 65-year-old pensioner puts on a ratty sweater she knit from donated strands of wool and strolls into her hallway to find that the empty bottles she had collected last night–and hoped to redeem this morning–had been stolen.

''It's life,'' she says, her eyes batting back the disappointment. ''These things happen.'' Especially to her. Mira Ivanova is a member of an enormous class–there are more than two million in Moscow alone–of elderly, well-educated, hard-working people who have become impoverished in the new, capitalistic Russia. Like many of them, Mira retired just before the end of Communism, at a time when pensioners expected to live comfortably. But history may never have produced a generation of adults whose lives have diverged more sharply from their expectations. At least in Moscow, people like Mira receive their pathetic monthly stipend–almost always $50. In the rest of the country the elderly are often forced to live off the land.

Having spent her life as a teacher and computer programmer at an economics institute so secret that she still refers to it only by its post office box number (3802), Mira now occupies 32 square feet–space most Americans consider acceptable for a bathroom.

In Moscow, as in Manhattan, real estate is destiny, and Mira and her 36-year-old daughter, Nadia, (''the evil little puppet'') who lives with her husband and 10-year-old boy in the other room of the apartment, are locked in a battle literally to the death. ''If she wants me out,'' Mira says frankly, ''she will have to kill me. If she waits for me to die, I will leave it to somebody else.''

To supplement her meager pension, Mira has for the past eight years hunted bottles, usually stalking drinkers in city parks and waiting for them to finish a beer or their vodka. A good haul can add $15 to her monthly income. ''I used to dread it when people would see what I was doing,'' she says, pulling out the meticulous notebook listing the bottles she has sold. ''I was always embarrassed. Now I think they should be.''

McDonald's opened its 13th outlet in the Moscow region today. There has almost never been anything but standing room at the other 12. A spokesman for the company, without irony or exaggeration, refers to it as a ''great day for the most successful restaurant in the history of Russia.''

Downtown, chunks of snow are blowing by in gusts. ''I wish I could do something about the weather in this country,'' Tchigirinsky says dolefully. It is perhaps the only thing beyond his grasp. Tchigirinsky is short, well dressed and elegant. His office is filled with antiques, some priceless, some hideous.

''Look at that,'' he points to the gaudiest imaginable statue of Napoleon on horseback. ''It's a fake. The Kremlin people do it. It is my dream to get rid of it forever,'' he says, implying that somebody important would be unhappy if he did. During Soviet times Tchigirinsky, 48, made a tenuous living selling antiques. ''I was almost in jail three times,'' he says with pride. It is one of the amazing oddities of today's Moscow that people who a decade ago were criminals–capitalists, art dealers, profiteers–now are society's elite. ''They were always very, very close,'' he says. ''But I won.''

He unlocks a cabinet in his office to reveal a shelf full of rare books: Pushkin, Shakespeare, a first edition of Tolstoy's ''War and Peace.'' All bound in rich leather. There are also translations of Shelley and Byron, as well as several beautiful icons.

There is just one volume from the 20th century: ''The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,'' a Sotheby's catalogue that became an instant collectors item. ''A gift from Alfred,'' Tchigirinsky says, referring to the American developer, A. Alfred Taubman, who is chairman of the auction house and owns part of a group that has financed some of Tchigirinsky's real-estate projects.

We are about to meet the contractors at one of Tchigirinsky's–and Moscow's–most amazing monuments to all that is Nouveau in Russia: the nearly completed $20 million headquarters of Stolichny Bank. With a soaring atrium, enough highly glossed granite to fill the Grand Canyon and unparalleled views of the Kremlin, the building was sold to the bank for three times New York City market rates.

The boss is finally ready to roll. First the bodyguards–in standard black leather–check the elevator. Then the street. It's all clear, so we are quickly funneled into the Mercedes. The driver, a former K.G.B. man, pulls into traffic with the chase car–a black Chevy Suburban with smoked windows–on our tail.

In a city where hundreds of rich Russians are killed and kidnapped each year, bodyguards are not simply ornamental. In how many other world capitals, after all, can you meet bank presidents who refuse to give their names? (''You don't need it,'' says the head of a small but rich Moscow bank in one of Tchigirinsky's buildings. ''Why would I say my name in public?'') Still, bodyguards are not just for guarding bodies: like the latest cell phones, private bars, modern art, bulletproof cars and $50,000 watches (Tchigirinsky's is a Bulgari) they are a measure of status.

The hierarchy is fairly simple: Every player needs a cell phone and a driver. Richer people also have a bodyguard. The truly rich have several bodyguards and chase cars and locked compounds to sleep in at night. ''I don't care about this stuff,'' Tchigirinsky says, as the chase car swings out to block traffic. ''But I have a special role. My partners, the foreigners, worry what might happen if I were gone. This makes them feel better.'' He jokes about the Mafia. ''You'll say I'm in it but I'm not. The truth is you can't take buildings out of the country. They are better off with banks.''

In Moscow the joys of free enterprise have not come unsullied. The number of cars on the road has tripled in the past decade to more than two million. The number of important roads has remained steady at about six. The result: traffic like Lagos and air you can chew. We turn onto Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street and inch past Russia's–and perhaps the world's–pre-eminent music academy, the Moscow Conservatory. Rachmaninoff, Gilels, Rostropovich and Richter all studied here. At this moment Vazgen Vartanyan, 23, an intense, hypertalented young piano student is sitting on a ledge near the library, staring out the windows at a somber statue of the great composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

It's just noon but Vazgen is working his way through his second pack of Marlboros. On his lap sits Beethoven's last Piano Sonata, No. 32, ''written when he was completely deaf and insane,'' the young pianist notes with glee.

Tchigirinsky cruises by the noble 18th-century mansion in his Mercedes, singing the glories of Moscow. ''People complain about Luzhkov,'' he says, referring to the powerful Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. Many people say he is crooked, but everyone gives him credit for the city's remarkable new vitality. Luzkhov's popularity is astounding. This morning the New Dawn perfume factory began production of a cologne called Mayor, in honor of the burly, baldheaded man who looks about as likely to represent sweet smells to the public as does the average pipe fitter.

''This place was a Communist pigsty before Luzhkov,'' Tchigirnsky says, not inaccurately. ''Now we are taking hovels and making palaces out of them.''

It's 6 P.M. and Mira has come downtown on a bottle hunt. There are billboards all around her: for German gym equipment, American sneakers, Italian clothes, French perfume. There is even the ''I Love You'' billboard: a beautiful woman whose face has been posted all over town by her rich, husband.

All Mira's clothes are secondhand: a knitted hat, a long leather coat, socks so completely patched it's hard to know where the sock ends and the patch begins. She hates to be at home when her daughter is there. After spending the day reading L. Ron Hubbard's ''Dianetics,'' she has already scored two empties.

Mira gives a nearby dumpster a glance, but it has already been picked clean. Parks these days are a bit of a crapshoot. Random violence is rare–far less common than in the famously safe new New York. Still, despite Luzhkov's decree ordering ''the removal of all people begging and living as vagrants in Moscow,'' there are thousands of homeless here now. They are referred to as B.O.M.J., a Soviet term that basically means scum.

Mira spots a guy finishing a beer in a park across from Moscow's most imposing 20th-century fortress: the American Embassy, which looks as if it has been airlifted in one revolting piece from Reston, Va. To the untrained eye it seems as though the bottle is hers. ''You see that old man right there,'' she says, pointing out what would look to most people like a man standing in a park. ''He was here first, waiting.'' Sure enough, a few minutes later the man whips out a cloth bag and claims his prize.

But Mira perseveres. After a freezing hour she has gathered eight bottles. It's enough, so she is ready for a dinner of nuts and bread. ''They say it's not good for old people to eat too much,'' she says with a glimmer in her surprisingly bright eyes before she slips into the night.

Not far away Tchigirinsky dines with friends at his favorite restaurant, the Golden Estop. No need to order: the food just arrives at a banquet table in a private room filled with gilt-tipped furniture, heavy silver and crystal. ''This is going to cost me $2,000,'' he says in mock disgust. ''My whole monthly food budget at the dacha is only $5,000.''

By 11:30 the meal is over. Electronic fences swing open on command, several clusters of bodyguards–all on walkie-talkies summoning drivers–surround Tchigirinsky and his guests as they leave. Chase cars arrive. Then the Mercedes. He pulls out and drives by the apartment of Tengiz, the sleeping baker, only 50 yards away.


The sun is bright this morning on the steps of the Moscow Conservatory. But the day is bitterly cold. Vazgen bounds up the steps at noon. He is wearing two sweaters and a Polartec coat. He has a three-day growth and his black hair is fashionably disheveled. He is the Hollywood cliche of a struggling artist: attractive, dark and remote. Vazgen started playing piano at age 8. When the boy was 13, one of the nation's legendary piano teachers, Lev Vlasenko, heard him at a recital.

''He looked at me and shouted, 'I take that boy,' '' Vazgen remembers, still seeming dazed by it all. ''He was all emotional. I didn't even know if I was good till then.'' Vlasenko changed Vazgen's life that day. He was transferred to the Central Music School, the surest route to the conservatory itself. Until he died last year, Vlasenko was Vazgen's teacher.

These days Vazgen, among the finest young pianists in Moscow, is rudderless. His talent is beyond dispute, but so is his desire to play his own way, which is not what older teachers like. They like humility. Competitions are everything to students like Vazgen; medals assure recording contracts and concert dates. Vazgen has entered some of the world's most prestigious piano contests but to his constant anguish has won nothing.

''There is always opposition to brilliance,'' says Vladimir Krainev, who won the much-heralded Tchaikovsky Competition in 1970, and is one of the world's most respected teachers. Krainev, who studied and taught here, first heard Vazgen play in Italy several years ago. He was smitten at once. ''It is hard for people to comprehend such talent,'' says Krainev, who like many of his colleagues now lives abroad. ''But Vazgen has his faith.'' Krainev has invited him to come study in Germany, a suggestion his devoted but highly protective mother has resolutely rejected.

Today, Vazgen will practice a little, talk to a few teachers and smoke furiously in the foyer outside the cafeteria. He meets his best friend, Dima Gordin, also a gifted pianist, and the two start complaining at once: about the school (''it's never been worse'') the students (''they have never been worse'') and their lot in life (pretty much the same). They talk about the movie ''Shine,'' which neither has seen. They think it's hilarious that in America a bad piano player is helping sell more Rachmaninoff than anyone in history. Somehow both manage to be engaging while they whine. Dima, a tall, handsome young man whose mother, like Vazgen's, is a doctor, stares at his bible: ''World Federation of International Music Competitions.'' ''It is our obsession,'' Dima says with a shrug, ''You just have to win.''

Entrance to the Conservatory used to mean a pass to the good life. Concert dates, travel, jobs, teaching assignments: all were doled out by Communist sugar daddies. These days artists have to rely on their talent, and even that's not always enough. Dozens of students are hanging around, smoking and staring at sheet music. Many are Korean, some have cellos slung low over their backs. A beautiful blonde with deep green eyes sweeps by. Vazgen shoots Dima a meaningful glance and spits out a single word: ''Skripka,'' which is Russian for violin. Out of their league.

Vazgen is Armenian but he was raised here. He knows life would have been cushy under the Soviets. It doesn't seem to bother him. Nor does the fact that many of the nation's finest musicians have fled to the more lucrative West. ''I have been to other places,'' he says with a shrug. ''Like Italy. That country is magic. But Moscow right now is a place where something important is happening. You sort of want to see what it is.'' Vazgen says he plays when he feels like it. On the not infrequent days when he doesn't, he stays in bed reading music or watching soccer on TV. (Pictures of his heroes are plastered on the wall above his bed: Metallica, Pink Floyd, Sharon Stone and Vladimir Horowitz.) Asked what he would do if he couldn't play piano, he smiles sweetly and says, ''I guess I'd be a piano tuner.''

A single candle flickers in the corner of Tengiz's tiny bakery. On this day, eight years ago, Soviet troops attacked demonstrators in the center of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, with truncheons and gas, killing dozens and wounding hundreds. It was a horrid day for the republic, and it hastened the death of the Soviet Union.

''Tonight we will drink too much and think about our dead friends,'' said Tengiz. ''I will never forget that day.'' Tengiz has had a busy afternoon. He thinks it's the chill. At 4:45, as he starts pulling his last lavash from the oven with a huge pole, two Georgian men with slicked hair and dressed (literally) to kill march into the back of the shop. There is nothing here they want to buy.

Urgent words are exchanged in Georgian. Tengiz politely explains who I am. The men are not impressed. They speak, wheel on their flashy heels and bolt. They will be back tomorrow. Three-quarters of the small businesses (and 60 percent of the banks) in Moscow say they need protection from the mob. It's probably an underestimate. Russia has one of the weakest legal systems on earth. If somebody defaults on a loan you can't sue them. So you need somebody to ''protect'' you and your interests. That's where the krisha comes in. Krisha literally means roof in Russian. But it has come to stand for the guy you pay to protect you. He's your roof. If you have a problem–as long as you are paying–he takes care of it. No krisha and your bakery or restaurant or newspaper kiosk burns to the ground one day. It's simple. Still, the brief encounter has left Tengiz sheepish and fidgety. He is not interested in discussing it, so I pretend to have no idea what just happened.

Wednesday is pensioner's day at the Cinema Center and there is no bigger movie fan than Mira. While waiting in line this morning to cash in 11 bottles for 4,000 rubles, or about 75 cents (''I was very happy about that''), she saw an ad in the newspaper for free tickets to a movie in two weeks. She raced over straight from the bottle line. Two hours later she had her tickets and made it back here in time to see ''Waterloo Bridge,'' a 1940 film starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. She sits transfixed throughout the movie, which she has seen half a dozen times. ''The first time I saw this was in 1945,'' she said. ''Then even the men had tears running down their faces.''

Masha is relaxing at home tonight. She shares a large, wood-paneled apartment with her 22-year-old sister, Vera, and together they pay $1,000 a month in rent. It's a huge sum for two young Russian women, but Vera has jettisoned her plans for a career as a philologist and now runs a successful chemical-equipment company.

Masha is having friends over, so she bought a chocolate ice-cream cake, which she eats with abandon. ''I can't help it,'' she says, sharing a small seat with Vera, who abstains. ''I love this stuff.'' This is a bachelorette pad. One friend, Andrei Chernov, is talking about how his car was stolen by an old acquaintance. He is glad. ''These days if you have a car in Moscow,'' he says. ''You can die for it.''

The phone rings every three minutes. At 10 P.M.: ''Nope, that's Easter. Everyone is going to be waiting for me at home. My parents, my grandma everyone.'' Somebody wants her to be host of a fashion show in Siberia. ''Can't do it.'' Five minutes later: ''Mamutchka. Papa was here yesterday? Doesn't he have my beeper? O.K., maybe next time. I love you.''

The talk turns to astrology, pseudonyms, money, men. The phone keeps ringing. ''Yes, come over. Come over any time.'' By midnight the party has just begun.


Tchigirinsky seems to have forgotten he has invited visitors for breakfast. He answers the door unshaven, irritated, surprised. He is wearing a blood-red robe and nothing else. There are some shoes on the floor, but the pair that stick out are the patent-leather, four-inch Moschino pumps with the ankle strap. There is an elegant little handbag on the couch and a pack of Cartier cigarettes. He smokes Marlboros.

Tchigirinsky is separated, but except to make it clear that he has an active personal life, he isn't all that interested in sharing it. He rents this apartment, only 10 minutes from his office, for $10,000 a month. It's big, a former communal apartment that must have housed six families just 10 years ago. Some of the art and furniture are beautiful; much of it looks as if it belongs at Caesar's Palace.

He puts on a CD of ''Cats'' and goes to the bathroom to shave.

His cell phone rings. He couldn't live five minutes without it. There is a phone in his bathroom too. ''I sleep with a phone,'' he says. ''Two, actually. The cell phone and the regular phone.'' He loves getting dueling calls: cellular and regular. He always takes them both. Today he was up at 5 A.M. He has a board meeting and he is grumpy. His cook has apparently failed to blend his apple and carrot juice properly. ''In Russia there are no people that know their business,'' he says darkly, swirling the suspect liquid in a glass. ''Her job is to make breakfast three days a week. She can't do it.''

Moscow police raid an apartment and walk away with more than 8,000 bottles of illegally produced vodka that was meant to be sold by elderly ladies on the streets for $1 a bottle. It is the biggest such bust in the city's history. Police also found 1,000 liters of grain alcohol, which, when checked at a lab, was found to be contaminated and hazardous.

Tengiz faces a crisis today. There has been an accident at Bread Factory No. 4 and the flour has spoiled. He won't get any more this week. ''We have enough for four days,'' he says, his green-black eyes calm as always. ''We will have to find it somewhere else.''

Next to his shop, the long, indoor market is full of produce: there are lemons, melons, apricots by the barrel. The air is heavy with the smell of spices from three continents. There are sour pickles, spicy carrots and beets drenched in garlic. On one end of the long food hall the tile floor has been slickened with the blood of butchered lamb. On the other end about a dozen men –most of them Armenians–sit at a table drinking sweet tea.

The market is a little world. There is hotel space for 150 people–mostly drivers delivering fruits and vegetables from the Caucasus, Central Asia or Belarus. And there is a stolovaya, a communal lunch room. During the Soviet era these cafes were uniformly disgusting, so I expect something inedible. But the borscht is fresh and delicious, and the kasha brings happy memories of Manhattan's Lower East Side.

''I like it here,'' Tengiz says, sipping his soup. There is no escaping the mob, though. Five men with flat heads, cell phones and leather jackets eat lunch nearby.

Tengiz misses his family and his little mountain village. There were 600 people at his wedding, which lasted two days. He still looks at the videotape every week. He won't keep money in a Moscow bank, because this is ''not my country.'' He sends it home with friends. He has already started saving money for his young son and daughter: $20 a month for each. ''So they won't need me so much when they grow up.''

He has trouble accepting the contradictions the world has thrust upon him. ''It was so much better when I was young,'' he says. ''We had everything. We were always together.'' Reminded that he makes 20 times what his father earned, he laughs and asks, ''So, am I happier?''

Vazgen has decided to perform this evening, in preparation for his upcoming competition in Zurich. He lives in Bibirevo, a wasteland of pale Soviet apartment blocks on the northern edge of the city. There are many such neighborhoods in Moscow. They resemble housing projects you would see in the South Bronx, except the windows are still in the walls. People here call them the ''sleeping regions,'' because there is no visible life in any of them. As a builder, the Mayor makes Robert Moses look like a slacker. Last year the city put up 35 million square feet of apartment space. Mostly, the apartments lie in these soul-numbing zombie areas on the edge of Moscow. The buildings in the center of town go to the rich guys.

Vazgen answers the door–unlocking all four locks–wearing a gray striped suit about a size and a half too big. His father, a silent, 60-year-old Armenian whom his wife describes as a ''victim of perestroika,'' watches television. He was a sports coach but has no job now.

Vazgen's mom, 52, an eye doctor who ''lives only for Vazgen,'' is nervous. She tries to make him wear a warmer coat, to eat before he leaves, to slip gloves on his long, delicate fingers. She reminds him to come right home after he plays. As he walks out, she throws a scarf at him. He shrugs and quotes Pink Floyd to explain her: ''Ooh, baby, you will always be a baby to me.''

As we walk to the subway, Vazgen tells me that this stultifying part of town has become a mob hangout. I laugh. But as we enter the subway two cops grab us and demand documents. Vazgen stammers, and when he is nervous, like now, he stammers a lot. We produce our papers, the cops grunt and let us go–another reminder that it can be bad to look swarthy in Moscow.

On the ride downtown Vazgen remembers that the day before his first big competition three years ago he wandered into Trinity Motors, the car dealer near the Bolshoi Theater. ''I just assumed I would win,'' he says now, laughing at his own presumptuousness. ''I picked out the car I wanted: a black Chevrolet. It was cool. I was an idiot.''

By 7:30 he is on stage at a children's music school, wearing a bow tie, playing for a few friends. For nearly an hour he becomes a magician, losing himself in Beethoven and Chopin. Then abruptly he stands up, says, ''For technical reasons this concert will not continue,'' and walks off the stage. Finally, he admits that the piano was impossible to play, ''like smashing rocks with a hammer.'' Then he tells about the Kharkov piano competition in 1995. No hot water, the Steinway piano never got through customs. The food made him sick. By the end of the story he is laughing, and so is his sidekick, Dima.

They stay out late, first eating dinner (cheeseburgers with jalepeno sauce, Jack Daniel's and potato skins). When they finally arrive back at Vazgen's house at 1:30 A.M., his mother is frantic with worry–but not too frantic to have forgotten to make the beds for guests or to lay out a lovely dinner table with sausage and cheese and vegetables and homemade juices. Nobody eats. Instead, Dima and Vazgen gossip and smoke till dawn, when they finally nod off.


Mira is depressed. Somebody stole her cane on the Metro yesterday and she has been reduced to leaning on a stick. ''It will give me a chance to walk like a young woman,'' she says, not convincingly. There is pain in her huge green eyes. Without her cane she moves like an awkward bird.

The icy ground is treacherous for her. She is sitting in the minuscule kitchen she shares with her daughter and son-in-law. There is an ancient television she uses only to watch ''Santa Barbara.'' Her bedroom is almost too small for two people to enter.

On Fridays she can buy cabbage at a discount. Most of her food is grown in a friend's garden about 100 miles from Moscow. Each fall she rides the electrichka–the local train–and collects enough beets, potatoes, cabbage, carrots and berries to last the winter.

Mira lives in a neighborhood called Novye Cheremushki. She has been there for 37 years, since Moscow's last great building boom–when Nikita Khrushchev decided that wooden shacks would no longer suit a great city. He threw up hundreds of identical buildings–they are still called Khrushchevka's–here on Moscow's southern tier. Mira's building is always dark and cold. It reeks of cat urine. She'd leave in a minute if there were somewhere else to go. Each month, her pension arrives on the 5th, but she never touches it until the 20th–to collect interest. Over tea, she pulls out a passbook from the National Pension Bank. She deposited $100 in 1991 and with interest it rose to $118.67, and then the bank went bust. Like a lot of pensioners, she lost her money.

''Last night my daughter had friends over,'' she says. ''We don't speak. There was cake and I wanted a piece. But I would never ask and she would never offer.'' She mentions that Saturday will be the anniversary of the day Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space. Cosmonauts Day is a major holiday in Russia, a rare chance to celebrate both the glory of the Soviet Union and a time when its future seemed to shimmer.

''How I remember that day,'' she says, dreamily. ''It was 36 years ago and my baby was 3 weeks old. Everything seemed possible.'' She stops talking before she starts to cry.

It's 7 P.M. before Tchigirinsky is ready to leave for the dacha. He will entertain 40 people tonight. A caravan of Mercedeses rolls through Moscow. Just this afternoon President Yeltsin signed a new decree requiring Russia's leaders to ride in Volgas, rather than the foreign cars they currently use. ''Great news,'' Tchigirinsky says. Knowing he'll get great discounts, he has instructed his staff to buy every Government Mercedes they can.

We roll past dozens of astoundingly vulgar brick cottedgi–the dachas of the new rich. ''I hate them sooooo much,'' he says, almost physically in pain. ''How can anyone have such bad taste?'' His dacha was always reserved for the No. 4 man in the Communist Party. Anastas Mikoyan, Stalin's Foreign Minister, kept a collection of monkeys there.

The grounds are huge and well guarded. ''Twenty years ago they would have shot me for trying to open this gate,'' he says, giggling. There is an underground passage to the sauna house. ''That way, if there was a nuclear attack, our leaders could still sweat in peace.''

After cocktails with builders, architects and politicians, just as dinner is served, a beautiful young drama student, looking like a cross between Juliette Binoche and Julia Roberts, magically appears at his side. She has luminous skin, perfect hair and a demure blue Chanel suit with white piping. She hardly speaks.

There are French, Italian, Swiss, Russian, American and Georgian guests this evening. The maitre'd'hotel is serving three types of fish, two meats, homemade cranberry vodka, Champagne, red and white wine, lamb, chicken, caviar, mushrooms and several salads. Tea is poured from a spectacular, Faberge samovar.

At dinner a woman discusses the hardest part of high-level business deals in Moscow. ''It's not just payoffs,'' she says, explaining the brazen art of pleasing friends in high places. ''It's more subtle than that, and more effective. Say you go to London to see a client, so you take your guy. You buy him some fun. You organize a credit card. You buy his wife furs. The best toy store in the world is around the corner and a car will pick him up at 9 A.M. No need to pay. Does he need some suits? A tailor appears. Furniture? We buy and we ship. It happens like that.''

Friday is the biggest party night in Moscow. But with scores of discos and nearly 60 casinos, every night is club night. Masha has been invited to a private party at Infant, in the Mezhdunarodnaya Hotel. The cover charge is $35, but if you're on the list you're comped.

Guards at the door frisk you before they use metal detectors. You have to check your computers, furs and weapons, but beepers and phones are permitted. Most people switch their phones to ''vibrate'' when they arrive–the music is too loud to hear a ring.

Masha loves to dance; she also loves to check herself out in the mirror. Tonight, with mirrors everywhere and one of her favorite D.J.'s spinning records, there is a harmonic convergence. At 1:30, three guys in Mylar spacesuits hit the dance floor, in honor of Cosmonauts Day. Moscow in the late 90's is eerily like New York in the early 80's. Criminally slender women with occasional nosebleeds hang near the dance floor, swaying rhythmically and humming ''Play That Funky Music (White Boy).'' The men have enormous biceps, flattop haircuts and black clothes. They all drink Coronas. No limes, though.

''Oh, my God, no gym tomorrow,'' Masha shouts breathlessly, tossing her white, sequined jacket on the back of an amplifier. She is wearing jeans, a baseball cap and a cream top that looks yellow under the strobe lights. She is draped in costume jewelry that makes her look trashy–in a good way. Puffs of smoke billow across the floor. At least six people dance with beepers on their belts.

There are better clubs. If Steve Rubell were alive he'd probably own Marika, not far from the Kremlin. Described recently by a local newspaper as having the ''highest concentration of beautiful women and heavily armed men in the world,'' it is the ultimate nightspot, a place so cool it's scary. By day it's a quiet bar. On Friday nights, it becomes the world's finest market for Russian babes and Eurotrash. At 2:30 in the morning all the women look like semi-supermodels or top-level prostitutes. The music is insistent. Everyone is speaking heavily accented English–German accents, Russian accents, French accents. There is enough fur in the cloakroom to open a boutique in Beverly Hills. Outside, dozens of chauffeurs wait patiently in the rain for dawn.


The Bolsheviks introduced subbotnik to Russia as a sort of pagan Easter. Early in April, always on a Saturday, the masses turn out to scrub away the grime of winter. Today is subbotnik–which Muscovites still honor. Because of treacherous winds and the threat of snow, however, the Mayor has called it off.

Every Saturday is cleaning day for Tengiz. Today, he is spiffing up the tiny bakery, scraping the salt patches on the oven and washing the floor. Early this morning he bought 500 kilograms of flour from a wholesaler. The price wasn't too bad. He plans to travel to Georgia soon, and he can't wait. He is sick of seeing drunks on the streets of Moscow. ''At home you would never see that. Never.''

Two Moscow policemen were found dead this afternoon, in a small village called Tomilino, five miles from the city. Each was shot and tied up with his own belt, just a day after testifying in open court against a minor mob figure they had arrested a few weeks before. There are no suspects.

Vazgen is euphoric this evening, arriving home after a long lesson with Krainev, who is visiting from Germany. ''Catastrophe,'' he shouts joyfully, referring to the tiresome winter weather. ''Complete catastrophe.''

Krainev yelled at him for a couple of hours, told him what to play and how to play it. Then he listened. It was great. As always the conversation falls to the subject of competitions. Krainev first saw Vazgen play in 1993 near Venice. Vazgen's coal black eyes widen at the memory. ''The people in the audience were screaming, 'Nuovo Horowitz, Nuovo Horowitz,' '' ''But I won nothing. I know what they say. That I am arrogant. But I play the only way I can. It's not a question of being pigheaded. It's all I know.''

There is a short lottery program, ''Shpilka,'' on the state television network. Shpilka means either a woman's stiletto heel or a sarcastic, needling comment. The host is charming, funny and weird. He goes by the name Man without a Name. At 11 P.M. Masha shows up for her guest spot. She is wearing an electric neon dress that has essentially been painted on. She left her underwear at home, but it probably wouldn't have fit under the dress anyway. There is a series of huge holes in the stomach that create the effect of a neoprene picket fence. She has skin-tight, black vinyl, calf-high boots, a gold cross and about 31 pounds of fake pearls.

She heads straight for the mirror. Her very big hair seems to be in crisis. When the host comes over to give her a little hello pat, and decides that the only safe part of her anatomy to touch is her head, she recoils in horror. ''Don't touch my hair,'' she shrieks. He backs off immediately.

The show lasts five minutes. He wears Playboy bunny ears and juggles iron balls. She takes calls from viewers. The first man is unusually subdued. ''He is probably stunned by my beauty,'' she says on the air. After they are off she is remorseful. ''God, I can't believe I said that. What will people think?'' Then she rushes off to the mirror with a makeup kit to get ready for the second show.


Early this morning the police sealed off the Luzhniki Olympic Sport Center, which is being renovated so it can accommodate the largest retractable roof in the world. A soldier recently back from Chechnya has deserted with his rifle and 180 rounds of ammunition. By 9 A.M. he has already killed a man who was out walking his dog.

Tchigirinsky looks as if he has had a rough weekend. Sitting in the center of the 40-foot table in his dacha dining room, he yawns and lights a cigarette. He hasn't shaved since Friday. There are coffee cups everywhere.

Across from him is a tense European man in a three-piece suit. The man works for Credit Suisse, one of Tchigirinsky's most valued tenants, and one of the most important foreign banks in Russia. He wants to become Tchigirinsky's consultant, showing him how to invest his considerable fortune. Out of prudence, he mentions the possibility of moving some of it out of Russia. Oops. Tchigirinsky slides an unsigned contract back across the highly buffed table, toward the silver chocolate dish.

''I want to work with you,'' Tchigirinsky says. ''But you need to think about who we are.'' The man has to catch a plane to Zurich. He wants to close the deal.

Not today, though. ''This is an incredibly historic moment for this city,'' Tchigirinsky says, starting a slow rant. ''We are on the verge of something special. Who can't see that? The opportunity is unbelievable. There is risk. There are dangers. But they are here.''

Tchigirinsky, an accomplished gambler, swears that he financed his first major building at the roulette wheel. ''Every penny I have is in the ground in Moscow. I'm staying. Stay with me. Take a risk with me. Get rich with me.''

The man has to go. ''Think it all over,'' Tchigirinsky says. ''I'll be in London this week. Call me when I get back.''

Mira comes downtown most Sundays. At noon she is standing in front of the Krasnopresnenskaya Metro station studying a map. She grew up not far from here, near the Novodevichy Monastery. She went to school nearby too. ''Lenin gave a speech in the ninth auditorium at our school,'' she said. ''We were so proud of that.''

She is concerned about her daughter Nadia, with whom she has such sour relations. She has pieced together–from snips of overheard phone conversation and a discussion with another daughter–that after 15 years as a programmer Nadia will start a new job Monday. ''She was so settled in her old job,'' she says.

She rambles on about the crime and fear so common in the city these days. But she is not sad and she is not scared. She misses her husband, who died of cancer 15 years ago. But she sees humor where others would not. Late one night a man ran up to her at a bus stop. He grabbed her from behind. ''I said to him I'm a pensioner, not a pioneerka,'' referring to the Soviet version of Girl Scouts. ''And that man walked me all the way home.''

She admits to nostalgia, but not for Communism. ''I would return to the old Russia,'' she says, ''but only to return to my youth.''

She is walking near the White House, the Government center, checking out the bottle-collecting possibilities. ''I'm optimistic about this country,'' she says. ''People are always saying things will be good here if, if, if. I think things will be good here without the ifs.''

Isn't she bitter at all about her life? ''Why?'' she responds, genuinely surprised. ''I have everything I need. The bottles force me to get out and walk every day. Otherwise, I would be decrepit.'' She ducks behind a pillar, hiding from the wind. ''Well, I've got to run,'' she says with a broad smile. In a minute, she's gone.

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