Outside were a line of bent and battered Lada taxis waiting for a fare into the city. A good negotiator could get that ride for a couple of packs of Marlboros. The driver would smoke one pack and sell or trade the cigarettes from the other pack one at a time. Rubles had no value, and it was illegal to pay in hard currency. It was basically a barter economy. As one taxi driver told me in '89, "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us."
The new airport is bright, clean and works. It's filled with posters and digital billboards in multiple languages. The officials actually had a word of welcome. Outside there was a line of shiny taxis made in Europe, Japan and Korea. The ride to town now costs the equivalent of US$60. The driver didn't smoke.
That was another major change I observed from the 80s. Then most people smoked strong Soviet cigarettes and most buildings smelled like an ashtray. Today you see a few smokers but not any more than you see in any major city in the U.S. Nor did I see any advertisements for cigarettes. State control does have some advantages.
The State needs more control over the traffic in Moscow. When we arrived to start the first agency, there were broad streets and boulevards with very little traffic. Most of the cars were Soviet built and black or grey. Left turns were not permitted. To go left you had to make three rights. Today those same wide streets are jammed with cars from many countries in many colors. Surprisingly, there are quite a number of exotic and luxury brands. In fact, there is a Ferrari dealership within shouting distance of the old KGB headquarters. Traffic crawls with little control or courtesy. Right of way is claimed by the bigger more expensive vehicle.
The slow drive from the airport in a maroon Peugeot gave me time to take in the biggest change of all in the cityscape ... color. In 1988 Moscow there was no color. No advertising, no retail window decoration, no colorful signage. Well, there certainly is now. Ladybird Johnson would be appalled. Big lighted billboards are everywhere, some digital. Posters on bus shelters. Posters on utility poles. Banners stretched across boulevards. Neon signs announce retail establishments, and bright display windows show what's for sale.
Y&R put up the first neon sign in Moscow on Pushkin Square in 1989 for Coca-Cola. We did it to help Coke support its biggest customer, McDonald’s, which was opening its first restaurant in the U.S.S.R. It was a 700-seat establishment on Pushkin Square. The sign was a simple time-and-temperature indicator with a big red neon Coca-Cola logo atop an apartment building across the square from the Golden Arches. Not very exciting by Times Square standards, but it was the talk of the town back then. And, since the line to get in to the McDonald’s was three hours long it made lots of impressions. As the taxi drove from the airport to the hotel, I wondered what blight we started with that first Coke sign.
Another difference I noticed through the taxi window was the people. Gone were the dour expressions, downcast eyes and plodding pace. The people I saw on the street this warm spring evening had their heads up and walked with purpose. They smiled at one another. They wore colorful, better clothes. They appeared happier, healthier, and dare I say, free.
It was a lot to take in after a long flight from Colorado. But as I got out of the taxi at the Ritz Carlton Hotel (another big change), I too was smiling. I was happy for these wonderfully resilient people who 20 years ago were so eager to learn about the ways of the West and so generous with what little they had. These enduring people who went from being serfs to peasants to comrades to consumers with a plethora of choices they could have never imagined in '88.
Kids born since the fall of the Berlin Wall do not know of the hardship of the old command economy where the average housewife stood in line three hours a day to buy a bar of soap or an orange. Then people had rubles but little to buy. Now for many the reverse is true. Like most places.
For me this taxi ride from the airport seemed to have started 22 years ago. Moscow is a very different city today and seemingly better for its citizens. Yes, it has the same problems found in big cities around the world, congestion, pollution, graffiti and more. But I'm pleased say, "You've come a long way, babushka!"