View of St. Basil Cathedral in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: Jamie Dettmer / VOA)
View of St. Basil Cathedral in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: Jamie Dettmer / VOA)

MOSCOW - What would Vladimir Lenin have said?

After the Bolshevik revolution, "while many of the other Kremlin magnates were soon enjoying the trappings of power, Lenin and Nadya [his wife] lived fairly modestly. Their domestic arrangements were similar to the way they had existed in exile — unostentatious," writes Victor Sebestyen, author of an acclaimed new biography on Lenin.

The couple rarely dined in the well-stocked Kremlin restaurant — Lenin's wife could be seen "trudging along the pavements with black bread under her arm and a tureen of soup."

Across from Lenin's Mausoleum in Red Square, where the preserved, waxy body of the Soviet leader has been on display since after his death in 1924, there's another shrine — this one dedicated to conspicuous consumption.

The Kremlin is reflected in a GUM Department store
The Kremlin is reflected in a GUM Department store window display in Moscow. (Photo: Jamie Dettmer / VOA)

Conspicuous consumption

On weekends, the GUM department store is heaving with moneyed Muscovites — and gawping provincial Russians and Chinese tourists, who can't afford what's stocked in the brand name stores that include Cartier, Prada, Hermes, Bulgari, John Lobb and Mont Blanc.

I try on a pair of John Lobb suede brogues. The price? Just $2,600 — double the already astronomical price of the same shoes in London.

GUM's artful windows draw tourists' camera lenses almost as much as the Kremlin and the multicolored onion domes of St. Basil Cathedral. About the only people who don't loiter outside the department store for a stare as they enter Red Square are a couple of elderly bearded Italians wearing the style of cap Lenin wore.

They stumble reverently toward Lenin's Mausoleum.

FILE - Customers walk past Christmas trees decorat
FILE - Customers walk past Christmas trees decorated for New Year celebrations in the Moscow GUM department store in Moscow, Russia, Nov. 29, 2017.

For anyone who has not visited the Russian capital for many years, the makeover is nothing short of astonishing. The city center's infrastructure puts to shame many Western European capitals. Old buildings once in disrepair have been restored; a huge financial center has been built.

Moscow boasts new restaurants with gourmet chefs, funky bars and luxurious hotels. The beefy bodyguards also have changed — they've now grown necks, wear tailored Italian suits and can be as polite as the city center's tourist police.

But what you see in the city center is a far cry from how Russians generally live. Russians on average earn only $558 month. Even skilled workers in the capital would have to work more than several months to afford those John Lobb shoes. The average salary for a skilled educated worker in Moscow is about $1,000 per month.

A view inside GUM Department store in Moscow. (Pho
A view inside GUM Department store in Moscow. (Photo: Jamie Dettmer / VOA)

When I lived here briefly nearly 20 years ago, there were three color choices for clothing — gray, black and risqué brown. Not so now. Another thing noticeable is how Muscovites are far more expressive and demonstrative in public than they were in the first few years after the end of Communism. Then in the public space — except, obviously, at protests — Muscovites still adopted the uniform guarded blank Soviet expression, giving nothing away. 

Poisoning fallout

With diplomatic tempers flaring over the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, I'd been warned by fellow reporters to be prepared for hostility from Russians. I didn't experience any. There was the normal gruffness and unhelpfulness from officialdom — and the tiresome underlying insinuation that all Western reporters are spies. There were playbacks on my phone — a tell-tale sign of eavesdropping.

The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei
FILE - The forensic tent, covering the bench where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found, is repositioned by officials in protective suits in the center of Salisbury, Britain, March 8, 2018.

Russia Today reporters, with quirky resumes and a penchant for the kind of fare that would have warmed the hearts of grizzled KGB propagandists, are the most hostile. I spotted one I last saw in Ukraine's Donbas region happily identifying to heavily armed pro-Russian separatists Western reporters she thought were spooks. She also had snarled at Western journalists for refusing to contribute money in a whip-round for the separatist cause during a press conference in Donetsk.

State-owned Russia Today has had a field day with the Skripal affair, trotting out ever more dubious characters to support the shifting — often outlandish — explanations offered by Kremlin officials and Russian lawmakers about whom might have been behind the nerve-agent poisoning on British soil. Everyone from the "devious" British themselves to the inculpable Swedes have been blamed. The British, though, are now facing a marketing challenge.

So far, their public case for alleging that the attempted assassination was state-sanctioned has rested on arguments of capability, intent and a pattern of highly aggressive Kremlin behavior, from the annexation of Crimea to cyberattacks on Western states. Add to that multiple odd deaths of Russian dissidents, critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and former spies on British soil.

But the British have failed to prove the Soviet-developed nerve agent Novichok used in the poisoning had been made in a Russian laboratory, allowing the Kremlin to echo mobster Al Capone, who once complained amid a bloodbath in Chicago, "It seems like I'm responsible for every crime that takes place."

On Tuesday, a top scientist at Porton Down, the British defense facility, disclosed that his team had been unable to determine the toxin used had beyond doubt been made in Russia. The scientists had "not identified the precise source," he said. That contradicts a statement made, for example, by Britain's foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who told German television two weeks ago that Porton Down had been "categorical" about the Russian origin of the substance used in the nerve-agent attack.

The gap between plausibility (who else would want Skripal dead and had the capability?)  and proof has prompted charges of the British overstating their case. And that's making it harder for British leader Theresa May to maintain the Western alliance she mustered to punish Russia.

Russia Spy Diplomats
FILE - The Russian embassy is pictured in Paris, March 26, 2018. France expelled four Russian diplomats in show of solidarity with Britain over the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy.

The deputy chairman of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, Armin Laschet, said Tuesday: "If one forces nearly all NATO countries into solidarity, shouldn't one have certain evidence?"

There already was a clear split in Europe, with the Slavic countries most reluctant to join in the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats — Slovakia, Slovenia and Bulgaria have expelled no Russians. "We are seeing the emergence not so much of an Iron Curtain but an Iron Veil," quips a Western diplomat.

Just three percent of Russians believe the Kremlin was responsible for the Skripal poisoning, according to the state-run polling agency VTsIOM. Nine percent think the poisoning was an accident, 17 percent suspect criminals were the perpetrators. And 38 percent say the poisoning was the handiwork of Russia's enemies.

Independent observers are generally circumspect about VTsIOM's polls, but the Skripal findings are not that much different from what I encountered in conversations with Muscovites. The biggest fear of the young, though, is that it will become even harder to secure visas to Western countries — and that Russia increasingly will turn its back on the West and become more closed.

"Many of the good things you see here in Moscow now is because we have been more open to the world," says a 20-something marketing analyst, who moved from Siberia. "I hope we don't step back," she told me.

Deadly fire

We talked also about the awful March 25 shopping mall blaze in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, where she comes from, in which at least 64 people died, including 41 children. She's annoyed with Putin — even though he did visit the town two days after the fire.

A woman reacts during a funeral of a victim of a s
FILE - A woman reacts during a funeral of a victim of a shopping mall fire at a cemetery in Kemerovo, Russia, March 28, 2018.

Reading the transcript of what Putin said to local officials in Kemerovo on that trip is eye-opening. He's all toughness and brusqueness as he promises to make sure there's punishment for officials and inspectors who failed to enforce building codes and fire regulations. There's little humanity in his words, though, and no emotional understanding expressed of the pain bereaved parents must be enduring or the terror the children must have experienced in their final horrifying moments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at a
FILE - Russian President Vladimir Putin lays flowers at a memorial made for the victims of a fire in a multi-story shopping center in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, about 3,000 kilometers (1,900 miles) east of Moscow, March 27, 2018.

And then there's this chilling line. "We talk about demography, encouraging people to have more children, but look how many kids we lost as a result of this incident," he concluded.

His comment prompted the outrage of Echo of Moscow radio presenter Olga Bychkova. "He's talking about demography!" she exclaims to me. "What do people mean to him? They are serfs and one should have many because one needs working hands! Or livestock? How could he talk like that?"