In The Moscow Scene, Geoffrey Bocca’s 1976 book about life in the Soviet Union, his description of a visit to a restaurant in the Soviet capital had to be re-read many times to be believed. By the 1970s restaurant waiters were viewed as the lowest of the low in this most dystopian of countries, and it showed. The waiter Bocca encountered brought new meaning to surly, the greasy, tattered menu he handed to him literally hadn’t changed in 25 years, and then the waiter proceeded to start an argument: Bocca wanted borscht and beef fillet, but was gruffly told he would be having caviar and Chicken Kiev instead.
Bocca’s Moscow experiences, along with those of Hedrick Smith (author of The Russians, and The New Russians), kept coming to mind while reading Amor Towles’ excellent 2016 novel, A Gentleman In Moscow. There was this burning desire to ask Towles questions about the backwards U.S.S.R. witnessed and reported on by Bocca and Smith, the one in the process of going backwards in Towles’ novel, plus how he would analyze the country’s decline from bad to really bad. What’s important is that while communism brought it to its knees, Russia was hardly a paradise before this most anti-human of ideologies was cruelly foisted on its people.