MOSCOW – I have just returned to Star City (Russia’s spaceflight training center) from a long weekend in Moscow, and it struck me how much – and how little – has changed since I first came here 20 years ago, in the spring of 1989.
As I passed an ad in the Moscow metro promoting advertising space for sale, I remembered hurtling down one of those same long, fast escalators sometime in the mid-1990’s with a pioneering advertising man. “Look at all those empty walls!” he marveled. “Some day they could be full of ads.” Today, they are, indeed, crammed with ads, fulfilling his wildest dreams. A few years ago, I would be thrilled to see a Web site listed within any of those ads. Now URLs are routine.
In fact, a couple of years ago, the Russian search-engine company Yandex (I’m on its board), took out an ad gently poking fun at Russia’s old regime of opacity. At the bottom of every escalator in the Moscow metro is a glass booth for the escalator monitor – usually a grumpy-looking woman whose sole job is to turn off the escalator in case of an emergency. There’s a sign on the booth that says, “The escalator monitor does not answer questions,” in a Soviet-style formulation that’s close to saying, “The monitor does not give consultations.”
Yandex bought ads in about half the subway cars, saying, “The operator does not give consultations… so please address your questions to Yandex.” Everyone immediately got the reference. Yandex’s ads are gone, but those signs are, unfortunately, still there – not just in the metro, but in many other places where public servants do not want to talk to the public – police stations, ticket offices, and public buildings of many kinds.