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Moscow embraces the past

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Alexander Zaitsev, 39, is general manager of Cafe Pushkin, in central Moscow. Zaitsev, a Moscow native, has managed the restaurant for five years.

Q. Late spring and early summer in Moscow -- what's that like?

A. Everything is green, and the temperature is about 25 Celsius (77 Fahrenheit) -- nice and not so hot.

Q. How is central Moscow looking these days?

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A. Seriously, it is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with lots of interesting historical places. For the last 10 years, there has been a big restoration going on.

Q. How long has the restaurant been there?

A. Ten years. We're in a five-level building that looks like it was built in the 18th century but was built in 1998. It's like there are two restaurants here -- an informal cafe in the basement and the traditional restaurant upstairs. There are two different menus.

We have typical Russian cuisine. Most popular is a salad named Olivier -- a typical Russian salad from the 18th century. Its ingredients are chicken, potatoes, carrots and other things. For soups, we have one made from sauerkraut called shchi. That's also a very Russian dish and is very tasty. We have piroshki -- small baked pies -- and sturgeon, which is a very Russian fish.

There's beef Stroganoff -- we do the original recipe -- plus a dish called kotleti pogarskie, which is veal and chicken served with potatoes. Very juicy, and it tastes fantastic.

Q. What kind of customers dine there?

A. Most anyone comes. If you're a student who doesn't have a lot of money but has a girlfriend, you can go to our cafe and order dessert and tea. We have more than 30 desserts in the cafe. And the atmosphere there isn't intimidating. ...

We have a nice collection of wines from around the world.

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We have breakfasts for businessmen and for people who come in after an all-night party and are hungry.

We get Russians looking for a special meal or to meet someone or celebrate something. We get foreigners who are living here, and tourists, too.

Q. Your place is named after Alexander Pushkin, right? The famous playwright from Moscow? I know that in the early 1800s, he popularized writing in everyday speech -- and he was lionized centuries later during the Soviet decades.

A. Pushkin was from Moscow, but he was more a poet than a writer, and in any period of history, he's considered the No. 1 poet in Russia.

Q. Big city ... big-city traffic?

A. It's very bad downtown. It's one of our ongoing problems. We have more cars than roads. I heard that Moscow is the No. 1 market for Mercedes. I live in the southern part of the city; to get to the cafe is 20 minutes by car.

Q. Do you drive or take the subway? Moscow is famous for its subways -- and beautiful old subway stations.

A. I drive. But you're correct in that there are lots of beautiful subway stations. In fact, they've opened new stations that resemble the old ones.

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Q. Is Moscow expensive?

A. Let's say it's different. I was in New York five months ago -- and that's not cheap. Moscow expensive? You can find anything you want for what money you have. There are all types of restaurants, hotels and so on. But it is not cheap, like, say, Jakarta, Indonesia.

Q. What's your advice that people won't find in guidebooks?

A. My main advice is this: Don't be afraid to visit our country. Moscow is a normal European city, not much different than Paris. In either, you'll be able to find what a tourist needs to find. Also, plan to stay here for at least a week: What we show tourists is unbelievable. And see more than Moscow -- St. Petersburg and other cities here are very interesting.

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