Moscow's street marketeers

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NOT SO LONG ago they called it 'speculation'. Under Soviet communism, draconian laws dispatched 'speculators' to labour camps just for standing around on street corners flogging goods in short supply for a modest profit. Those days are gone, almost certainly for good. Russia has become a Strana chudes, or Wonderland. Capitalism is out of the closet; there is a new sense of freedom, enterprise and licence. What is still the biggest country on earth is lurching towards a market economy.

The queues for everything and anything that were the hallmark of the Soviet system have largely disappeared - replaced by sad lines of little old ladies desperately trying to get a piece of the action. They can be seen near Moscow's markets and underground stations selling a single bottle of vodka, a packet of cigarettes, a tin of caviare, a can of Coca-Cola, a Western chocolate bar, a carton of kefir (soured milk) or a tub of margarine.

But there is also a whole new generation of capitalists which is deeply involved in the street markets. Young Muscovites are caught up in the craze for making money. Spending the day on their feet selling Marlboro by the packet, however, is not for them.

Russia's new entrepreneurs are heavily involved in the giant bankruptcy sale of a fallen regime. In the Arbat, Moscow's main pedestrian mall, they sell Red Army equipment: peaked caps, boots, gas-masks, epaulettes, watches, compasses and medals dished out for bravery in front lines, whether against Nazi Germany or in Afghanistan. Nothing and nobody is sacrosanct. Stunning silk and velvet Communist party banners are prised out of old apparatchiks' bottom drawers; portraits in linen of Stalin vie with other profitable political kitsch such as painted wooden dolls of Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton.

'School is a waste of time,' says Tolya, 14, a drop-out and a typically seasoned businessman. 'I've been arrested for trying to buy dollars in the Arbat. I was one of the first kids to wash cars in the streets. I've sold postcards, metal pin badges and books of postage stamps. Last year I did nicely out of complete military uniforms. Now I'm into rabbit-fur hats. I buy them dirt cheap from an old woman who doesn't know how good they are. People are crazy for them. And when they don't want fur hats, I'll think of something they do want. One day I'm going to make a lot of money.'

The Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev was once asked if he could envisage a situation arising where the Soviet Union embraced capitalism. 'Only when shrimps whistle,' he said dismissively.

In Russia these days you can't hear the sales patter for the noise of whistling shrimps.