Street Life: How counter culture can save our soul

SAMOTECHNY LANE, MOSCOW

"WHAT'S THIS jungle here?" demands the customer. "That's just Marifat, warming herself," says the shop assistant mildly.

"It's like hacking your way through the Amazon to get to the fish fingers," says the customer.

We are in the Olla mini-mart at the bottom of Samotechny Lane. The Azeri owner has placed a small, plastic palm tree just inside the doorway to welcome the customers. Under the palm tree stands Marifat, our local herb seller, holding up bunches of parsley.

She is blocking the gangway, it has to be said. On the other hand, it is minus 15Coutside, where this poor Uzbek grandmother usually stands. It is so cold that she has to keep her parsley, brought up fresh from Tashkent, wrapped in scarves inside a bag.

The shop assistant, a friendly young man called Sergei, has taken pity on her. He tries to cajole the customer. "Let me get those fish fingers for you, sir."

It does not cost much to be considerate, you might think. However, in the former Soviet Union, rudeness is more often the rule. The Ukrainian press reported recently that a woman had lost her eye after a fight at a market. She dropped a jar of mayonnaise and refused to pay for it. The enraged trader stabbed her in the eye with a shard from the bottle.

Life in Russia is a constant struggle. Even if you have enough to eat and can afford winter boots, it is a tiresome battle with quotidian problems. There is no toilet paper in the shops today. The gas goes out, so you have an ice-cold bath. The bureaucrat you need to see is always having lunch in the only time you are available. It is all too easy to vent your frustration on your fellows.

More than that, the prevailing culture seems to demand that you abuse others. Russians are wonderfully warm and hospitable to their friends but churlish to people they do not know. (They think we are superficially polite but cold in our friendships.) In Russia, to be courteous is to show weakness. Power is everything. You must grovel to your superiors and kick your inferiors.

All of which is why the Olla mini-mart is very special. If democracy must grow from below rather than being imposed from above, then this is a workshop of democracy. It is all thanks to the culture of respect the assistants have created.

When the store first opened, two young women greeted the customers. Both teachers, Teresa and Irina were forced into shop work because they could not make ends meet. Instead of sulking, they began, as they put it, "educating the public" by being unfailingly pleasant. The customers found they enjoyed it and flocked to the shop.

Although the imported groceries were expensive, there was always a queue at the counter. Only new customers, who had not learnt that the rules were different here, jostled and cursed.

Now the teachers-turned-shops girls have gone to become governesses abroad. Sergei, a former miner, has taken over and is always obliging, even when he is exhausted. He treats each customer as an individual.

"We have so many problems in Russia," he says. "Why should we make things even more difficult by being nasty to each other?"

In the midst of economic crisis, the philosophy has paid off. While other supermarkets have gone to the wall, customers have remained loyal to the friendly mini-mart. They may not realise it but, by their small acts of decency, the staff of this corner shop are changing the world.

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