Cafes chart Moscow's drive for 'la dolce vita'

Eating out is no longer the preserve of the super-rich, the mafia or foreigners, writes Steve Crawshaw in Moscow

A sandwich bar, packed at lunchtime, with a queue snaking out of the door. The local speciality? Hot baguettes, piled high with beef, ham, turkey and pastrami. A dozen tables inside and a couple more outside, facing on to the noisy and dusty street. It is all rather ordinary and, partly because of that, rather extraordinary.

Kombi's, just opposite the Mayakovsky Square metro station in central Moscow, is inconspicuous these days. That in itself is a notable change.

Five years ago, there was only a handful of semi-private restaurants in the then Soviet capital. Even two years ago, Western-style eateries were an exception. Now, they are everywhere. Only an obsessive could keep track of every new restaurant and cafe that has opened in Moscow in the past year.

The clientele has also changed. Until recently, only foreigners and the Russian filthy rich could afford to eat out. Now that pattern is slowly changing. In Kombi's, and in a string of similar bars across the city, the customers are mostly Russian. They are not typical, not yet, at least. But nor are they from the gun-toting, limousine-owning classes. Take Olga, 30, who used to teach English. She now earns around $800 (pounds 500) a month: "Things are beginning to change. Most of those who come here are around 30 or younger. For people in that age group, things are really changing."

Three Armenians sitting at a corner table agree. They all earn around $1,000 a month as computer programmers: "Lunch here is expensive. But we come here quite often."

Tania, 40, works for a firm selling Russian tights: "Russian tights are 10 times cheaper and our suppliers are gradually learning that they must improve the quality, too". She also earns around $1,000 a month. In Moscow, that can go a long way, at least if, like most Moscovites, you do not have pay enormous, foreigner-style rents.

For these people, spending five or six dollars at lunchtime is no longer the absurd extravagance it would have been only two years ago. Marina, a 32-year-old accountant, throws her hands open wide to describe the gap between her present and previous earning power: "The difference between heaven and earth."

In the shops, similar changes have taken place. The well stocked supermarket has multiplied. At the crowded supermarket near where I am staying, you usually only hear Russian.

Here, too, the shoppers cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as typical. But nor are they rich freaks. Alla Tkachova, a bookkeeper earning $800, says: "The prices are high. But that's understandable."

The security men standing at the door, patrolling the store, armed, and wearing fatigues, are a reminder that Moscow is still far from normal. In some respects it is perhaps less abnormal than a couple of years ago, when Western prices were unthinkable for all but the mafia and the KGB. (The banana boom is another sign of that: almost every street corner seems to have a stall selling bananas - and the bananas sell).

Tatiana Shpuntenko, manager of the new supermarket, acknowledges that the cashiers can scarcely afford to shop in the store where they work. But, she insists: "Already, it's better than a year or two ago. It can't not be. In some years, it could be possible for ordinary people to use these shops - just like in the West."

Moscow is not indicative of the rest of the country which still lives on a different economic planet. Even in Moscow, however, such changes, until recently, would have seemed impossible.

Few doubt that the mafia or mafias, still have a stranglehold on the economy. But Tania, the seller of Russian tights, sees a ray of hope even here. "I think it's a transitional phase, though nobody knows how long it will last. Eventually people want to become respectable."

For the older generation there is little hope. Crime is up, security is gone, jobs prospects are few and pensions are low.

Among some of the younger generation, though, there is an almost startling self confidence.

Nineteen-year-old Mikhail who now wipes tables at Kombi's returns to his automobile engineering course in the autumn. He has no regrets for the Soviet period, when he would have been guaranteed a job for life, a basic standard of living and safe streets: "The prospects are better now. In a few years time I hope I can open my own car repair workshop. Now, anything is possible."

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