Have roubles, want sofa-bed

Napoleon tried it, and failed. So did Hitler. Now the Swedes (in the shape of Ikea) want to invade Russia. So what does Mrs Melikhova think?
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The Independent Online

"The problem is that you can't find Russian stuff that is small enough," said Lyudmila Melikhova, a 36-year-old language teacher who is on her way to Ikea, the Swedish furniture giant which last month opened a superstore just outside Moscow.

Eighteen months ago, she and her husband Dmitri, a computer specialist, bought a two-room apartment for the equivalent of £23,000 on the outskirts of Moscow. They share it with their three-and-a-half year old daughter Anastasia, who has a cot in their bedroom. They do not have much money to spare and are saving up to buy a second-hand car for £350. But they are on the look out for some new furniture.

On 22 March, Ikea opened its doors to Russia for the first time. On the first day of trading, 37,500 customers poured into its showrooms, peering at glistening kitchen equipment and sofa beds priced at 20-30 per cent less than they would cost in Russian shops - even if they were available. Cars backed up along the main road for three miles, to the dismay of passengers trying to catch their flights at the nearby Sheremetevo airport. Demand was so much greater than expected that just two weeks after Ikea opened, its stockroom - a vast warehouse - was almost empty. To cope with demand, the company was forced to run daily convoys from Sweden to Moscow carrying new supplies.

What do ordinary Russians - men and women like Lyudmila - make of it all? Since the fall of Communism, most people have seen only a limited improvement in their standard of living. This is particularly true of the furniture in their flats. Under the Soviet Union these were furnished in a curious mixture of styles. There was usually solid 19th century-style cupboards and tables, often far too large for little apartments. These were supplemented by small but essential items such as shelving or stools, which had to be home-made.

Buying furniture often absorbed several month's salary, partly because customers wanted something that was tough and durable, and partly because Soviet furniture factories found it easier to fulfill their five-year plans by producing heavy-duty items. They had much less interest in selling smaller pieces such as stools, though Ikea has found that these are in great demand among Russians - who like to drink tea and vodka with their friends in kitchens too small for more than one or two regular chairs.

Lyudmila looked with some longing at the kitchens in Ikea. At the moment she and her family sit on rough wooden stools made by Dmitri. Beside the sink there is a heavily loaded shelving unit which sways dangerously at the push of a hand. In the sitting room is a well-made oak desk from Belarus, but the sofas are old. She says: "Many Russians don't have a separate room for a bedroom, so we want sofa- beds which fold up in the daytime. But these are not usually of good quality here."

For Lyudmila, the attraction of Ikea lies in its variety: "You can walk around here. You can see how you would design your house." It is also cheap. Wooden stools cost some £3 each. Lyudmila points out that there are lots of small, inexpensive items such as simple metal brackets to hold up wooden shelves, which would cost £8 in a Russian store - when they can be found at all.

Johannes Stenberg, the marketing manager of the superstore, says that he always thought small items costing a few pounds would sell well, because most of his customers "have thin wallets". He had expected that they would be much more cautious before they spent serious money. In fact they started buying whole kitchens from the moment the store opened.

Lyudmila was attracted by the restrained but elegant style of the smaller items, and ended up buying a coloured lamp. But mostly she liked furniture that was compact and functional. She spent several minutes lingering over a double-decker child's bed with a small wooden ladder, which was on sale for about £250. She looked at a bookcase, but decided that she preferred the sort "with glass covers, because otherwise they collect dust". In the children's section she bought a holder for drawing paper for her daughter.

Back at her apartment Lyudmila said that she would like to buy the Ikea kitchen, but she did not think she could afford it just yet. Glancing at the gloomy wallpaper which had come with her new apartment, she said: "Every family moving into a new place starts repairing it immediately. Often they throw out the doors and get new ones." Her neighbour had evidently done just that. Propped against the wall beside the lift was an old deal door which had been roughly torn off its hinges and discarded.

So does the arrival of Ikea mean a new deal for the long-suffering Russian consumer? Almost certainly not - or at least not for the moment. The present superstore at Khimki only opened after extraordinary efforts and frequent setbacks.

A tank trap made out of enormous steel girders marks the furthest point reached by German patrols in their advance on Moscow in the winter of 1941. Sixty years later it caused a bitter quarrel between Yuri Luzhkov, the all-powerful mayor of Moscow, and Ikea, which had built its superstore just a few hundred yards from the monument.

Ikea planned to build a bridge over the main road to St Petersburg, which runs past their store, to enable customers to reach their parking lot without adding to the already horrendous traffic jams. Unfortunately, the company had already offended Mayor Luzhkov when, after failing to agree a price for a site in Moscow, it went ahead and built its enormous shop at Khimki, just beyond the city limits.

Too late Ikea discovered, when their bridge was half-completed, that they were still not beyond Mayor Luzhkov's reach. He may not control the site on which the superstore is built, but under an obscure regulation, he does control the road itself. He suddenly forbade Ikea to build a central support for its bridge, on the patriotic grounds that it would obscure the view of the tank-trap monument.

"We are in an absurd situation," says Johannes Stenberg. "Moscow city says we mustn't build a bridge, and Moscow oblast (the governing body of the region outside the city) says that we have to. Whichever way, we are breaking the rules." Nor were Ikea's problems with the mayor confined to its half-built bridge. Mr Stenberg says that his company was saddened to read in a Russian newspaper "a copy of a secret protocol from the mayor's office ordering a campaign against Ikea in papers and TV channels controlled by Moscow city".

The Swedish company also faced other unexpected difficulties. Ikea had spent heavily on an advertising campaign. It planned to place advertisements in the Moscow underground system showing brightly coloured pictures of its furniture with the slogan: "Every tenth European was made in our beds." Another advertisement showed the Ikea catalogue with a yellow sofa on the cover and the words: "The most read book. After the Bible, thank God." Although Moscow is one of the raunchier cities in the world, and only two per cent of Russians go anywhere near a church, the officials in charge of advertising in the Metro said that they were deeply shocked, and forbade their display.

Then the Russian customs decided that it would levy custom charges on incoming goods by weight rather than by value (this is a little less lunatic than it sounds, because Russian companies routinely undervalue imports). Johannes Stenberg says that this obstacle set back the project by six months while Ikea was obliged to negotiate "with three different ministries during a period when there were three changes of government. We now pay an average of 28 per cent on the value of goods imported while the international average is 3-4 per cent."

Ikea is a family-owned company and, fortunately for itself, can therefore afford to take a long-term view on profits which a publicly quoted company could not. Its managers in Moscow seem a little bemused by their own success. Moscow papers and television are even reporting sympathetically the company's activities, despite their initial demands for money in return for favourable publicity being turned down.

Nevertheless, foreign companies trying to satisfy the need for cheap but high-quality goods felt by middle-class Russians like the Melikhov family, may find, like the German patrols of 1941, that it is easier to look at Moscow than to enter it.