Moscow Stories: No self-respecting Moscow girl would ever get into a Russian-made car

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The Independent Online

The sales assistant smiled as she explained that the snow-white bedspread was made from hundreds of dead Arctic foxes. "Foxes!" she said slowly in English, when I did not return her smile.

The bedspread was one of hundreds of items on show at Moscow's first "millionaire fair", a cavernous showcase of what you can buy in Putin's Russia if you're loaded. The organisers said that the fair, incongruously located on Moscow's depressing, tower-infested outskirts, was a sign that Russia had really "arrived".

But what surprised me was how little the tastes of rich Russians have changed in recent years. The wealthy still appear to be obsessed with flaunting their riches, lest anyone forget that they have really made it. At one stand, a chained-up young panther was being used to advertise metal luggage, while the manufacturers of an outdoor whirlpool bath had decided to lure punters by filling the tub with scantily clad blondes.

Exclusive cars such as Bentleys and Hummers were on sale, alongside private helicopters, thoroughbred racehorses, multimillion-pound London homes and entire islands. For a millionaire who wanted everyone to know they were made of money, the fair offered the ultimate proof - a suit made of genuine $1 bills.

It was good fun for people-watchers, and no doubt big money changed hands. But what the fair seemed to underline above all was how remote such luxury lifestyle accessories are for most Russians, despite the hype. Many visitors could be seen excitedly photographing themselves alongside items such as a giant yellow speedboat or expensive garden statues. For most people, it was just a nice day out, an escape from reality.

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That the fair contained so many flashy cars was no surprise. Russians love their wheels, and the Italian car-maker Lamborghini has just announced that it is to open a Moscow showroom. Other luxury brands, such as Ferrari and Rolls-Royce, have easily surpassed their sales targets in the past year, despite the fact that they retail in Russia for almost twice their price in the West, owing to extortionate customs duties. Russia's domestically produced cars have been the big losers. In the Soviet era, people put their names down for years in the hope of getting a boxy Lada, but now everyone wants an inomarka - a foreign-made car.

Recently, when I told a friend that I might buy a Russian-made 4x4, he laughed out loud. "Think again," he said. "No self-respecting Muscovite girl will ever get into a Russian-made car with you. They would rather take a taxi. Russian cars just don't cut it."

Moscow's metro is fantastically efficient, but it too has lost out to the cachet of foreign cars. Many prefer to spend hours sitting in the city's appalling traffic jams in their inomarka, while below the streets a subway train with plenty of seats whisks by every three minutes.

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Image, in Putin's Russia, is paramount, and plastic surgery has become another banal yet prestigious indicator of large amounts of disposable income. There is no stigma attached to surgical makeovers: newspapers regularly publish photographs of female celebrities, inviting their readers to spot the ones with "natural breasts".

But increasingly, big money and lurid crime go together in Moscow. One of the city's most famous cosmetic surgeons was stabbed to death on his doorstep recently by a hitman on rollerskates. He had, apparently, been hired by a patient unhappy with their new face.