Out of Russia: Full shelves let Russians learn the art of window-shopping

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MOSCOW - The face of this city is changing so fast these days that if you leave town for a short break, you hardly recognise the city when you return. The Kremlin remains but it seems the streets are forever being renamed and now they are getting a new look too.

Every week, shops and cafes and casinos are springing up, as the Russians say, 'like mushrooms after rain'. I happened to walk down New Arbat yesterday and thought I was in Toronto. The street is only a few steps from my flat but, you know how it is, if you live in Paris you never notice the Eiffel Tower. And so I failed to notice the construction of two huge shopping malls here.

When economic reform first began, Moscow was covered with two things: kiosks that were prototype shops, and banana skins, which reflected a Russian passion for the once-forbidden fruit of the West. But Mayor Yuri Luzhkov hates untidiness and now he is trying to sweep away street trade and put the shopkeepers behind shiny glass counters.

All the kiosks which lined the New Arbat, selling everything from kiwi liquor to vibrators, have been bulldozed to make way for the Valdai Centre at one end and, at the other, the Europa Centre, run as a joint venture with British businessmen.

An indoor shopping centre is to be built, believe it or not, under Manege Square, right under the Kremlin walls. Archaeologists are working furiously to remove whatever medieval treasures may be buried in the ground before the area is covered in concrete. Luckily, Prince Charles did not see this on his recent trip to Russia.

Together with new shops, equipped with the latest beeping cash registers instead of the abacus, Mayor Luzhkov is trying to introduce the concept of customer service. Recently an instruction went out saying that shop assistants had to be polite. If a housewife wanted her salami sliced, then the assistant should do it with a smile. And if, near tea- break time, a customer had chosen an item but not managed to pay for it, the assistant should complete the transaction before slamming up the closed sign and starting to paint her nails. A Russian revolution indeed.

Naturally the consumers are responding and coming out in droves to spend. True, prices are still very high because Russia is producing almost nothing and most of the goods are imported. Moscow is now among the most expensive cities in the world. But many Russians do have money in their pockets. For those who do not, it is still interesting to see what can, in theory, be bought instead of gazing at bare shelves.

Thus shopping is becoming a leisure activity for Russians as it is for many people in the West. My friend Vitaly told me that his mother-in-law had her birthday recently. 'We asked her where she would like to go for an outing and she chose the Irish supermarket on New Arbat. So instead of looking at trees or paintings, we looked at rows of tinned food. She loved it.'

Far be it from me to criticise. No one would wish to return to the agony before 1992 when Russians queued for hours in empty state shops and came away with rotten cabbage and stinking bones if they were lucky. But some of the distinctive character is going out of Moscow, in the same way that British towns have surrendered their flavour to the chain-store culture.

Take the Izmailovo craft market, for example. I remember when it was illegal and artists hung their very individual creations in the trees, ready to remove them and run at a moment's notice if the police arrived. Now you must buy a ticket to enter the market to help pay for the proper stalls which Mayor Luzhkov has thoughtfully erected. Unfortunately, there is little of interest any more among the mass-produced tourist souvenirs.

Or take the 'Forest Products' shop. In the old days it was often empty, but occasionally it would have fresh moose meat and cranberries. Now it sells the same chewing gum and soft drinks as all the other shops in the street.

One Moscow shop refuses to change however: the pet shop on Old Arbat. I found them selling giant cockroaches for racing, a bargain at 2,000 roubles (66p). I was sorely tempted to buy one as a pet for the office but then thought better of it. After all it might have been female and pregnant.