Traders offer taste of luxury to Muscovites

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The Independent Online
IF MOSCOW was once a sullen queue, the city this summer has become a vibrant bazaar where you can buy almost anything your heart desires, from frilly knickers to a stuffed owl.

The transformation has been wrought by Boris Yeltsin's policy of allowing Russians to trade. Kiosks have sprung up all over town like mushrooms after rain, but the warm weather has brought out an even larger number of individual traders who sit on picnic chairs or simply stand in the street holding up their wares. They are so many that the racketeers have given up trying to control them, as they do more organised enterprises.

Can this really be Moscow? Walk down Petrovka Street, where the most exciting sight used to be a dummy in national costume holding a dusty plastic loaf in the window of a bread shop, and now you will see little stalls selling chewing-gum, fizzy drinks, canned ham, shampoo, footless tights, perfume, beer, liqueurs and Western cigarettes. The bigger kiosks have Barbie dolls, cordless telephones, vibrators and clothes - including silk shirts from China and leather jackets from Turkey. Antique merchants are selling family heirlooms, which is where you will get the owl.

Where have all these goodies come from? Almost certainly, some fell off the back of a lorry but others have been purchased by a new generation of Russian merchants. Taking advantage of freer travel laws and the slowness of the government in imposing import taxes, they catch the bus to Istanbul or the train to Peking and come back with suitcases bulging with the latest fashions and gadgets for their customers.

At one stall, Katya was treating herself to a new pair of patent leather shoes, trying them on in the street. 'They're a bit tight, but I suppose they'll stretch. They're very expensive (2,800 roubles) but I don't mind high prices if it means there is something to buy.'

Not everyone agrees. With inflation, the average salary is now around 5,000 roubles (pounds 20) which means that a shopping trip to the kiosks is a luxury. For pensioners struggling on 1,200 roubles a month, it is out of the question. This breeds resentment. 'You wait till the revolution comes and we will burn down all these kiosks,' said the plumber who came to fix my bathroom. In anticipation of this, the bigger kiosks employ former policemen to guard their premises.

It is true the street trade has an unsavoury side. This year has seen an increase in cases of botulism as the unscrupulous have hawked meat products well past their sell-by date. The once clean streets of Moscow have been piled high with rubbish. But now the city council demands that traders license themselves. The other evening, police drove down Tver Street, breaking up huddles of old ladies making ends meet by selling milk, bought earlier in the day in the cheap state shops, to workers hurrying home from their offices.

Depressed by this sight, my husband and I thought to cheer ourselves up in one of the 'summer cafes' which have appeared under the trees on the Boulevard Ring. We ordered champagne from a man we took to be the waiter and were just congratulating ourselves on how Moscow was nearly like Paris these days, when the 'waiter', who turned out to be a mobster, punched Costya in the face and broke his nose. Moscow is indeed improving, but it is not quite Paris yet.