Moscow Posh

With its History and Traditions Brutally Interrupted by the Worldwide Experiment of Communism, Russia Has Lost its Own Scale of Values

News | Tamara Nosenko | October 2007

Young Muscovites enjoy spending their money at a high-end night club (Photo: Euro Crisis)

by Tamara Nosenko

In the mid-nineties there was a joke about two Russians in Paris. One shows a Versace tie to another, proudly announcing that he bought it for 1000 Dollars. Another says: "You were the fool to get it so cheap; I know the place here, just around the corner, where the same tie costs 2000 Dollars."

Summer 2007: I am finally in my hometown of Moscow, Russia, after six months of living and studying in Vienna. Not exactly shocked but puzzled, reflecting on what’s happening in the city I used to live in. There is construction everywhere I go; I know that the mayor is building new offices and apartments wherever he can find an unused ten square meters.

I have a feeling that no ordinary person can afford these places, but the real estate market is still booming and it seems as if there is no end to this rapid escalation of prices. For one square meter, the average price in Moscow is now €4,500, and €10,500 per meter for the new apartment buildings in the center of the city. Aggressive advertising is everywhere – huge and bright billboards screaming from every corner: "C’mon, Go Shopping Today, Get it Now, Tomorrow it will be 10 Times More Expensive."

One says: "Sale of New Apartments in the Sokol District, Ends Monday" – and I instantly start wondering: What day is it today and which Monday did they mean? Another says: "It’s stupid to be poor. And to look poor. Go shopping." This offensive statement is signed with the name of a boutique, "Cleopatra."

It feels like a shopping rush in the city, the constant and somewhat rude drive to get everything – starting from the most advanced vacuum cleaner to a new Bentley – both of which make a comforting purring sound when switched on. At the same time the city’s population is rapidly increasing. It is now well over 15 million people (including legal and illegal, permanent and temporary migrants) according to the unofficial estimates of various ministries. Are all these people able to afford a Bentley? Or is it just a couple of percent of this enormous crowd that the Russian sales are focused on?

The minimum wage in Moscow is approximately €160 per month. According to Noviye Izvestiya (New Tidings), every fifth citizen’s monthly income is less than this figure.

The same source says that there are only 80 thousand "official" millionaires. Mercer Human Resource Consulting (USA) rates the quality of living in Moscow at the same level with Mumbai (India) and Abidjan (Cote D’Ivoire), rated 201st world-wide, compared with Vienna, holding the 28th rank.

However, in the Cost of Living survey by the same organisation, which covers 143 cities across six continents and measures the comparative cost of over 200 items in each location  including housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment -- Moscow holds the undisputed first place.

Well, after all, I am not just here to reflect on reality and complicate reports – I’ve got a group of friends visiting me tonight, and it’s time to get some food. There is an ordinary supermarket close to my apartment. Exhausted from my struggle over the menu and the hopeless attempt to remember what my friends wanted me to order, I finally reach the cashier.  But wait; there is a stand with newspapers and magazines. Nothing unusual, current editions of Vogue and Newsweek, some newcomers on the Russian print market, some long-standers, the survivors of the unpredictable local market economy here, for all of us to read, in every price range from €0.30 to a maximum of €20.

But something is definitely wrong. I stop and stare. One price tag says – 6354 Rubles. That’s approximately two hundred Euros. All that for a monthly periodical? The magazine’s name screams out: Possession. For those who still have no clue, there is a subtitle: "A Catalogue of the Most Expensive Items in Russia."

Dear God, I think, thank you for finally gathering all the information I really do not need in one square magazine – it is hard to imagine the old days, when no one would have wanted such a thing. Looking at it with an unprofessional eye, you can immediately tell that the design is outdated; by reading it, you can find from two to ten grammatical mistakes per article; holding it, one can really feel the heaviness of all the horses, yachts, country houses and penthouses, Lamborghinis and diamonds it presents to the wide Moscow audience.

The mission statement says that this magazine is created "For People Who Set the Rules." What kind of rules, one may wonder. I flip through the pages, mesmerized just as an ordinary middle-age man rushes past me and grabs up a copy of Possession on his way to the cashier. But of course, he didn’t notice the price! Won’t he be shocked when he notices the bill? I want to see his face.

Not a single muscle moves on his face as he signs the check. The man is not irritated, or even surprised to see the total. No, it is all perfectly fine with him.

What has happened to Muscovites? It seems we were not able to resist the flow of temptations mixed with usually sleazy opportunities to become rich when the economical chaos overwhelmed the capital of Russia during the transitional years.  The country, whose history and traditions were brutally interrupted by the worldwide experiment of communism, lost its own scale of values. It started with more serious things like a Stalinist disregard for human life, and descended to all aspects of human nature, including the lifestyle behind the iron curtain.

Who could have imagined owning a Bentley during those times? People lived with a limited set of goods – the same ugly cars, the same clumsy furniture, the same dull clothes – not stylish, but practical. Getting different winter shoes – as horrible as others but at least different – was almost impossible. And it was almost unbearable to wear them because they were so uncomfortable. Hours of queues full of quarrels, and even fights, just to get inside the store that started selling awkwardly colored bath towels, still stand clearly before my eyes. And anyway, the color bled away after the first washing.

Now there are no traces of the iron curtain. No more cages, no more limits. We look like a child from an orphanage left alone in the toyshop with the door open. I wish it were all that innocent. We are heading to the glamorous life at the highest speed in our Lamborghinis and have no time to stop and reflect on what’s going on along the road.

There is nothing wrong with being rich as long as there are at least decent conditions established for the other people. But as long as the Russian orphanages and hospitals for elderly generations are lacking such basic things as medication and soap bars, it seems cruel to build another fancy shopping mall in the same city.

Russia used to have long-established traditions of charity. The State and the Tsar’s family played a leading role in encouraging the elite to build hospitals and schools.

The mechanisms and the very idea of charity were well rooted in the minds of Russian society. In The Kind People of Old Russia, Russian historian Vasily Kluchevsky said that charity was not only an instrument of social improvement, but a necessary condition of morality.

Then came the Great Revolution of 1917. Absurd as it sounds, the Soviet dictionary says "Charity is a term characteristic only of a class society. The social system of USSR is free of the concept of charity." The idea itself of helping the poor was impossible due to the simple State position – "There are no poor in our happy country" – all very Orwellian.

"The wealthy of the past differ from those of today by their obligation to help the poor," said Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s leading poets. "The rich of today do not feel obliged."

Today international organisations such as Samu Social have to convince Muscovite authorities that it is necessary to let them share their experience and implement an advanced socialisation program for the street children, since the State programs have proven inefficient.

Russia had gone through so many changes in a relatively short period of time – historically speaking. For Russia, the 20th century started with a complete transition from weak capitalism to socialism, then continued with totalitarianism, followed by long years of Soviet stagnation, and ended up with Perestroyka, Russia’s turn towards democracy that was, and still is, economically and politically painful.

What are we supposed to expect from a people who have no idea what tomorrow will look like?

The country is obviously tired of marching to a great and glorious future. Everyone would now prefer to walk individually, grabbing and keeping anything of value – as much as possible, as fast as possible.

In this case "possessing" means "preserving for tomorrow." Reestablishing a sense of stability once lost, and more, a scale of human values, may take several generations.

Other articles from this issue