By Irina Glushchenko
MOSCOW — Ask any Muscovite what there are most of in the city, and he or she will probably answer, "Commercial street kiosks". These are ugly structures, often with steel bars on the windows, which trade in a now-familiar range of goods: chocolate, chewing gum, liquor, Barbie dolls, shoes, underwear, watches, sweaters and, above all, Chinese down-filled jackets, which in the past year have become Russians' favourite clothing.
The kiosks represent the top of the ladder. Other sellers retail their wares from folding tables, and still further down the scale are the people who spread out their goods on cardboard boxes or wooden packing crates.
All this comes under the heading of street trade. A decree by President Boris Yeltsin in February 1992 lifted virtually all restrictions on it, allowing street vendors to sell anything they liked, including highly perishable milk and meat products. The Moscow sanitary inspection service sounded the alarm, predicting that the level of gastro-intestinal infections would show an immediate rise.
And indeed, the incidence of these diseases in March and April 1992 exceeded that in the same period of the previous year by figures ranging from 10 to 100%.
Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov appreciated that if this were to continue, the city would be smitten with epidemics of cholera and plague, something he could well do without in a tense political situation. Accordingly, the city government banned street trade in all types of milk and meat products, and also in mushrooms and home-preserved vegetables.
"The steps taken by the city government unquestionably had a positive effect", Moscow's chief sanitary inspector, Nikolai Shestopalov, said in a recent interview with Moscow News. "Today intestinal infections in the city are 15% below where they were last year."
However, the mayoral decree is far from being consistently observed. The huge "flea markets" that sprang up in central Moscow have been shut down, but traders who are chased from one spot migrate to another where control is not so strict. At the Byelorussia railway station, for example, street traders deal in whatever they choose, even bread, for which there are long queues in the shops. The sellers stand on the pavement from
early in the morning until late at night, and the scene is like a battlefield: there are piles of wrapping paper, bottles, fish skeletons, cabbage leaves, mandarin peels, boxes and God knows what else.
"You don't have to be a specialist to work out how unsanitary Moscow is", Shestopalov remarked in his interview. "The position is simply frightful!"
There is one especially clear indicator of the sanitary condition of a city, Shestopalov went on to observe. That was its population of rats. I had heard there were rats in Moscow, but, being near-sighted, I had never seen one. However, the rats have evidently been getting bigger lately. So when I was in the metro recently, and noticed a large brown creature pass unconcernedly in front of me, I realised: that was a rat.
"For rats to multiply", Shestopalov continued, "they need a roof over their heads, food and places to nest. In the Russian capital today the conditions for rats are ideal."
In recent times our city has acquired a multitude of other new inhabitants — human ones. As the enforcement of strict residence laws has broken down, scores of thousands of people from other regions have decided to try their luck in the capital. Many of these new arrivals are homeless, sleeping in railway stations, cellars and attics; their living conditions are ideal for outbreaks of infectious diseases.
"These people have unquestionably added to the problem with lice", Shestopalov observed. "Compared with last year, the number of recorded cases alone is up by 50%. Most of the people affected are children under 14."
Moscow pharmacies now offer a wide choice of treatments for lice. Alongside Russian shampoos in their modest packets, there are Western preparations selling for much more. Muscovites, however, tend to distrust foreign remedies. "The only stuff that's any good against our Russian lice", they argue, "is kerosene".
Adding to the bleakness of the picture is the fact that the authorities are in no hurry to dole out money to the sanitary services. "The Moscow city government hasn't replied to any of our numerous appeals", Shestopalov states.
It seems we'll have to wait until those who are scratching include not just ordinary people, but the city authorities as well. Then, perhaps, things will start improving for the rest of us.