Moscow meets the market

Issue 

By Irina Glushchenko

MOSCOW — With price liberalisation and the advance of private ownership, Russians are periodically assured, their country is on course for the market. What is this market, and where is it to be found?

People here who haven't taken crash courses in western business schools could be excused for concluding: the market is a narrow street a few hundred metres north of the Kremlin in central Moscow. It's crowded and chaotic, the prices would make the average Russian swoon, and it's a great place to get your pockets picked.

Stoleshnikov Lane, which runs down the hill from the Moscow Soviet building in the general direction of the Bolshoi Theatre, is where much of the petty private trade in Moscow finished up after the city government at the end of April called a halt to a prolonged experiment in the total liberalisation of commerce.

Throughout much of the winter and spring, after a decree by President Boris Yeltsin abolished all restrictions on the place and manner of trade, Moscow's best known streets and squares were thronged with citizens selling almost any object small enough to lug in on the metro. The professionals brought packing cases or card tables on which to spread their wares; the amateurs simply stood patiently, holding up their offerings.

There were no licences, no checks on quality and absolutely no guarantees that the goods had been legitimately acquired. The staple items on sale included German margarine, flown in as humanitarian aid and stolen virtually at the airport gates. Other frequent offerings included western cosmetics bought from shops such as "Christian Dior" and resold for as much as three times the price. The hawkers faced little competition from the stores themselves — for months, the boutiques which line Tverskaya Street opposite the Intourist Hotel were blocked to all but the most belligerent shoppers by massed ranks of speculators.

Complaints from established trading firms eventually persuaded Moscow vice-mayor Yuri Luzhkov to apply to Yeltsin to have the decree modified and some controls on trade re-imposed. Also, there was the embarrassing fact that western tourists were having trouble penetrating to the Kremlin through the crush of Russian converts to capitalism.

Somewhere well down the list of considerations were pleas from health officials, pointing out that Muscovites stood to be poisoned by their new freedoms. The goods traded hand to hand in the street included dairy products and meat. This was not so bad in March, when temperatures were still around zero. But as spring arrived, the city government was warned, people could be struck down in their thousands by botulism and similar diseases.

So the grey-coated militia moved in, and the horde of sellers scattered, as the Russian expression has it, "like beads". Many sellers reappeared in outer Moscow, where the tight, shoulder-to-shoulder defiles formed themselves once again in the bus terminals at the end of metro lines.

Nevertheless, the market-worshippers of the Russian government still have a shrine in central Moscow where they can prostrate themselves. Stoleshnikov Lane has been assigned to the street traders, and remains packed most days from early morning until late at night. Sales are slow, since the average income now suffices for little more than bread and potatoes. Most of the people present are either trying to sell something — increasingly, small luxuries bought years ago without a thought to their resale, but which must now be sacrificed — or are simply there to gape.

If this is the market, Russians might well decide, the country would be better headed somewhere else.

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