MOSCOW -- In a scene that would have strained the imagination of the most talented novelist a few years ago, a golden-gowned Russian Orthodox priest consecrated a new commodities exchange last week, sprinkling holy water on its gray-suited founders.
"I warmly congratulate you all. May God give you health and work for the good of all," boomed Father Sergei, as a chorus from the capital's Cathedral of the Epiphany burst into a hymn.
To add to the surrealistic effect, this celebration of capitalism and religion took place in the rented auditorium of the headquarters of Comecon, the old trade organization of the Communist East bloc. To survive, it has been reduced to renting its premises to the new entrepreneurs.
"The old system is breaking down, and the new system is just taking shape. The new system is us," said Alexander M. Volovik, 44, a former Siberian construction manager and the moving force behind the Russian Commodity and Raw Materials Exchange.
"May our exchange revive the best traditions of the Russian merchant, always [before the 1917 revolution] one of the most respected members of society," said Mr. Volovik, a stocky man with a neat beard.
"This is the death knell for Leninism and the opening bell for the market," said Alexander Viktorov, press spokesman for the new exchange.
About 500 Soviet businesspeople elected officers and distributed shares in the new exchange, with start-up capital of 33 million rubles, almost $60 million at the inflated official rate.
They said they hope it will become the keystone of a growing market economy, a bulwark for the ruble and a national information system for entrepreneurs.
They have at least one competitor, a rival exchange that opened last month under the sponsorship of the new Moscow City Council.
Plans are afoot to open more exchanges in Moscow and other cities, and the draft economic program given to parliamentary deputies earlier this month calls for rapid development of commodity exchanges. But the exchange founded last week is a player to be reckoned with.
The stockholders, who are paying 100,000 rubles for each of 330 shares, are a mix of state and private businesses as diverse as a Lithuanian collective farm, a Moscow commercial bank, a Tadjik association of leaseholders and an Estonian joint-stock company.
Many addressed one another as "Gospodin," the old bourgeois equivalent of "Mister," rather than the standard Soviet "Tovarish," or "Comrade."
But far from all links with the old power structure have been severed. The founders of the new exchange include representatives of powerful bureaucracies such as the State Supply Committee, the State Planning Committee and the State Price Committee.
All three committees are in danger of extinction as the old system is phased out, and their executives apparently are looking for a piece of the new system.
Under the old economic order, those same state bureaucracies told every enterprise what to make, where to get raw materials to make it, who to sell it to and how much to sell it for.
That system is fast disintegrating as enterprises, operating under new laws or simply ignoring all regulations, drop old customers and seek more profitable deals. But in a country without ordinary phone books, let alone specialized business directories or credit-rating services, finding new partners is a tedious and risky affair.
The thriving shadow economy has been the only alternative to the creaky state distribution system.
"A year ago, an IBM-AT [personal computer] cost 110,000 or 120,000 rubles on the black market. The supply has grown, and competition has pushed the price today down to 45,000," said Viktor V. Gubin, one of the organizers of the new exchange.
But the black market has the hazards and disadvantages of any illegal, unregulated exchange: inflated prices, widespread fraud and minimal facilities, Mr. Gubin said. "We don't want to work in somebody's kitchen," he said.
In theory, the new exchange should help create an organized market in wholesale trade. A Novosibirsk washing-machine factory will be able to come here and hunt both customers for its production and suppliers of motors. A Georgian vineyard should be able to use the exchange to buy its bottles and sell its wine.
Until this year, Mr. Volovik worked for 23 years managing construction projects in Siberia.
"Unbelievable cold, unbelievable heat and mosquitoes that would eat you alive," he recalled. "But Siberia has the most entrepreneurs, the risk-takers and hard workers."
His main partner is Konstantin N. Borovoy, a mathematician and computer specialist who is organizing the exchange's data bank and communications network. People attending the event were given a sample copy of The Computer and Us, a flashy new Russian-language magazine edited by Dr. Borovoy.