Soviet souvenirs: A market for memories

January 20, 1992|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,Sun Staff Correspondent

MOSCOW -- IT'S GROWING DARK and an icy wind is whipping up snowflakes that sting the face, but Alexandr Kondratiev is still looking for a deal on Arbat Street.

The 19-year-old vendor quit rocket science school six months ago for a job trading Soviet memorabilia. He stands red-faced and shivering in front of a table of Lenin statuettes, Communist Party banners, portraits of Soviet leaders and old Soviet flags.

The relics that once reverently decorated classroom walls and party offices in factories now are part of the great Russian flea market. Old men and women, desperate for spare rubles, bring the worn-out symbols to Mr. Kondratiev, who sells them to Westerners.

He has no regrets about seeing goods leave the country.

"We've got a lot of such things," he says. "If part of it goes abroad, it doesn't mean anything."

One of his regular customers buys the memorabilia for a museum in Mexico. Many of the relics wind up in private homes.

In the West, the items can fetch 10 times what Mr. Kondratiev sells them for. He says he sold a 68-year-old party banner to a woman for $1,500 and she resold it in Norway for $12,000.

Mr. Kondratiev doubts the merchandise will continue to generate such high prices, but he is happy to take advantage of them now.

The Arbat, a pedestrian shopping street, is one of the last places one can find Soviet memorabilia for sale in Moscow. At department stores, including the mammoth GUM, clerks stock banners with the portraits of soccer players and singers but haven't a single flag with Lenin. A few Lenin pins remain, selling at 30 kopecks (less than a penny), compared with 42 kopecks for a pin of the new Russian flag.

At the Lenin Museum on Red Square, old women sit in the gift shop behind glass counters containing books about the founder of the Soviet state. But they politely tell visitors that they are not allowed to sell the books until the Moscow City Council, lately on an anti-Lenin bent, gives them permission. "Please, buy a newspaper if you want," one offers.

?3 But on the Arbat, the merchants care less about

ideology than about making a dollar, and they have begun to figure out that foreigners will pay for relics that many Russians despise.

Mr. Kondratiev competes with his former partner for purchasing the best items. A number of other merchants are there selling flags, statues and army uniforms and KGB hats and belts.

Although Soviet memorabilia isn't yet as prevalent as the wooden matrioshka dolls or lacquer boxes, nor as valuable as ancient icons, business is increasing, he says.

Most of the flags he sells for between $50 to $70. For the budget conscious, he will sell a small, recent Young Pioneers flag for a dollar.

It is illegal for him to accept dollars, but for a bribe, the police look the other way, he says.

In addition to paying the police, he says he must also give a share to Moscow's Mafia, which regulates the vendors on Arbat. Together, the police and Mafia take about 10 percent of his profits, he says. Mr. Kondratiev also must pay a number of workers. But even after expenses, his business affords him a salary of about 20,000 rubles a month -- far above the average Muscovite's salary of approximately 1,000 rubles a month.

With any luck, he figures, the business will put him in contact with Westerners who will help him fulfill his dream of emigrating to America. "That's what I really want to do," he says.

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