Most Russians can't afford pickles, let alone U.S. soap

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

January 20, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The long lines are still here outside stores, but instead of waiting in the cold and wind for bread or milk, today's Muscovite is jostling for strawberry-scented glycerin soap and rose shower gel.

Life has changed drastically here in the last few years, and depending on whom you're talking to, it's unimaginably better or critically worse.

Just over two years ago, people were lining up all over Russia for the bare necessities. In Moscow, GUM -- the huge Victorian shopping arcade that lines one side of Red Square -- was full of tired faces waiting endlessly for ill-fitting, clunky shoes and garish chartreuse ties.

Now, much of GUM, which stands for State Department Store in Russian, has been renovated. Today, the lines are outside the sleek stores with Western products, such as the SoapBerry Shop in GUM.

Early on a weekday afternoon, the store is filled with shoppers and about 20 more are waiting to get in. There, Russians are buying palm-size bottles of coconut oil shampoo or green apple conditioner for $3.50 a bottle.

The glorious-smelling body products are made by an environmentally correct Canadian company that treats the customers as if it wants them to buy.

Smiling clerks offer to help! Samples are available for touching and sniffing! They wrap your purchases in pastel shades of tissue paper, and tuck them into a bag!

GUM is still dotted with the stores selling cheesy mud-brown drapes and shapeless sweaters, where you elbow your way through first to a clerk to show you an item -- always well out of reach no matter how undesirable. If she's in the mood, the clerk tells you how much it will cost.

Then you have to get the bored cashier to stop gossiping with another clerk long enough to take your money and give you TC receipt, which you take back to the first clerk. The first clerk hands you the package and glares at you as if you're the world's worst fool if you don't have your own bag.

Who wouldn't rather line up at SoapBerry and be decently treated?

Here's where the problem comes in that is dividing Russian society so deeply. There's a tiny segment of the population that is making lots of money, enough to spend close to the average monthly wage of $100 for a casual purchase.

This is deeply alienating for many ordinary people who are willing to work hard but can't figure the way to the emerging economy just out of their reach.

They seem to suffer more each day. Things got worse for them again this month, when the government banned dollar transactions. This -- and economist Yegor T. Gaidar's announcement that he was leaving the government -- set off a decline in the ruble, which had been stable in the last months.

The stores with anything desirable -- from imported food to soap -- still mark their prices in dollars. When the prices are rung up, they are converted to rubles at a generally unfavorable exchange rate. This means even higher prices for Russians.

Foreigners can avoid this by putting everything on a credit card -- directly in dollars. Russians don't have credit cards.

While trying to force confidence in the ruble by banning dollar transactions, the government remains somewhat hypocritical.

The quasi-government agency that leases apartments to foreigners asks them to pay their rent in dollars -- in a New York bank account.

Understandably, many Russians feel distaste for the new market economy -- which isn't a real market yet at all but a tightly controlled monopoly where a few groups of businessmen run everything and charge whatever they wish.

Just before the New Year, beef cost $6.50 or more a pound. Cucumbers are about $5 a pound. A 32-ounce super economy size bottle of Pert shampoo costs $18, and a bar of Dove soap $2 -- and all it promises is a clean face, not a new one.

World economists and U.S. presidents worry about monetary policy and industrial credits. The Russian walking down the street wonders whether he can afford to buy pickles this winter.

The political figures keep arguing -- Mr. Gaidar announces his departure; the ruble drops a little more, and pickles get that much farther out of reach.

Most people here say that ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky must be crazy. Then they look around -- and don't see much that's sane.

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