Stalking groceries in Moscow Shopping: Russia's shift to a market economy has resulted in more choices and the availability of better-quality foods -- for those able and willing to pay the price.


February 12, 1997|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- It's Lena Ryzhova's day off, and she needs to pick up some things for the kids' lunches.

This is no dash to the 7-Eleven. Nor is it a stock-up at the Safeway mother lode. Don't even think about coupons. By American consumer standards, her shopping trip, like that of every urban Russian, is a Stone Age odyssey worthy of National Geographic.

Ryzhova is about to make a one-hour trek in which she covers two miles on foot in a temperature of 10 degrees. She examines handwritten prices, visits a pricey supermarket, stops next at a cheesy kiosk, then elbows into the crowd at a wholesale flea market.

Ryzhova -- 39, a widowed mother of two children, and the manager of a cosmetics salon -- comes away with $5 worth of groceries and feels it was a successful foray.

Before the week is over, she will make several more shopping trips to put food on the dinner table. The typical Russian owns neither a car nor a large refrigerator, so buying a week's groceries in one trip is a virtual impossibility.

But Ryzhova doesn't complain about the Russian shopping experience, except for the prices that consume her income of $300 a month.

"There's a huge difference now in shopping than in Soviet times," she says. "If we were told then we'd have the kind of choices we do now for food, we wouldn't believe it."

In Soviet times, she used her daughters, now 10 and 15, as place-holders in the lines that formed at state-run food stores when butter or sugar or some other commodity became available.

While Russians are suffering through a painful adjustment to free markets, the availability of goods is an aspect of life that has actually improved. Stores are full of imports -- at a price.

Mikhail Motskovsky is head of family research for the Russian Academy of Sciences and talks of people being dazzled by new goods after a "siege mentality" during war and famine and generations of shortages.

Motskovsky's studies find that only the wealthiest 2 percent to 5 percent of Russians can genuinely afford Moscow's most expensive new supermarkets. But the customers come from the top 30 percent.

While Americans are used to buying according to their income, he says, Russians buy "according to what they see."

As for the inconvenience that an American immediately sees in Ryzhova's shopping expedition, Russians know nothing else.

"Americans may sometimes go five miles to a supermarket to shop. Russians can't -- they don't have cars," Motskovsky says. "If you need to buy a lot and a shop is near you, you can go maybe three times a day. It's not so awful."

Ryzhova describes herself as "lower middle class" and lives in a vast complex of Soviet-era high-rises on the northern outskirts of Moscow. She can't afford to shop at any of the brightly lighted, Western-style supermarkets -- where $6-a-head Dutch winter lettuce and $10-a-pound cheeses are overseen by guards with automatic weapons.

But she occasionally will drop in and buy something not available elsewhere. After the years of long lines and gruff Soviet clerks, she likes a supermarket "because it makes you feel like a human being."

Ryzhova's neighborhood is full of choices for grocery shopping; five years ago, there were only the grim state food shops stocked with generic goods. Several stores of that ilk still exist with better goods but the same "why-make-it-easy" marketing strategy: dim lighting and sales system where a customer can look but not touch.

One of those old stores has been remodeled into a pleasant supermarket with electronic check-out scanners and displays of brightly labeled imported foods.

"It's even open 24 hours," says Ryzhova, a concept still strange to her. "I don't know why they do it."

But because the prices are somewhat high, few people can afford to shop there. Ryzhova says she suspects the food goes bad.

On her recent shopping trip she stopped in this supermarket and poked through frozen fish in a freezer that smelled unappetizingly like a real fish market. She settled on a one-pound sack of cookies for about $1.

Her other neighborhood shopping options include the ubiquitous Russian kiosk. These sidewalk huts offer a jammed array of Coca-Cola, razor blades, Mars candy bars, Russian and foreign vodka, cheap Georgian wine and cookies at middling prices. But they are notorious for selling old or poor-quality goods repackaged with brand labels.

Also, country grandmothers come to sell their farm goods on the streets. Their fresh meats sit atop cardboard boxes; potatoes, carrots and onions are piled on the sidewalk.

Many Muscovites don't need to buy vegetables because they have country gardens. Ryzhova's plot produces a summer crop that, canned, lasts her family through the whole winter. She also has a small freezer in which she can keep a year's supply of meat from her mother-in-law's farm.

But she still has to watch the grocery budget.

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