Every nation has a dream. For Iraq, it is a world oil crisis. For Croatia, it is NATO membership. For Serbia, it is a tornado hitting Washington, D.C. As for Russia, its dream is to be recognized as a part of Europe.
It could be argued that a sense of inferiority has always driven Russian history. Built in the middle of nowhere, in the great Eurasian forest, Moscow has traditionally aspired to the status of a European capital, the equal of glamorous Paris, haughty London and merry Rome. The greatest transformer of Russia, Czar Peter the Great, spent his whole life Westernizing the country, imitating European customs and importing Dutch shipbuilders, British captains and German doctors. His successors declared his mission fulfilled. Foreign visitors, however, continued to express doubts. To them, the spectacular luxury of the Russian court looked “barbaric,” and Queen Victoria stubbornly referred to the contemporary Russian czar as an “Asiatic full of hate, passion and tyranny.” Sharing with Russians their Eurocentric racism, the grandmother of Europe did not hesitate to cut them down and pronounce Asia — not Europe — their true home.
Cultural prejudices last. Even now, the best compliment you can give a Russian is to call him a European. Conversely, the Soviet regime is still accused of having perpetrated “Asiatic” atrocities. It was popularly believed by Russians that after the collapse of communism, “Europeanism” would triumph here and the country would become another France or Britain. The new times certainly brought great changes, but instead of the Champs-Elysees, Russia got a Grand Bazaar.
If there is one foreign capital that is reminiscent of Moscow, it is Istanbul, not Berlin or Stockholm. Of course, the Russian capital lacks the natural beauty of Istanbul, with its gorgeous expanses of water, and not a single edifice in Moscow possesses the charm of the Blue Mosque or the grandeur of Aya Sofia. Yet just as in Istanbul, life in every Moscow neighborhood centers on a marketplace.
Food markets have been around for years. Even the Soviet bureaucracy had to tolerate them or people would have starved. Now these places are busier than ever, although this is hardly a reason for optimism. Local farmers have been completely ousted, and each market is totally Mafia-controlled. No independent producer is allowed to operate, which is why all the counters look virtually identical. The amount of vegetables and fruits available is impressive, as is the quality, but prices are kept high and variety low. Many native products have disappeared altogether. There are cherries from Central Asia or potatoes from Ukraine, but Russian pickles or honey are rare. Expensive roses are flown to Moscow from the Persian Gulf and Colombia, but you will never see local daisies or peonies. It seems Russians are unable to live without a centralized economy; it used to be state-centralized, but now organized crime has grabbed the role of central planner and supplier.
The Mafia controls markets specializing in clothes or carpets or furniture as well, but here some variety is allowed, especially in domestic goods. For those interested in crafts, the Moscow bazaars are a paradise. A huge crystal bowl fetches just $4; a big, handsome carpet would rarely go for more than $100. The explanation is simple: Many factories are unable to pay wages, and so each month workers get products instead of cash. A box of wine glasses would hardly pay the bills, so workers delegate one person to go to some big city to sell the stuff.
Still, most Muscovites visit the markets to buy more essential things. And here they meet the world economy. Very few are deceived by the label “Made in Italy.” Almost all goods displayed have been produced in Turkey or China. Visiting Istanbul or Beijing, it is impossible not to notice Russian peddlers with their enormous plastic bags shuttling between local bazaars and wholesale stores. Shirts and pants sold at Moscow’s markets should be labeled “Great Wall” or “Golden Horn” rather than “Versace” and “Armani.” But then nobody would buy them. The same great European mirage makes Russians prefer European brand names.
Nonfashion items are represented more honestly. If the TVs are evasively labeled “Product of Europe,” children’s toys are invariably marked “Made in China” and are just as unreliable as Chinese toys bought in New York.
Vendors follow the universal philosophy of capitalism: “Sell aggressively.” Unaccustomed to such attention, Russians frown and withdraw into sullen silence. The traditional belief is that a truly good product does not have to be pushed. The Soviet era taught Russians to distrust any sort of propaganda.
The very notion of a bazaar suggests potential fraud. Surprisingly, however, most goods sold there are of a decent quality. Of course, an audio-cassette player could prove inaudible, and the first launch of a toy helicopter is likely to end in a crash. A Lancome facial moisturizer can change from white to festive orange in a matter of weeks. But shoes bought at the market will survive rain and frost, and a sheepskin coat can probably be passed down to a granddaughter in due course — even if faded and slightly shrunk.
Because of the severe economic crisis, Russians nowadays are experiencing a literal market economy. Pessimists, perhaps, would call it a bazaar economy, but how does one tell where an Oriental bazaar ends and the Harvard-School-of-Economics market begins?
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