Finding Your Favorite Super Spot to Shop

To Our Readers

The Moscow Times welcomes letters to the editor. Letters for publication should be signed and bear the signatory's address and telephone number.
Letters to the editor should be sent by fax to (7-495) 232-6529, by e-mail to oped@imedia.ru, or by post. The Moscow Times reserves the right to edit letters.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Супермаркет: supermarket, superstore

OK, folks, here is today's Kwik Kommercial Kwiz: In what year was this statement written? Москва есть средоточие всей российской торговли и всеобщее хранилище, в которое наибольшая часть входящих в Россию товаров стекается (Moscow is the focus of all Russian trade and one huge repository for the vast majority of goods entering Russia). If it weren't for a few peculiarities of language, it sounds like it could have been said last Tuesday by a cranky State Duma deputy from the provinces. But when was it written? 1781.

Then, now and for evermore, Moscow is the place in Russia where you can buy everything, especially food. The first trick is having the money to do it. The second trick is knowing what to call the places you buy food. And to do that, it helps to take a detour back in time -- say 500 years or so -- to the days when Moscow's huge squares were covered with торговые ряды (literally, "trading rows") and лавки or лавочки (small stands or shops), each selling a particular food item. You'd grab your basket and go to охотный ряд (hunter's row) to pick up some fresh game, and then stop at the хлебная, молочная or зеленная лавка (bread, dairy or green grocer's shop). Before going home, you'd stop in the бакалейная лавка (dry goods store) to pick up tea, coffee, dry fruit and grains.

Today, people don't use the word лавка very often. Instead, they usually use the French term магазин (store) or its diminutive, магазинчик (little shop). Я зашла в магазинчик за хлебом (I stopped at a little shop for bread). But its ghost lingers on. For example, you still see signs for булочная-кондитерская (bread and pastry shop), where the adjectives булочная-кондитерская qualify the noun лавка, but the noun is no longer used.

In the Soviet period, all those little shops disappeared and state food stores took their places. They were still specialized food stores, but with generic names: Сыр, Молоко, Мясо, Овощи и Фрукты (Cheese, Milk, Meat, Vegetables and Fruit) or the ubiquitous Продукты (Grocery). If you were lucky, there was a good универсам (short for универсальный магазин) or гастроном (supermarket) nearby. Both sold all kinds of food.

Today, you'd probably call the all-purpose grocery store in your neighborhood продуктовый магазин. According to a highly unscientific poll of Moscow and St. Petersburg food shoppers, the little vegetable and fruit stands that look like derailed train cars are called ларьки -- singular: ларёк -- and the open stands, often covered with a tent or tarp, are палатки. I'd call both stands or stalls, although I might describe the latter as farm stands if they sold fresh produce. Рынок (market, farmer's market) is a permanent food market. Ярмарка (fair, market) is usually a temporary market that specializes in one product or group of products, like the ярмарка мёда (Honey Fair), where producers from all over the country bring their gooey goodies.

Now Russians are using English-derived words to describe their produce stores. Unfortunately for us English speakers, the most common word -- супермаркет (supermarket) -- is something of a fair-weather friend. My polled food shoppers described супермаркет as a place where you can buy продукты и хозтовары (food and household goods), like U.S.-style supermarkets. But you can also find строительный супермаркет (building supply superstore) or компьютерный супермаркет (computer superstore). You can also find гипермаркет (hypermarket, superstore) and мегамаркет (megamarket).

The opposite of all these mega-, super-, hyper- and otherwise gigantic retailers is the торговая точка or точка (literally, "trading spot" or "spot"). You can use these terms for anything from a retail outlet to a vegetable stand to a point of sale at a cashier's counter.

Or perhaps whenever buying a treat hits the spot.

Michele A. Berdy is a Moscow-based translator and interpreter.