On the Sinister Nature Of Capitalist Shopping

Capitalism in St. Petersburg is entering a new, unpredictable and perhaps sinister stage.

In the area where I live, over the past two months the entire commercial topography has undergone a radical transformation. No fewer than five of the local grocery stores have shut down, slashing the available choice and making the daily drudgery of shopping -- which often, as we know, involves hunting down shifty product lines that arrive and depart with arbitrary abandon -- far more difficult and time-consuming.

But the really worrying part of this current trend is that it has much wider repercussions. In the majority of cases, instead of the produkty outlets that inhabited these buildings since time immemorial, only one type of store is springing up: Audio/Video.

Yes, while it is now rather difficult to find a kilo of sausages in my vicinity, it is a breeze to pick up a Sony Trinitron or a four-head, multi- system video recorder. If the trend continues, we will have a situation here similar to the one that existed right after the revolution, when the food distribution system broke down entirely. Hungry workers spent all their time in factories making tools that they could then exchange in the neighboring villages for grain or chickens.

When there are no food shops left at all, we can pick up a couple of televisions or CD players, hop on the train to the nearest village and exchange them for a cow or some watermelons. Failing that, we could just wait for some whiz-kid entrepreneur to bring out edible Hi-Fi.

But it was only when I myself capitulated -- I went out one morning to buy cheese, became disoriented and ended up, instead, replacing my old black-and-white, 2 1/2-channel Russian Quartz television with a brand-new Western model -- that I discovered the real hidden evil in this new capitalist trend: A lot more people out there are probably being exposed to local St. Petersburg television channels.

Some of these are basically public-access networks under a different name, with Channel 36 showing music shows shot entirely on a single camera that zooms backward and forward to the beat.

Others have the microphones actually dangling in a corner of the screen or propped up on a couple of books. But my favorite is the late night prevalence of '60s English soft-porn films where, in the coy nude scenes, everyone suddenly starts playing guitar or plants grow across the screen at odd angles.

In any case, perhaps the disappearance of food here and the rise of technology will have some good side effects. Intense competition will probably result in plummeting prices, and all you technophiles throughout Russia can come on day trips to St. Petersburg to pick up the latest bargains. Just remember: Bring a sack lunch.