Language Puts Shopper In Unstable 'Condition'

All I want is a little stability. Instead I get "conditionality."

It all began when I went into my favorite music store to pick up some valve oil for the fl--gelhorn I've been learning to torture my neighbors with. Naturally, as in any self-respecting local establishment, the place had a pirate video section. After making my selection, I noticed that the price was expressed not in rubles or dollars, but in a thing called u. ye.

First guess: Ussuri yen. Why not? Pacific Russia's economy is based on the Japanese currency, not the U.S. one, and a lot of video stuff comes to us in Moscow from China via the Far East. Since Russia wants to be a tiger, why not name a currency after the place Siberian tigers come from? Nah, couldn't be.

Second guess: Something dirty. Ask a Russian friend.

Anyway, it turns out that u. ye. stands for uslovniye yedinitsy, "conditional units," which is nothing more than a clever way to mark prices in dollars without breaking Russian laws forbidding trade in greenbacks. Very clever indeed, but definitely not a sign of stability.

You know the feeling.

You walk into a store with the sign Produkty out front, aiming to pick up some beets and kefir. Instead you are met by a young man in a raspberry-colored suit selling elitnaya mebel', "elite furniture," which somehow always reminds you of something a masochist would sleep in.

Dazed, you search frantically for something reassuring -- jars of peppers pickled when Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact, signs inviting veterans of World War II to cut to the front of the line, surly help in dirty smocks.

Nada. Everywhere your eyes settle, there are devices of torture and lust, strewn across the hastily carpeted hall. A shelf that once bore witness to humble transactions of rancid butter now serves as the over-lacquered launching pad for multi-million ruble acquisitions of furniture that in Inquisition days would have earned both seller and buyer a one-way trip to an auto-da-f?.

This mebel' nightmare has a habit of recurring, popping up in former produce stores, movie theaters, even the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, where deputies can now buy a whole kitchen imported from Sweden, in between passing laws On the Regulation of Pig Farming.

But nowhere was the break between expectation and reality greater than that day in the Conservatory, when the program contained a loud advertisement for an ointment to prevent a nasty fungus that grows under your fingernails. People who came to hear Beethoven instead spent the entire concert glancing worriedly at their hands.