Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Checking Out Change in the Supermarkets

One of my yardsticks for change in Russia has always been the supermarket. I don't really know why. Maybe it's because I have spent so much time here hunting for decent food. In any case, I have always thought that once Moscow had a real supermarket -- I mean the big kind, with lots of aisles stuffed with goods, a produce island, an army of checkout cashiers and piped in muzak -- then we would know that the good times had finally arrived.

I found out last week that that supermarket is here, but I'm not so sure about the good times.

I had been watching the gray old universam near the Krylatskaya metro for a few months, as it was first closed down and then enveloped in some sort of mysterious remont. There was not much to miss about the old store; the last time I had been inside, all its cavernous depths offered up were some cheap sorts of kolbasa, packaged cakes, and, rather incongruously, coconuts and a baby's playpen. Not a bad assortment, mind you, but not exactly predictable either.

Then I saw on television last week that my neighbor, Naina Yeltsin, had visited a gleaming new supermarket in our area. I knew where it had to be, and set out on a reconnaissance mission.

I was in shock when I saw this place, and you would be too. In place of a dingy oversized shed now stands an inviting hypermarch?, boasting even its own parking lot. Inside, glistening shopping carts bustle down wide aisles groaning with pure Ligurian olive oil and balsamic vinegar. A tank of live lobsters dominates the meat section, and a produce area with limes and tamarind gives way to a gourmet island of cold salmon and mozzarella with basil and tomatoes. Cashiers in bright yellow aprons and hats man a front line of 11 cash registers. Other food stores in Moscow may have the luxury foods, but for sheer size, this place has them all beat.

This new supermarket, where I will admit to having picked up a few helpings of mozzarella with basil already, is a perfect example of what is right and wrong about the new Russia.

It is a sign of improving times. The original idea of the microraion in Moscow was to create neighborhoods with everything residents needed at hand: This store is certainly helping Krylatskoye to realize that vision. There are Russians in that store spending a lot more money than penny-pinching foreigners like me. Even for those who cannot afford to fill up their carts, this is one place where they can rely on finding what they need, liberating themselves from the whims of Russian wholesalers.

But the supermarket is also complete overkill. Live lobsters? A $17 bottle of olive oil? Why does the Krylatskoye region need this? It puts the local Food Lion at home, with its Velveeta and selection of generic jams, to shame. But why should it? Why is Moscow life literally one of feast or famine? Why should people face the choice either of a murky gastronom with barely any food or a supermarket for a yuppie gourmand?

What do I tell the next person who asks, "Do they get enough to eat in Russia?"

I tell them this: This new store is fit for a town where the Rolls-Royce shares the road with the battered Zhiguli. Someday Moscow will have supermarkets with shelves stocked with domestic produce at prices that the average person can afford. Until then, we'll just have to admire its glittering aisles.