Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Briefcases and Dolls, but No Sugar

n the supermarket in the Stalin skyscraper at Barrikadnaya, you can buy a "Talking Sweetie" doll for 25,000 rubles ($12.56), a combination-lock briefcase for 53,000 or even, for 60,000, a "Cherokee" inflatable boat. Beneath its vaulted ceilings and chandeliers, the store stocks a grocery selection far broader than what it once offered as a showcase Soviet supermarket -- from Bailey's Irish Cream to Pampers disposable diapers. But at least one Muscovite shopping on Wednesday, who refused to give her name, was not impressed. "I came here to buy sugar, and there isn't any," she said, casting a cursory glance at the store's rows of Finnish yogurt, German cookies and English teabags. "They used to have everything." Stores which offer a cornucopia of previously unheard-of goods but sell few cheap, basic and chronically elusive products like milk, salt and matches have come to rival kiosks trading in peach liqueur as emblems of economic change in Moscow -- and as scapegoats for the frustrations of the budding market. "It irritates me," said Svetlana Popova, 50. "We are not getting enough to eat, and they are selling these things, luxuries." Others welcome the change. "Before, each store only sold one thing, and people had to run all over Moscow," said Tatyana Yermakova, who runs a small basic-products section in an affiliated store nearby. In the latest of many measures designed to force stores to sell basic goods, the Moscow government has introduced fines of up to 100 minimum wages -- now 205,000 rubles -- for shops which call themselves grocery stores but do not sell staples, a city official said Wednesday. In his recent crusade for an independent city-privatization plan, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov often raised the specter of milk stores selling vodka. Oleg Tolkachev, head of the Moscow Property Committee, said in a recent interview that 10 to 15 percent of stores violate rules forbidding such diversification. Several store directors interviewed Wednesday faulted city authorities for forcing stores to sell milk without creating efficient distribution systems or driving out street traders who sell dairy products from Belarus for as little as half what Moscow stores charge. Garry Shulman, the Russian codirector of the El Dorado grocery store near Tverskaya Ulitsa, which boasts imported chocolate Easter bunnies and French wines, said that with markups on milk products legally capped at 15 percent, it makes no sense to invest in the refrigeration necessary to stock them. Shulman said he sells milk on the side, in the street, but demand is low at 200 to 300 liters a day -- "Kopecks," he said -- adding that the cost of gasoline for bringing milk from the suburbs exceeds his revenues. By contrast, he said, the store sells hot fresh bread even at a "miserly" profit because it is cheap to get and attracts customers who then buy other products as well. Confirming the grocery-store fines, the city official, who asked not to be named, said she privately believed it was usually not greed but high rents and prepayments demanded by distributors that kept staples out of stores. But she said attempts to dodge fines by pleading that basic goods are unprofitable would be equated with "a lack of desire" to sell them.