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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Storekeepers Alter Society With Service

Last week, we encountered khamstvo, the rudeness -- shocking to Westerners -- with which Russians often treat each other, only because they are accustomed to being abused themselves.


This week, I offer you the inspiring tale of Irina Rostovskaya and Teresa Minyervina, two young Muscovites who want to break the Russian habit of defensive arrogance and bring into the public sphere the friendliness for which Russians are famous when they receive guests at home.


Irina and Teresa work in a new corner shop which has opened by the pond, locally known as "Andropov's Puddle," behind Novoslobodskaya metro station.


Many new shops in Moscow give you the feeling that you are "almost in the West." But in this store you can really imagine yourself transported to Germany, where Irina stayed for two months, or Finland, where both women traveled on an excursion.


It has nothing to do with the range of wines, cakes, cold meats and cheeses on sale. It is all because of the warm welcome from behind the counter. British readers will understand me when I say the shop belongs in Coronation Street, the soap opera of cozy northern English life.


Neither Irina nor Teresa has been in trade before. They did not work in the old Soviet shops with their sullen lines for the most basic items, nor have they been chelnoki, or shuttle traders supplying the kiosks that are Russia's fledgling shops.


Until last year they were teachers in a primary school. They must have been popular with the children for they are both kind and attractive.


"But we could not live on the salary," said Irina. "I am single. Teresa is married but she has no children. Even with such small families, we could not survive. So we began looking around for other work which would satisfy our souls."


A parent whose child Irina and Teresa had taught offered them work in her shop, one of a small chain. The store is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Men work the night shift for security reasons, but Irina and Teresa are on duty most days.


They are behind the counter on New Year's Day, cheerfully explaining to customers the qualities of various imported products and taking their money directly instead of making them go to a separate till to pay.


As I conduct my interview, Teresa keeps jumping up to serve the customers. The customer comes first. Which is why Irina and Teresa have a regular clientele and the shop, open since October, is already profitable. The women earn about 1 million rubles ($210) per month.


"It's not a fortune," says Teresa. "But it's better than at school. And here we feel the success of the business depends on our efforts."


Decision-making is more democratic in the shop than at school, they say. The bosses earn slightly more than the ordinary staff, but it is clear to everyone why this is so.


Both Irina and Teresa are looking with some anxiety toward the coming presidential election. Irina fears a communist victory could have negative consequences for small private businesses. "We are hoping for the best," says Teresa.


Irina so enjoys her new job that she would not go back to teaching. Teresa says she still has "pricks of nostalgia" for the world of education. "But I see a deeper meaning in shop work than just selling. We are helping to change the culture of our society.