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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Scrooge's Moscow Mellowing




Not even I, inveterate Russia-basher that I am, have the heart to grumble too much at Christmas time. Moscow, with its snow-covered trees, frosty air and abundance of holiday decorations, is lovely at this time of year. And President Boris Yeltsin appears once more to have made a miraculous recovery, just in time for the foreign correspondent community to go off on our Yuletide breaks with a clean conscience.


So I am almost ready to abandon myself to sentimental ramblings about peace on Earth and goodwill to men.


My hyperdeveloped cynical side is just a wee bit tickled by the knowledge that the bright lights and plump Santas adorning virtually every available surface in the city are not the result of a surfeit of holiday spirit. Nor are they due to the hard-hearted calculations of merchants determined to rake in maximum profit from the orgy of gift-giving.


No, our elegantly ornamented capital is a gift from our elfin mayor, who has once again decreed that local businesses must spread seasonal cheer. It's a time-honored tradition in Russia: If the masses can't be relied on to provide for their own happiness, force them into it. In July, I am incensed by Yury Luzhkov's strong-arm tactics, but in December, I must confess that I welcome the effort.


Now, if he could only get the designer from Rockefeller Center to surround Red Square with giant toy soldiers and gossamer angels, or flood the top of the Lenin mausoleum to make a skating rink. ...


Christmas to me means frozen toes and fingers at the Izmailovo craft market, the smell of sweet fried bread at the metro station and the bitter smoke from shashlik grills wafting over the shoppers.


I spent last weekend, along with just about everyone else in town, dumping most of my disposable income on carved wooden Santas, Christmas ornaments, hand-painted bells and amber jewelry. Over the years I have bought almost everything there is to buy, but December finds me drawn back to Izmailovo like a lemming to the sea.


Western Christmas shopping will seem tame by comparison. I doubt if the salespeople at Macy's can match the tactics of the Izmailovo crowd, which range from the singsong "lacquer boxes, very cheap" to the more aggressive "Buy an apron. No? Why not? No money? Too bad."


Izmailovo shows the best and the worst of Russian business philosophy, and, for me at least, goes a long way toward explaining why the past seven years of experimentation with capitalism have yielded somewhat disappointing results.


The sharks are out for a quick kill: fake fur hats, cheap decoupage matryoshkas, machine-woven rugs sold, with a tear in the eye, as "family heirloom, made by my mother."


There is little thought to cultivating a clientele, or to establishing a reputation. This is the approach that led many of the privatization barons to acquire valuable properties dirt cheap and then, instead of putting money into developing a profitable business, strip them bare. Now they're broke, and looking for handouts. Maybe we'll find Vladimir Potanin or Boris Berezovsky setting up stalls at Izmailovo next year. I'd stay away from them, though.


At the other extreme are the soulful artisans who want desperately to remain above the commercial fray. They are in it for art's sake, and money is just a necessary evil. These are the merchants who, once they sense that you appreciate their work, are almost ready to give it away.


My favorite woodcarver, for example, kept coming further down in price the more I enthused about her wares. I was perfectly willing to pay what she asked for originally, which was modest enough. But as I explained that I had four of her Santas at home, that they were my absolute favorites, and that I was just looking to complete my collection, she melted. It was all I could do to stop her from paying me to take them. This is the Grigory Yavlinsky "high principle, low efficiency" approach.


I end up feeling disgusted with the first group and guilty for exploiting the second. But it's all part of the season.


To cap the holiday experience I went with a friend to see the Nutcracker at the Bolshoi Theater. I displayed a woeful lack of Moscow savvy and paid top dollar to the ticket mafia for seats in the parterre. But a few glasses of champagne and a caviar sandwich in the buffet eased the economic squeeze and I enjoyed the production thoroughly.


I guess I'll save my Scrooge routine for January.