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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Shopping Reveals the Subtexts of Russian Life




Five years ago, when I first moved into my present southwest Moscow district, I learned, as does any attentive newcomer anywhere, that the performance of life's most mundane tasks can provide invaluable lessons in local realities. Walking the dog, for instance, involved daily encounters with neighbors doing the same thing; encounters (partially described in an earlier piece) that in due course became conversational - with all the extra revenues of information and sentiment such chat can provide.


Shopping, sorties for the basic sustenance of life, was another of those frequent, repetitive exercises in which, perforce, impressions are received and remarks of some sort are exchanged. These interactions, even the briefest, were redolent with unexpressed subtexts, whose deciphering can lead to interesting insights.


When I first settled into the apartment here (an apartment shared with a Russian colleague, a wise and saintly soul, and a fellow teacher at the academy that employs us), the local options for buying food were either the rynok, an open-air market, about which more in a moment, or Universam.


Universam, a survivor from Soviet times, was more or less a supermarket. Qualifiers like "more or less" are necessary here because almost nothing about the old Universam was, in fact, like a Western supermarket. There was a wide range of merchandise categories, all of them in a state of unpredictable, often short, supply. During my first years here, vendable items were kept firmly out of customers' reach, well back from the counter, accessible only to saleswomen. Of the rynok, the traditional, open-air market, a great deal could be said. These venerable institutions, kin to the age-old bazaars featured in tales of "Aladdin," or the "Thousand and One Nights," are replete with interest (and indeed fascination) of various kinds - economic, sociological, human and aesthetic.


However, dropping in at the rynok, which for me is right next door, tends to assume the proportions of an expedition rather than a quick trip. For starters, it's always a crowd scene there, with heavy competition for the attention of vendors. This calls for an equivalent degree of determination. And determination in requisite rynok strength becomes, with astonishing speed, virtually indistinguishable from aggression. In short, if you haven't got what it takes, don't even try.


There are also interesting ethnic and national complexities. As my housemate explained to me: Most of the vendors at the rynok are Azerbaijani. And the subtext of that is informed by nearly two centuries of interaction between the European world and the "other" world - non-European and, for the most part, less technologically advanced. This unhappy history, of course, includes the Americas and its native peoples, and the Islamic societies and territories on the southern and eastern borders of Russia, territories that throughout the 19th century were penetrated and subdued by the local, tsarist version of European colonial expansion.


Anyway, from my housemate, and other Russian friends and acquaintances, I received a litany of warnings regarding the rynok, which allegedly harbors a sizeable quota of thieves, pickpockets and cutpurses. In the case of foreigners, like myself, all warnings should be regarded as having double - or even triple - force: They think all foreigners are rich, and anyone who's rich, or anyone they think is rich, is a target.


"Well," I innocently asked, "how would they know I'm a foreigner?"


The first part of the usual answer to this question, "well, there's just something about the way you look," didn't altogether persuade me. I've been stopped several times by Russians asking for directions or the time, apparently taking me for a native. But the second part was always delivered with a ringing assurance that struck me as both authoritative and dismaying.


"And besides, as soon as you open your mouth, it's obvious."


In short, my hard-won, relatively fluent - although grammatically sometimes dubious - Russian is unmistakably foreign.


Now, fast-forward to the final part of my tale.


A new food-vending enterprise opened just one street away in a building that had when I first arrived been occupied by a failing dry goods store. It is a self-service, Western-style supermarket, where customers line up at one of five registers to be inspected and charged by women with adding machines, who figure the totals and take in the cash.


A security guard dressed like a policeman perambulates the premises, keeping an eye peeled for acts of larceny; these are often, as I was later informed, perpetrated by entirely respectable looking people and are frequent enough to present management with a considerable headache.


I shopped there for about a year. Then, a few weeks back, as I was leaving the premises, one of the checkout women, accompanied by the security guard, stepped toward me.


"Woman," she said, "come with us for a moment." They opened a door into a back room and beckoned me to follow, which I did.


"What is it?" I asked.


"We want to check you," the security guard said, having closed the door. He had, I thought later, a nasty, righteous glint in his eye, anticipating - no doubt - a triumphant arrest. "Take off your coat."


There was no nonsense about "please," which should have given me a clue that all was far from well.


"We want to check you," the checkout woman repeated, as the security guard probed my coat pockets.


In a rush of comprehension and fury, I flung to the floor the carton of milk I'd just bought and my change, grabbed my coat and stalked out.


Back at the apartment, my housemate's reaction was immediate. She went instantly to the store herself for an explanation, taking with her my U.S. passport and visa, which shows that I'm here for academic reasons.


In due course, she returned with the jettisoned milk and the change. Apparently, it hadn't occurred to the authorities that I was a foreigner - a triumph of sorts, I suppose.


"They were amazed to hear that you were American," Tanya said. "And they send their apologies. I told them they should be able to recognize the difference between crooks and decent people."


As for my other usual Russian interlocutor, her reaction was equally strong, and oddly interesting.


"It's an outrage, of course, the way they behaved," she said. "But you were very stupid, too. Really, I'm surprised at you. You must never, never step into a back room just because someone asks you to. That's crazy! Anything could happen out of sight like that! You must promise me never to do that again!"


Lily Emmet is a writer and translator in Moscow. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.