MOSCOW — Throughout centuries of repression, war, and misery, Russians have always managed to preserve their ironic sense of the absurd. The advent of capitalism and its economic troubles have created a fresh source of jokes: the so-called "New Russians."
According to the jibes, the tacky nouveaux riches of the post-Soviet age buy Picassos for postcards and are inseparable from their cellular phones, Mercedes cars, and bodyguards.
If a new store in the shadow of the Kremlin is anything to judge by, the New Russians can see the ridiculousness in themselves.
Among the items on sale are traditional blue-and-white Gzhel ceramic figures and lacquered boxes synonymous with Russian folk art.
But instead of the usual bucolic scenes of fairy tales or jolly peasants, designs depict Japanese jeeps, Versace logos, and Russian gangsters.
Businessman Grigory Baltser admits to being an archetypal New Russian. His shop, Mir Novikh Ruskikh, New Russians' World, markets to Russia's most conspicuous consumers traditional crafts with a decidedly contemporary and self-mocking tone.
"I am a typical New Russian and I think we have to laugh at ourselves," explains Mr. Baltser. "I am not joking [about] how people make money, but how they spend it."
Baltser says the notion for the new line came to him when he received his umpteenth Cartier pen as a gift. "I've received so many Cartier pens that I could write 'War and Peace' several times by hand," he says. "I decided enough was enough and that we needed personalized presents which no one would forget."
Indeed, few could forget an item from the chic-looking shop, appropriately located in the same shiny new mall as Tiffany's and other status boutiques.
The store's emblem sets the ironic tone. It is a winged bull - a play on the sobriquet byk, or bull, awarded to New Russians because of their much-noted resemblance to pitbull dogs.
Inside on the shelves one finds marijuana leaf designs - a reference to Russian mafia connections with the drug trade - adorning the traditional Khokhloma trays. Lacquered Palekh boxes depict stretch limousines and scenes of gangsters playing tennis surrounded by bodyguards and scantily clad women. Other indispensible items of New Russian life - Nivea skin cream and Dannon yogurt containers - are immortalized in the finest Gzhel ceramics.
One of the more popular wares is a Gzhel caricature of a thick-necked, pot-bellied New Russian draped in gold jewelry, talking on a ubiquitous mobile phone. The price, too, is very New Russian - $215.
A saleswoman steers customers to the shop's highlight - a $3,000 Gzhel chess board with rival mafia gangs of Caucasian appearance. Jeeps and Mercedeses are the knights, while well-protected dachas (country homes) are the rooks. The queens are tough-looking gangster molls.
Some German businessmen have trouble deciding which treasure to choose. They finally settle on a ceramic cell phone going for $180.
"Does it work?" one asks.
"No," says the saleswoman wistfully.
Before you can say "Rolex," a Rus-sian associate of the Germans whips out a wad of bills and peeps from under his Ray-Bans as the salesgirl counts the change. He waves off the foreigners' protests with a suede-gloved hand.
"No, no problem," he says suavely. "Let this be a fond memory of your time in Moscow."
This is exactly the response Baltser wants. The former design student says his mission is to inject new life into the folk tradition, which for 400 years has been churning out the same old designs.
"A year ago I would have been insulted if friend bought me a Gzhel figurine or lacquer box. I thought it was a shame that such beautiful techniques became so frozen that Russians would not buy them. I wanted to make it fun to buy."
Having amassed wealth from a chain of furniture stores, Baltser says the new shop is just a "hobby" that has yet to turn a profit. But that doesn't seem to bother him.
Where does he see the business going next?
Baltser is negotiating to sell his wares duty free at Moscow's international airport. He is also pondering opening a restaurant. It would be named, of course, New Russians' World, and like the store would have a satirical touch.
"It would have a New Russian menu," he says. "You know, like Moscow burgers and New Russian sushi with buckwheat kasha instead of rice."