Russian Good Times Roll ... Right Over the Edge

After my workout a few days ago, I walked out into the Moscow health club's cafe, bought a bottle of Spa water, noting with satisfaction that it had effectively gone down in price from $1.60 to 60 cents, and sat down next to a trendily dressed woman drinking beer. She took out her cell phone and - as I ascertained from the conversation that followed - dialed her brother, who was about to return home to Russia after traveling abroad for a couple of weeks. "I can watch Mousie swim from where I sit, and Fyodor's teacher called him the most attentive," she began. "The food's all gone. We did some shopping the other day, then decided to go back in the morning for some staples - and it's like they'd vacuumed the place clean. We ran all over town, but we're stocked up on grains now."

This conversation was an artifact, a perfect moment in the Russian crisis.

A woman in a health club cafe making an international call on her cell phone and discussing stocking up on grains.

Our present goes back to the future.

For the last couple of years, Muscovites - on average by far the wealthiest of Russians - have cultivated an air of confidence that mimicked the Western middle classes. We cherished the little tokens of stability that assuaged Russia's eternal inferiority complex. After the ruble's denomination in January, when three zeroes were slashed off the bank notes - signifying that the currency was stable enough to claim an end to inflation - sales clerks and customers in Moscow's expensive supermarkets were among the first to start using the new denominations: saying "6 rubles" instead of "6,000 rubles" made the money sound more respectable, more real.

For restaurants serving the emerging middle class, it became a matter of patriotic pride to stop printing menus with prices marked in dollars and switch to rubles. Indeed, the very existence of the middle class seemed to boost our pride.

In a country where most income, personal or business, is hidden from the tax authorities, it is difficult to derive an accurate definition of the middle class, so Russian sociologists chose to define it as those who "overconsume," that is, buy more - food, clothes, cars - than they need. These were not the new rich who made Moscow the Mercedes Benz-sales capital of the world a few years ago; these were people in their 20s and 30s who wore Diesel-brand jeans and Ecco shoes and drove VWs. They worked as travel agents, journalists, and advertising executives, and they made sure they had the consumer goods they promoted. One thing they didn't have was savings.

Nor did they have property. They acted as though they were trying to convince themselves and the rest of the world that now it was inconceivable they'd ever have to go without their creature comforts.

Western companies bought the pitch: The number of clothes shops in Moscow seemed to double by the day, and Volvo chose Moscow for the August world premiere of its new model.

Inside, though, we all knew that not only is it perfectly conceivable that the middle class would lose everything overnight, we saw it happen just a few years ago. In 1992, when the government lifted price controls, unleashing hyperinflation, the Soviet middle class, entrenched over decades, became instantly impoverished. By Western standards, these people may have not had much, but they'd always had that most important attribute of the middle class, the ability not to worry about being able to afford a future. It's probably the experience of watching it happen to their parents that allowed Moscow's new middle class to shift into crisis mode in a matter of days. As the ruble's exchange rate began to stumble in the last days of August, young professionals stormed the stores. By Aug. 31, the clerks at one of Moscow's upscale supermarkets adopted a new checkout technique: They scanned the bar code of an item and then asked, "How many of those do you have?" "Ten," the customer would answer. Or "Twenty."

The contents of the shopping cart of the man ahead of me in line that day betrayed someone who expected his lifestyle to change: three bottles of Evian water, three bottles of beer, a smoked chicken, some good ripened cheese - and three kilos of sugar, three kilos of salt, and 10 kilos of butter.

I couldn't bring myself to stock up on food, but that doesn't mean the panic bypassed me. As publications and advertising agencies announced layoffs, I realized I might lose my job as a magazine writer, and I'd immediately have to forfeit my cell phone and my health club membership. My version of panic shopping was to search for a home exercise machine. With the ruble a third of its former self, I figured there must be some shops that had not yet marked up their gym equipment - and I was right. The two saleswomen instantly sympathized with my cause.

"By the time they bring one from the warehouse, they might raise the prices," said one of them. "Let's take apart the floor model so you can buy it."

We had it disassembled in minutes, it seemed. "Quick, get it into your car," the saleswoman instructed me. "The owner is on his way to start changing the price tags - and then no one will be able to afford anything."

The incident had a definite us-against-them flavor to it. I examined it for signs of social upheavals surely to come. Will it be women against men this time? Consumers against traders? The middle-class against the rich? I found no signs of any deep-seated social alliance, though. It had been just three women in a city seized with panic doing the only thing any of us can do right now: try to set things right before those with more power get around to the task.

* Masha Gessen, author of 'Dead Again: The Russian Intelligentsia After Communism' (Verso, 1997), is the chief of reporting at the Russian newsweekly Itogi in Moscow.

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