Skip to Content

Any other business

The mystery of Moscow’s empty supermarket shelves

Owen Matthews offers a parable of consumer attitudes in the new Russia and explains why it’s almost impossible to buy a bottle of wine there these days

20 September 2006

4:58 PM

20 September 2006

4:58 PM

My local supermarket in Moscow is, by any standards, a well-heeled place. It’s called the Alphabet of Taste, and its mission is to present its wealthy Moscow consumers with refined new ways of parting with their money. The deli counter offers more than 80 cheeses (including such exotica as Bûche d’Affinois and two sorts of Stilton), as well as buckets of fresh black caviar and delicious salads of quails’ eggs and Kamchatka crab.

The clientele is as classy as the stock. The thick-fingered meathead types who used to pass for Russia’s elite in the rough-and-tumble of the Yeltsin years have been replaced by a sleeker, more civilised model. They politely stand aside to let you pass in the aisles, and many wouldn’t look out of place in a London boardroom or at the Chelsea Flower Show. In short, spend some time at the Alphabet of Taste and you’d think that Russia’s elite are fast rejoining the European mainstream after a century or so of Soviet and post-Soviet vulgarity.

Imagine, then, this emporium, this metaphor-made-real for Russia’s newfound wealth — but with empty shelves. Not the whole shop, of course, but the whole of its wine department. For the last two months, instead of the usual cornucopia of fine wines, the shelves of Alphabet of Taste have boasted only forlorn bottles of Russian-produced vodka, widely spaced. The same goes for all Russia’s supermarkets, kiosks and out-of-town megamarkets — not a drop of wine to be had. The sight of empty shop shelves for the first time in a decade and a half was more than a shock; it was as though a little breath of the early 1990s had come back to haunt Moscow’s oil-fuelled feast, like Banquo’s ghost. And that’s not to mention the oddness of watching diners in swanky restaurants like the Philippe Starck-designed Bon in Moscow (where the table lamps are gold-plated Kalashnikovs) sipping beer rather than wine with their grilled sea bass.

The reason for the disappearance of the wine was a sadly predictable mixture of incompetence, cronyism and greed. As the former Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin once brilliantly observed, ‘We wanted things to be better, but they turned out like always.’ The big idea, in this case, was to reform the old, notoriously corrupt system of alcohol excise labels. Instead, a new-fangled system — designed and exclusively operated by a company called Atlas — replaced the old, easily forged labels with high-tech ones with complicated barcodes that tracked every individual bottle from border customs post to retail outlet. It was a good idea, in theory.

In practice, the new system has proved a disaster. All importers and manufacturers have been required to install labelling equipment and software, at a minimum cost of $30,000 — plus mandatory monthly inspections by Atlas personnel, at a cost of $100 a pop. But not only is the grandly named Unified State Automated Information System, or EGAIS, expensive; it also doesn’t work. A software glitch left a staggering 40 million bottles of wine sitting unlabelled in warehouses, and a whole class of Russian consumers deprived of a major element of their newly civilised existence.

In a normal economy, a commercial company guilty of such a colossal cock-up would by this time be drowning in writs from angry importers suing for their losses. Not so with Atlas. Conveniently, the St Petersburg-based company turns out to be state-owned and operating under the jurisdiction of the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

Fine. It’s not as if state incompetence is unknown in Western Europe. But the real rub of this story isn’t about a handful of confused software engineers. The wine crisis of summer 2006 has exposed a flaw in the new Russia far deeper than simple incompetence or venality. The really terrible truth about the crisis was that there has been next to no protest, little outcry in the press, no pyramid of empty bottles in Red Square, no restaurateurs’ march on the Kremlin. Russia’s new middle class turned out to be just like the old proletarians they all were not so long ago — utterly passive in the face of arbitrary abuse from above.

One hears a lot from senior Kremlin folk and banker types that Russia’s new-found prosperity will create a new middle class which will become — supposedly — a firmer basis for a true civil society than anything that the shaky and corrupt institutions of Russia’s brief and chaotic democratic period could ever have produced. Vladislav Surkov, a leading Kremlin courtier and deputy head of the presidential administration, claimed earlier this month that ‘freedom will increase in our society; the habit of being free and taking responsibility will take root’. And his colleague Sergei Prikhodko, Putin’s foreign policy adviser, insists that ‘freedom is an absolute value for us. But there can’t be any freedom without prosperity.’

Freedom coming in the wake of economic prosperity: that sounds like good Weberian principle. Except that in Russia it doesn’t seem to be working. Rather, new wealth seems to be making the new Russian bourgeoisie, if anything, more craven in their dealings with authority. A generation ago they had nothing to lose but their chains; now even a middle-income Russian stands to lose his annual foreign holiday, his Mitsubishi Lancer and his ability to buy university places for his children.

In fact, the last Soviet generation turned out to be far more revolutionary, and far more ready to stand up for its rights, than the present one. Fifteen years ago, crowds massed in Leningrad and around the White House in Moscow to stand up, finally, against the disintegrating communist regime. I remember standing on the steps of the Fire Tower on Nevsky Prospekt and watching the great avenue filled with people as far as the eye could see. That was a truly inspiring sight: ordinary Soviet people, who had endured generations of horror at the hands of their rulers, finally standing up and being counted. Not that I expect people take to the barricades to demand their right to a glass of Chardonnay. But it’s clear that Russia’s rulers behave in the manner they think they can get away with — and in the absence of any consciousness on behalf of ordinary citizens that they have rights, they can get away with just about anything.

The clearest example of this is the rush-hour scene on Rublevo–Uspenskoye shosse, the highway which leads to Moscow’s most exclusive suburbs along the Moscow river. The new rich have flocked there in droves. Yet up to a dozen times a day the entire highway is blocked by policemen who stop traffic in both directions for ten minutes to allow the passage of a black Mercedes, escorted by jeeps with flashing lights and sirens, bearing a minister to or from his dacha. Lesser officials without the clout to get the road closed nevertheless have flashing lights which enable them to drive on the wrong side of the road, overtaking lesser mortals with a revolting parp of a special horn designated for the cars of the mighty.

Not one of the cars that are forced to wait so much as toots a horn; no one gets out of their car in protest. And these are rich people for whom time is money, folk who like to put Cannes or Courchevel on its knees with a flash of their credit cards. Yet on their way to work they wait for their masters to pass with a passivity which is positively feudal. The proof of freedom is not, it seems, how many goodies you can afford at the supermarket. It’s how hard you’re willing to fight to defend your right to those goodies. By that measure, Russians, however rich they become, can’t shake the serf out of their souls.

Owen Matthews is Moscow bureau chief of Newsweek.

Show comments