New Model Markets

By James Flint, 10 September 1997

James Flint on Russian (space) economies

In 90s Russia, the dream of free enterprise has given way to a market stall economy. James Flint ravelled to Moscow and explored the scene of a city in thrall to capitalism: museums become car showrooms; national exhibition halls eschew artefacts of a century's history in favour of television displays. Could Russia be gestating a meaner, leaner mutation of Western capitalism?

The Vystavka Dostizheny Narodnogo Khozyaystva SSSR (the USSR Economic Achievements Exhibition) was set up in the 50s and 60s to pay tribute to the Soviet economic system. Two kilometres long and a kilometre wide, it's difficult to miss. As you emerge from the marble hallways of the Moscow subway and head down the pathway towards it, note the giant swoosh of pure titanium on your left, an enormous sculpture of vector and motion which is so effective that it takes a conscious effort of will to actually see it. Beneath it is the Cosmonautics Museum, a bunker built to house the stuffed carcasses of Belka and Strelka, the first dogs to make it to space and return alive.

The approach to the VDNKh is crammed with one of the archipelagos of market stalls which snaggle every major traffic intersection in every town and city and which are currently the chief retail mechanism for pretty much everything - from alcohol to food, from Western beauty products to videos and pirate software. Evangelists of capitalism are quick to point out that it didn't take long, once the centralised economy collapsed, for individuals to solve the eternal Soviet distribution problem; they tend to be more reticent about the fact that while the goods now get through, most of the prices are still beyond the reach of the average citizen. Still, it's early days yet - or so they say, as if Russia's joining the G8 signifies its seamless introduction into the global economy. But as I was to discover, the VDNKh was about to suggest a different interpretation of events.

While the market on the approach road seems familiar enough, as you arrive at the massive Brandenburg gate affair at the entrance, things begin to change. First bit of weirdness is the stuffed animal stall - some enterprising family has rescued the worm-ridden carcasses of three bears and a leopard from a relative's derelict hunting dacha and are charging passers-by to have their photos taken with the unfortunate creatures (which are strongly reminiscent, in fact, of the carcasses of Belka and Strelka back inside the museum...). This is followed by a long line of babushkas in overcoats and shawls stretching up to the entrance, trigger fingers on their shopping trollies, all of which are loaded with whatever saleable goods they have been able to find. Not so much Thatcher's children as Thatcher's aunties, desperate to flog a worn-out nylon dress or chipped piece of crockery to anyone who comes within range. These are the women who've been standing in lines in Russia forever - at the gates of the cities when the Tsars were raping the country, outside the empty food shops in Soviet times, and now here at the altar of capitalism. Because the VDNKh is no longer called the VDNKh, nor is any longer a symbol of communism. It's now the Vserossiysky Vystavochney Tsentr, the VVTs - a commercial centre.

Inside, it's full of white temples and golden fountains, their gilt so bright it's hyperreal. The VDNKh was organised to reflect the 60-odd supposedly authentic Soviet 'peoples' that Stalin had constructed from the raw ethnic material of his empire, and the uncanny result is that the kitsch pseudo-indigenous architecture and folk statues are not that far removed from those of DisneyWorld. I walk through, listening to the Western pop bands being played through a PA that once vibrated to the catechisms of Lenin and dodging couples lugging microwave ovens. Disaffected teenagers sit smoking on the edges of the dried up fountains or rollerblade between the advertising hoardings (another recent addition). The place is rammed; there's an atmosphere of festival. This is Planet Earth. Every detail is perfect.

The temples are filled with cameras and computers and the boulevards which link them are lined with smart kiosks, all white wood and neat windows. Laid out in exact lines it looks as if the white picket fences of middle America have invaded and are now standing up and demanding franchise. Each kiosk is a separate little shop; but unlike their cousins outside the gates they specialise: in men's clothes, watches, video recorders, whatever. No hodge-podge here. This is organised. One of the strangest things for a Westerner to discover about Russia is that it was indeed a Communist country (it's easy to forget that these days - in the West we hear plenty about the horrors of the system and its failings, but its day-to-day successes are rarely reported upon) and that there were therefore no middle classes. There were workers, there was the Party, but there was no middle management. No one has any experience of building a business, motivating a team of people, planning an economic strategy. And it's here, in the VVTs and in the myriad street-markets all across the country, that Russians - through a combination of imitation and invention - are learning those quintessentially capitalist skills.

The highlight is the Kosmodrome, which is where it becomes blatantly obvious that after this collision of Russia and what is laughingly referred to as free-market economics, nothing is ever going to be the same again. Out front of this huge building with its pineapple-shaped glass dome two Aeroflot airliners and a MIG fighter are parked up. To the right is a life-sized model of an electricity relay station. But all of these are merely the frills around the real centrepiece: a real live Vostok rocket, of the kind that propelled Yuri Gagarin into space. There it is, cantilevered out in the air on its gantry, exact against the Microsoft blue of the sky and every bit as impressive as the titanium swoosh of the Cosmonautics Museum (which is visible in the distance behind me, the two rockets containing the economic experiment in between). And here, on the launch pad, is a car-showroom. Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Jeep. The cars have appropriated the rocket for their own, the greatest shop sign in human history.

Enter the Kosmodrome and you blink as your eyes readjust to the darkness. Originally this hall - 30 metres wide and at least 150 long - contained an alleyway of satellites and space craft which led all the way down to a 15 metre high silver relief portrait of Gagarin himself. The satellites are still there, but not as a majestic colonnade. Nope, they've all been shifted to the far end, dumped out of the way in an extraordinary junkyard that includes such dignitaries as Skylab and Proton 4 and which stands as a monument to the Cold War, resonating with all the notions of progress and all the paranoia, all the nightmares and shattered dreams that were encapsulated by that most peculiar period in human history. Just as aptly, the satellites were moved by Armenians, members of Russia's most hated racial minority, who have decided that the space is better utilised as an enormous television showroom than as a poem to imperialism. They wheel stacks of Sonys around on great wooden trolleys and yell instructions at each other through the crepuscular light. Trade is brisk, too - there's a steady stream of customers, every one of whom is totally oblivious to the marvels of space technology stacked up around them like so many giant Airfix models.

It's not like this anywhere else. 95% of Russia's money is concentrated in Moscow, and most of that small proportion of it which is available for conspicuous consumption seems to be channelled through the VVTs at one point or another. This is a bubble market, a temporary autonomous zone, an emergency mall kludged together from the detritus of a derelict Soviet past. Capitalism may have landed - and that's the feeling you get - but it hasn't escaped contamination. By coming here it is itself being reinvented. It's faster, more malignant, more creative than before. No longer is it so worried about keeping up appearances. It arrives, draws on the materials it finds, builds a bridgehead. Then it spawns if it can, leaves if it can't, and remains supremely unbothered either way. You have to wonder, here in the VVTs, if the Russians have quite understood that last bit yet. But you also have to wonder, as G7 becomes G8, if the West is going to get rather more than it's bargained for.

James Flint <jim AT> is a writer whose first novel, Habitus, will be published next year.