"Russia today at ground level: further observations"
by Gilbert Doctorow
gilbertdoctorow.com (June 7, 2022)
Tomorrow, Wednesday, 8 June, I will be leaving Petersburg, leaving Russia. My return home will follow in reverse order the same path as my arrival a little over five weeks ago, taking a bus to Tallinn, Estonia and thence two days later onward by plane to Brussels. The bus company assures me that the delays at the border due to processing of Ukrainian refugees heading for the EU are now less severe, which is a comfort to us.
I use this time to piece together the many observations on everyday life in Russia’s second largest city that could not be accommodated so far in my essays focused on musical life, on life in the countryside, on the food markets.
We have passed the hundred day mark of the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine and the effects or lack of effect of the sanctions are that much clearer with the passage of time. This will be a leitmotiv of the observations presented here.
I am emboldened to present both big and petty observations because ever since 24 February there are very few Western observers on the ground to report on the real as opposed to imagined daily life of Russians. Mainstream journalists left the country not long after the start of hostilities. Others simply never came here, because no business or tourist visas were being issued. So I ask the reader to bear with me if my remarks on a host of topics exhaust your patience with any one of them. I am all you’ve got for the moment.
In my essay about my visits to Petersburg and provincial food stores, I offered a brief survey of economy class, mid-range and high class supermarket chains, with some further words on vendor stalls in the city markets. Now I wish to direct attention to the top of the top, a food emporium that rivals Harrod’s in London or the best gourmet food shops in Paris, the world’s capital of gastronomy. I am talking about the branch of Azbuka Vkusa [The Alphabet of Taste, or perhaps better rendered as A to Z of Taste] located in the -1 Level of the Stockman building on Nevsky Prospekt. This is not the only branch of the given chain in the city. Nor is Petersburg its home base – that is Moscow. But it is surely the most exciting location and most representative of what Russia’s wealthy class can buy, sanctions or no sanctions.
The Azbuka Vkusa moved into its Nevsky Prospekt premises when they were vacated by Stockman’s own food supermarket in 2014 shortly after the first round of sanctions on Russia were imposed. The departure was surely motivated by supply problems for what was, after all, just one of two outposts in Russia of Finland’s biggest department store, the other location being Moscow. The departure was something of a shock, because Stockman’s had created the first gourmet food supermarket in the city in the early ‘90s and remained, until 2014, the nec plus ultra. The discovery of delicacies in Stockman’s St Petersburg prompted locals to travel across the border to Lappeenranta periodically to stock up on quality food products that otherwise were not available at home.
When Stockman’s shut the doors of their food hall in 2014, we feared food shopping would lose its glamor. We were mistaken. Azbuka Vkusa has many outlets in Russia and with greater heft comes greater ability to manage the logistics and finance needed to stock the store with exquisite food products from all over the world, many of which are simply not available in Europe for political reasons (Iran) or restraints on free trade to protect domestic interests of Spain, Italy or Greece and other producers, for example.
This store chain puts the previous tenant to shame. The sheer variety and luxury of the present offering in fresh produce, cheeses, meats, fish, tinned conserves of all varieties is stunning. The fresh fish section offers swordfish from Sri Lanka, wild salmon from the Faroe Islands (presumably Russian caught), some unidentified white sea fish from Egypt, and dorade from Turkey. In a tank, there is a two kilogram live Kamchatka King Crab waiting for a buyer at 200 euros. Live oysters in another tank are brought from both Crimea (large) and from the Far East (very large). Farmed mussels are brought in from Crimea.
In the produce section a couple of weeks ago I purchased for 6 euros a 500g packet of green asparagus which, according to a vendor, were grown in the Moscow region! On a later visit I found more asparagus, though less robust; it had been flown in from Peru. Just imagine: twenty years ago Russians did not know what an asparagus looked like; it was only an entry in some 19th century encyclopedias.
The produce sourcing is global – kiwis from Chile, oranges from Egypt. Beef steaks in vacuum packs fill a large refrigerator display with labels describing them as Ribeye, New York style, filet mignon, strip loin dry aged. The marbleized beef comes mainly from Voronezh, which in the past five years has become a national center. Additionally there is an open butcher shop just adjacent to the refrigerators which displays cuts of veal, beef, pork that merit all due respect.
The cakes section and chocolates rival the best one can find in specialty stores in Brussels. Breads, cheeses are all exciting. Needless to say, there is a prestigious selection of wines and spirits. A great many wines from the most sought after French, Italian and other famous estates cost several hundred euros a bottle. But the shop also promotes excellent quality Crimean wines from as low as 7 euros a bottle.
In my first walking tour of St Petersburg food shops, I mentioned the upmarket Perekryostok chain. Allow me to add a few details here, particularly as regards the fresh fish counter, which has surprised me now that I have shopped there for several weeks. Their offer of fresh dorade and sea bass from Turkey deserves special mention. Freshness and quality like this cannot be matched in the top of the line Belgian supermarket chain Delhaize (‘The Lion’ in its US subsidiary). I can only imagine that the fish are flown in daily from Turkey to ensure this freshness, which bests what the Belgians offer coming from Greek fish farms. Notwithstanding high transportation costs, the prices here are a good 30% below Belgium.
I close out discussion of fish with a couple of words about salmon, which was widely sold before the sanctions regime took effect and was priced at roughly a 35% discount to prices in Belgium. With sanctions, the farmed salmon from Norway disappeared. Farmed salmon from the Faroe Islands continued to be sold until the more rigorous sanctions post February 2022 came into force. Implicit in my bracketed remark on Azbuka Vkusa salmon, the fish are probably wild, caught by Russian boats under a treaty that the Faroes are loathe to cancel. Then, from nowhere, farmed salmon from Murmansk came onto the market, but at what I would describe as a 25% premium to supermarket prices in Belgium. And now, in the city market, I found that there is a multiplicity of farmed and wild salmon from the Baltic on sale. Clearly there will be a market shake-out before there is a new normal established.
Throughout the food chain, whether Economy, Middle Class or Premium, I note that new supplier countries are emerging. Iceberg lettuce and celery are among the new entries from Iran. Iranian canteloupes in even the Economy chain Verny would be fair competitors to the prized Cavaillon melons from France and Morocco that appear in Belgian stores.
For this entry I am reliant on my wife’s shopping experience. Whereas both staples and luxury food products are fully stocked in St Petersburg supermarkets, the same cannot be said of foreign branded mass market cosmetics. Russian ladies have surely been out hoarding because many well known brands are already out of stock or remain in very limited ranges. However, certain elite products buck the trend. My wife found that a shop specialized in very pricey world beating Korean and Japanese skin creams have no trouble maintaining stock. Middlemen have already moved in to assure supplies via workarounds, i.e. ‘parallel trading.’ This, of course, adds to price but is affordable to the traditional clientele.
Similarly, when my wife went shopping for luxury Italian fabrics including silks, she found that the stores are receiving daily shipments, presumably also via middlemen and roundabout logistics.
Finally, I offer a comment on the shuttered street level shops and mall tenants that have been gleefully reported by Western journalists: yes, major Western branded stores have closed down, not all, but a great many. Their loss is felt on the most prestigious shopping streets and malls, where they bought market share for their products by lavish spending on promotion, including prestige premises. However, outside these limited addresses, one does not see gaps in the street level stores in Petersburg. I see more empty store fronts in shopping streets in Brussels than here.
“Ognenenny Angel” [Fiery Angel] at the Mariinsky
This revival of a legacy opera production dating from the early days of Valery Gergiev’s management of the Mariinsky and launched jointly with Covent Garden was an important musical event, very suitable to the first week of the White Nights Festival. The cast was excellent and Gergiev conducted, which speaks for itself. However, this first class event, did not have an audience to match.
We were sitting in 3rd row orchestra seats (stalls in British parlance) which were sold to us by the Mariinsky online ticket office at a 40% discount. However, looking at those seated around us, I understood that we had overpaid: they surely got their tickets gratis. The Mariinsky has done this from time to time to fill seats and avoid an embarrassing void just in front of the performers.
This audience listened attentively, applauded where necessary, but was remarkable for being very poorly dressed. Although the Mariinsky stopped setting a dress code many years ago when Western visitors showed up in jeans and sweaters, I had never before seen hefty men wearing singlets take front row seats. Out of 1500 in the audience overall, maybe a dozen men wore suits or sports jackets. Women were proper but in cheap apparel. For a premiere performance, this sartorial descent of the audience does not augur well for the financial health of the theater going forward.
We also saw another legacy production in the historic Mariinsky-1 building – ‘Eugene Onegin’ as staged by Yuri Temirkanov in the early 1980s. Temirkanov was Gergiev’s immediate predecessor as music director of the Kirov/Mariinsky. He famously also was stage director of two operas, of which Onegin is one. He moved from the Mariinsky to the Philharmonic, where he remained for the rest of his career, combined with principal conductor positions in the USA.
The Temirkanov production of Onegin is visually a delight. Yes, it is retro in the same sense as Zeffirelli’s various productions of Verdi operas were retro when they were kept in repertoire by Met intendant Joseph Volpe for decades. But Onegin is about a certain place and a certain age. Its ‘updating’ by contemporary stage directors in the West to impress on the audience the universality of the composer’s message by abstract decoration and costumes only creates contradictions between what we see on stage and the words we hear or read overhead, all to the detriment of the work. In the Mariinsky production, when Tatyana tells the Nurse to ‘open the window,’ there is a window to open.
The evening of Onegin was a good demonstration of what Gergiev has made the leitmotiv of this season’s White Nights Festival when foreign performers are largely absent for obvious reasons – to feature young performers who have received their advanced training within the theater but are still unknown to the audience. Good voices and musicality were in evidence on stage even if the casting was uneven. However, in all fairness, without big name guest performers from abroad, a ‘buzz’ is missing, and that is what drew in the wealthy Russians in the past.
In St Petersburg, even before the sanctions, wealthy society tended to favor the smaller Mikhailovsky opera house over the Mariinsky on most evenings. Seat prices were high and no seats were discounted for pensioners, none were given out for free at the Mikhailovsky. The wealthy could feel comfortable with their privilege. Perhaps the Mariinsky will have to move in this direction to navigate the new age.
Until June, the Mariinsky theaters announced at the start of each show that the audience was obliged to wear masks during the performance for their own safety and that of the staff. In fact, no one wore masks in the theaters, just as no one was wearing masks when shopping, dining in restaurants or in other public spaces, including the metro and buses. Only store personnel and public service workers were wearing masks. That all ended on 1 June. However, at the theater a temperature check is now being made on everyone just ahead of the passage through metal detectors.
The abandonment of Covid precautions is in fact justified at this time by the very low rate of infection in Russia, including in St Petersburg. About 4,000 new cases are declared daily nationwide, about 400 daily in St Petersburg. At this rate, the chance of contracting an infection is 50 times less than in the USA at present.
I cannot close this discussion of my evenings at the opera without mentioning our pre-theater dining experience.
It was a shock to discover on our first evening out that our favorite venue, the French cuisine gourmet restaurant Vincent, just opposite the old theater, closed for good just days before our arrival. It had barely survived the shutdowns during the pandemic, but the latest stress arising from the disappearance of foreign visitors obviously was too much for the owners. During our visit to another gourmet restaurant, just a few minutes’ walk down the same street, the staff explained that they have been hard hit by a fall-off in clientele. Indeed, my wife and I were the only diners at 6pm.
For sure, the folks in the audience in the front rows of the Mariinsky during the Fiery Angel performance don’t have the spare cash to frequent pricey restaurants. However, this restaurant, Repa [the Turnip] has the support of maestro Gergiev for his entertainment of guests and colleagues in a private dining room after shows. It also is aiming for a Michelin Guide star, which, if we speak only of the quality of the fare put out by the imaginative chef, and not about the numbers of diners, they have good reason to expect.
Of course, it is difficult to foresee how the Mariinsky and its commercial neighborhood will weather the storm created by the Western sanctions and disappearance of well-heeled foreign visitors. A couple of days ago, the morning news on radio Business FM carried relevant information that is promising. The news item was the announcement by Marriott that they will be leaving the Russian market. The commentators noted that the departure of major hotel brands will change very little in the Russian hospitality industry since all of the hotels are owned by Russian investors. They also remarked that four and five star Moscow hotels are fully booked for the coming two months. The prices for rooms begin at 15,000 rubles per night (220 euros). And whereas in the past their clients were mostly foreign visitors, today the overwhelming share of hotel guests is Russians.
Tour Groups visiting cultural venues
As the calendar moved on to June, there was a visible uptick in tourists in the district where we have our apartment, the ‘borough’ of Pushkin, just opposite the park and Catherine palaces that have long been a major tourist attraction. To be sure, today there are no Chinese, who swarmed here before the pandemic. Nor are there any other foreign tourist groups at all. Russian groups are just beginning to show up, but they are still too few to be a nuisance to individual tourists like ourselves or a major financial support to the museums.
A week ago, we visited the Hermitage Museum and it was a delight to be able to stroll around without crossing the currents of groups. We could approach the best known and loved paintings, inspect them at close distance without being shooed away by tour guides or members of their groups keen to take photos. This is a moment to savor, even if it is depleting the ticket revenues of the management. Absent foreigners, they have had to triple the entry ticket price for Russian pensioners.
As property owners, we follow with interest news about the local real estate market. I have not seen figures for St Petersburg, but the news from Moscow is that their prices are rising by 30% this year. The average price for apartments in the capital is now over 400,000 rubles per square meter, meaning 6,000 euros. This is half the price of Paris, but double the price of Brussels. The explanation is price inflation in construction materials and labor. Russians are perplexed, because nearly all construction materials are now produced in country, not imported. The prices appear to be resisting decreased demand that results from the still high interest rates on new mortgages outside of special government programs.
Life in the countryside
In my essay on impressions from our visit to our dacha in Orlino published a couple of weeks ago, I said that the situation there was stable, with small improvements such as improved roads this past year. I should have added that over the years we have witnessed fashions that sweep through the town. Maybe six or seven years ago everyone acquired a Chinese ‘trimmer,’ usually gas powered to cut the ‘grass’, meaning the green undergrowth, mostly weeds that passes for a lawn in many yards including our own. Only a very few have true seeded lawns.
The next fashion wave was siding. Siding was being applied to new houses built from cement blocks or from pressed sawdust panels to provide an aesthetically pleasing exterior. Often the colors selected were shocking – pastel pinks more suited to the Caribbean than to the Russian North.
Siding was being applied to century old and decrepit hewn log houses to give them a wholly updated look with clean lines. What lies inside is nobody’s business. The next fashion wave to hit our countryside was greenhouses. Every landowner in our area was putting them in. And if your neighbor had one, you tried to move ahead and put in two. Even neighbors who were seldom seen in our town and could hardly look after the greenhouse plantings had their own greenhouses installed.
This year, ‘special military operation’ or no, yet another wave of investment and home improvement has rolled over the countryside: new roofs. Houses which otherwise have not been altered for 80 years or more now are acquiring roofs based on a new product that looks like ceramic tiles but is laid down in panels, so that the installation is a matter of just a couple of days, and the cost is substantially less than traditional tiles.
On the war: Que sera, sera
As I remarked in a previous essay, Petersburgers do not talk much about the war. This is not because of state repression, as many Western media would have us believe. No, it is simply because opinions are divided. People know where their friends, relations, acquaintances stand and they avoid raising issues that would only unleash acrimony. However, when there is anonymity, as for example among taxi drivers or hair dressers, talk flows more freely.
What I hear with regard to the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine falls into the long Russian folk tradition of авось. This philosophy encapsulated in one word corresponds to what the 10 or 15% of the population who profess Islam would express as Inshallah. However, given that Russians are now celebrating the 350th anniversary of the birth of Peter the Great, who opened his Window on Europe by founding this city on the Neva, it is more appropriate to make reference to European folk thinking from the popular Italian song Que sera, sera: “what will be will be, the future is not ours to see…”
Along with this sense of resignation before historical forces greater than our abilities, I hear the comment that “every hundred years the Europeans get it into their heads to destroy Russia.” If Europeans see Russia as the aggressor by its move into Ukraine, here the causality is taken back one step to the NATO installations and instructors active in Ukraine over the past 8 years leading to the preparation of an army of 150,000 nationalists prepared to pounce on the Donbas in March 2022.
As for the periodicity of European madness, most adults here think back at once to Napoleon’s Grande Armée of 1812 which attracted adventurers from all of Europe keen to glean spoils of war in Moscow. Then, of course, came World War I and the German assault which drove deep into the territory of the Russian Empire.
Today the hostile position of Chancellor Scholz has touched off neuralgic reactions in the population. His pronouncements on arms shipments to Ukraine, on Germany casting off the pacifism which dominated its policies for the past fifty years to create ‘Europe’s largest army’ set off alarm bells in Russia. These are the policies of the weak leader of a coalition dependent on the Russophobic Greens to stay in power. But the Russians are focused on the results, not the causes of policy. What they hear brings up memories of German violence and barbarism seventy years ago, all the more so here in Petersburg, where the German Siege cost more than a million civilian lives.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022
Postscript, 11 June:
Several readers sent in comments to my report on “Russia today at ground level,” demonstrating that they understood fully well my subversive intent. The point of a detailed and unbiased description of shopping experiences, cultural events and the like was to show that the ongoing war and the fierce sanctions imposed on Russia by the Collective West have not deprived Russians of their pleasures and normal life.
One or two readers sent in spoiler remarks, asking how Russians are coping with spare parts for the autos now that manufacturers have cut ties with the country, whether white goods such as refrigerators and washing machines have exploded in price for the same reason, and much more. But such attempts to denigrate what I reported for failing to be fully comprehensive, beyond the capacity of any one observer, are just a variation on the theme that one fool can ask a hundred questions more than a wise man can answer.
Without claiming to be that ‘wise man’ I answered the questions by showing how in a couple of product categories that I or my wife saw on sale, parallel trading was already ensuring the supply on the Russian market of goods that their manufacturers no longer market directly in Russia. Nearly everything that Western firms have withdrawn from Russia is purely civil in application, has no dual use and is not itself prohibited for sale to Russia. Therefore it may be taken for granted that most everything will continue to be available to Russian consumers if at a moderately higher price. Or the market niche will be filled at lower prices by enterprising Russian manufacturers.
As regards software, including apps, I do not doubt the ingenuity of Russian programmers and the appearance of replacement services that are Russian designed and brought to market. After all Yandex, not Google, was the largest Search Engine in Russia before 24 February, and V Kontakte, not LinkedIn or Facebook, was the largest social network.