Stories in Sunday's Travel section gave incomplete information on exchange rates in the Soviet Union. The official exchange rate is 58 kopecks to the dollar, but there also is an exchange rate for tourists of 6 rubles (600 kopecks) to the dollar. (Published 8/9/90)
The shop window at G.U.M., the huge department store on Moscow's Red Square, was jammed with jackets, sweaters and caps. "How come everybody says there's nothing to buy in the Soviet Union?" I demanded. "Look at all this stuff." The woman with me, a thirtysomething Russian art scholar, translator and sometime guide, looked at me with pity, as if I were an idiot child. "Yes, there are things in the windows," this Moscow would-be yuppie explained patiently. "But they are not things that I would buy, or my family or friends. The quality is not good. The style is not good. The price is too much. There is nothing to buy."
Most of the thousands of people bustling through the arcades, past the fountains and over the footbridges of G.U.M. were from out of town, she said -- provincials, from outlying Russian provinces and other republics like Uzbekistan or Armenia or the Ukraine. For those people, from towns where there really isn't anything to buy, G.U.M. is the mecca of Russian retailing.
More sophisticated, urbane, educated Muscovites like my guide can sometimes arrange through friends to have clothes and other consumer products shipped in from the West. Also, she said, she occasionally uses her connections with Intourist, the government tourism agency that she works for, to get hold of good material, and then sews her dresses herself.
Much of my two-week Soviet trip, a legal study tour with a group of other American lawyers and judges, was taken up with official meetings, seminars and discussions. I had resolved to spend some of the scant free time looking at just what there was for the visitor to buy.
On a previous trip to the Soviet Union, six years before, I was a homecoming hero when I returned with a mink hat, some jewelry and a beautifully hand-woven scarf. Since then, of course, Gorbachev had taken power. In his nearly five years in charge, I wondered, had perestroika put more on the shelves, either in staples for Soviet citizens or souvenirs for tourists?
I began at G.U.M. Like so many things in the Soviet Union, it is impressive in a huge, decrepit sort of way, and claims to be the world's largest store. I decided to spend half an hour trying to buy something either for myself, my wife, our 3-year-old daughter or 8-month-old son. My guide had been right. I found nothing to buy. I looked at a sport coat for myself, but it wasn't quite comfortable and certainly wasn't worth 100 rubles -- about $160 at the official exchange rate. The only possibilities for the kids were plain knit stocking caps -- at about $13. And I saw nothing even remotely suitable for my wife, who has been known to skip museums in Florence and Venice in favor of prowling the fashion shops.
The next stop was Arbat Street, the artsy-craftsy area that Muscovites like to call their Greenwich Village. The brick street is a pedestrian mall now, lined with small shops. Artists do portraits, mothers and daughters sell their paintings side by side and poets recite their work and sell it by the sheet, either typed or handwritten.
The spiffiest shop seemed to be selling jewelry. I dropped in. The store consisted of three connecting shop fronts. The first was blocked off by chairs and had nothing in its display cases. The main, center showroom -- with nine glass showcases, each about two feet by four feet -- had a grand total of 23 items for sale. Five of the nine cases were empty, decorated only with a wilting flower or two. The others had a few decidedly unspectacular rings, pendants and earrings ranging in price from 19 rubles ($30) to 400 rubles ($625).
On my way out of Arbat Street, I stopped at a small kiosk selling matryoshkas (nesting dolls) -- perfect for the 3-year-old. The dolls were beautiful, all colorfully painted with seven smaller dolls in descending size inside each other. Between my fumbling Russian -- my guide had the day off -- and the clerk's fumbling English, I thought she said they were four rubles (about $6). But when I tried to pay, she pushed the money away, spoke to me quite harshly and wrote down "400." They weren't $6, they were more than $600 -- and I wasn't buying.
As I walked away, chastened, realizing that the delicate lacquered boxes at the same kiosk carried a 700-ruble ($1,100) price tag, a young Russian who had been watching sidled up and asked, "Change money?" He was a black marketeer offering to give me six rubles for a dollar, compared with the official rate of one ruble for $1.56. I declined, but quickly calculated that a black-market currency swap would have brought the price of the 400-ruble nesting doll down to less than $70 -- more manageable, but still not what I had in mind for a 3-year-old. (For details on the Soviet black market, see the related story, Page E7.)
Around the corner from Arbat Street was a bustling thoroughfare where people were pouring off buses and into a huge supermarket. I followed a few shoppers, all hefting the nets, plastic bags or canvas carriers they had brought with them for their big Saturday shop. To buy chicken, they had to go to the chicken counter in the middle of the shop, wait for up to half an hour in line, pick out a scrawny pale bird ($1.65 a pound), have it weighed and priced and then get a receipt from the counterman. Then they had to walk back to the front of the store, stand in another line at a cash register, present the receipt and pay it, get a voucher from the cashier, return to the chicken counter, wait in another line and then present the voucher to yet another counterman who found their particular chicken and finally handed it over. It seemed to take up to an hour to buy a chicken. I pitied the people who had to try to buy enough to create a meal or two for a family. Shopping could literally take all day, even if you brought the entire family along to stand in lines.
Outside, at a street-corner stand bearing a big Pepsi sign, I held up one finger and presented my 30 kopecks (50 cents). It turned out that all they had -- indeed all that was available at any "Pepsi" stand -- was the weak, ciderish apple drink that the Russians themselves widely disdain. I went back to my hotel to order a Heineken at the dollars-only bar. Hotel bars and dollar shops are virtually the only places in the Soviet Union to get a can or bottle of beer.
The following day, a Sunday, two other Americans and I ducked off the beaten tourist track and headed for Izmailovski Park in northeast Moscow, half a dozen stops on the Metro (yes, some stations really do have crystal chandeliers) from Red Square. As we walked among the regular-folks Muscovites enjoying their day off in the park playing with their kids, singing and folk-dancing -- purely for their own enjoyment -- we came upon a long woodland path lined with people selling things. The variety of goods was extraordinary, from dog-eared books and funny plaster-cast Brezhnev banks to real silver or hand-painted religious icons and a wide variety of handmade arts and crafts.
A small, quiet woman was standing alongside a cardboard box on which stood a nesting-doll set just as beautiful as the ones on Arbat Street. Yes, she had painted it herself; it took almost three weeks. Her price? 300 rubles (almost $500 at the official exchange rate). Through a Russian who spoke English, one of our group asked how much in dollars. The idea seemed to startle her. Her eyes widened and she quickly huddled with two nearby men. "They're deciding whether you're the police," the Russian grinned at us. Finally she set a price of $35. "But I can come down," she quickly added. "Is $30 all right?"
Someone else in our group asked another seller about his icons, pointing toward one of the Virgin Mary, with hand carvings set in silver. He said it would be 600 rubles ($1,000 officially) or $80 American. I bought my wife a pin in the style of those famous Russian lacquered boxes. Priced at 20 rubles ($32), it was a round wooden badge with a delicately hand-painted scene of a wintry fairy sweeping down on some children in a sleigh. And that was all I bought in Moscow.
That evening our group departed on the overnight Red Arrow express train for Leningrad. A conductor tried to sell us champagne for dollars, but we settled for mixing vodka we had brought along with tea provided by the conductors.
Amid Leningrad's wedding-cake architecture and many urban landmarks, the black marketeers were even more prevalent. Instead of just wanting to change money, they tried to sell things, notably $8 T-shirts -- "No rubles, no funny money," the hawkers sneered -- bearing Gorbachev's likeness and Cyrillic lettering that was translated for us as, "In Praise of Tourism." The T-shirts were tempting, and so was the black-market caviar: The hawkers were asking $5 for two ounces of beluga that would cost $40 in New York, according to a lawyer in our group who said she buys the stuff regularly at home.
But I avoided the black market again, and instead paid eight rubles (about $13) at a government kiosk for a set of four nesting dolls. They were much cruder than the works of art on Arbat Street and appeared to have been machine-painted -- perfect for the 3-year-old.
Later, strolling along Nevsky Prospekt, the equivalent of Fifth Avenue for the 5 million people of Leningrad, I dropped into a tobacco shop. The manager didn't speak English and everything was labeled in Cyrillic, but I took a risk on 10 cigars for three rubles (about $5). Maybe they're Havanas, I thought. At 50 cents apiece, they'd be a tremendous bargain compared with the U.S.-banned Cuban cigars I occasionally smoke in London for the equivalent of $5 each.
That evening, over my small can ($1.50) of beer at the hotel bar, I fired up one of the cigars and found out I had overpaid. They definitely weren't Havanas. Indeed, that cigar was so bad that I put it out and announced that there wasn't enough beer in the whole hotel (the dollar bars routinely run out) to get me to smoke another one.
The following morning, however, I finally got something for myself: a copy of a record album of old rock songs done by Paul McCartney. The record, sold only in the Soviet Union with all McCartney's proceeds going to a relief fund for Chernobyl victims, is a collector's item in the States, where it fetches up to $200 per copy. The official list price in the Soviet Union is four rubles (about $6.25) for the album, but the hawker was asking $5 American. I bought it.
Ensuing days took me to several other shops, including an electronics store where a variety of Eastern European stereos and radios all seemed to be of considerably lower quality and higher price than what is typically on sale at, say, Sears.
In one Russian department store, I was trying to get some information about a flannel shirt decorated with teddy bears for my daughter. There were half a dozen saleswomen behind the counter, but they all ignored me -- me and the 20 or so other customers trying to be waited on. Finally a burly guy, hearing me speak, shouldered his way into the crowd and barked at one of the women. She took the shirt and handed over a voucher. I made my way across the floor to the cash register, paid six rubles (about $10) and then went back and swapped the stamped-paid voucher for the shirt. The guy who had helped me was at my shoulder as I stuffed the shirt into my backpack. "How much in America?" he asked in English, nodding toward the backpack. "Oh, I don't know, maybe $40." His eyes widened. "I will give you 40 rubles for it." I thanked him but declined. As I left the shop, I could hear him behind me: "Not 40 rubles? Then 50 ... 60 ... "
My only other purchases in the Soviet Union were a pretty little woven basket that a woman was selling at an outdoor vegetable market for 10 rubles ($15.60) for my daughter and a $40 amber necklace for my wife, which I purchased at an official government dollar shop.
Perestroika, I concluded toward the end of my visit, has made Soviet citizens more attuned to quality-of-life issues, but at the same time it has made them more aware of what they don't have. And despite Gorbachev's intended market reforms and the country's desperate need for the hard currency that Western tourists leave behind, I didn't find much more to buy on my second visit than on my first.
Back home, however, I was once again a hero. I hadn't found anything for our 8-month-old baby, but he didn't complain. My wife loved the lacquered pin and liked the amber necklace. My 3-year-old daughter happily wears the teddy-bear shirt, eagerly hauls things around in the little basket and has made up a whole life history for the nesting dolls.
As a final note, our trip had an especially happy ending for the Russian woman who had accompanied me to G.U.M. One of the women in our group gave her a parting gift: a silk dress that the American said she had never liked anyway. The Russian woman was much taller and thinner than the American, but she kept burbling, "Oh, thank you, no problem, I can fix it, I can sew it, I can adjust it, no problem, thank you." My abiding memory of that trip is of the young Russian woman holding the silk dress in her hands as if it were precious treasure, and actually weeping for joy.
For more information, contact Intourist, 630 Fifth Ave., Suite 868, New York, N.Y. 10111, (212) 757-3884.
Timothy Harper is a London-based American journalist and lawyer.