MOSCOW -- Defying the economic woes looming here, some Muscovites are breaking their budgets on the finer things the Soviet holiday season is offering, including meals on the town, artwork or even country houses.
In the past few weeks, the lunch and dinner hour have found residents packing into Yakimauka, a newly opened Uzbek restaurant near the Kremlin, and a handful of other fashionable new cooperative-owned eating places.
During two art auctions sponsored by the official Soviet Cultural Fund in the past month, Russians crowded in alongside western buyers, sometimes outbidding dealers who had flown in from Paris or other European capitals.
An off-season rush also seems to be on for dachas, or summer houses. The latest edition of a monthly want ad supplement published by the Moscow evening newspaper Vechernaya Moskva listed 75 pleas for country property and only 15 properties for sale.
The mood of spending has given a touch of holiday zaniness to the Soviet capital, whose residents usually operate on budgets that are tight and likely to become tighter when economic reforms -- including price increases -- gradually take effect in the new year.
In a recent article about the difficulties Soviet families face in stretching their rubles, for instance, Izvestia writer Yuri Ritov said that the average worker makes 200.5 rubles a month ($321 at the official exchange rate), with one-third of all households earning less than 100 rubles ($160) a month. After rent, food and other necessities, Ritov said, even the well-to-do family with an income of 520 rubles a month only has 127 rubles for optional expenses.
One explanation for why Muscovites are in the mood to splurge is that the minority who have spare cash are eager to take advantage of the looser market for luxury goods, resulting from economic reforms.
"The typical Soviet buyer of luxury goods is someone who has earned his money and is anxious to take the opportunity to spend it on something nice," according to Nika Shchterbakova, a local art dealer and collector, "let's say a writer who might have just gotten a royalty on a book published, or a couple that has been saving up for the right windfall."
Another explanation is that the economic crunch itself has brought on the urge to splurge on the unaffordable, with everyone borrowing from Petr to pay Pavel and using the rest to go out to lunch.
"Russians are never very wise in their spending habits," a Soviet office worker said. "And now that there are these new restaurants, a man wants to rush off right away and spend his paycheck on dinner just to see what it's like."
Whatever the reason, the latest trend among a minority of Soviets is spending money, particularly in the new cooperative cafes and shops that have opened in the past year. The plastic jewelry manufactured by one small cooperative went so quickly that its owner made nearly 216,000 rubles in six months, according to a Dec. 12 dispatch in the government newspaper Izvestia.
In Moscow, the newest outlets for rubles are the cooperative restaurants that have opened here recently, including Yakimauka, with its Uzbek and Asian cuisine, the Red Flower, which features Chinese food, and the Moscow Dawn, with food from Soviet Georgia.
None of them are cheap. In Kropotinskaya 36, which opened here a year ago, the average dinner bill is 35 rubles ($56) for two, or three days' salary for the average worker. At Yakimauka, lunch for two is two days' salary for a worker.
Yet they are always crowded with Soviet and foreign patrons. At Kropotinskaya, dinner tables must sometimes be reserved a week in advance. "The people who come here are not necessarily rich," Yakimauka manager Rafael Shalmeyev said in an interview. "Either they are people who like good Oriental food or people who are out for something exotic. People have been waiting for decent restaurants here for a long time."
"The bill was not too much to pay for what you get," a regular at the clean, efficient restaurant said.
Another recent favorite pastime is buying artwork, including paintings or portraits that Soviet painters have taken to selling in open air bazaars in the past year, and more expensive works by contemporary Soviet artists.
Prices range widely. Street art goes quickly for 15 to 20 rubles a painting. During auctions held in the past few weeks by the cultural fund, however, Soviets bid up to 135 rubles ($216) for djel, a well-known Soviet-made ceramic, and up to 600 rubles ($966) for contemporary paintings. The average price Soviets are willing to pay for modern art is between 100 and 200 rubles, according to one Soviet art dealer who asked not to be named.
For the first time since the 1917 revolution, according to art dealer Shchterbakova, two new types of Soviet art buyers are active on the market. One group is composed of intellectuals or professionals who used to favor ikons or earlier Russian art but now also buy modern art. The other group includes workers who buy the portraits or cheaper art now sold in parks or fairs.
Since July, when a new law was published promising to increase the number of private plots available to Soviets, a rush has been on for everything from large country houses to garden patches in the countryside surrounding Moscow.
According to a recent article in the official newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya, a no-frills dacha sells for about 2,000 rubles ($3,200), or a year's salary for the average Soviet worker. But they can run much higher. In the latest Vechernaya Moskva supplement, for instance, one listing was for a brick lakeside house with a motorboat, a backyard beehive and other extras. The owner did not list its price, but local real estate experts said it could run up to 10,000 rubles, or five years' salary for a Soviet worker.
With the Soviet market expanding for dining out, buying art and second homes, the market for rubles also seems to be bursting at the seams. Although Soviet banks do not make loans as a rule, a letter published in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda last week cited "rumors" that loan sharks are already operating privately, lending out rubles at high interest rates. At the end of the letter the reader made a suggestion: Why not make such activity official?