Ads and Traffic in Chelyabinsk
In 1995, Chelyabinsk turned out to be more pleasant than I'd expected. I'd heard about a long-secret nuclear accident in the '50s that released a huge cloud of radiation nearby, and local factories were said to spew pollutants day and night. Expecting a bleak, smoggy Soviet city, we were surprised to find Chelyabinsk quiet and somewhat quaint.
Then, as now, we stayed in an apartment owned by Sergei and Lyuba right on Revolution Square, in the middle of town. The view from the windows in 1995 shows a wide-open Lenin Street, ad-free sidewalk space and the empty edge of the square.
Today, that view has changed: The streets downtown are choked with cars from morning to night. Advertising has sprung up everywhere -- on buildings, trams, billboards, flyers. And the edge of Revolution Square bustles with people hurrying down to the vast underground shopping mall, or to the new pedestrian mall on Kirov Street.
This pedestrian mall, nicknamed "Arbat" after Moscow's famous walking street, is a wonder to behold. Like downtown Khabarovsk, it's impeccably clean and well-landscaped, with completely smooth sidewalks. It also has a vast array of whimsical statues, from camels to dogs to minstrels. And the final touch: speakers mounted along the street pipe out elevator music all day long. Walking on the Arbat, I felt like I'd landed in a carefully controlled psychological experiment.
That feeling intensified when my heart sped up at the sight of a familiar blue and yellow sign on the Arbat. Ikea! Wow! There's an Ikea store in Chelyabinsk! Never mind the fact that I hate going to Ikea in the U.S. -- for some reason I was thrilled at the idea of seeing multi-colored wonders of Scandinavian furniture design right here in Russia. It was a weird and amusing feeling. Perhaps we're all just subjects in a vast Ikea psychological experiment.
It's odd to look back at photos from the 1995 trip and realize how little advertising there was in most cities. I remember thinking then that Russia felt much more commercialized than it had on my first visit, in 1988. But looking around now, it's clear that the advertising market hadn't even cranked its engine back then.
Trolleybuses now have giant ads painted on their exteriors. Trams pipe in audio ads after the conductor announces each stop. The sides of buildings, once the preserve of giant Soviet-era slogans and mosaics, now sport 5-story-high banner ads. Billboards are everywhere. And coffee shops and restaurants offer handouts advertising cigarettes and alcohol.
This change was most striking on our first evening here, as we strolled around Revolution Square. Ten years ago, the prevailing image of the square for me was the klatsch of Communists we'd talked with, under the red banners they'd hung up. Now, we watched as a group of young people skipped across the square, carrying a flag of their own. "Kenvelo," it said. Before I could ask what that meant, one of them handed me a flyer. "Five percent discount with this coupon," it said, "and a chance to win three DVD players in a raffle!"
Next week: Kazan.
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