Mall Culture and Fast-Food Wonderland

As of today, David and I have been on the road for two months. We've crossed seven time zones and nearly 5800 miles, and have finally made it to Moscow! Wahoo! We also, I would proudly note, haven't killed each other yet -- a minor miracle considering the stress of constantly traveling, finding every meal drenched in Russian mayonnaise, and posting to the blog five days a week.

Ever since we left Novosibirk, we've both noticed that something has changed. Starting with Chelyabinsk, everything has felt more familiar -- more European in a way. There was something indefinably exotic about all those Siberian cities -- Novosibirsk, Irkutsk, Ulan Ude -- that just disappeared once we got close to the Ural Mountains, the historic dividing line between European and Asian Russia.



Soviet-style "three-line" stores, like this meat market in Birobidzhan, can still be found. (David Hillegas)

Even Kazan, with its Middle Eastern flavor and Muslim influences, still felt more European than other Russian cities. Perhaps it was the fact that we finally crossed the McDonald's threshold there: Since 1995, Kazan has acquired not just one, but three McDonald's, the first we'd seen on the trip. And now that we're in Moscow, there's a veritable food court's worth of American fast-food joints: McDonald's, Sbarro pizza, Baskin-Robbins and TGI Friday's are just steps from our apartment here.

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One thing I wondered before launching this trip was whether any old-style "three-line" stores were still around. These were Soviet-era stores designed to kill the desire to shop. You'd line up behind other shoppers to get a glimpse of whatever product you wanted, then stand in a second line to pay the cashier and get a little ticket, and then stand in a third line to hand the ticket over and get the thing you wanted to buy.



New shopping malls and covered markets, like this one in Chelyabinsk, have sprung up all over Russia. (David Hillegas)

They're hard to find now, but yes, the "three-line" Soviet store is alive and well! We haven't seen any in Moscow yet, which has a pretty sophisticated shopping culture, but we did see a few even in Russia's third-largest city, Novosibirsk. We also saw a cashier counting with an abacus there -- once a very common sight in Russia, but now a real rarity. It feels lucky to see one, like spotting a rare woodpecker.

Overall, though, the whole shopping experience has definitely changed since 1995. For one thing, there are now numerous shopping malls. In a country where winter lasts about seven months, you'd think they'd have had them forever -- but apart from a few famous exceptions, such as GUM in Moscow and Gostiniy Dvor in St. Petersburg, I'd seen very few. Now, huge malls shaped like pyramids and domes have sprung up in almost all the cities we've been to.


The other major change I've noticed is the birth of customer service. Ten years ago, scowls were still the norm for salespeople and cashiers -- a remnant from Soviet days, when there was no competition for customers because everything was state-owned anyway. Now, salespeople in many stores smile and ask if they can help you, which is truly a new and weird experience.

By Lisa Dickey |  October 31, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: Kazan: A Soldier's Family, Ten Years Later | Next: Moscow: New Landmarks and a Monument to Kitsch

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I remember going to many many 3-line stores in Kiev circa 1997. Groccery shopping was an all morning affair that had to be repeated at least 3 times a week because many smaller stores still followed the 3-line system.

I also remember how McDonald's was a HUGE deal - you'd see couples there on dates, taking pictures of each other in front of horrible yellow and red plastic planters, and evidently it was considered a really tough job if you worked there, because McDonald's had *gasp!* standards for how clean the bathrooms had to be and such!! For us American's, it was one of the only places in the city to get ice cream that was not on a stick, and you were guaranteed a public bathroom that at first smell/sight didn't make you turn around and go in the woods of the nearest city park instead. At the time, McDonald's was all Kiev had, and the ex-pats we knew all loved going to Budapest for holiday because they not only had McDonald's, but Dunkin' Donuts and Pizza Hut as well!!

Posted by: Kate | October 31, 2005 04:25 PM

McDonalds in Russia had the highest concentration of nice fur coats I've ever seen. It was a big "to do" to go to McDonalds and take five or six of your kids' friends--a way of showing off. Sadly, there were also a number of "street" kids begging in the McDonalds for money from Westerners. The street kid problem in Moscow is really bad now.

By the way--be sure to check out the Ikeas in Moscow. They had 45,000 sit in the snow the day it opened and a near riot on the first day.

Posted by: Andrew | November 1, 2005 10:47 AM

If the street kid problem is so bad, why doesn't the mayor use some of the money he is spending on excessive monuments and churches to start some programs for the kids. Are there any welfare programs in the country yet? I understand that the economy needs investment to grow, ut you can't leave kids to beg on the streets.

Posted by: Pat | November 1, 2005 06:48 PM

Kate - Your comment about McDonald's being a hard job made me laugh, as we were told in Kazan that when the first McDonald's opened, the management told the new employees they had to smile at customers. Apparently, this caused quite a bit of consternation, with comments along the lines of "What, all day?" We were told that after a couple of days, with the employees complaining that their faces hurt from trying to smile so much, the rule was quietly dropped.
Reminds of me one time when my brother and I were kids, we watched "Wheel of Fortune" and tried to clap every time we saw Vanna White clapping -- i.e., every time the wheel spun. Halfway through the show, our hands were so red and swollen, we couldn't stand to clap anymore. We wondered how she does it!

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | November 2, 2005 02:27 AM

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