Vignette 8.1 The Evolution of Retail Establishments on a Typical Moscow Street

To give you a better sense of the pace of post-Soviet reforms, we could take a walk through time on any Moscow street and look for clues. One such street, Borisovsky Proezd in southeastern Moscow, is near the flat where I grew up. The district of Orekhovo-Borisovo was founded in 1974, and 10 years later it had a population of 300,000 people located in 16 microrayons (microdistricts for living quarters, covering about 10–80 ha each). Borisovsky Proezd, named after the former village of Borisovo (the birthplace of Boris Godunov), is a typical Moscow street near the city periphery. It starts at Kashirskoe Shosse, one of the main city arteries running from the areas near the center to the ring road on the city periphery. The stretch of Borisovsky from Kashirskoe to the intersection with Shipilovskaya street is about 1 km long. The street curves almost 90° at its midpoint, so that you travel first east and then south along it.

In the late 1980s, the following typical Soviet retail establishments were located on Borisovsky, or immediately off it in one of the nearby microrayons: a vegetable/fruit store, a radioelectronics store, a pharmacy, a post office/telephone office, a bakery, a small factory manufacturing school lunches for a few nearby schools, and a general grocery store. A bit farther away along one of the nearby streets were also a hardware store, an office of the only bank in the U.S.S.R. that worked with the general public (called Sberbank), and a dairy grocery store. Each store was housed in a standard one-story concrete building with big windows and a flat roof. Besides the big stores, you would see a few small kiosks selling newspapers, tobacco, and ice cream near each bus stop (there were four bus stops along this stretch). Each shop was thus rather specialized, and together they provided the most essential services to the nearby microrayon, with a population of about 15,000.

By the mid-1990s, a new microrayon along the northern side of Borisovsky was completed. Most of the local stores got privatized, some through immediate leadership and others by being sold to outside investors. Making the same trip, you would notice the following changes:

  • A major new supermarket was built at the intersection between Borisovsky and Kashirskoe Shosse.
  • The radioelectronics store closed and was turned into a general grocery store. A new electronics shop opened up across the street from the old one.
  • The vegetable/fruit store just across the street was turned into another general store, selling everything from meat to dairy to bread to medical supplies to perfume.
  • The hardware store likewise was turned into a general store, selling everything except food.
  • Three new cafes and a bar appeared on the street, which previously had none.
  • An optical store appeared.
  • Two specialized meat stores appeared, one selling specific sausages from a reputable Moscow factory.
  • The bakery became yet another general store.
  • The former general grocery store, ironically, went bankrupt and closed its doors.
  • Lots of street vendors appeared, selling stuff from the backs of pickup trucks, or standing on the sidewalk near every bus stop.
  • The post office and the bank continued to operate.

So there was some diversification of retail forms, along with, curiously, generalization of some previously specialized stores. (Think why this might have been the case).

Let's “fast-forward” to 2007 now. Most of the stores described above for the mid-1990s are still here. However, the large supermarket is now an entertainment megacenter, complete with a discotheque, a spa, a tanning salon, a casino, and a bar. It still sells groceries as well, but now there is a lot more competition. The store that was the 1990s radioelectronics store went through two name changes and now is a discount minimarket. Just next door to it is a bigger and more expensive new supermarket. Inside, it is very slick, almost indistinguishable from its American counterparts. The street vendors are all tightly regulated now; most work from semipermanent kiosks, rather than directly on the streets. The former hardware store is completely gone: It went up in flames one night 2 years ago (probably due to arson), and has been sitting on the corner as an empty, blackened shell ever since. This is, by the way, rather uncommon in contemporary Moscow. Most importantly, a huge new shopping center, Ramstor (part of a Turkish chain), opened up in what used to be a local apple orchard. Inside it has a huge supermarket, as well as a few dozen shops selling everything from jewelry to cosmetics to Gap outerwear or Victoria's Secret underwear. It also has a cinema multiplex, together with a few fast-food and moderately priced sit-down restaurants. In short, it looks a lot like an American enclosed mall. What has not changed much yet is the housing: These are the same 9- to 22-story buildings of the late 1970s or 1980s. However, the retail options provided to the new inhabitants are radically different from those of the past. Welcome to yet another example of Russian capitalism.