November 01, 1997

Shopping in Stalin's Paradise

The All-Russian Exhibition Center (VVTs – formerly VDNKh, the Exhibition of Economic Achievement) is Russia’s answer to Mall America. This huge complex was built in the 1930s, on Stalin’s orders, to show off the Soviet Union’s progress in science and technology, with pavilions reflecting the architecture of the various Soviet republics. These days, however, it is become a monument to post-Soviet consumerism. In the various pavilions, you can buy appliances, wholesale food and drinks, clothing, souvenirs, toys, furniture or just about anything imaginable. We asked some of the Center’s shoppers and vendors about what today’s middle-class Russians are spending their money on at VVTs.

Alexei, an appliance vendor in his mid-40s, said that Russians today prefer brands like Sony, Panasonic and Samsung. His prices are somewhat lower than in Moscow shops, attracting die-hard bargain hunters. “Even just in the course of the last year,” he said, “there have been changes. More people have started buying large televisions.” When asked who the bulk of his customers are – New Russians, middle class, etc. – Alexei laughs. “New Russians don’t buy at exhibition halls! For the most part, we get the so-called middle class, those who want to save a little on their purchases.”

Lena, a 30-ish electronics vendor, said she considers herself middle-class, “if not lower.” She said that today’s Russians buy “whatever is advertised,” preferring mid-range televisions and kitchen appliances. She explained that most of her customers cannot afford the most expensive items, but that, as their material situation improves, Russians are also no longer interested in cheap, low-quality goods. “Middle-income families bought appliances in large quantities around two-and-a-half, three years ago,” she says. “Now they are already buying less.” She said that, although her salary allows her to take a trip abroad, she has no time for vacations. So, she spends most of her money on other things, like food and clothes.

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