Chili con carne, anyone?

Vijai Maheshwari reports on the effect Russia's financial problems are having on the shopping habits of locals and expats in Moscow -- chili con carne, anyone?

Published September 14, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

In Lewis Carroll's surrealistic "Alice in Wonderland," the Mad Hatter reprimands Alice for having dissed the Queen of Hearts. "But I meant what I said," protests the now-bloated young girl. "Aha," answers the Mad Hatter, "but did you say what you meant?" He then asks whether to breathe when you sleep is the same as to sleep when you breathe; to sit when you're tired the same as to be tired when you sit.

Lewis Carroll would be perfectly at home in the supermarkets of Moscow today, where to know what you want is not the same as to want what you know.

With supermarket stocks shrinking by the minute, Muscovites have become "consumers" in the purest, most primeval definition of the term: People are buying anything they can flash their diminishing rubles at. I walked into my corner grocery the other day hoping to buy some aspirin and yogurt -- and walked out with 15 cans of Nalley's Chili Con Carne instead, since they were among the few things left on the shelves: brothy, bean-filled, Wisconsin-packaged remnants of the global consumerism that had briefly transformed Russia's capital into a glittering ziggurat of capitalism. A fellow shopper whose curiosity was piqued by my inordinate interest in chili picked up a can and studied the plastered-on Russian language label with great interest; then, shrugging his shoulders, he picked out five for himself. At 50 cents a can -- almost four times cheaper than their pre-crisis price -- they were quite a bargain. As we racked up our purchases on the counter, one of the salesgirls asked: "Celebrating a holiday?"

"No, just stocking up for the winter," I answered.

She laughed. "A lot of the old babushkas think this is going to be like the siege of Leningrad."

I used to hate shopping, let alone talking about shopping, but the ruble's collapse into rubble has turned us all into bored housewives, passing along tips as we gossip about the latest twists and turns of the Duma. The plummet of the currency has sent us scurrying back into the Brezhnev era, when life was a long, vodka-infused struggle against shopping. A friend called me up at midnight to announce that his local store was now selling two types of Coca-Cola. One was priced at three rubles (around 25 cents) since it came from the old, pre-crisis stock, while the other was marked up to 12 rubles. "This is our last old Coke," the salesman had said, "but the Diet Cokes are still from the previous stock." So my friend immediately snapped up 20 Diet Cokes, even though he's not a calorie-watcher.

"Tomorrow," said my Iranian-English friend, who now plans to exploit the crisis by exporting Russian whores to work the Caspian oil boom town of Baku, Azerbaijan, "I'm going to spend $400-$500 on shopping, before the old stock runs out." We're living, it seems, within a Mobius strip: On one side is the old/new post-Soviet, pre-devaluation Moscow, with its soothing melange of capitalist goodies; the other is the new, post-devaluation capital, with its oscillating prices and the almost-empty shells of the shiny, bright citadels of the New Russia.

At the Doctors Without Borders main office in Moscow, all the young punks with purple hair and Day-Glo jackets who once might have discussed Carlos Castenada while handing out pro-safe-sex flyers have now reverted subconsciously back to the chit-chat of their parents' generation. "Spray paint costs only $2 at that store near Manezh," says one. "That's amazing; it was $10 at the other store," says another. They exchange glances. "I guess they haven't marked up their prices yet. We should head there during lunch."

And so it goes all around. Information is king, they say -- and this is true especially in Moscow, where prices vary wildly from one store to the next. It's almost like each shop -- and each different product within each store -- has its own currency clock ticking within it. Some stopped on Aug. 17 (the day the ruble collapsed), some have kept pace with the dollar and others reflect the huge peaks and valleys of the ruble as it slowly spins out of control. We're living in a vast consumerist time capsule that's in danger of imploding.

Even the well-fed, well-stocked foreign correspondents haven't been immune to the panic buying of the past weeks. The Christian Science Monitor bureau chief proudly displays her larder, stocked wall to wall with toilet paper. "We've got enough for three months at least," she says. "Then we might have to start using Pravda like in the old days." The Newsweek stringer has been spending his last rubles on French wine (at $5 a bottle, it's quite a steal), while another correspondent is buying up bags and bags of pasta. "It's going to be the first to go," he warns. "Stock up now."

While we whoop and fret about our pathetic attempts to stay ahead of the Big Bother that might await us when shops are finally turned inside out, someone is moving the chess pieces from above. It is said that there are only 12 people who know what is happening in Russia. Why 12? It might have something to do with the Apostles. It might be because there were 12 members of the Soviet Politburo. Whatever the reason, that Dirty Dozen of financiers and Kremlin insiders decided Sept. 9 that the ruble had plunged far enough, and began selling their dollars -- those same $3.8 billion IMF dollars that the Central Bank had once used to prop up the ruble.

Within an hour of trading, the ruble had risen to 11 against the dollar -- from 25 just before noon -- and Moscow had been sucked clean of rubles. Blissfully unaware of the vast sell-off, I had paid 800 rubles for lunch. When I emerged from the seclusion of Angelico's restaurant, I realized that I had spent almost $80 on the meal, twice what I had thought.

The cynics claim that the banks sold their dollars to raise the ruble price, so that they could use those same rubles to buy back more greenbacks -- and thus effectively double their capital. Virtual money. The optimists believe that those rubles will be used to pay the back wages of all the starving miners and teachers who threaten to bring down the Yeltsin regime. The opportunists have begun changing their rubles into dollars, hoping to exchange them back at a better rate soon. During the Soviet times, it was said that there was only one true Communist, but since no one knew who that Communist was, everyone behaved like one. Now it seems there are only 12 wise men, but we all pretend to be one of them.

Were the Mad Hatter to magically appear here and watch the ruble shrink and swell like Alice, depending on the whims of a few men who hold Russia hostage, he might well remark: "Aha, to change rubles for dollars is not the same as to change dollars into rubles." The West spent $100 billion hoping to bring about a Russia where that statement would be wrong. It failed.

"Who stole the cakes?" asks the Queen of Hearts. "Who stole Russia?" ask the Russians now, before their whole nation comes tumbling down like a pack of cards.

By Vijai Maheshwari

Vijai Maheshwari is a writer who has lived in Moscow for the past three years.

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