Originally created 08/30/98

Russia's streets don't reflect crisis



MOSCOW -- Plenty of Russians waited in line on this sunny Saturday around Moscow. But they weren't standing around to withdraw their rubles. They were at spots where people normally spend their weekend afternoons: at the zoo, an auto show, even McDonald's.

The ruble -- which went into a freefall earlier in the week -- was regaining strength at exchange booths in the capital, and Russians appeared to be spending their cash reasonably freely.

In fact, a walk around town yielded few signs of Russia's financial and political crisis. Parents bought peacock feathers for their children. Drivers flocked to the Moscow Auto Show to ogle the latest Russian and Western models.

There were no angry crowds. No people pushing and shoving to hoard what remains of their savings. No panic.

So far, Russia's financial downfall is reflected more subtly: gloomy faces in the metro, newly stamped price tags, the murmurings of the elderly.

"I used to buy these beefsteaks for 10 rubles, then for 11 and now they cost 14. And there only are four small pieces," complained pensioner Polina Seliverstova, examining the display at a food kiosk.

At the present street rate of about 9 rubles to the dollar, the beefsteaks cost about $1.50. A grocery stand across the street offers bananas and oranges for 30 cents a pound -- small change for a foreigner and the average "new Russian," but a lot for a pensioner getting only about $40 a month.

"Everything has gone up," Seliverstova says.

Actually, not quite everything, although it may be just a matter of time. A metro token still is 2 rubles, a loaf of bread 3 rubles.

With other prices creeping upward, some pensioners and housewives say they are stocking up on basic foodstuffs -- cooking oil, grains, even salt -- as they did in the years of post-Soviet inflation.

There is palpable anxiety, but no rush on the stores.

Irina Krylova, a young attorney, says she is severely depressed. She has just begun to realize that the crisis means she can no longer afford the convenience foods she used to buy to save herself time and effort.

"I was almost in tears, to tell you frankly," she says. "We used to be middle-class. Now, who knows? It's a whole different life."

Like thousands of other Russians, Krylova and her boyfriend want to buy something durable with the rubles they have in cash. They would like to buy a new refrigerator, but haven't found one; many Moscow stores selling fancy household equipment are keeping their doors shut, waiting for the ruble to stabilize.

Some consumers are turning to gold. A large jewelry company, Tsentr-Yuvelir, reported a 250 percent increase in sales over the past few days. On Saturday, though, jewelry and antique stores were mostly empty.

An echo of the crisis is heard in the voice of a vendor who uses a megaphone to beckon customers to a shoe shop. "Two days left before Sept. 1! The dollar rate is going UP and our prices are going DOWN," the man shouts.

In fact, nobody really knows what the ruble is worth right now. Russia's Central Bank halted dollar sales last week, leaving the official rate at 7.905 rubles to the dollar. On the street, the rate climbed as high as 12 at exchange booths earlier in the week, but was mostly below 10 on Saturday.

Ironically, after reports of shortages of dollars all week, there now seems to be a shortage of rubles. And some shops were doing brisk business. At a wholesale market, people snapped up cigarettes priced at around 8 rubles a pack -- up from 6.50 rubles a few days ago. Those same cigarettes can still fetch 11 or 12 rubles when they are resold at metro stations farther from the center.

A video games parlor, of all things, was full. At a zoo store, a man was buying a green water turtle, a present for a friend. Nearby, a few students were chewing sausage sandwiches.

"Sorry," they told a stray dog. "We're also hungry."