City of Change
GOING TO the public produce market in St. Petersburg is like going to war. Well, not exactly. Only in the sense that someone always gets defeated and everyone ends up exhausted.
Behind the displays of vibrant, today-fresh vegetables, stand working-class women, each commandeering their battalions of produce, each vying for your business. The men are more aggressive. They stand in front of their displays and approach you—sometimes grabbing you by the arm—to lure you toward their camp.
Everything looks great (and tastes even better), but it comes at an uncertain price, literally. The scale for weighing your choices gets turned a little out of view, it is probably adjusted slightly in favor of the merchant, and the tallying is done on a handheld calculator behind the counter.
So unless you are a math whizz, and a fast one, you have no idea how much things really weigh or whether the calculated price is according to the listed amount or not.
It wasn’t always this way. During the soviet era, for example, prices were not only cheap and affordable to everyone, the dealings were simple, direct, and honest. But in the ‘new’ Russia, that equality has rifled into two extremes of the noticeably rich and noticeably not rich. In the latter case, merchants (and small businesses of all sorts) resort to ambitious, greedy, desperate methods to get ahead. They are visibly clawing and groping for a better life at the expense of others—in the characteristically dark, but accepted, side of capitalism.
This isn’t so terrible in itself. What is sad to see, however, is the Russian determination being channeled into selfish competitiveness, because Russians, by nature, are not so. Despite first impressions—which have them seem cold, aloof, and impertinent to strangers (especially foreigners)—they are typically generous, loving, and kind. Russian hospitality exceeds even southern hospitality, and a Russian friend will go way out of his way to help you in the smallest thing.
Back to the public produce market, part of the problem is that the merchants are trying to survive individually. Contrary to American supermarkets where you see one or two sales people and half a dozen cashiers, here you see fifty salesmen who are their own cashiers, and their own store. They have no choice but to outdo their competition and deceive their customers.
The alternative is American-style supermarkets (and they are rapidly appearing) which leave these small merchants with few, if any, options for employment.
Yes, it is a war for them.