In recent articles I have made frequent references to the political talk shows on Russian state television as an invaluable source of information about the thinking of the chattering classes and, in particular of social and political elites close to the Kremlin. Even an acerbic academic from Rhode Island who left a nasty comment on my site about the value of my latest article on the shift from ‘special military operation’ to open war remarked in his closing sentence that he intends to follow more closely the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov program, especially when RT director Simonyan appears as a panelist. So I think I have made my point about television fairly convincingly.
In today’s essay, I want to direct attention first to Russian radio, in particular commenting on the national broadcaster “Business FM” which is based in Moscow but has national coverage and puts on air reports from all around this vast country that are of interest not only to stock brokers but to the general public. I listen to them daily over breakfast and their slogan “Radio not in words but in facts” is well justified by the originality of their news management. Politics and politicians are not on their agenda. The impact of new laws, regulations and government programs on the population and especially on the business community is their main interest. Sales figures, company profits, challenges in recruiting and keeping personnel: all of these subjects are dealt with by presentation of concrete facts from concrete companies and localities, and the result is a very informative mosaic. These very serious news items are leavened by humor in their feature sketches under such categories as “Деньги к деньгам,” which may be loosely translated as “Money flows to those with money.”
Business FM offers little slices of life which tell a big story, such as the remark yesterday that in the last couple of months Russians’ purchases of tranquillizers went up by 15% and such sales are 30% above the level of a year ago. That is a pretty good indicator of the nervousness of the general population.
Then there has been reporting from Siberian and other provincial cities regarding how the call-up of reservists is being conducted and in particular how this affects businesses which are losing highly capable personnel for whom they will have to reserve their jobs in the same way they must keep on hold the posts of women who go out on maternity leave.
Another very interesting look at the home front is the broadcaster’s interviews of Russians who are crossing the land borders to Finland – where there is now a waiting time of more than three hours each on the Russian and Finnish border control points. The journalists go into the details of whether those departing are being asked about their military status, about their reasons for leaving, etc.
Business FM has also reported on the impact of Russians leaving to avoid the draft on the apartment rental prices in their key destinations such as Istanbul and Tbilisi. The impact appears to be negligible.
Finally, I heard this morning a fascinating set of interviews with the leaders of voluntary organizations in Moscow working to provide the military forces with materiel that is not available in sufficient supply out in the field because of mismanagement in the defense hierarchy. These shortages include headgear and body armor, warm clothing, and more.
All of the above is not pro-Putin or anti-Putin but a realistic composite picture of life in the home front in times of mobilization.
Now I propose to switch over to anecdotal but also telling details from my own experience living in Petersburg for the past couple of weeks. I can point first to the dramatic decision earlier today of the prospective Buyer of our dacha in the south of Petersburg, already under contract of deposit, to suspend the deal, first in the hope of squeezing a further discount from us due to post-mobilization uncertainties and then with demand for more time to see the fall-out of the referendums in Donbas. Yes, ordinary Russian business women, like our fairly shrewd Buyer, are spending sleepless nights worrying whether in these turbulent times it is better to own bricks or to have liquid cash in rubles under the pillow. But such uncertainties and contradictions have always existed. As an argument that it is always ‘the best of times and the worst of times,’ I think of the French sterling silver forks and knives bearing hallmarks from 1791 or so that we bought in antique booths in the Brussels weekend market on the Sablon: even in the midst of Revolution some folks were ordering silver sets for newlyweds.
My experience as a shopper in supermarkets in the economy, middle class and luxury ranges reveals changes from what I have reported several months ago. “ПРОМ УПАК” is replacing Sweden’s Tetra Pak on milk and other liquid foodstuffs. The QR code is replacing the strip codes on every variety of store products. I assume that is due to some licensing issue.
French, Spanish and Italian wines are present on store shelves in much reduced offerings, as are wines from even “friendly” countries like Chile. Surprisingly, friendly South Africa has dropped out of the wine market, perhaps over difficulties with payment. Meanwhile Russian sourced wines from the Krasnodar region and the Crimea now take up 80% or more of shelf space. To be sure, in luxury shops, the Russian wines can be excellent, but at prices well above the European peers they replace, and the Russian wines in economy and middle class stores can be of highly variable quality for the same price.
The owner of a high-end wine shop on Vasilevsky Ostrov told me that he continues to receive shipments of top level chateau wines from France, and some are coming via third countries including China. But there is no way of knowing how long this will continue. He has hedged his bets by stocking up on the priciest and most sought after wines from the Russian south.
Otherwise, the assortment and pricing of meats, poultry, fruits and vegetables in the Russian stores at all market levels are unchanged from what they were some months ago.
A visit to the city’s most prestigious shopping center on Nevsky Prospekt where the anchor store was and still remains the Finnish retailer Stockmann’s provided further insights into the way the home front is adapting to the sanctions and to the departure of foreign companies from this market.
At the Food Court on the 4th floor, I enjoyed a couple of hamburgers in McDonald’s replacement as fast food operator ‘’Вкусно – и точка’’ (Tasty – period). Quality and price were both unchanged. Then on the ground floor I followed up with a visit to the Starbucks replacement, which is named “Star Coffee.” All the design elements remain the same as before and my coffee Americano was excellent.
All the design elements of the Apple store just opposite Star Coffee also are unchanged. To be sure, the store legend “Apple Reseller” now reads “Premium Reseller.” The product assortment seems to be unchanged. I asked about the i-phone 14 and was told that it is available by advance order and will be arriving in shop as from the first week of October. The price for the model on offer is a stunning 238,000 rubles, which comes to about 4,000 euros.
Finally, a personal observation about the exodus across the Finnish border. Yesterday, I tried to book tickets for our departure by bus from Petersburg to Helsinki. All seats on all buses of the two competing bus operators were sold out until October 6th, five days later than we had planned to leave. To be sure, there are only five or six buses making this trip each day, and each has only 50 seats. In fact the great majority of those crossing the border are doing so in their private cars. They are the ones suffering the seven hours of lost time spent in queues and in individual processing. Buses such as we will be using go to the head of the line and are typically processed within an hour or an hour and a half, which is a nuisance but not yet a misery.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022