The new St Petersburg

St Petersburg has changed.

The old Leningrad/St Petersburg, the Leningrad and St Petersburg of this book, no longer exists. The new St Petersburg is a different city - busier, more expensive, more international, more given to finished actions than to unfinishable thoughts or strings of words. Zamorochki are a phenomenon of the past: the majority of Petersburgers simply don't have time any more for lengthy confusions and elegant hesitations; they are far too busy elsewhere - they have money to earn. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a decent bottle of portwine.

In one respect the city has settled down. The period of drifting rootlessly to-and-fro - between East and West, Russia and Europe, ideology and ideology - is over. St Petersburg has made its choice, staked out a place for itself at last in the real world. In the last two years it has become a satellite of the International Capitalist Community, a small but growing dot on the international business map.

This westwards lurch has changed the way people think in this city. More significantly, it has changed the way people shop. The empty shelves and shuffling queues of the communist era are gone (true, they do make a sort of comeback from time to time; I keep on running into stationary Petersburgers in the breadshop, but I get the feeling that these temporary revivals are concessions to tradition, force of habit - they can't be serious; they can't be for real). In their place are ordinary shops with large stocks of an admittedly limited range of basic foodstuffs, and a whole variety of other shops where price tags in hard currency cannot dim the attraction of the very best goods under the Western sun: mini-markets stocked with Austrian coffee, French wine and Finnish meats and dairy products; chic boutiques selling clothes by Chanel and Pierre Cardin; electrical stores containing spacious displays of Sony Hi-Fi, Compaq computers and Moulinex dishwashers and microwaves; automobile dealerships selling the very sleekest, glossiest Mercedes, BMWs, Volvos, Mitsubishis; estate agents catering for those with money to invest in real estate in California or the Cayman Islands.

But this is only the tip of a very large iceberg. Flick through the local advertising press or tune in to local FM radio stations, and you will be bewildered by the range of services available down the phone: have a pizza delivered to your flat - or a five-course meal, complete with candles and pretty waitresses; rent a car to drive around town in - not any old metal box on four wheels, but a Rolls Royce or Cadillac; hire a governess to teach your children English, music and correct etiquette; buy a villa in Spain, or have one built for yourself next to Gorbachev's former dacha at Pharos in the Crimea ... And then pay for the whole lot by credit card.

Not everyone, of course, can yet afford to pay for all these things at once (1), but dreaming about them is beyond no one's pocket. The last eighteen months have seen a big hike if not in Petersburgers' material resources, then at least in their material expectations. A year and a half ago the majority of people were struggling to afford the ingredients for a good bortsch, and the symbols of affluence were Marlborough cigarettes and Levis jeans; now the majority are still struggling to find enough to eat (only now they are buying Chinese packet soup and Finnish salami), but wealth is measured by quite different standards. To look rich these days in St Petersburg it is no longer enough to have a few dollars in your pocket. You must have a dollar salary and bank account, a Japanese or German automobile, suits by Chanel or Pierre Cardin, an expensive wife or mistress or devutchka, a second or third house, a villa on the Crimea or in Spain. The reason why minor quantities of foreign currency fail to impress these days, the reason why the city's banditi no longer think it worth spending bullets merely to take possession of a businessman's wallet or a rattle-along Lada, is that everyone is quite rich enough already. On paper, at least. Privatisation has given Petersburgers the chance to become owners of the appartments in which they have so far lived as tenants. Those who take up the offer find themselves owners of real estate whose value (at present $15 - $50,000, depending upon size of flat) increases almost from day to day.

Life in St Petersburg is far simpler than it used to be. On a practical level (and in the new St Petersburg this is the only level there is). To get drunk, for instance, the Petersburger no longer has to journey all over town, painstakingly assembling the ingredients for a hangover; he can pick up all he needs at his local kiosk - open 24 hours day on the street pavement outside his home. And instead of the many different problems and zamorochki of the Soviet era, there is now only ever one kind of problem: money (or rather, the lack of it). And there are only two or three kinds of solution: get a better job; get a better gun (and learn to use it); or: sell something.

Old women standing outside metro stations sell plastic bags, cigarettes, wild flowers or colourful weeds picked by the roadside a few kilometres away. Lonely pensioners sign over the rights to ownership of their flats to large companies offering in exchange an additional income of $15 a month. Hard-up families fill second-hand shops with whatever bits and pieces they can find lying around at home: a 1970s set of Pushkin, broken watches or clocks, silver cufflinks, a pre-revolutionary gramophone, a spare fusebox, the boots that Masha grew out of the year before last - anything for which they have no particular need or want. The Army and local governments and state enterprises do likewise, hawking from their back doors (at knockdown, silly, criminal prices) tanks, rockets, unwanted forests, the odd thousand barrels of oil, uranium by the ounce.

Everyone has something to sell. When the selling is over, and there is finally nothing left to sell, nothing left of what used to be the Soviet Union, then maybe - maybe - at least, this is what the hope is, this is what people have been counting on - maybe, everyone here will be able to afford Finnish salami and a new Mitsubishi.

By then, of course, there will already be no portwine.

Things are changing. Things have already changed so much.

Markov has given up working as a nightwatchman and, remembering his law degree, has got himself a job and dollar salary working as a legal consultant to a western management consultancy firm.

Bulgakov has emigrated to Florida. Volodya Dolgoruky, alas, has emigrated to another world.

Koktebel is overrun with foreigners.

The Mitki have all long since left their kotelniye, and have become a travelling attraction. On their last tour of Europe, they sold Mitki tee shirts, Mitki posters and made a Mitki single. In an improbable development, they have set up a centre for treatment of alcoholism.

In general, Petersburgers have stopped dropping in on each other v gosti; have stopped standing in queues; have stopped bingeing; have even stopped talking so much. They no longer have time to get involved with zamorochki. And, as for podarki: what is the point of sitting around waiting for providential gifts to drop from the skies when you can go out and buy better yourself?

There is one area, though, where the power of money runs out. With dollars you can have the pick of the best goods in the world - French champagne, German automobile engineering, Japanese electronics, Swiss bank accounts. But no amount of dollars will buy a decent hangover.

In the new St Petersburg it becomes harder and harder every day to find a bottle of portwine. For practitioners of pokhmelye, Taylors 66 is no substitute for the real thing.

(1) Though more can than might at first be thought - it is interesting to note that in the six months to July 1993 more top-of-the-range Mercedes were sold in Russia than in all of the rest of Europe. Return