Red Square is a place that I think I would find difficult to tire of and we walked through Resurrection Gate and in the shadow of the red brick history museum looked down and marvelled again at the multi-coloured domes of St. Basil’s, at the granite blocks of the Lenin Mausoleum on one side and the cream facade of GUM shopping arcade on the other.
I think I would have been happy to wander around here for the rest of the day but it was lunch time, Kim was hungry and so we went again to No 57 CTOΛOBAЯ for something to eat and after the meal we walked through the malls to see the shops.
In 1996 when my son Jonathan was about twelve years old in I took him to London for the day and we visited the major sights and attractions. On the way home I asked him what he liked most about the day and confidently expecting him to say the Tower of London or Trafalgar Square or Buckingham Palace I was taken aback somewhat when he declared the highlight of the visit to be the twenty minutes or so that we spent in Fortnum and Masons! I was intrigued by that but he explained that he just thought the high prices were really funny – he wondered how they priced such an everyday item as Yorkshire tea bags and concluded that they must take the basic price, double it and then times it by ten before putting it on the shelves for the tourists.
Well, he would have found this place amusing as well then because the prices were truly astronomical and way off my scale of affordability. In one shop a linen jacket cost £400 and that, I can tell you, is more or less my clothing budget for the year.
There was no doubting that they were nice shops, well laid out and all clean and tidy and clean and tidy no doubt because there were no shoppers inside them. The prices everywhere were huge, in a food hall we bought some confectionary at massive prices and our knees buckled at the cost of champagne and vodka. We took some photographs and were promptly told off for it. The photographs were of the caviar where a tin about the size of a John West can of tuna was a heart-stopping 60,000 roubles and give or take a few kopecs that is about £1,200 and I don’t spend that much on groceries in six months!
Somebody must buy it though because it is apparently extremely perishable and will only last on display like this for a maximum of six weeks. Worst still, once opened it has to be consumed within three days so if you are going to share a tin of this between two of you that is an eye-popping £600s worth of fish eggs each over a weekend!
And herein lies the paradox because the gap between rich and poor in Moscow and Russia is huge. According to research, the richest slice of Russian society has doubled its wealth in the past twenty years, while almost two-thirds of the population is no better off and the poor are barely half as wealthy as they were when the Soviet Union collapsed. The wealthiest fifth of the population receive a pay cheque equivalent to nearly double its value in 1991, while the poorest fifth made only half in real terms. In total, 60% of the population has the same real income or less than the average of twenty years ago and some people are now looking back fondly at the days of the managed economy.
Moscow is now officially the third most expensive city in Europe after Geneva and Zurich and whilst some people might be able to afford to shop in the GUM boutiques most have absolutely no chance of doing so.
It was late afternoon so we did some final souvenir shopping in the street market stalls outside Red Square and then took a Metro directly back to the hotel district. After the GUM experience I took more notice of the people rather than the architecture. Ordinary people trying to supplement their income by selling a few items – hand made crochet, second hand clothes or garden produce. At the station an old lady at the entrance had a few bunches of ragged flowers from her garden or balcony, Kim gave her a 100 rouble note, which is only a couple of £s but the look of gratitude on her face was distressing, Kim turned down the flowers and she pushed the note deep inside her coat for safe keeping.
Two hours later when we returned to the Metro station to go back to the city she was still there so Kim gave her another 100 rouble note and I reminded her that the last time she showed an act of kindness like this thirty minutes later she was robbed on the Athens Metro.