In Russia, make way for the new Italians

Forget the proletarian's sack-like clothes, today's Russian women are fashionistas, reports Catherin

They sell everything on the elektrichkas, the slow trains that connect Russian cities with the string of small towns in their hinterland. The hawkers pass from carriage to carriage, never spending more than a few minutes in each. One minute we are offered felt-tip pens, the next a tube of miracle glue, and later there will be luminous yo-yos and goat-hair shawls. The pedlars' shouting frays the nerves but, sooner or later, one of the passengers will take the bait. We have just pulled away from a hamlet called Red Electric, and a man in a grubby anorak begins his spiel. He is selling the Russian edition of Cosmopolitan.

It is difficult to imagine a more incongruous set of images. The girl on Cosmo's cover does not seem to belong to the same species as the people sitting on the hard bench seats beside me. Her teeth and skin are perfect, her clothes impractical, and the wattage of studio lighting that shines on her would keep the people of Red Electric going for months. But a woman is buying the magazine all the same. She is not young, perhaps as old as 50, shapeless inside layers of wool and sheepskin, and the bag she struggles with is loaded with apples and bunched dill. It is a statistical certainty that she is going home to a two-roomed wooden house with an earthen privy and no running water. This year's kitten heels wouldn't last five minutes in the mud by her front gate. It makes no difference. She is happy and, in seconds, she is engrossed.

For most of the past century, the magazine for women like this was Krest'yanka ("Peasant Woman"). In the old days, this offered recipes and knitting patterns along with advice about family life (but not, please, about sex) and bracing tales of shock-worker milkmaids and hero-mothers. I have September's issue beside me now. Like Cosmo's, its cover features a sultry teenager who looks as if she has never milked a cow in her life. "Does he love you or not? Ten questions for your man", I read. There are short pieces about slimming and skincare, and the fashion pages feature Eugen Klein and Max Mara. The only echoes of the past are in the recipe section, which devotes a great deal of space to pickling, and in the curiously prosaic quality of the horoscope, where I discover that my attention in the coming month should focus on my household budget.

Publications such as Krest'yanka and Cosmopolitan, to say nothing of Russian Vogue ("Red is this autumn's hottest colour", it tells us, innocent of the irony of this remark for its post-Soviet readers), could not survive without a substantial readership. Affluent Russian women are becoming consumers, and they are taking to the job with fervour. There are few areas of daily life that are not influenced by style. The learning curve has been very steep. Back in the Eighties, when the first McDonald's opened at the top of Gorky Street, the trendiest shoppers bought burgers for their dinner parties, carrying them home on the Metro in greasy paper bags. These days, as a new restaurant opens in Moscow every week, the same people have learnt to make calzoni and paupiettes, and to appreciate Tuscan wine.

Because they have access to dollars, and because their incomes are comparatively high, even quite ordinary Muscovites (as opposed to the so-called New Russians) can afford to shop for luxuries. "The only question is whether I can go to Kenzo twice or four times a year," a friend explained. Young city-dwellers like her share flats and dachas with their parents and cousins; their overheads are low, and so, like wealthy Milanese or Romans, they have money to spend on designer clothes, electronic gadgets and eating out. Children are even more demanding. Indulgent parents and grandparents now have to know which brands are fashionable, which colours can be worn. Their children can recite the exact words of television advertisements, they recognise packaging, and they pout over bowls of breakfast cereal (itself an innovation of the past decade) like the finest little Americans. Barbie has arrived in provincial Russia, and so have Pampers, palmtops and copyright space aliens.

Barely ten years after the supply crisis of 1991, when every spare inch of living space in people's flats was packed with hoarded macaroni, you can buy almost anything in Moscow. You do, however, have to negotiate the culture of service: "What do you want?" the sales assistant will ask in a surly tone, and then snap impatiently if you have any queries about the product in question. One shopping expedition, and you'll have a healthy awe for Russian consumers.

Suffering is the time-honoured price of beauty. Russia's young women get up early to put on heavy make-up, and they can spend an hour arranging their hair, even on working days. When they are ready for the street, they step on to the ice and slush in four-inch heels. The question-and-answer column in September's Vogue has explained that this is the winter of the micro-mini, and so the fashion-conscious will shiver.

The tyranny of the catwalk is also reinforced by prejudices of a deeper-rooted kind. Rock'n'roll found its way to Brezhnev's Russia (as did punk, which was described as the "English horror"), but feminism did not, nor did trousers for white- collar women or long hair for their men. A basic conservatism persists. "You women are always so badly dressed," a professor of history remarked to me. "I was amazed when I visited Berlin. I mean, it's true, isn't it, that the only women who wear skirts in the west are shop assistants and pensioners."

We later returned to the issue of style - this time, for men. My colleague found it hard to believe that my students could turn up for lectures without ties. His own was silk, in an artful butter-yellow, and it had been knotted with great skill.

The influence of consumerism on the older generation is also growing, although they seldom have as much money - or as much free time - as the fashion-conscious young. The change has been bewildering. Ten years ago, a woman was old at 40, and she settled into comfortable shoes and a hand-knitted cardigan. Ten years ago, the late sociologist Galina Starovoitova could laugh at the contrast between our different cultures.

"When a woman in the west gets di-vorced," she said, "she goes on a diet, buys a load of new clothes, and goes off to look for another husband. But when we get divorced, we are delighted to think that all that's over, and we get stuck in to the chocolates." If that is still the case for some, the pressure on others is already evident. Almost everyone in the big cities is dieting. Shops offer exercise bikes and pull-in Lycra. And where once there were only three hair dyes available - "chestnut" (which was really orange), "dark chestnut" (maroon) and black (which sometimes actually was black) - there are now hundreds.

There are millions of Russians, however, for whom the dreams of the lifestyle magazines are utterly unattainable. The poor, and especially the elderly poor, cannot afford to shop for fun. Those who live in the big cities subsist on bread (bought in half-loaves), potatoes and unidentifiable bits of meat. They do not drink designer coffee. Instead, they make a pot of tea and keep it for several days, adding hot water to the brown sludge, cup by cup. Their wardrobes consist of nylon tracksuits, voluminous floral dresses, trainers, socks and woollen scarves. In summer, that is all they need; but at the first cold snap, some time in mid-October, the old fur coats come out (new ones are unthinkably expensive) and, for a week or two, the Metro and the buses smell powerfully of mothballs, fox and mould.

There are two parallel economies, in other words: that of the poor and old, who cannot even pay for fruit; and that of the young, who have grown bored of kiwis. The Metro is an excellent place to see them side by side - young women teetering in their leather shoes, old men in trainers (smelling powerfully of spirits), grandmothers with their bags of bread and onions squeezed between young lads who carry electronic pagers and sleek new mobile phones.

There are fewer rich people in the provinces, but the existence of their clean, colourful and sun-filled world is brought home to communities of textile workers, beet farmers and unemployed miners through television. Five years ago, research conducted by the Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion concluded that older women in these communities were likelier than any other group to resent advertisements, and even to switch them off. Instead of getting better, the quality of their lives had worsened since communism's collapse, and their prospects seemed bleaker than at any time for years. "Where were you, with your Tampax and your Pampers," they asked, "when we were younger and needed them? What use are they to any of us now?"

Advertisements, for these women, were also an unwelcome interruption to their favourite distraction, which was the television soap. Santa Barbara provided an escape, a completely different reality, and millions became as involved in the trivial fortunes of its characters as they were with those of their own children. Unlike advertisements, however, the soaps made no attempt to reshape real life. You did not have to aspire to own a hacienda, and cactus plants don't grow outdoors in Volgograd.

The past few years have seen a change among the poor. Soap opera has been replaced in the ratings by police drama. And even the elderly are becoming less intolerant of advertising. Instead of escaping, in other words, they are beginning to make dreams for their own lives. They want things - a computer for their grandson, perhaps, or spectacles in a more stylish design - and they are starting to believe that they ought to be able to buy them. Their self- consciousness as consumers does not extend to citizenship (Russians, in general, make more exacting demands of the builder's merchant than they do of their politicians), but they are certainly entering the market in new ways.

It is not difficult to see how all this could end in disaster. It is always easy for an outsider to criticise the enthusiasms of others. I could point out that the gradual emergence of consumerism among Russia's least privileged will sharpen their sense of injustice, and I could add that the obsession with spending is a distraction from the urgent business of politics.

But to do so would be to ignore that the people of Russia have made do with what other people thought was good for them for three generations. They are tired of politics, tired of scarcity, and exhausted by the pace of social transformation. What is going on now is not only the emergence of frivolity, important though that is for its own sake. It is also the development of a culture of personal choice. The options may be tawdry, the market pressures cynical, but the people who go shopping have not had years to find the whole thing such a bore. "We are tired of the Theatre of Culture named for Karl Marx," began a satirical song of the 1980s. "We want the Theatre of Fashion named for Nina Ricci."

Catherine Merridale's Night of Stone: death and memory in Russia is published by Granta this month

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