In their small flat on the edge of Moscow, Viktor and Lena sit in the kitchen and watch the spinning of their new Electrolux washing machine as if it were an absorbing film on television. “Oh, we don’t just watch the machine,” laughs Viktor. “At night, we sit up in bed and pore over the instruction manual.”
The middle-aged couple, both teachers, could buy the Swedish machine because Russian shops now offer credit. Viktor and Lena saw adverts that promised a zero rate of interest. Once inside the store, they discovered that the interest rate was in fact 20 per cent, but they went ahead anyway.
“If only we had had the washing machine when the kids were young,” says Lena, remembering how she washed clothes and bedding in the bath. “Later, we got a Vyatka [a Soviet-made washing machine], but it leaked all over the floor.”
Viktor remembers how, back in communist times, they queued for hours to get into an exhibition of American home appliances. “We were fascinated to see the strange devices from another planet. You know, coffee machines and ice-cream makers. When we left, we got a plastic bag as a souvenir and we were thrilled. Can you imagine such naivety?”
I found it hard to imagine personally, but I think my parents, who married in England not long after the Second World War, would understand. The Russians, you might say, are about a generation behind the west. For them, wartime conditions – and what the British called “the age of austerity” – ended only with the collapse of communism in 1991. Now they are emerging into a period similar to the Fifties and Sixties in Britain. President Vladimir Putin didn’t exactly echo Harold Macmillan and say: “You’ve never had it so good”, but that was the implied message of his recent re-election campaign; and it explains why people voted for him in such numbers.
The public voted . . . and then they went shopping. After casting her ballot – naturally for Putin – on 14 March, Irina wondered how to spend the rest of a beautiful sunny day, one of the first of spring. “I thought about going for a walk in the woods,” the housewife says. “But then I decided to have a browse round the shops instead. I fancied buying one of those Pyrex dishes for making casseroles in the oven, but I ended up getting a new fruit bowl.”
Irina doesn’t know it, but she could have gone to a Tupper- ware party, just as a western housewife would have done in the Sixties, although Tupperware now operates by 21st-century methods and brings together would-be buyers and sellers of its unbreakable, airtight kitchenware via the internet. Alternatively, she could have spent the day at Ikea. All day, the car park is packed and customers stuff their boots with foldable chairs, carpets and lampshades. By the evening, most cars have gone, but the store is still full of people who cannot tear themselves away. Many seem to be “tourists” for whom a walk around a western-owned shop is nearly as good as a foreign holiday, if only they could afford it. They linger in the cafe, but don’t buy much, and sometimes nothing at all. They catch the last free bus to the Metro. On the Metro, a mother and daughter were cradling a cushion between them. Perhaps it was all they could afford; perhaps it was all they could carry without a car. The cushion was egg-yolk yellow.
The advent of Ikea and other such stores has started to change Russian taste. Many Russian homes are still dark and cluttered, with a maroon carpet hanging on the wall, rather than lying on the floor, and a mahogany stenka (wall cabinet) displaying the family crystal. But more and more Russians are choosing the light and space offered by Scandinavian design. “Snap!” said a friend, seeing a couple of multicoloured mats that I had bought, along with my new office chair. “We’ve got those in our bedroom. We got them in the sale.”
This amounts to real progress. Even the poorest Russians no longer compare notes as to where sausage might be available. Increasingly they look beyond life’s bare essentials.
Whatever small improvements they may make to the interiors of their homes, however, most Russians still live in concrete chicken coops, many of them erected by Khrushchev in the late Fifties and early Sixties and intended to have a lifespan of no more than 30 years. This, perhaps, is why there is so little protest against the building boom in the centre of Moscow directed by Putin’s loyal ally Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor, and which also arouses a sense of deja vu in anyone who knew postwar Britain.
True, a small movement of artists and conservationists is protesting against the destruction of historic buildings and the erection of what Prince Charles would certainly describe as “carbuncles”. And the recent collapse of the newly constructed Transvaal water park gave many pause for thought about shoddy workmanship and corruption in the building industry.
But those who grew up sharing kitchens and bathrooms with neighbours or, at the very least, not knowing the luxury of having a bedroom to themselves will be pleased to move into spanking new apartments. Only later may the fashion develop for “doing up” the old, as happened in Britain when families suddenly fell in love again with Victorian houses.
While half of Russia builds and acquires, the other half is revolted by this petit-bourgeois loss of soul. The current generation of Russian leaders grew up listening to the Beatles, who symbolised freedom in Soviet times. Though Putin probably preferred spy stories to the Fab Four, Aleksandr Pochinok, employment minister in the outgoing cabinet, was certainly a Beatles fan and spoke of them on a recent chat show. He sounded as if he would like to burn his tie, throw away his briefcase and follow in the footsteps of John Lennon.
And this is exactly what many Russians are doing, if they are not bogged down with purchasing home appliances. Marina and Sergei, for example, have just returned from a three-month pilgrimage to Poona in India, the headquarters of the guru Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), followed by a holiday in Goa. This was their first trip abroad, and they chose to travel east for enlightenment, rather than visit the material west. When they came home, their suitcases were stuffed with bells, sarongs, incense sticks and other trappings of the hippie lifestyle, which they promptly gave away to all their friends.
Dmitry is also in India now. He had a holiday there a few months ago and liked it so much that he decided to return, rent a cheap bungalow and live there indefinitely. “It’s cooler on the beach, man,” he said, before departing.
Marina and Sergei made their money with an internet business in the Nineties, while Dmitry ran a chain of Moscow fashion shops. They had passed through the phase of coveting vacuum cleaners and biscuit tins and had built up something to renounce before they hit the hippie trail.
Which all goes to show that everything comes full circle. In the Sixties, Soviet leaders promised their people that they would overtake the west and build communism by the Eighties. They even set a date for communism’s completion and had it printed in school textbooks. “I remember reading it when I was a little boy,” says Vitaly. “I stared out of the classroom window and thought: ‘Well, when I’m grown up, I’ll be able to get all the cakes and sweets I want without paying anything. The next year, we got new school textbooks. I looked for the reference to the completion of communism, but it had gone. I thought I must have dreamt it.”
Now, after decades of suffering, the Russians are beginning to catch up with western material standards, although in culture and science they have always been our equals. Indeed, if the experience of Germany after the Second World War is anything to go by, people who build anew on ruins can leapfrog ahead of those who maintain what they have always had. So if a Russian buys a new home entertainment system, it will be a top-of-the-range, state-of-the-art machine, and probably better than anything you have in your comfy old British living room.