“Don’t You Know What’s Going On?”

Spoiled by grocery delivery services, I am rarely in supermarkets these days and don’t see all of life’s nitty-gritty.

Today I went into the Dixie [a Russian discount supermarket chain] near my house. Everything seemed pretty normal. I went along the shelves, but I really like buckwheat groats [a staple cereal grain in Russia] and wanted to buy some, and there was no buckwheat. I didn’t need sugar but when I saw there was no buckwheat I looked at the sugar shelf — no sugar. Also there were no Always pads, and I needed some. Probably there was lots of other stuff missing too, but I didn’t have time to make a thorough study. I put some of what was there into my basket and got into line for the register. I never remember prices, alas, so I didn’t particularly notice whether anything had gotten more expensive over the last month. But this would be cleared up shortly.

A woman and her friend come running into the store, right up to the register, and she starts complaining loudly that she bought ketchup for 146 rubles [$1.33 today (3/15/22) — trans.] as per the shelf tag, but at the register they charged her 194 rubles [$1.77], which she only noticed when she got home and checked the receipt.

“Why would I want ketchup for 194 rubles! You have to sell it for the price that’s written on the tag. Give me my 48 rubles back!”

“We’re not giving you anything back: our prices don’t match the shelf tags. You can return the ketchup and we’ll give you your money back.”

“What do you mean, the prices don’t match? You are obliged to show them!”

“On your website it still says that ketchup costs 146 rubles,” the woman’s friend interjects.

“The prices are changing every other day here, you think we’re going to go around pasting up the new ones all the time?! Don’t you know what’s going on?” screams the cash register lady.

“We’re not the ones setting the prices. They change by themselves in the system. They don’t even send us shelf tags: we just scan everything here at the register!” adds another cashier supportively.

“Why is the store management suddenly changing the prices?” I ask.

The line, the cashiers, and the woman with her friend all look at me with stern incomprehension and even an element of disapproval.

“What, you don’t know,” someone mutters angrily, and everyone again looks away, down at the floor or at the checkout conveyer belt.

Everyone knits their brows in silence. The older cashier quietly tells the younger one how to do a return, take cash and calculate the correct change, because many people’s bank cards aren’t working.

No one says out loud that President Putin is waging war in Ukraine or that “NATO-the Americans-who knows who” is to blame. No one discusses why the prices are higher and why there’s no buckwheat. No one says anything at all and everyone looks at the floor.

Only the man who was standing behind me went back to the shelves and grabbed a third bottle of vodka.

Source: Alexandra Polivanova, Facebook, 14 March 2022. Translated by the Fabulous AM with the author’s permission. Photo by the author

The Happy Chooks of Ryazan

You never know what scam will be visited on your weary head when you buy a cartoon of eggs from the Dixie supermarket. When the country’s reigning tyrant instituted reverse sanctions against the infidels of the west in 2015, all imported dairy products, eggs, and lots of other produce disappeared from the shelves, prompting a shameless wave of newly hatched brands made to look as if they had been produced in Finland and other straunge strondes.

Now that the triumph of the will known as import substitution has filled some of the yawning gaps on the shelves, the new three-card monte in the Russian food industry involves imitating “corporate responsibility” and “best practices.”

I happened upon a sterling specimen the other day, again after buying eggs at the Dixie in our neighbourhood. I opened the carton to find this message from the producers.

okskoye-1“Oksky Eggs: Delicious and Fresh. Dear Friends! I offer you a product that my children, acqaintances, friends and, of course, I myself enjoy eating. I guarantee that we monitor the entire production process at Oksky Eggs. I promise I will always be in touch. I will be attentive and responsive to all your messages. Whatever the issue, write to me at my personal email address: 0076@okskoe.com. Ivan Grishkov, Commercial Director, Oksky Poultry Farm JSC.”

Sounds nifty, eh? It gets better when turn the little slip of paper over.

“PRODUCER’S GUARANTEE. Each egg is stamped with the production date, the number of the henhouse, and the poultry farm’s trademark seal. [Producer] [Category of egg] [Production date (date and month)] [Henhouse number]. || Oksky Eggs: Delicious and Fresh. Oksky Poultry Farm JSC, 390540, Russia, [Ryazan Region], Ryazan District, Village of Oksky. Tel.: (4912) 51-22-62. Email: sbit@okskoe.com. Website: www.okskaya-ptf.ru.”

A farmboy myself, I have no wish to malign my brother and sister Russian farmers. So, I should point out that the three Oksky Eggs left in our fridge are indeed stamped as advertised.


The rubber hits the road, however, when you take a gander at the poultry farm’s slick website, where you are treated to this tear-jerking video about the happy lives led by the chooks at Oksky Poultry Farm.

It’s a veritable vision of the good life, isn’t it?

oksky-the good life


At the end of this accidental disco anthem to cruel and unusual hen exploitation, a woman identified as “Yelena Anoshina, poultry barns supervisor,” reading from cue cards, says, “A modern electronic system generates the most comfortable conditions for the birds. It makes sure they are fed and watered. And I am personally responsible for this.”

I can only imagine the dialogue that would ensue if an enlightened consumer or, god forbid, a animal rights advocate tried to call Mr. Grishkov and Ms. Anoshina on their imitation of “corporate responsibility” and “modern poultry farming.”

The kicker, however, is that you will find these half-hearted attempts at instituting customer friendliness and gesturing in the direction of best (western) practices all over corporate Russia these days. Of course, you are more likely to find real friendliness and good quality in a mom-and-pop Uzbek dive or even a hipster coffeehouse, but oddly enough the impulse to do things better and shed the shabbiness and sheer meanness of the “Soviet consumerist hell” (Joseph Brodsky’s phrase) actually shapes the behavior of the mostly younger and early middle-aged people working in places like banks and certain government offices as well.

The only problem is the Russian ruling elite still wants to keep kicking rank-and-file Russians in the teeth on a daily basis, so the rules, regulations, red tape, and imperatives of the resurgent post-Soviet surveillance state and the kleptocratic oligarchy running the country mostly reduce the natural kindness and gentleness of these pleasant, soft-spoken cogs in the machine to naught. {TRR}


Diskoteka Avariya (Accident Discotheque), “Disco Superstar” (2001)


Annals of Import Substitution: Ricotta Days

Because of the severe if not crippling margarine deficit in this district of the ex-capital of All the Russias, I have been reduced to buttering my toast with ricotta.

Pictured, above, is Unagrande Ricotta, my preferred brand, and the brand all the shops in my neighborhood (half of which are Dixie chain supermarkets) seem to have in stock all the time, suddenly.

Despite the Italian-sounding name, however, and Unagrande’s cutesy-pie Italian-tricolor-as-heart logo, it is manufactured not in Italy, which as an EU member, is subject to Putin’s anti-sanctions against the import of most EU produce to Russia.

What has bitten Russian taste buds especially hard has been the sudden absence of decent cheese, which, before the Putin regime decided to rule the world, had been imported to Russia in large quantities, mostly because the majority of domestic Russian cheeses were neither particularly tasty nor plentiful.

Crimea-is-oursism changed all that.

Russians traveling abroad now consider it their patriotic duty to stock up on cheese before heading back to the Motherland, where they will consume it with relish themselves or, since Russians like to share, to divvy up among their friends or have a cheese-tasting party. Likewise, Europeans welcoming friends from the Motherland have been known to serve their country’s finest cheeses before and after dinner.

There are even black market Estonian and Finnish cheese outlets, practically operating in broad daylight, in the farther flung corners of the city. A friend of mine has bought such zapreshchonka (banned goods) in these establishments, usually housed in inconspicuous kiosks, on several occasions.

No, my daily ricotta is produced not in Italy, as the name and the packaging insistently suggest, but at 130 Lenin Street in the town of Sevsk, in the far western Russian region of Bryansk.

Despite its exalted status as the new ricotta capital of Russia, Sevsk is a modest town whose population, according to the 2010 census, was 7,282.

To their credit, however, the Sevskians produce their delectable Unagrande Ricotta from whey, pasteurized cream, and salt. That’s it.

Unagranda Ricotta contains zero percent of the detestable and environmentally ruinous palm oil that other Russian cheese manufacturers have pumped into their cheeses, also bearing European-sounding names, to make up for real milk and cream, which have been in short supply and are more expensive, of course.

So I doff my cap to the honest dairy workers of Sevsk, who have managed to produce a delightful 250-gram tublet of perfectly edible and utterly non-counterfeited ricotta, which sells for 144 rubles (a bit over two euros) at my local Dixie.

I would still like to know, however, what has happened to all the margarine. TRR

Image courtesy of planetadiet.com

Genre Scene

“Wanna drink?”

“Wanna drink?”

The question was addressed to my dog, not to me.

And indeed there was something to drink (or rather, lick up) because huge puddles of pungent alcohol had been splashed on the pavement all round the morning’s tragic heroes.

The particular genre scene had been made possible and has become more frequent due to the fact that the neighborhood outlet of the mighty Dixie supermarket chain, opposite where the drunks were hunched, had recently begun operating round the clock, and several months earlier, a 24-hour RosAl chain liquor shop had opened just round the corner too.

Dixie Supermarket
Dixie Supermarket

In Petersburg, retail, over-the-counter sale of liquor is illegal after ten o’clock in the evening. So in the wee hours, RosAl transforms itself into an impromptu dive, a poorly concealed ryumochnaya, the name for the humbly appointed but essential proletarian after-work bars that used to exist in abundance in Leningrad and early post-perestroika Petersburg.

More of RosAl's early morning clientele
More of RosAl’s early morning clientele

But RosAl utterly lacks the charm possessed by the legendary Little Twenty bar, a proper Soviet ryumochnaya, which had the stuff in spades. The Little Twenty was disappeared several years ago by the new proprietors of the large commercial premises on the corner, which had housed both the bar and the Soviet style Loaf grocery story. The Loaf had been a hundred times more human, humane, and convenient than the wretched Dixie chain supermarket that usurped it.

Back in the
Back in the allegedly wild 90s, this café had been the semi-legendary Palmyra, a lively eatery with excellent borscht, frequented by artists from the nearby art squat. Then it was made into a bland pastries and coffee shop, which has just as suddenly closed.

The Little Twenty had been lively and colorful and, sometimes, scary. Most of all, it was dripping with a specific kind of post-war Leningrad and 1990s-era Petersburg history. As more and more such joints disappear, it will be harder to retell this history in a way that would make sense to listeners. The new urban environment will simply not incline them to believe what you tell them.


How can you explain to the decent, clean-cut Russian kids of today or newly arrived foreigners that the neighborhood was a lot nicer and cozier when you had to get your groceries not by grabbing them off the shelf and dashing to the checkout, but by asking for them from not always friendly female store clerks on the other side of the dairy counter, the bread counter, the meat counter, the produce counter, the newspapers and magazines counter, the coffee, tea, and sugar counter, and so on?

The flip side was that once these microlocally powerful grocery matrons and maidens finally recognized you as a local, if not by name, then at least visually, they would treat you much more warmly and “loyally,” as they say nowadays. How do you explain to these rosy-cheeked Russian kids and eager tourists, who are either used to the new consumerist order or relieved to find it firmly in place in the former Evil Empire, that next door to this inconvenient grocery store was an outwardly nondescript saloon, where fights broke out much too often, and more than a few times you saw its patrons carried out feet first (because for whatever reason they were no longer able to walk out on their own two), and all this apparent awfulness and backwardness made the neighborhood a better, literally more democratic place to live?

The picture gets worse if you are a nominal old-timer. In the spot where the cynical filling station for binge drinkers known as RosAl now does its land office business between the hours of one and six o’clock in the morning, not long ago there was a flagrantly old-fashioned and utterly unfashionable but incredibly handy and inexpensive clothing and notions shop. Among other things the shop housed a clothing repair workshop.

The calm and quiet queen of this workshop was a seamstress in her sixties, who could handle whatever darning, hemming or other repair job you set her gracefully and quickly. She was probably the reason the people of our neighborhood looked more or less decent sartorially.

I have no clue where this wonderful seamstress has now ended up. Instead of her, this morning the night staff of the RosAl dive greeted us, so to speak, or rather, sniggered at the sight of a large, middle-aged man and a tiny dog out walking so early. They are probably nice young folks, but their only visible life skills are selling liter bottles of vodka and plastic cups to clinical alcoholics, like the sad duo slowly slipping into total incoherence on the corner.

Orchid Spa Salon
Orchid Spa Salon

A little further down the same alley as RosAl, dog and man happened upon a newish police van, parked right next to the so-called Orchid spa-salon (i.e., a brothel). Out of the corner of my eye I saw sleeping bodies in the back seat. It had been a tough watch, I suppose.

The former Technical Books bookstore

At the other end of our block, the well-known and seemingly beloved Technical Books bookstore has been closed and empty for several years now. One would imagine the spot would be a gold mine (right on the corner of the Nevsky, the city’s main main street), but the windows of its former premises have been boarded up long ago, and just to be safe, apparently, now they have been walled up too. It produces a scary and sad impression nor does it make any sense.

On the same side of the street as Technical Books, but much closer to the former Loaf grocery shop and current Dixie supermarket is another mysteriously long-abandoned commercial space, the former grocery shop Fairy Tale. (That was its name if memory serves me.) Since it opened round the same time as the Dixiecrats were savagely killing off my dearly beloved Loaf shop and the Little Twenty bar, I stubbornly patronized this ridiculous, badly managed grocer’s to the point they issued me a discount card.

24-Hour Supermarket
24-Hour Supermarket

I was not particularly sorry to see it go, but its premises have also stood empty for many years, although in the last month or so there have been vague signs of life as though something were on the verge of opening in the place, god knows what. By the way things have been going, it will probably be another Dixie. They have been breeding unaccountably in our district like mushrooms, quietly pushing all other forms of commercial life closer to oblivion.

“Life is serious, but not that serious.”

When I started this story, I just wanted to sketch a quick genre scene, but in the writing it has turned into a full-fledged albeit half-assed socio-economic portrait of our block.

Having read it, who would dare say the invisible hand of the market has managed the immovable objects and animated beings on our little street for the best? I wouldn’t.

Translation and photos by the Russian Reader