MOSCOW — Defying the economic woes looming here, some Muscovites are breaking their budgets on the finer things the Soviet holiday season is offering, including meals on the town, artwork or even country houses.
In the past few weeks, the lunch and dinner hours have found residents packing into Yakimauka, a newly opened Uzbek restaurant near the Kremlin, and a handful of other new cooperative-owned eating places that have fast become the fashion here.
During two art auctions sponsored by the official Soviet cultural fund in the past month, Russians crowded in alongside Western buyers, sometimes outbidding dealers who had flown in from Paris or other European capitals.
An off-season rush also seems to be on for dachas, or summer houses. The latest edition of a monthly want-ad supplement published by the Moscow evening newspaper Vechernaya Moskva listed 75 pleas for country property and only 15 properties for sale.
The mood of spending has given a touch of holiday zaniness to the Soviet capital, whose residents usually operate on budgets that are tight and likely to become tighter when new economic reforms--including price increases--gradually take effect in the new year.
In a recent article about the difficulties Soviet families face in stretching their rubles, for instance, Izvestia writer Yuri Ritov said that the average worker makes 200.5 rubles a month ($321 at the official exchange rate), with one-third of all households earning less than 100 rubles ($160) a month. After rent, food and other necessities, Ritov said, even the well-to-do family with an income of 520 rubles a month has only 127 rubles for optional expenses.
One explanation for why Muscovites are in the mood to splurge is that the minority who have spare cash are anxious to take advantage of the looser market for dachas and other goods resulting from the economic reforms.
"The typical Soviet buyer of luxury goods is someone who has earned his money and is anxious to take the opportunity to spend it on something nice," according to Nika Shchterbakova, a local art dealer and collector. "Let's say, a writer who might have just gotten a royalty on a book published, or a couple that has been saving up for the right windfall."
Trend Among a Minority
Another explanation is that the economic crunch itself has brought on the urge to splurge on the unaffordable, with everyone borrowing from Petr to pay Pavel and using the rest to go out to lunch.
Whatever the reason, the latest trend among a minority of Soviets is spending money, particularly in the new cooperative cafes and shops that have opened in the past year. The plastic jewelry manufactured by one small cooperative went so quickly that its owner made nearly 216,000 rubles in six months, according to a dispatch in the government newspaper Izvestia.
In Moscow, the newest outlets for rubles are the cooperative restaurants, including Yakimauka, with its Uzbek and other Asian cuisine; the Red Flower, which features Chinese food, and the Moscow Dawn, specializing in food from Soviet Georgia.
None of them are cheap. In Kropotinskaya 36, which opened here a year ago, the average dinner bill is 35 rubles ($56) for two, or three days' salary for the average worker. At Yakimauka, lunch for two is two days' salary for a worker.
Yet they are always crowded with Soviet and foreign patrons. At Kropotinskaya, dinner tables must sometimes be reserved a week in advance. "The people who come here are not necessarily rich," Yakimauka manager Rafael Shalmeyev said. "Either they are people who like good Oriental food or people who are out for something exotic. People have been waiting for decent restaurants here for a long time."
Prices Vary Widely
Another recent favorite pastime is buying artwork, including paintings or portraits that Soviet painters have taken to selling in open air bazaars in the past year, and more expensive works by contemporary Soviet artists.
Prices range widely. Street art goes quickly for 15 to 20 rubles a painting. During auctions held in the past few weeks by the cultural fund, however, Soviets bid up to 135 rubles ($216) for a djel, a well-known Soviet-made ceramic, and up to 600 rubles ($966) for contemporary paintings. The average price Soviets are willing to pay for modern art is between 100 and 200 rubles, according to one Soviet art dealer who asked not to be named.
For the first time since the 1917 revolution, according to art dealer Shchterbakova, two new types of Soviet art buyers are active on the market. One group is composed of intellectuals or professionals who used to favor icons or earlier Russian art but now also buy modern art. The other group includes workers or their wives who buy the portraits or cheaper art now available in parks or open fairs.
The latter do not have very discriminating tastes, Shchterbakova said: "But let them buy kitsch, as long as they help along the trend of spending money on something."