ASTRAKHAN, Soviet Union — This is the caviar capital of the Soviet Union. The only thing missing is the caviar.
Known as "Volga Gold," the pearly black sturgeon roe harvested in this bustling port city founded by Tatars in the 13th Century disappears before residents have a chance to buy it.
"Black caviar is $69 for 3.5 ounces on the black market and as high as $86 in the state stores," said Elena Shishkina, an Astrakhan resident. "But it's a joke--you can't find caviar anywhere."
Except, of course, in the Volga before it is extracted from the sturgeon, then processed and dispatched to Moscow and other faraway markets.
Situated along the left bank of the bountiful river lovingly known to Russians as "Mother Volga," Astrakhan was one of the richest trading posts of the old Czarist empire. Prior to its strategic acquisition by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, Astrakhan consisted of an island settlement with a walled kremlin, or fortress, 7.5 miles north of the present-day city.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Persian and Indian economic settlements formed an area of Astrakhan called "the white town." Of today's 411,000 residents, 80% are Russians, with the remainder composed of up to 60 different nationalities, including Nagaitsi, Tatars, Kazakhs and Kalmyks.
As in days of old, the mighty Volga plays a vital role in the life of residents and visitors. The Village Market, located north of the city's center at the end of First of May Street, is a grand display of the river's riches.
Four steel tables, roughly 100 feet long, piled with fresh, salted, smoked and dried fish, as well as sweet red peppers and cool green squash, are set up under a makeshift roof.
For years, small-scale entrepreneurs have brought their fish, caught in the Volga, to the market at 6 a.m. each day. By noon, all the fresh fish is sold, but the market remains open until 6 or 7 p.m. selling preserved fish and vegetables.
There you can find chub, Caspian roach and bream--all freshwater fish. But there's no caviar.
The salted fish can be saved and eaten up to two years later, said a tanned, wizened old merchant who happily explained the salting process handed down to him from his ancestors.
An old woman selling a local fish called red fin disclosed her pricing strategy: Ask the customer for 50 kopecks per fish, sell at 40, but be ready to drop as low as 35 kopecks as the rock-bottom price for stubborn hagglers.
Across from the market is a newly restored Russian Orthodox church. Built in 1885, the Church of the Intercession of the Mother of God is the seat of the metropolitan, or Orthodox prelate of the Astrakhan region. The church's $1.7-million restoration is evident as the golden icons, depicting the story of Christendom, now glisten in the light of votive candles.
More than a century old, the church played a major role in the life of believers who settled this area in the late 19th Century. A young priest in a long black frock confides to a visitor that the importance of religion in people's lives is increasing in this region near the Caspian Sea as Soviet authorities ease up on the church.
Other government reform policies in the region have allowed the formation of new self-financing cooperatives independent of state control. Chief among them are restaurants.
One such restaurant, called Secret, is housed in a once-abandoned riverboat on the Volga. The two-masted craft sat idle along Komsomol Embankment for 10 years before Leonid Glaskov, with his wife and two sons, took out a loan for the equivalent of $340,000 to launch their business.
Just seven months after its grand opening, Secret packs in a full house every evening.
"Tourists and the people of Astrakhan have never had a high-class restaurant like this here," boasted the man who called himself Volodya, one of the eight young staff members.
As diners come aboard, the dark hall brightens to display six large lacquered tables with equally refined, green felt-covered chairs. Pennants hang on the walls over each table to give it a nautical look.
Delicacies available include marinated mushrooms for the equivalent of $8.60, braised partridge in sour cream at $54 a plate and cooked-to-order suckling pig for $272.
Vodka and cognac were not on the menu but are available. As for caviar, there was none, but the staff said that some would be delivered the following week.
No fish dishes are served at Secret because the owners believe more exotic fare is their trademark, and a good fish steak can be had at the state-run Volga Restaurant, on Ulyanov Street. A meal with salads, vegetables and vodka is about $20 a person.
In the center of Astrakhan on Sovietskaya Street is a large pastel, orange-hued, Renaissance-style building with delicate white balconies and a corner tower adorned with a spire. This marvelous piece of architecture, which stands on Pushkin Square behind a statue in the great Russian poet's honor, houses a large book shop--Contemporary.