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Echoing Soviet Era, Moscow Mulls Return Of Exclusive Shop For Foreigners

  • Carl Schreck

A view of a Soviet-era Beryozka store in Moscow.

A view of a Soviet-era Beryozka store in Moscow.

For decades, foreigners and well-connected members of the Soviet elite could pop into specialized stores in the U.S.S.R. to swap their hard currency for top-shelf booze and tobacco, European delicacies, and other high-end goods unavailable to ordinary citizens.

More than two decades after this chain of stores, known as Beryozka, disappeared, Russia is reportedly considering launching a similar exclusive shopping option for certain foreigners in Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has asked Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to consider allowing a duty-free store to open in Moscow for foreign diplomats and employees of international organizations, reported on February 10.

In a December 19 letter to Medvedev obtained by the Russian news portal, Lavrov wrote that the shop would help curtail “financial losses and delays” associated with delivering goods to foreign diplomatic missions in Russia.

It was not immediately clear whether the shop would carry Western food imports banned by Russian President Vladimir Putin in August in response to U.S. and EU sanctions against Moscow over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine.

Foreign goods have been widely available in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development confirmed that it has received a proposal to open a duty-free store in Moscow and that it is examining the issue, and Vesti FM reported.

If given the green light, the shop could be owned and operated by a private company and overseen by a Foreign Ministry-linked company, added.

Window To The Good Life

The reports of the proposed duty-free shop in Moscow have sparked comparisons in the Russian media to Beryozka, which the Soviet government launched in the 1960s to cater to foreigners and boost state coffers with hard currency.

WATCH: How do Muscovites feel about the Beryozka stores?

A second type of store, also under the Beryozka brand, allowed Soviet citizens to shop with coupons they had exchanged for hard currency obtained from various sources, including employment abroad and remittances sent from foreign-based relatives.

These stores, which featured hard-to-get food, clothes, alcohol, and appliances, were rarely discussed openly by Soviet officials and media outlets, Moscow-based historian Anna Ivanova observed in her 2013 study of Beryozka.

But they were well-known across Soviet society and seen by many as a window to the good life enjoyed by the country’s elite, even though they were technically accessible to any Soviet citizen with hard currency.

"People had an idea that it is for the elite, but in reality it was a little bit more complicated," Ivanova told RFE/RL.

The exclusive shops reverberated in Soviet jokes and music as well. One joke tells of a wide-eyed man from Russia's Far North who walks into a Beryozka shop, looks around in amazement at the goods on offer, and asks for political asylum.

A 1968 song by renowned bard Vladimir Vysotsky chronicles the misadventures of a man who heads into Moscow to shop for his relatives and accidentally ends up in a Beryozka.

"'What kind of currency do you have?'they ask. 'Don't worry,' I say, 'not dollars!'" Vysotsky sings.

The proliferation of hard-currency coupons fueled a black market, with people illicitly purchasing the notes in order to access Beryozka's exclusive goods.

Ivanova noted in her study that the Soviet government "did not take any active measures to stop the illegal exchange of foreign currency substitutes."

But people did get caught.

Alexandre Grant, a Russian-born journalist who emigrated to the United States in the 1970s, recalled in a recent interview with RFE/RL that after charging him with disseminating anti-Soviet propaganda in the 1960s, authorities also accused him of violating currency-transaction laws due to his Beryozka shopping habits.

"They tacked on another charge for violating currency transaction laws because I bought different things in Beryozka -- drinks and food -- using money that diplomats gave me," said Grant, who was convicted and sentenced to five years in a prison camp.

'Let There Be Poverty'

The Soviet government eventually began to consider closing down the Beryozka chain in the late 1980s amid the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and calls for social justice in national media outlets.

"Social justice is not only a matter of a reasonable wage for work but that all should have the same possibilities for spending money earned," Literaturnaya Gazeta said in 1987 commentary referring to Beryozka, Reuters reported at the time.

"Let there be poverty, shared equally among all," it added. "Common poverty and common worries. Maybe then more goods will appear, who knows?"

The following year the Soviet government announced measures that would essentially remove the Beryozka coupons from circulation by banning their purchase with foreign currency.

The move was widely seen as part of anti-corruption drive and a crackdown on
"privileges" enjoyed by the country's ruling elite.

The announcement sparked a frenzied run on the stores as Soviet citizens rushed to cash in their coupons.

One Russian blogger recalled hearing the news on television and taking his stack of coupons to a Beryozka store the following day. He arrived to find an "enormous crowd" outside.

"The shelves were absolutely bare," he wrote. "Even the audio cassettes were out of stock. The cashiers promised that maybe some goods would be delivered tomorrow."