There was no shopping in the Soviet Union. Shopping – “wondering around shops” in Russian – was not what we did, men or women. When I was growing up, shops were not a place to wonder around or meet friends. One would go to buy a pencil or a pair of shoes (if one is lucky, a nicer pair). I always knew what I was going for and where to buy it. Parents would send you to get some bread and butter after school, while they were at work. The only shops that were open till late (rarely later than 8pm) were food stores. A pair of shoes, unlike bread, can wait a month or a year. Certainly, we had our beautiful arcades in Moscow, but we were no flâneurs. It took me a while to understand the English expression “window shopping.” Why would someone look at windows of those shops, what’s so interesting about them?
It was easy. There were only white panties for girls when I was growing up. My mother had them, my sister had them, and I had them, different only in size. There was nothing wrong with having white panties of the same style your whole life. I did not think about it much until I saw other kind of panties. They belonged to one of the girls I stayed with at my summer camp. They were drying up on a laundry string. Those panties… They were dark pink, with a rim, with some small pattern in a different color, and they were so well put together. They were clearly trying to seduce me, those little beautiful things, to steal them. No one was around, so I had to make a decision to take them or not. I had not yet heard of the law of consumption: once you have something, it loses its magic. You want what you do not have. That’s how consumption works, we were taught, in capitalism, fueled by advertising, which we also did not have. To be a “thing” or to be interested in “things” was deconstructed pretty well. They did not stand far apart, in my mind.
All of that is gone. Today the Russians shop as if there is no tomorrow, often at night. And I do not mean dinner time. The traffic in Moscow and long working hours transformed the midnight hours into the most convenient time to buy panties, bread, and shoes, all in the same place. There are huge new arcades where people wonder around, eat, talk on their cell phones, meet with friends, children play, young people hang out, and it is as bright as a daylight. Large shopping carts are filled over the top with all kinds of stuff. Things are in fashion. Wanting or being things is no longer a taboo.
“Most women like sales,” claims one of the English language exercises designed for American children. “They have no idea,” I think, and smile.