At the sign of “The Blue Light”: shopping and the exotic in Russia

Two sayings often spring to mind when I think of the time I have spent in Russia. The first is “Anything can happen in Russia”, often said with a mixture of exasperation and secret admiration. The other is question a friend once asked me “Kak vam nravitsa nasha ekzotika?” (“How do you like our exotic way of life?). It struck me at the time as a bit of an exaggeration. Most countries like to think they’re a bit special, a bit out of the ordinary and the Russians are no exception. But the more I see of them, the more true these sayings seem to be.

It’s my last evening in Tula. My host Yekaterina is an excellent cook and excels herself with dinner: chicken esalopes, golubtsy (cabbage leaves stuffed with rice) in a tomato sauce, smoked salmon rice, tomatoes with garlic and mayonnaise. Wine and fruit juice to drink. Vanilla and chocolate jelly for pudding.

I finish packing (we leave for Moscow tomorrow) and have a short lie down after this feast. The family say they would like to show me where Yekaterina works as an accountant. Now, I know that she works for a supermarket called The Blue Light, as I have seen it on the business card she gave me. So I grab my camera, thinking that I could get some shots of the family and perhaps that I ought to take some shots of the shop, and off all five of us go: Yekaterina, her husband, Iosif and their two twenty something daughters.

It’s a very well stocked, average size supermarket, full of western European brands. Curiously there aren’t many shoppers around. Try as I might I can’t find anything to photograph: one supermarket looks pretty much like any other. We have a good look around and then they suggest that we go upstairs.

At the bottom of the winding stairs stands some sort of security guard who eyes me and my camera with suspicion. It’s only as we climb the stairs that I realise why as we pass a succession of posters advertising a casino, billiard hall, bar restaurant, cafe and Erotic Shows. God, what have they brought me to?

Just a few people are playing billiards (it’s about 9.30pm) and on the way through the family ask if I’d like to see the striptease. I politely decline. So we carry on through to the restaurant. It’s very comfortable: plush sofas and chairs, nice carpets, beautifully laid tables. We go and sit in the corner at the back, passing a small stage where a man and woman are singing Russian pop at a volume that’s beyond bearable.

My host has mysteriously disappeared to the older daughter’s flat which also happens to be in this part of Tula to do some repairs. The area is called Proletarsky and consists of loads of blocks of flats built to house the 280,000 workers at the Arms Factory (Tula used to be a closed town before Perestroika).

By now we four have sat down at a table. Despite my protestations that I am still full from dinner (eaten less than an hour and a half ago), Yekaterina insists that I have some sturgeon in a creamy sauce with some red caviare, lettuce and a glass of white wine. The girls order some ice cream and Yekaterina, I note, eats nothing.

At the other end of the restaurant there’s along table with a company outing, according to Yekaterina. I ask her what sort of people come here and she says “The rich.’

I think of my friends in Belarus and even some of the people I’ve met here in Tula and the contrast between their subsistence existence and this luxury. This is one face of the new Russia: what a gulf there is between ordinary people and the wealthy.

Next ice cream is pressed upon me and it’s just as I start to eat it that the lights go down. Suddenly a completely naked girl appears on the stage and starts to gyrate around a chrome pole. I look at Yekaterina and her daughters: they are completely unfazed and actually look quite interested in the proceedings. I’m the one who’s embarrassed. Over the next half an hour a succession of girls appear and do their stuff. At one point, Yekaterina signals to one of the girls and she shimmies over to our table to give us our own personal performance. My female companions are smiling and enjoying it. This uptight Englishman  is blushing to the roots of his thinning hair by this stage.

After our meal and the floor show we go and play billiards, at which we are all as useless as each other and then home to bed.

I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the meeting where the business model for this enterprise was first broached:

– “So we’re agreed then. We’re going with the supermarket.”

– “Yes, but we need to differentiate ourselves, Find a USP.”

– “OK, but we are going to stock it with goods from western Europe that you can’t buy in other shops. Isn’t that enough?”

– “No, we need something bolder, more radical….Got it! Why don’t we put a billiard hall and pole dancing club on the first floor. You know how that’s just the sort of place you want to go after you’ve been shopping!”  

– “Are you mad or on drugs?”

– ” No, but I am the boss, so that’s what we are doing!”

Thus great business ideas are born as, no doubt, Steve Jobs would confirm, were he still with us.

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