Kioskpitality: Street Level Capitalism in the Capital
Text and photos by Ross Hunter
After the ex-Soviet ex-Union abandoned the planned economy we are lucky to witnesses the growth of a new and distinctively Russian economic system. Under the old regime, the foot soldiers of the revolution were celebrated all over Moscow: Proletarskaya Ploshchad, Shosse Entusiastiv, Youth Volunteers’ this, Collective Farm Workers’ that. With capitalism’s big shots being pushed off their pedestals or jumping off penthouse ledges, saluting your favorite oligarch doesn’t seem so fashionable anymore.
So let’s cheer the real entrepreneurs of the age: the heroes of the street market: the industrious and indefatigable ‘Kioskim’! Their monument may be small, temporary and built at night with old materials but worthy all the same.
Kiosks are not new to Russian retailing. The vastness of Red Square used to be so packed with wooden kiosks that inevitably fire ravaged them again and again. See FY Alexeyev’s ‘Red Square’ (1801) in the Tretyakov Gallery for a picturesque depiction of them around St. Basil’s. The adjacent trading rows were retail right to the river, until replaced by the magnifi cent GUM building, which keeps the shape and layout of the old market streets.
During the Bolshevik era, nascent individualism was frowned upon and the cult of bigness reigned. When the communist system collapsed, so went its two guiding principles: ‘you pretend to work, and we pretend to pay you’, and ‘they give us everything we need and nothing we want’. An unpromising foundation for a new economy. While the super rich were helping themselves to the billions, grappling ever upwards, down at street level the people’s wealth creation reappeared. The kiosk explosion hit 12,000 in the early 1990s, and as many as 18,000 recently: the peak of a business now in decline?
Kiosk retailing is certainly not an easy life. Selling on the street side is unforgiving: exposed to the elements, traffic, pollution and plagues of profi teers extorting their slice. For many, especially newcomers to the city, there is no alternative with shop rents out of reach. But it is a start. With family support and shared endeavour, the ladder of progress inches up the hierarchy into the high street, and eventually off it into a permanent shop.
Stage one is just to get selling: a cardboard carpet, a shopping trolley and the ubiquitous striped woven plastic bags, mostly holding fi rst class vegetables or pickles from home. Next, a folding table with an awning against sun, rain and snow, and more variety of goods on display. Astonishingly, all these stalls are mobile, and may be seen in transit, being lugged up and down Metro steps.
With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work a formal booth is next, with a steel frame and bright yellow sides: you are marking Ya Marka! Then a solid kiosk: portaloo or car parking hut, perhaps. Or a self built box, sometimes self propelled, in a handy spot next to a Metro station or bus stop. Block the pavement so passing trade is obliged to look in. Maybe with electricity, but best not to ask from there the wire has been spliced. Lashings of fresh grey ship-grade paint proudly embalm the whole thing: it has taken a lot of work to get here. Homemade signs embellish the roof line, showing off the produce or the opening hours. Eventually, a franchise – an official licensed site, fully manufactured advertisements – fame at last. The family chain beckons: watch out Walmart, here we come! The kiosk has reached the top of the evolutionary greasy pole.
What to sell? Look around for clues to the competition and to admire the variety. What cannot be bought in a kiosk is a short list. It is easy to find almost everything edible, drinkable, smokable, wearable, adornable, readable, windupable, smelly, spicy or racy. Not to mention the superabundance of flower stalls. Then there are collections of tools like magnifying glasses and leather goods, an umbrella for an emergency, and second hand books, household goods, blue china and very well used toys. Tram tickets, theater tickets, passport holders, souvenir dolls or postcards, anyone?
There may be a relaxed relationship with copyright on DVDs, handbags and perfumes. It is a bit of a shock to see lingerie draped over a table in the open, blowing in the breeze. It can be hard to get out of a Metro exit barricaded by homemade pickles or a barrow mounted magazine screen. ‘Best before’ dates may not be strictly adhered to, so despite glaring screens to shield the sun, checking provenance by the degree of fade on the printed labels may be helpful. And beware of fake money, fake tickets, fake fashions, fake (hopefully) furs … caveat emptor applies in Russia as well any classical plaza. Don’t be agoraphobic, just be careful.
DIY Kiosk Starter Kit
Cut out and fold up model – a flatpack instant classic
Dengi – all the paperwork you need (see photo)
Molotok and Allen key – not supplied Wiring diagram – at your own risk (see photo)
Signage: hand painted, professional or illuminated
Kiosks have a long and vital heritage in Moscow. But do they have a future? The economic boom has filled the horizon with steel and blue glass towers and the streets with black glassed and blue lighted foreign cars, crammed to a standstill. The upwardly mobile looking down on the nouveau richly immobile. Moscow’s brave new world of surface smoothness, shading its rough edges and even rougher foundations.
Two years ago, City leaders declared war on the kiosks, with grand plans and target dates to rid the limo views of inconvenient eyesores. An echo of third world capitals bulldozing shanty towns out of sight of the elite, without actually offering a solution to the cause of their existence. Is this tomorrow’s Moscow? Recent financial troubles have put the skyscrapers on hold, but retail rents have hardly fallen to the point of aff ordable. If high finance and elite boutiques are not making wealth, and still less sharing it, can the humble keep the economy ticking along? I hope so. Support your local kiosks!