The Shopping Mall Reaches Russia

Americans aren't the only ones swept up by the home-improvement craze. Many Russian families are caught up in a redecorating frenzy. TV programs offer advice and new malls cater to a small but growing middle class.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This holiday weekend, many Americans will patronize shopping malls and hardware stores in hopes of giving their homes a spring spruce-up. They're not the only ones. Ask a Russian family what they're up to and the answer may well be redecorating. New TV programs offer homeowner advice, and new malls cater to the tastes and budgets of a small, but growing middle class. NPR's Anne Garrels joined the stampede.

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

If Dante were writing his "Inferno" today, he might add a tenth circle of hell: a visit to one of Russia's new malls on a weekend.

(Soundbite of traffic)

GARRELS: The free busses ferrying shoppers from the nearest subway stop are jammed. Traffic crawls the last several miles to packed parking lots. The shoppers at Moscow's MegaMall are not the infamous nouveau riche but young professionals--engineers, accountants and lawyers like Dema Fatopov(ph) and Ykaterina Menvaydiva(ph). In their early 30s, they're among the many who have put off having children to make their careers and buy their first apartment. Now they want to install a sleek, modern kitchen.

Ms. YKATERINA MENVAYDIVA (Russian Homeowner): (Through Translator) Our apartment is only two rooms, plus the kitchen. It's not very big, but it's cozy, and we want to make it even more attractive.

GARRELS: Their destination is IKEA, a rite of passage for millions of Russians. At over a billion dollars, the Swedish furniture store is one of the largest investors in Russia and the engine behind five big new malls. Ifgeny Drosdoff(ph), a 28-yar-old with sparkling blue eyes and a hint of gray in his stylishly cut hair, has worked for IKEA since the company first arrived here seven years ago. He now manages IKEA's largest store and a staff of 600. Despite ongoing bureaucratic wrangles and IKEA's public battles with corruption, Ifgeny has seen huge changes.

Mr. IFGENY DROSDOFF (IKEA): The average receipt of the store is growing, which means people are more regularly getting their income.

GARRELS: No longer satisfied with the once ubiquitous dull brown, he says Russians are looking for color and style.

Mr. DROSDOFF: People are getting more demanding. When we only opened, we literally didn't have the competition. People were just happy to visit us. Now we are competing with new retail chains.

GARRELS: It's estimated one in every 10 Europeans is conceived on an IKEA bed. Ifgeny hopes that will one day be the case in Russia. To keep prices competitive, the company's producing more and more of its products here instead of importing them.

(Soundbite of cash register)

GARRELS: One couple complains everything's too expensive and leaves unhappy and empty-handed. But trolleys piled high with do-it-yourself tables, chairs and accessories suggest others are satisfied.

Ms. YELENA PATALOV(ph) (Engineer): (Through Translator) We need furniture. We need everything.

GARRELS: Yelena and Igor Patalov, both engineers in their late-30s, are redoing their entire new four-room apartment, tossing out the last remnants of Soviet drab. They have little patience for those who are nostalgic for the past.

Mr. IGOR PATALOV (Engineer): (Through Translator) We have much more than our parents had, much more. We have no complaints. We are happy.

GARRELS: The cafeteria, offering poached salmon and the trademark Swedish meatballs, of course, is full. Yelena Kanatina(ph) and her 28-year-old daughter take a break from measuring and mulling over the mind-boggling assortment of closet combinations. They recently returned to Russia after living in France for several years. Despite a slowdown in the economy, they decided business opportunities in Moscow are better than in Europe. Yelena says Russians spend whatever they have.

Ms. YELENA KANATINA: (Through Translator) It's a huge weakness here, and we can capitalize on it. Russians live for today and don't save for tomorrow. That's the secret.

GARRELS: It's a secret retailers, like IKEA, are banking on. And the malling of Russia is now expanding well beyond the capital to the outlying provinces, changing the landscape and how Russians live. Anne Garrels, NPR News, Moscow.

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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