#16 - JRL 7226
June 17, 2003
Letter From Russia
In Moscow, No More Flat Denial
With Western Exposure, Drab Apartments Get Makeovers
By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
MOSCOW -- The first thing Andrei Lyagin did was throw everything out.
The bulky Soviet-era stenka -- wall cabinet -- that is still the main feature in virtually all Russian apartments. The sagging gray and beige sofa and armchair familiar to anyone who has visited a Russian at home in the past 20 years or so. The factory-made crystal glasses that were proudly displayed by those who had the connections to get them. All the generic relics of Soviet life went to the garbage.
Soon, he was haunting the new furniture markets and home improvement stores that have sprung up all over Moscow in the past year or so. His wife, Irina, clipped pictures from glossy new Russian interior-design magazines. Lyagin, once a Red Army engineer who built nuclear fallout shelters and now is the owner of a small business, chose French panels, Spanish tiles and English wallpaper for his tiny three-room apartment in a typically crumbling concrete Moscow apartment house, vintage 1973.
"We had a contemporary vision," Lyagin said as he ran his fingers around the electric-blue edge of his new kitchen chair. "Now we are trying to make it perfect."
Suddenly, it seems, everybody is redecorating in the booming city-state of Moscow. Even those such as Lyagin who can't afford high style are trading in their Soviet-era beiges for bright-colored walls and Scandinavian blond wood. Money that was spent on new cars or once-forbidden foreign vacations in the early years after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 is now being spent on the home, according to marketing studies and sociologists. "The business of home beautification is booming," said Alexei Levinson, an analyst at the Russian Public Opinion and Market Research Center.
At the upper end of the economic scale, good taste has become trendy. The much-joked-about New Russians of the 1990s are forsaking their gold-festooned mansions for pared-down studies in minimalism or classic wood-paneled libraries lifted from pictures of English gentlemen's clubs, according to designers who work with them and shopkeepers who sell to them. Some are turning to antiques -- "it's growing like mushrooms," said Yelena Kaluzhskaya, deputy manager at Moscow's first antiques mall, opened two weeks ago -- while others opt for Japanese-accented modernism.
In another country, this passion for the home might not seem so dramatic. In Moscow, where overcrowded Soviet communal apartments have not entirely disappeared and state propaganda campaigns once regularly inveighed against "bourgeois individualism," it seems to represent something more. Until recently, even those who bought stylish clothes or traveled to Paris on vacation were likely to live in an apartment with little furniture or filled with relics of the Soviet past.
"We got a very standard image of what living space was supposed to look like as a result of seven decades of the Soviet regime," said Natalya Maltseva, the host of a popular new television show called "Apartment Question." The name is a play on a famous quote from banned Soviet author Mikhail Bulgakov, who observed that people in Moscow in the 1930s had been ruined by "apartment questions" such as how many square meters of living space they were entitled to.
Now, Maltseva wrestles with a different sort of question: how to reintroduce the concept of Western-style individuality into apartments that still seem to have been decorated according to a central planning decree from the late 1970s. Each week she and her staff sort through hundreds of letters, with gloomy pictures attached, from Muscovites desperate to redecorate their Soviet-vintage apartments. They pick one flat to redo in a two- or three-day whirlwind. Bright colors, clever space-saving solutions and adorable knickknacks appear overnight. The emotional high point comes at the end of each Saturday show, when the astonished family returns home.
For the past two years, Maltseva has been surprised to find "what a huge number of people still live life inside these Soviet stereotypes" and how eager they are finally to change. "Now everything connected with the home is a priority for people," she said. "Even those with a small amount of money spend it on their homes."
There are many explanations floating about Moscow. For some, it's a consequence of the Putin era in Russian politics, where stability and respectability -- fueled by an oil boom that has floated the economy after the devastation of the 1998 ruble crash -- have become buzzwords after the upheavals of the Yeltsin era. Many point out that the obsession with home style is so far a mostly Moscow trend, reflecting the capital's privileged status as a place where average salaries are far higher than in the rest of the country ($500 a month or more, compared with $100 or so elsewhere).
"People changed how they live only in those places where the ideology of life has changed -- really only in Moscow and St. Petersburg," Lyagin said "The rest of Russia stays on the level of 10 years ago. They still buy Soviet stenkas and the rest. Perestroika of the mind has just started there."
For most of the time since the Soviet Union's collapse, Moscow has been famous not so much for cutting-edge home design as for the garish interior excesses of its post-Soviet rich. "It was once said in Russia that the film 'American Gigolo' was the most influential interior design movie," said Yevgenia Mikulina. "It's changing, of course, but we do find this still." Mikulina is editor in chief of the Russian edition of Conde Nast's glossy Architectural Digest, which started publication here in September and now claims a circulation of 50,000.
Until recently, it wouldn't have had a market here; now Architectural Digest competes with dozens of homegrown Russian shelter magazines that have appeared in the past year or two. "We needed to have clients who were both rich enough and sophisticated enough to want the kind of interiors in AD. That's the point: rich enough and sophisticated enough. Before, there were rich people, but they weren't really up to classy design until now," Mikulina said.
A few years back, she recalled with a cringe, Moscow's nouveaux riches all shopped at one particular furniture store with high-end Italian sofas, "crystal swans, lots of leather and other incredible things." Today, she swears, "New Russians are no fools -- they know a good thing when they see it. Now they ask about the quality of the wood, the quality of the textile and the brand name. It's not good enough just to be Italian-something and with gold on it."
Yana Samoilova, the manager of Russia's first Armani Casa store, agreed. "Many people are just starting to get used to clean, simple lines, to the lack of grandiose in their houses, to getting rid of the gold encrustation and not having a huge number of decorative accessories," said Samoilova, who has been peddling the Italian designer's pared-down home aesthetic to a curious audience of Russia's rich since December. "Until now, people liked baroque this and Empire that," she said as she sat at a $10,000 black wood dining table whose only ornament is the texture of the wood.
For the middle class, the mania for things domestic didn't really start until the advent of Swedish furniture giant Ikea here three years ago, when an estimated 40,000 visitors thronged the store on its opening day. At the time, market research found that home furnishings ranked sixth on the list of things Russian consumers most wanted to spend money on. A few months ago, Ikea commissioned a survey from Moscow State University. Home furnishings were now ranked first on the list -- before new cars, before vacations, even before education spending.
"What we've found in focus groups is that people would like to live comfortably and not just show off. In Soviet times, it was all about showing off. Because it was hard to get things, you had to show all your crystal glasses and your furniture, even if it wasn't your taste. Now people try to make it more for themselves," said Irina Vanenkova, a spokeswoman for the store.
"Today, it's about individuality," agreed Victoria Krochinina, an interior decorator in a country where that profession didn't exist until a few years ago. "We went through this child's period as far as our taste in the early 1990s, and now we are growing up."
Krochinina is one of a emerging class of taste mavens trying to spread the gospel of good design beyond the narrow spectrum of Moscow's super-rich. Over the past two years, she has opened four boutiques in the city selling chic home items with prices from 100 rubles (about $3) for a small gift to upward of $1,000. Soon she plans to introduce vintage clothes and antiques.
"It's my favorite store," said Marina Yegorina, browsing at Krochinina's boutique the other day. She had just picked out a pillow to cover the Chinese chair she bought at a mall ("everything Chinese is very hot right now," according to the editors at Russian Architectural Digest). "A few years ago, you wouldn't even believe stores like this could exist in Moscow."
"We don't have to go to London or Paris anymore," decorator Victoria Kolos said. "We can do everything here." A fan of ethnic textiles and humorous design touches, she works for an in-demand Moscow architect whose projects often run as much as $4 million.
Three years ago, the professional school for decorators from which Kolos graduated didn't exist. Today, women accompanied by their decorators are a common sight at the home furnishings mega-stores such as Tvoy Dom (Your House) that have sprung up on the suburban outskirts.
Over a cup of Italian espresso, Kolos showed off her favorite recent work -- a cutting-edge kid's room with a purple shag rug, orange floor mats and a round plastic chair hanging where a light fixture in a more traditional room might be. Her favorite touch is the skeleton standing guard in the middle of the floor.
"First," she said of her clients, "I have to break them of their stereotypes."