As these `vendors of the past' say, it is not the Communist ideology that attracts clients, but rather the opportunity to recall the days of their youth, no matter how Pioneer- and Komsomol-driven they were.
If you are over 30, you are bound to balk at the sight of the scarlet sign `USSR Café-Bar.' Lyudmila, the café's owner (who asked for her surname to be omitted), was the first in Russia to give such a name to her enterprise when it began in 2001. Seven years ago, as an employee of the Ministry for Emergency Situations, she had a salary of $100, so it was her friends who lent her the $25,000 needed to open a café in the VDNH District of Moscow. This sufficed to buy kitchen equipment and redesign the interior in typical Soviet style. Here you can see the slogan "Soviet woman, you must learn to read and write" hanging above the tables, as well as portraits of Soviet leaders, while burgundy curtains frame a stage reminiscent of Soviet culture clubs.
Prices in the USSR Café have nothing to do with socialism. `Red Luck' salad (though one of its ingredients is, indeed, red caviar) costs 160 roubles ($6); a dish of cold cuts `With regards from Trotsky' costs 210 roubles ($8); an omelette with bacon, `Perestroika Victim,' is 130 roubles ($5); `Khrushchev's borsch' (a beetroot soup) is 140 roubles ($5); and `From Brezhnev' solyanka (a thick soup of stewed cabbage and meat) costs a little more than the borsch. And for dessert, the USSR Café can sometimes serve you a thoroughly bourgeois divertissement: a striptease performance.
"My principle is never to give kickbacks to anybody," Lyudmila assures. "I have never greased anyone's palm, even sanitary or fire inspectors. In fact, you can always protect yourself against any arbitrary act if you really want to." During the November holidays, two police officers visited the USSR Café. "They ordered a hearty meal worth 11,000 roubles ($400) and then, of course, refused to pay the bill - `We are police!' Yet, eventually they were forced to pay. The main thing is to know your rights."
"Soviet" means "quality"
The Soviet design of Lyudmila's Café is the result of a well thought-out business plan. Yet there are places in Moscow with a much more subtle connection to the recent past, their Soviet-style appearances preserved as perfectly as Lenin in his Mausoleum.
Druzhba cheburek-house on Sukharevka is a classic example of a Soviet standing-only bar: you find tables covered with beer mugs, stout waitresses, a couple of washstands near the entrance and no lavatory. However, this is no problem. If you really need one, regular customers advise you to visit McDonald's just in front of the building. It is clear that Druzhba is thriving, as there are always queues to buy chebureks (a meat pasty) for 25 roubles ($1) or beer for 30 roubles, and the place is full from 13.00 until it closes at 21.00. Back in the USSR, there was a beerhouse with kilometer-long queues, and this prompted Moscow authorities under Brezhnev to transform it into a pie-house and later a cheburek-house.
"Our visitors usually order a small glass of vodka and a couple of chebureks. Is there anywhere else you can have all that for under 100 roubles and even get 10 roubles change? And those who order a bottle of beer as well will pay a total of 120 roubles ($4.50)," says Albert Gasparian, Druzhba's lifetime director, with pride. He has worked there for 48 years, since the day he graduated from a culinary vocational school.
The director told us Druzhba sometimes has as many as 1000 visitors in one day, meaning a daily sales volume of about 100,000 roubles - a considerable sum even for an upscale restaurant. The economic crisis has not yet affected the cheburek-house and is unlikely to do so.
Gasparian knows, moreover, that it is easy to make money selling cheburek. The only thing you need is equipment for mixing and rolling out the dough. The recipe is simple: take 46 grams of dough, put 36 grams of meat on it, make a half-moon out of the flat cake by pinching its edges together and deep fry it in fat. Three minutes later, your cheburek is ready!
Moscow has another cheap but somewhat less popular beerhouse, with a name that speaks for itself - `Second Breath.' Anyone who has holidayed at resorts in the Krasnodar region undoubtedly knows one of the many canteens scattered along the coast. These are quite inexpensive and, for most part, anonymous. Like Druzhba, most of them are always busy and, as their owners admit privately, bring in enough profit to compete even with big restaurants, thanks to the high customer turnover and people's feelings of nostalgia. The owner of a canteen network in Lazarevsky, who preferred not to give his name, said: "people react to the very word `canteen'. It means cheap and, most likely, safe food. Food quality in the USSR was very tightly controlled and, as for variety, most holidaymakers are not very demanding; they just want some potatoes, a burger and a glass of fruit compote."
The success of these `stand-ups' naturally prompted others in Moscow to follow their example. Several years ago, a beerhouse was opened near Red Square, a place where customer turnover is always very high. Despite being terribly crowded, smoke-filled and charging 90 roubles for a glass of beer (which, unlike the prices in real cheburek-houses, can hardly be called affordable), the place is packed almost 24 hours a day.
No-one can predict what will happen ten years from now, but today everything Soviet is once again in vogue and this applies to more than just public catering. The commercial director of the Saratov supermarket network called `Socialism' (18 stores in total) is confident that the name helped their supermarkets compete and capture the attention of the older generation.
Back to your childhood
"When under stress, especially in difficult times, people tend to react with so-called age regression. They begin to behave as if they were children living a carefree and comfortable life, unaware of adult problems. The generation that grew up in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s associates their youth directly with the USSR. As for younger people who never lived in the Soviet Union, they wear T-shirts with hammer and sickle emblems or Pioneer ties because they want to demonstrate their usual `teen' protest and overly romantic vision of the lost power of the Soviet empire," says psychology professor Vadim Petrovsky.
Watch video about how the Soviet nostalgia hits Moscow:
Vladimir Ananich, General Director of Nostalgia TV, says: "Our generation is now ripe for recollections; this always happens every 20 years or so. Our TV channel targets those who want to remember the past, rather than those who are nostalgic about socialism itself. This is why we air old-time programmes covering the period from 1961 (the year of Gagarin's first space flight) to the collapse of the USSR. Only the active TV audience of our own generation can really appreciate such programmes. Recently we broadcast Brezhnev's funeral and I could not tear myself away from the screen. It was a truly fascinating spectacle, and the most prominent political figures of the time were all present: Churbanov, Tshelokov, Gorbachev - fussing about in that astrakhan hat of his! Or the First Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR - you should hear Yevtushenko or Sakharov speaking!" Ananich's business card features a hammer and sickle, but there is nothing ideological about it - just business.
When you switch to the Nostalgia cable TV channel, you have an immediate feeling of déjà vu: Vremya, a daily TV news programme, airs a story about the `Red Path' collective farm, which is one year ahead of the 5-year plan; then we see Leonid Brezhnev receiving Erich Honecker in the Kremlin. Nostalgia's success was soon imitated by many other TV channels, which suddenly demonstrated a keen interest in vintage programming. `Retro Channel' and `Sarafan' broadcast only old Soviet films.
"The main costs incurred by `nostalgia' channels are purchases of TV archives (the minimum price for an hour-long video record is $400) and production of their own content ($8-10,000 for an hour-long programme)," states Ananich. One third of Nostalgia programmes are produced by the channel's own team, and the number of subscribers has reached six million.
In addition to Nostalgia, there are two other vintage TV channels - `Russkiy Mir' (Russian World) and `Kto Est Kto' (Who Is Who). According to Ananich's estimates, the total cost of the three was initially about $10m, but today their capitalization has grown five or six-fold. "Our own archives alone account for 3,000 programme hours," he says. Unlike their publicly broadcast counterparts, cable channels make money from subscriptions rather than advertising. Ananich maintains that Nostalgia is a cost-effective business.
Radio stations are also keeping abreast of the new trend. `The 1980s Disco' project launched by Avtoradio is tremendously popular; its first party in 2002 gathered 8,000 visitors, whereas this year they have sold as many as 25,000 tickets and there were still many who missed out.
Listen to the USSR anthem:
"I would describe our project as one day of youth," is how Yuri Kostin, Vice-President of the Prof-Media broadcasting company and general producer of `The 1980s Disco,' explains its success. "Most people would reject the very idea of going back to the USSR with its supply shortages, queues and Communist ideology, but everyone would - of course - be happy to relive a least a day of their youth."
People working in showbusiness assure us this concert project is one of the most successful and profitable in Russia, even though this year its organisers have invited as many as 14 foreign stars, each of them at a price of tens of thousands of euros. Without disclosing exact figures, Kostin informed us that some of these celebrities are paid more than ^100,000, while others will receive less than ^10,000. "You just have to negotiate."
Has the new USSR vogue come to stay? Market trend experts believe that, like any trend, it is cyclical and will soon come to an end. Perhaps, one of these days, it will be the turn of the 1990s to become as popular as the 1980s are now.