As you leave Moscow’s southern outskirts, Satanic Mills rise up in front of your very eyes, and the cries of lost souls fill the air. The stench of brimstone invades your nostrils and all you can do is shield your eyes from the fast-approaching abomination. What is this place? From what foul pit did it spring?
Well, I’m not too sure exactly how it came to be, but I imagine that some kind of planning permission was required. Shopping malls of this size usually require a lot of documentation.
The Tyopli Stan shopping complex is the largest in Eastern Europe, or so they say, and every day millions, if not billions, of cars and buses make their way to its hateful gates. Once inside, neither the vehicles, nor their occupants are ever seen again.
Well, at least not until they return home three of four hours later, their bags full of items (DIY goods, high-tech gear, inflatable balls bearing a portrait of Leonid Brezhnev) they remember purchasing, but can’t quite recall why. People have been weighed after visiting this gargantuan testimony to human cruelty, and they are usually found to be 21 grams lighter. Coincidentally or not, according to legend, that’s the exact weight of the human soul.
In the interest of further expanding the sum of human knowledge on the topic of pure evil, I took a bus to the shopping complex last week. (I was also after scoring a nifty new kitchen table, but that, obviously, was of secondary consideration.)
The first thing that struck me as we pulled into the snowy dead zone was the names of the individual stores. IKEA, MEGA, ASHAN, OBI. Short, anonymous, vaguely foreign, suggesting nothing.
Nothing? Not quite…
IKEA – Birkenau. ASHAN – Treblinka. MEGA – Dachau. And so on, I won’t labour the point. (Well, perhaps just a little bit.) Every time we stopped to let folk off at their destination, a strange vision arose before me.
IKEA for the Jews. MEGA for the Intelligentsia. OBI for the Politicals. ASHAN for the gays.
Watching all those Muscovites stepping off the bus into their doom, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad.
“Bye, Bye Olya, Bye, Bye Garik”.
Or whatever their names were. I didn’t ask them. Obviously.
Later, when I got home, I dreamt of Tyopli Stan. In my dream, I was standing in the shopping centre with the late Soviet writer Daniil Kharms, the author of some of the finest absurdist literature the world has ever ignored.
“You remember my story, the one about the cucumbers?” he asked me suddenly, puffing away at his pipe.
The story in question concerns Koratigin and his friend Tikakeev. Koratigin went to visit Tikakeev, but the latter was out shopping. When Tikakeev returned, Koratigin got angry that he had had to wait so long. Tikakeev, offended by Koratigin’s scolding, pulled out a huge cucumber from his bag and whacked Koratigin over the head with it, dealing him a fatal blow.
In short, a typical Kharms piece. It ends with the words, ‘They sell such large cucumbers in the shops nowadays!’
“Of course I remember it,” I repeated, “it’s one of my favourites, in fact.”
I wondered what point he was trying to make by bringing up that story, if indeed he had one. And then I saw it. The scene shifted slightly, and those electrical accessories were no longer Sony, Toshiba and so on, but massive cucumbers. The Muscovites were trying to stuff them into their plastic bags, grappling with the oversized vegetables, and when they had succeeded they stumbled off, staggering under the weight, some of them falling, spines cracking under their loads, screaming out in pain.
I looked at Kharms.
“See?” he said. “See what large cucumbers they sell in the shops these days?”
I woke up in a cold sweat. Outside, snow was gently falling.
I guess, after all that, you want to know if I was successful in my quest to get a new kitchen table? Well, my friends, I was. It’s a lovely thing.Oak-coloured and just the right size for my kitchen. Perfect. I also managed to score a new toilet seat (real plastic), shower curtains (transparent) and a large axe (just in case.)
But was it worth the loss of my immortal soul? Was the trade in a fair one?
On the whole, seeing as I also got an extremely good value lunch out of the trip (salmon, potatoes, fried vegetables and a cake, all for the very reasonable price of 345 rubles) I believe it was.
At least, now that I am 21 grams lighter I do.
From lurid tales of oligarch excess to scare stories about Moscow’s stranglehold on Europe’s energy supplies, the land that gave us Roman Abramovich and Vladimir Putin is very rarely out of the news. But there is much more to modern Russia than billionaire tycoons and political conspiracy. Marc Bennetts’ weekly column, Deeper Than Oil, goes beyond the headlines to explore the hidden sides of the world’s largest, and often strangest, country.
Marc Bennetts is a journalist (The Guardian, The Observer, BBC Russia, New Statesman and more) and the author of Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People’s Game (Virgin Books). He is currently working on a book about Russia’s fascination with the occult.