Moscow kiosks are under siege, Small shops don’t fit mayor’s vision of gleaming 21st century metropolis

By PETER FINN / Washington Post
MOSCOW — For 50 years, Yevgeny Yivo has worked on Neglinnaya Street performing “emergency surgery,” as he puts it, on the battered and broken shoes of passing Muscovites.

“If a woman breaks her heel, she needs immediate help,” said Yivo, who works at a stand-alone kiosk near the Russian Central Bank. “I help to rescue her.”

Repairing shoes is a family tradition for Yivo, 76, who learned the trade from his father. His Assyrian Christian parents fled to Russia in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I and hostilities between Russia and Turkey.

The Yivos, like many of their refugee compatriots, became cobblers. Since then, Assyrian Christians have been a small but enduring part of this city’s streetscape, first as state employees in the Soviet Union, then as entrepreneurs following the collapse of communism.

But it is a way of life that is dying out, in part because younger and educated members of the Assyrian community are eschewing their parents’ trade and also because Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has declared war on the city’s kiosks.

The mayor, who is overseeing the remaking of Moscow into a gleaming city of fabulous apartments, high-end boutiques and soaring glass-and-steel office buildings, is systematically removing the kiosks that Muscovites have long relied on for groceries, alcohol, flowers, cigarettes, clothing and all manner of knickknacks and services.

“In recent years a lot of new malls and specialized shops were built in Moscow, and there is no need any longer for so many private kiosks,” said Alexei Vedensky, a press officer in the mayor’s office. “These kiosks do not beautify our city at all, and that’s why they are being removed.”

There are now more than 10,000 stationary kiosks and more than 9,000 trailer-like kiosks in Moscow, according to city officials. Many are clustered around metro and train stations, a smorgasbord of unruly entrepreneurship.

At the beginning of the year, the city began removing kiosks with the goal of reducing their numbers by 20 percent each year until all will vanish except for a select few that will sell newspapers and flowers, a Muscovite passion.

Similar measures are under way in other cities, such as St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod.

In Soviet times, there were only a select group of kiosks around the city, selling newspapers, tobacco and ice cream, which Muscovites feast on year-round regardless of the temperature.

There were also a number of shoe-repair kiosks almost exclusively staffed by Assyrian Christians who were assigned by state-owned shoe factories to particular streets, some left to work out of nothing more than a cardboard box.

“Shoe repair was how the community survived when they first came here,” said Petr Chugianov, chairman of the Moscow Assyrian Society. “They were foreigners with Iranian or Turkish papers, and they didn’t have the Russian language. They became a part of Moscow. But like everything else it’s getting to be part of the past.”

“Our young people want another life,” said Yuri Adamov, 70, an Assyrian man who runs a shoe-repair store near the Belorusski train station, an area that is chockablock with sidewalk kiosks.

Community survival

After the fall of communism, most of the existing kiosks were privatized, and they were quickly joined on the streets by thousands of other small entrepreneurs selling goods such as socks and CDs or creating makeshift cafes and casinos.

To Luzhkov, they have become little more than unsightly clutter at odds with his vision of a sleek 21st-century metropolis coursing with the country’s new riches.

Quick and cheap, kiosks filled an essential need after the end of communism, but city officials now regard them as both uncouth and unnecessary even if ordinary Muscovites, especially in outlying sections of the city with underdeveloped retail sectors, continue to frequent them.

“It’s very convenient to have them around,” said Alexander Konkin, a 52-year-old engineer in northeast Moscow. “I like those where you can buy beer, for instance, or cigarettes. The prices are really good, and it’s so much quicker to buy these things in kiosks rather than to go to a store and line up.”

But Luzhkov also has his supporters.

“We used to have many kiosks in our area near the metro. And now they are all gone, and I kind of like that. The area looks better,” said Nina Vorontsova, a 61-year-old pensioner in southern Moscow.

City officials believe that many kiosk owners, who lease space on the street from the city, will quickly invest in permanent stores.

Not everyone, however, believes they can make the transition.