Friday, February 27, 2009

Selling Salla: Finland’s Dream for Russia

The Finns have done their part to develop the Salla border region as a Finnish-Russian tourist attraction. The Finnish side boasts ski resorts, visits with Santa Claus, wood sculpture competitions, ceramics, and reindeer petting zoos. But the Russians don’t seem ready. The Finnish Commerce Tourism’s aptly named publication, Salla Border, tries to help, attempting to romanticize what Russia does have—“the Russia side of the border has a petrol station and duty free shop”—but the Russians don’t seem eager to join the campaign. The truth be known, the petrol they sell contains water and the duty free shop’s selection is worse than the tiniest Helsinki-Tallinn ferry.

But let’s not sell Russia short. The Salla Border writers have overlooked the real jewel of the region: the Kandalaksha supermarket. Forget Tallinn, Finnish shoppers, this is where you go for bargains.

Like most things in Russia, it’s not easy to find. If you stay alert on the road from Salla—the roads are so bad, there’s little chance of falling asleep—look for it right after you pass under the railroad bridge. There’s a sign on its concrete front with two thumbs up and text claiming “low prices” and “good quality.” If you can’t read Cyrillic text, look for the thumbs up.

Upon entry, a sober young man will closely scrutinize you. Large bags, cameras, anything big enough to hide a cucumber must be checked. This young man is firm but fair. Unlike in Soviet times, he won’t force you to take a basket, and no one is required to wait in line. (In Soviet times, stores used the number of shopping baskets to regulate store traffic, customers without baskets standing in line to wait for someone to leave.)

Inside the store are stenciled signs, blue block Cyrillic on a white field. If you still can’t find what you want, ask one of the many friendly clerks. They’re the ones in green smocks and tall black hats like horsemen from the Caucuses. They’ll personally escort you to the dairy section and provide advice concerning kefir. “This one’s locally made,” a clerk declared proudly. “That one, Aktiva, will keep you healthy.” She refused comment on a third one made by Danone. There was also a refrigerator full of treats made from curds. These are marketed for children, but I bought a variety for the trip home.

Some things haven’t changed since Soviet times, of course. Eggs still come straight from the chicken, shit-smeared and packed ten to a plastic bag. The meat looked suspicious, the Russians’ idea of a butcher being any man with an axe and a tree stump. And the fish looked like someone had driven over it with a tractor before freezing it rock solid.

In some sections, Russian tradition and western marketing meet head on. Vodka, for instance. There were forty different brands. There was one with a camouflage label, Spetsnaz vodka, named for the Russian Special Forces commandos. “For strong people,” the fine print read. There was every color of label and shape of bottle, the most expensive around four euros per bottle. A friend picked one with a slick black label and English text. He held it up for examination. “That one’s shit,” said a passerby. My friend put it back.

At the checkout, scanners have replaced abacuses. Gone are the surly clerks who could move wooden beads at light speed, point at the wire and wood, and expect you to know how to read it.

In the car, on the way back toward Salla, I opened a coffee-flavored curd treat and settled back to reflect on Russia’s consumer-friendly advances and prospects for the Salla region. But that didn’t last long. No more than halfway into my treat, I was greeted by a long, thick black hair. My vision of the new, hygienic Russia was immediately replaced by an image of a toothless, cursing factory worker who had forgotten her hair net. I rolled down my window and flung the offending curd into the forest.

I wondered if maybe the Salla Border writers weren’t right to confine their praise to the duty free shop and petrol station. People rarely complain about finding a hair in their gasoline.


By the way, a note about the new Google Ads. I'm trying them out to get a hands-on education in this internet thing and stinkin' rich at the same time. (Liina pointed out that neither one is likely to happen.) If you're reading from Estonia, you might have seen the ad offering quick loans ("1500 EEK for only 75 EEK")? I'd say that's pretty indicative of both our local internet advertising culture and the economy at large.