A neon sign outside my window says “ YES TO ALL”. I have been wondering about it. A solid bright sign like that – not some fraying paper poster or childish graffiti – takes time to make, to put up, not to mention turning the lights on every night. Is it a message? Is it a question?
A few months ago I went to St Petersburg, and suddenly this sign became a caption for the world I saw. A hunger to consume — I suppose that’s what you see in any culture forcefully entering the world of capitalism, blowing open the iron doors that have kept it safe from the limitless choices and temptations of the free market. But I have never seen a country so eager for everything. If ever you want to visit a “Yes To All” universe, Russia is your place.
Russia today may not be a free country, but it certainly is a free economy, as far as day-to-day life is concerned. It is so free that no price is objective – a taxi, for instance, will set the fare just by looking at you. Most cabs do have a counter – a beaten-up box which looks like a remnant of a war-time machinery – but those are left over from Soviet days, and must serve an entirely decorative purpose.
Whatever the price, for an ex-Russian like myself a ride in a St. Petersburg cab is worth it. I may pay a foreigners fee, but I will get an insider story, not meant for the Inturist, and of no interest to the nouveau riche. Leaving politics and corruption aside – tiresome and fatalistically repetitive subjects, as far as this city is concerned – I will learn about the nightspots, which can rival any “it” London nightclub, about construction plans which make Dubai’s skyscrapers look cheap, about the average policeman salary, which explains why he spends his time stopping random cars –“ for something is bound to be wrong with one of them, and then he gets a pay-off.”
I will see the most outrageous opposites co-exist in the streets and in the minds of an average Russian: poverty and pride in one’s country’s riches, legalized corruption and the iron hand of the government, rampant consumerism and disdain of the capitalist values, constant awareness of money and ability to throw it all out of the window to have a good time. Russians say yes to all of it – or, to put it the other way, they do not seem to know how to say No.
The giant belly of this country will devour all that the West can offer – and spit out its own version of the modern consumer world, which knows no limits. Bespredel – this ironic neologism literally meaning “without limits” was coined in the 90s and remains the only way to appropriately describe the state of modern Russia.
For a Western brand, entering this market today, the question is not whether consumers will want the product, but, rather, whether the brand can define itself clearly in a place without definitions, and channel the general blind hunger for “everything” into a desire for “just that”.
But what does this hunger herald for the country’s future? On the plane back I read a Tibetan story of a very poor woman –poor in her life, but also in her spirit – coming to Buddha to beg for food. “I will give you some food” says the Buddha, but only if at first you refuse it . The woman tries, but finds it impossible to say “No” to the food she is being offered. And so she realizes that all her life she had suffered from greed, from being unable to refuse anything – and this, more than anything, was the cause of her poverty.
Learning to say No – of one’s own bidding–is the challenge for modern Russians, and the only way to move towards the true affluence this country had been known for in the past.