IKEA in Moscow

“Are the prices here given in rubles or in dollars?” -This young man has quite obviously lost it. It is a matter of universal knowledge that IKEA sofas do not cost five-digit figures in US dollars. Clutching my new money tree I remind myself that in Russia anything is possible and get in line at the check-out counter.

It occurs to me that this young man was not even being ironic. Is he so rich that he does not care about the difference between rubles and dollars? Or very poor? Judging by his looks, he could be anything. Probably just someone who seeks some distraction. Or some academic, one of those culture critics who study the wild world of Moscow capitalism. Now someone reassures him that all prices here are in rubles.

(I have left the building and find myself in IKEA’s vast parking lot). Standing in the middle of a wasteland, IKEA’s building is brightly lit by the sun. Beyond the empty parking lot I can see cows grazing. Most likely they were directly imported from Sweden, together with the (very) green grass they’re on. Larks are singing in the sky. Daisies are smiling at me from the lawn on the other side of the roadway. And all this within a mile from the polluted highway into central Moscow.

Inconspicuous by comparison with the flashy tastes of Moscow, IKEA has truly made a difference on the local furniture market. The chain conspicuously boycotts the four main principles that lure middle-class Muscovites elsewhere in the city, “prestige”, “comfort”, “chic”, and “luxury”.

By purchasing at IKEA, the new Russian middle class expresses their disapproval of the mafioso idea of elegance that is on show at shady furniture outlets all over the city. Russian middle class consumers are especially attracted by the fact that IKEA furniture can be so easily disassembled and reassembled, moved around and stored. This is connected not so much to their love of rational household organization, nor even with the desire to economize on transportation and assemblage, as with their own self-perception as a middle class.

The key to such a self-perception is the lack of a future. Given the level of economic instability, anything that is considered middle class today is gone with the wind tomorrow. Middle class or otherwise, in the new post-communist Russia, human beings are as dispensable as they used to be in the good old Soviet days. The life of a new bourgeois in Russia, as distinct from his opposite number in Sweden, proceeds under the auspices of the “quick-fix”.

It’s a bit like military camp: you organize a home for a short period of relative prosperity, always with a view to dismantling it if the political climate should change. IKEA’s collapsible furniture is a suitable response to the fleeting well-being that is the element of the new Moscow middle class. Disposable furniture for disposable people.

Muscovites seem to have acknowledged IKEA’s attempts to be sympathetic. In IKEA, one need not be ashamed of one’s sub-standard Khrushchev apartment with its absurd floor plan, the decades gone by without renovation, or its dysfunctional facilities. IKEA welcomes the willy-nilly do-it-yourselfer who is the product of bad public service and appallingly low incomes. Still, IKEA’s efforts to playfully exploit these calamities in its advertising backfired. IKEA’s frivolous invitation, in a commercial campaign, to buy its beds just because half of Europe was conceived in them was dismissed as inappropriate by the self-respecting Moscow public.

In Moscow, you do not find the easy-come-easy-go, couldn’t-care-less attitude that serves IKEA so well in Sweden. What sells in Moscow is the appearance of decency and control over one’s own life that IKEA furniture bestows on its consumers. Self-assembled and dis-assembled, IKEA products give the impression that one is the master of one’s own life. In fact, the project called “IKEA in Moscow” is a civilizational enterprise much more than simply an economic venture.

One of Sweden’s most successful capitalist enterprises, IKEA thrives on an anti-capitalist attitude of egalitarianism, acknowledging everybody’s longing for a more comfortable life. It’s the human condition itself that concerns IKEA: our morning depressions, the fact that we all have no or not enough money, our rowdy divorces, and our unruly children. Against these trivial disasters, IKEA offers rational design and the possibility of looking towards the future without anxiety. IKEA’s attitude is that if your kid is growing, the best thing you can do is buy a bed that grows with it. If in the good old Soviet days it was the function of the Communist Party to guarantee everyone a happy future, IKEA has assumed the task with a vengeance.

IKEA seeks to negotiate the gaping hole that has opened up between Russia’s past and its present. There is, on the one hand, the typical post-Socialist nostalgia for social security. And then there is the fascination with the forces of the free market that are currently wreaking havoc in Russia. IKEA’s air-conditioned interior functions as an oasis in the desert of capitalist competition, alienation and anxiety, a place of security. A successful global company, IKEA manipulates effectively its customers desires, providing them in return with a typically Western utopia of control where smooth surfaces and transparent, logical design equal smooth operation. (Among my Russian friends, IKEA’s capacity of giving peace amidst the troubled waters is known as “Swedishness”). IKEA milks the very Socialist ideal with a human(ist) face that, 15 years ago, inspired Gorbachev’s perestroika. (Unlike IKEA, that idea failed.) The Russian bourgeoisie takes them up on the bargain by shopping at IKEA with a vengeance.

For Russians, IKEA works as a totalizing aesthetic production, a capitalist Gesamtkunstwerk, or a Kabakovian total installation. When asked about the price for home deliveries, a Russian driver who works for IKEA’s delivery service firmly resists the temptation of earning a handsome profit and refers the amazed customer to the official price list.

IKEA has, for the most part, dispensed with the time-worn accoutrements of Moscow’s violent business life, such as the Jeep Cherokees (popularly known as “bandits’ cars”), the athletic security guards at the store entrance, and the metal detectors. Instead IKEA practices safety without spectacularity, a kind of “invisible security” that teaches Muscovites a lesson in (post-) modern techniques of power. While in Moscow power is direct, intimidatingly brutal and “in-your-face”, at IKEA, power equals permanent electronic surveillance: there are eight cameras in the restaurant area alone.

As a Russian, a.k.a., as someone who was brought up in a culture steeped in the violence of immediate contact, I have a habitual fear of being touched. By contrast, and in marked distinction from my Western friends, the idea of being watched or overheard does not bother me in the least. As long as no one pushes me around, I am quite content. Until coming to the West I had no experience with a technologically advanced society, I am blissfully unaware of the dangers of remote control.

To Russians, IKEA is like an alien spaceship that brought them a message from another civilization, a message that speaks of brightly lit social spaces, transparent personal relationships, and predictably healthy lives. But, like all invading aliens, IKEA is not immune to local germs. The colonizing bearers of a higher civilization can at any moment succumb to the deadly bacillus of barbarity. IKEA is aware of the danger and has taken steps. These steps can be summed up by one word: disinfection.

When the company decided to open a store in Moscow, it first removed the entire top soil from the plot of land where it was going to be built. Then, the landscape was designed in such a way that any glimpse of the grimy Moscow suburbs that loom in the distance was made impossible. Equally banned is the otherwise ubiquitous, and often vaguely seedy, street businessthat thrives in the nurturing shadow of similar stores in Russia, from hot dog stands to pay toilets and newspaper kiosks with the Russian versions of Playboy or Penthouse. By contrast, IKEA, where even a phone call to the city requires the purchase of a special phone card, is self-contained and self-sufficient. Not only IKEA’s building, but even its communications are insulated against any corrupting influence from its poisonous surroundings.

IKEA seemingly transforms a profit-based company into a socialist utopia for moderate consumption. Nowhere is this more evident than in the IKEA restaurant with its incomparable defrosted meatballs, mashed potatoes, and Princessa cakes. Even though it allows smokers to indulge their deadly addiction in a designated smoking area, here as in all other parts of the store IKEA resolutely resists the polluted atmosphere of Moscow, an atmosphere of dirty play, dirty political dealing, and dirty money sticking to hands that only wash each other.

Clutching my money tree I wait for the IKEA minibus to take me back into Moscow. The minibus driver does not move until the bus is full, so I have enough time to reflect on my experience. Suddenly I remember the three kids whom I saw enjoying themselves behind the glass wall of IKEA’s sterile playroom. Surrounded by a mass of functionally safe and useful toys, they were frolicking in the ball pool, wearing specially made vests with large-print numbers on them. The supervising staff obviously could not be trusted to remember each of the three kids by their faces. Yet the vests have still another function. IKEA pedagogy gets rid of any anarchic urges that might already have taken root in the minds of these youngsters from Moscow. I am reminded of my Bolshevik grandmother, now dead for a long time, who admonished me to wash my hands whenever I had touched money.

Oh IKEA, my substitute grandmother! Thank you for being there for me. And thank you for the money tree.