IN marbled halls redolent with the pungent odor of mink, Soviet
auctioneers sell the fabled furs of Russia to the highest foreign
For almost 60 years, the annual fur auction in Leningrad's Palace
of Fur has been an isolated island of capitalism in the communist
sea. The fur market has been "like a country by itself," says New
York furrier Ernest Kremnitzer, who has been coming since 1954.
Now the newly installed radical leaders of this former imperial
Russian capital propose to make the entire city a citadel of free
enterprise. Leningrad, along with five other Russian cities and
regions, was declared a "free-enterprise zone" by the Russian
Republic's parliament on July 14.
The free-enterprise zones are only one more challenge to the
Kremlin's centralized rule over the vast empire known as the Soviet
Union. From cities to entire republics, such as the Russian
Republic, impatient local governments are no longer waiting for
Moscow's promised reforms but are going off on their own. In the
tiny offices of the Leningrad Soviet building on St. Isaac's Square,
mostly young dreamers and movers are already hard at work on a
variety of schemes to make the enterprise-zone goal a reality.
The ideas floating around range from making the city a pacesetter
in creating a market economy to what appear to be wild fantasies of
separating Leningrad from the rest of the nation.
"We will have our own currency," Alexander Trubachev, a young
people's deputy in the Lensoviet, or city council, excitedly tells
visitors. "For Leningraders, who will get money in Leningrad rubles,
there will be Western goods in shops, goods produced in Leningrad,
and goods produced in Russia, but only of the highest quality, paid
for in Leningrad currency."
As for those unfortunates from outside the zone, there will be
"special shops for `wooden rubles,' which will have supplies from
other parts of Russia or partly from Leningrad," he says.
"The variety of goods will be lower and of lower quality," he
adds, with evident disdain.
According to one version of this idea, the Leningrad "currency"
will take the form of issuing special Eurocard credit cards to every
Leningrader. The cards would be supported by a special regional
ruble which is convertible into dollars and other hard currencies.
The cards are "substitutes for fencing off the free zone with barbed
wire," says Lensoviet deputy Pyotr Filippov, one of the heads of the
group formulating reform plans.
More conventionally, the Lensoviet seeks to move more rapidly
toward a market economy than the timetable envisioned by the
Gorbachev government in Moscow or even by the more radical
government of the Russian Republic, headed by populist Boris
Yeltsin. There are plans to establish a stock market and a labor
exchange, to take over and break up all the state owned enterprises,
and to legalize all forms of private property.
The Leningrad city fathers are quite consciously seeking to
follow in the footsteps of Peter the Great, the Czar who built the
city on marshes along the Baltic Sea as Russia's "window to the
West." They, too, are looking in that direction for foreign capital
and trade. Foreign investors are welcomed and the city hopes to
attract more dollar- and deutche mark-carrying tourists with modern
shopping centers and maybe even a Leningrad branch of Disneyland.
The city offers two main attractions for investors, city
officials say. It has a concentration of highly skilled workers and
scientific researchers, drawn largely by high-technology defense and
electronics industries that dominate the local economy.
And the classical Italian-designed architecture of Peter's
Leningrad still displays its somewhat-faded charm along the canals
and the banks of the River Neva, making it the largest tourist
attraction in the country. …