Russians live the caviar dream

Karl Marx would have had a heart attack, and Vladimir Lenin must have been spinning in his tomb.

Last weekend, some 45,000 people here crowded a giant exhibition hall 40 miles northwest of Red Square to ogle and buy jewelry, art, yachts, private helicopters, jets and a Tuscan villa at what is billed as the world's leading luxury display.

The "Millionaire Fair," as the exhibition was called, was no cruel joke on a deprived proletariat. There to buy, says Yves Gijrath, a Dutch businessman who brought the fair here starting three years ago, were oligarchs, the country's nouveau riche elite, an upcoming middle class and "those who are fascinated by luxury items."

Less than 20 years after the demise of communism and less than 10 after economic collapse, Russia's economy is on the rise, fueled by ever-higher prices for its government-controlled oil and gas exports and an insatiable demand for consumer goods.

Economic growth is averaging 6.7% since the 1998 financial crisis and was 7.4% in the first nine months of this year, according to the Ministry of Economic Development. Incomes have risen more than 12% the last five years, according to the Federal State Statistics Service, with a middle class that had grown to 55 million last year from 8 million in 2000 in a nation with 141 million people.

Signs of rising prosperity:

•Real estate is soaring. Home prices have climbed for five consecutive years, and a mortgage industry that began in 2002 is issuing $20 billion in home loans this year, according to Ruslan Iseev, first deputy chairman of CityMortgage Bank of Moscow, a Morgan Stanley company. He predicts it could hit $100 billion in five years.

•More Russians have cars. There are 36 million registered vehicles in Russia now compared with 11 million in 1995 and 28 million two years ago, according to Russia's Interior Ministry.

•And more are taking foreign vacations. Last year, 7.7 million Russians traveled outside the old Soviet bloc compared with 2.6 million in 1995, according to the Federal Tourism Agency, with foreign vacations increasing 31% in the first six months of this year.

Good economic times are why many Russians say they support President Vladimir Putin in his bid to remain in charge of the country by running for parliament at the top of the ticket of United Russia, the main pro-Kremlin party.

He is barred by the constitution from a third-consecutive term as president.

"I like what Putin does," says Valentina Slepuk, 57, a retired nurse in Moscow. "I would like him to stay on (as president). He has brought reform and stability."

Although she lives on a pension, Slepuk says she works a little on the side and can afford the ballet and opera two or three times a year. If she saves, she says, she can travel to see family in Belarus every year or two.

"I'm not bad off," she says. "The economy is more stable than 10 years ago when we were not able to buy anything. It was terrible."

Designer shops abound

Nowhere is Russia's growing prosperity and quest for consumption more conspicuous than in Moscow.

Less than 100 yards from Lenin's tomb and within eyesight from Putin's office inside Kremlin walls, the famed GUM department store that was stocked with pots, pans and scarves 20 years ago is now home to Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Hermès designer shops.

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