Reporter's Notebook: What's Russia Without the Caviar?

Range Rovers, megamalls, sky-top restaurants where lanky leather-bikini-clad beauties linger nonchalantly. It's not the Russia I remember from more than a decade ago. But it's certainly one where I thought it would be easy to find those most Russian of staples: alcohol and caviar.

Those are certainly items you'd imagine would be in abundance for the high-profile G8 summit. But it turns out -- in this land of plenty -- there's something of a shortage of those trademark Russian items these days.

I'd been dreaming of the caviar for months actually. I lived here for five years and could not get enough of the stuff. I used to sneak out black-market tins in my pockets back in the early '90s. I'd arrive with large, empty plastic containers that good friends would fill for me on subsequent visits. A perfect afternoon was eating it right out of the jug with a spoon.

On my last trip, four years ago, there were no more great deals to be had, but at least I could stock up on the good stuff in the airport stores before heading home. I came prepared for this trip with an empty bag.

I got the bad news on my first day in Moscow. Black caviar, of any quality, is almost nowhere to be found. The reason? Actually, it's not a conspiracy, just the result of international agreements that attempt to save the sturgeon, the fish that produces black caviar.

For four or five years we are supposed to lay off, stay out of the Caspian as much as possible, and let the fish regenerate.

OK, I know that's a good thing in the long run -- and no doubt a relief for the sturgeon -- but (am I whining here?) no caviar in Russia? It should be against the rules.

I've dutifully tried the blini alone -- even with salmon one day. Not even worth writing about. The owner of Moscow's hip Café des Artistes actually told me he had some caviar put away for special customers. I didn't even want to ask the price. Part of the appeal was always the abundance.

So after that news, imagine arriving at a hotel and being greeted by a sign that tells customers they might not be able to get a drink. The disclaimers are all over town -- it turns out it's quite a challenge to find wine or beer or a Western beverage of any sort in Russia. An alcohol shortage? This cannot be good for the morale of the country. Does Vladimir Putin know about this?

Yes, in fact the president knows all about it. It seems the Kremlin, buoyed by its success in other arenas, has taken to centralization with a new zeal. It now insists that all imported alcohol bear a special government stamp to be served or sold here. The move was ostensibly to protect against the crime of watered-down foreign imports -- an enormous problem that almost no business owner here seemed to be experiencing. And of course, you have to pay for that extra protection the government is offering.

But in any event, at this point, the government doesn't even seem to have set up a well-organized racket. It has either lost the stamp, or it has all the alcohol in a giant warehouse with no workers to do the stamping. Nobody knows. Every bar owner or waiter has a different theory -- some just shrug. They've seen it before. Different time, different system, same result.

I, however, having not lived here for 15 years and so having lost my Russian fatalism, am having a harder time shrugging it off. An alcohol and caviar shortage? There's just something unhealthy about it.

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