When I was working for a tourist company, one of my duties was to accompany tourists on their sightseeing tours, or just help them get around. As you may guess one of the ‘mass’ destinations was Red Square and Gum Department Store. The latter seemed to make a deeper impression than St. Basil’s Cathedral, of course, not by its architecture but… by its prices. “Is this where Russian people, common people, get their clothes, cosmetics? How can they afford it?”, they would ask. “Do all of the English go to Harrods?”, I would ask in my turn, - “Ordinary people go to the flea markets”.
The history of flea markets began as many things in present day Russia, with the time of Perestroika. Before that you would keep in touch with acquaintances working in a shop, as they always knew when and where the usually empty shelves would boast Soviet richness and profundity. At least for an hour, because this is the time that was enough for soviet women to devour all that was offered. Sometimes they did not even care what was offered. The point was – there was something to buy. Later, one could easily sell it to someone else. It was a shame to raise the price and make some profit though. Russians were so accustomed to the unified state price system that it took some time to accept the idea that making a profit is the way the retail trade survives.
When the markets appeared people were blessed with the variety available and humiliated at the same time. At first public opinion treated the market sellers, or let’s better say re-sellers, as cheaters, “dishonest people”. I remember that one of our teachers left school (for financial reasons) and started her own small business. If you could only hear the way she was talked about behind her back. People like her were called ‘speculators’ – the word had a very negative context. Once I asked my parents why they did not like it so much, and they explained that it is very bad to get something at one price and then sell it on at a higher price.
The development of the flea markets perfectly reflects the changes in our way of thinking and working of ordinary people. It shows so well how powerful ideology is. Nobody of course thought about the hellish task those ‘speculators’ had to make a wide variety of goods available to customers!
I’ve got a friend who owns a successful business, selling sowing accessories. Now he has a huge warehouse, big partner companies in China, a comfortable office and, being boss, flexible working hours. But it wasn’t always like that. Ten or fifteen years ago he had a selling spot in Luzhniki market. He would travel by train to save money. The goods, usually clothes, were bought in Turkey. There was, and is, no direct train from Moscow to Istanbul, so they would go through Bulgaria, changing trains and ferries. The journey was never a holiday. Arrive in the morning, one day for buying their goods, catch the train back in the evening. The luggage was huge and heavy. It would occupy the whole compartment, so the guys had to squeeze to get on their berths and curl themselves into pretzels, as commodity comfort comes first! That’s how they would sleep the whole way, getting up to present their papers at several borders, ready with bundles of cash, as custom officers would always find faults with the forms. Then, arriving back in Moscow at 6am in the morning, they would go straight to the market not to loose their day. They worked through the summer heat, winter frost and autumn rains. And this routine went on and on for several years. Their story is not unusual.
The friend I mentioned is Russian. But the majority of the ‘quick thinking’ small business men were and are still from the Southern Russia, meaning – the Caucasus.
If you’ve spent some time in this country, you could not but notice that Russians treat people from the Caucasus in a pejorative way. Certainly, we do have our reasons for that, even without going too much into politics. But among all their negative qualities, those people have something we can learn from them – the readiness to work. Russians always complain that they have taken over all the markets and major shops and do not leave any space for Russians. I overhear conversations to this effect when waiting at bus stops, when an irritated old lady, for example, uses very un-lady-like language to express herself.
Recently I had a chance to meet one of the ‘occupiers’. I was more than surprised. Consider this: he has several small shops selling toilet and bathroom devices, he has a personal driver with a monthly salary of $600, he is going to build a house outside MKAD and… he still does the toilet installation work himself!!! Charging just 1000 rubles or… nothing at all. I would expect some kind of a trick here if I had not dealt with him myself.
When I asked why he is doing that, his answer was too simple to believe it: he just likes it! He said that Armenians and Georgians were the first to introduce new items and designs to their market, while Russians tended to stick to the old stock, fearing to loose their money. I will leave for now the stories he told us about the betrayals he had to go through living here, they are enough to make another article. But this, once again, made me thinks, how much we, Russians, tend to complain and blame others instead of getting down to action.
Today markets are not as popular as they used to be, not with Muscovites. There are lots of shops offering moderate prices. But some people still prefer them. Some believe that shops buy their goods at the markets and sell them at double price.
Most markets have become more ‘civilized’ – to coin a phrase used by Yury Luzhkov. They moved from an open air into spacious buildings (which considerably raised their prices). Some are still incredibly cheap and the way they used to be, like the one in Luzhniki.
Anyway, if you feel like visiting one of those – watch your things, as markets worldwide have always been the best ‘working’ place for pickpockets and cheats.