Economic despair leads some Russians to sell their belongings on the streets

March 12, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Russia's drastic economic reforms are creating a new class of entrepreneurs -- driven by stark necessity, rather than ambition.

They sell old shoes, teapots, hubcaps, shop jackets and pickles. They sell drill bits, light bulbs, empty beer cans. They sell scarves, vodka, books and buttons.

They are everywhere -- at outdoor markets, subway stations, railway terminals, underground passageways and busy sidewalks.

They are selling things they've bought elsewhere, and they are selling their own possessions.

"We're just beggars, each and every one of us," said Taya, who was standing in the sleet outside Chermushinski Market last week hoping to sell two pairs of her shoes and a shawl she had knit herself.

Taya makes 600 rubles a month as a cleaner. Her husband, whom she described as a drunkard, brings home a little more than that as a factory worker. The government estimates the poverty line at 2,557 rubles a month.

Authorities stopped cracking down on once-illegal flea markets, and they have mushroomed since January, when the government of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin ended subsidies for most goods and sent prices soaring.

"Thank God Yeltsin is allowing us to sell a few things," called out a woman peddling shirts. "This is temporary. Everything will be better."

But not everyone is so optimistic.

Tatiana Romanova and her husband, Mikhail, laid claim to a small patch of mud outside the Tishinski Market last week, and spread out on a newspaper three skirts, a vest, two pairs of shoes (used), four pairs of eyeglasses and some varnished bits of knotty pine strung on necklaces.

They sold two pairs of glasses and nothing else.

"We need money to live on," said Mrs. Romanova. "The salary's not enough. We don't need the shoes anyway. And this is the only place you can trade these kinds of things. The necklaces? I don't know how much to ask. They were hard to make. But people don't appreciate hand work here. We can't sell any."

She and her husband bring home 1,300 rubles a month from their regular work. Last Friday was their second day trying to sell things at Tishinski Market. It is a vast, undulating, muddy place, where the cheapest and least attractive goods are sold. It costs just one ruble -- about a penny -- to rent a space outdoors for the day. A shopper here could buy dirty blue jeans, an ancient filmstrip projector, syringes, empty bottles or plastic shopping bags.

But there were more sellers than shoppers. With money tight, nobody needed those things. The vendors stood motionless in the cold, waiting for someone to show interest. An unnerving silence pervaded the place.

Most vendors have inventories so small they could be packed into a single bag, with room to spare. One bottle of cola and one bottle of wine. A half-dozen lapel pins and four empty beer cans. One pair of socks, one place mat, and a shawl.

The Romanovs' merchandise attracted little interest. Right now, the two of them earn about half the poverty wage. Mr. Romanov was recently told that next summer he will lose his job as a quality-control inspector.

"Maybe we'll try selling newspapers then," his wife said.

Viktor Smirnov sells rusty drill bits. He knows a guy who can getthem for him at a factory.

"You can make up to 700 rubles a day, if you have something good to sell," he said. Drill bits are not good. Vodka, butter and wine are good, if you can find them.

Mr. Smirnov doesn't have any of those, but he does have an old file folder, with an embossed picture of Josef Stalin on the cover, that he will sell for 50 rubles, if any customer should ever happen to want one.

Across Moscow, the story is the same. The last time such street markets flourished was right after the second World War, when the laws against speculation and profiteering were relaxed to help a devastated population back on its feet.

Now, it's as though those days have returned.

People sell fish they've caught from the Moscow River. Boys catch ducks at night along the garbage-strewn banks of the filthy Likhoborka River in northern Moscow and sell them for 25 or 30 rubles.

A man in the courtyard of the Kuznetski Most subway station is offering a wheel rim for sale. Along Leninsky Prospekt people sell audio tapes and canned goods. On Tsvetnoi Boulevard it's saw blades.

This is market economics at the most grass-roots level -- except for the quiet desperation of the merchants and the irrelevance of most of what they're selling.

Taya, at the Chermushinski Market, close to Moscow University, put it this way, after acknowledging that in two hours she had sold neither the shoes nor the shawl she was offering: "People are crazed just finding food. They can't worry about clothes. That's why there's no business."

An elderly wrinkle-faced woman nearby was selling kefir, a yogurt-like milk product. She had stood in line four hours to buy it at a dairy store, and then stood four hours at the market before selling it. She had three liters, which she was selling for 10 rubles a liter. This gave her a profit of about 21 rubles.

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