21 February 2009

Multicultural Moscow: Stories from Cherkizovsky Market

It was a dark, cold day in November 2007 when I sat at my laptop in a cozy Moscow apartment with a copy of Du Bois's Black Reconstruction on my desk and I pondered into the blogosphere:

How might we recognize “that dark and vast sea of human labor” that has helped build up this outrageously expensive financial and commercial center? How can we imagine a Moscow that recognizes the two million undocumented workers in the city as “ordinary human beings?”
I promised to do my best to scour the media to look for more complex portrayals of migrant life in Russia that didn’t render the presence of foreign workers as a “problem,” reducing them to symptoms of larger social trends and pitiable objects of violence. I hoped to find more examples of reporting that fleshed out how migrants actually inhabited the city.

The results of this pledge have been mixed.

But the latest issue of Bolshoi gorod has a great article on the everyday life of workers at Moscow’s Cherkizovsky market.

Journalist Svetlana Reiter presents a collage of different workers’ stories, describing migration paths, life choices, favorite foods, health care options, and the culture and codes of market life.

Han is a Vietnamese hawker who arrived at Cherkizovsky by way of Minsk. Lyuba--an Orenburg-native who hitchhiked to Moscow in a postal delivery truck after her husband left her--explains the rules and hierarchy of the market, from owners to sellers to janitors.

Olga from Penza and her Azerbaijani boyfriend Takhir—whom she jokingly calls Tarkhun—guide Reiter through the various eateries at the market before Olga shows the journalist the make-shift clinics where workers get their medical and dental needs taken care of on the cheap. Raja from Jaipur, a veteran of the Afghan war and former resident of Baku, carries a handmade blackjack whenever he goes out to protect himself from skinheads. The 42-year-old Chinese merchant Zhan Li likes to get together with her girlfriends on days off and walk around the city center, stopping for a bite at McDonalds. Anar, the rabbi for Cherkizovsky's community of Caucasian Jews, talks of the impossibility of maintaining the Sabbath due to market dictates.

Each of these bewilderingly diverse stories could be the subject of its own article, if not an entire book. Taken together, however, these portraits add up to something more than glimpses at Moscow's diversity. They are evidence of a type of working-class multiculturalism that isn’t built on lofty rhetoric, but on the necessity of economic cooperation and mutual support. Forged out of hardship by people simply looking to make ends meet and enjoy themselves when they can, this vision surely doesn’t lack its rough edges and imperfections.

But at the same time, one can't help but wonder if it doesn't point to another set of possible futures for Russia.


kg said...

That's a really amazing story - thanks! Though you might have mentioned the Stalin bunker and Thelman Mordanovich's birthday party as other reasons to read it - I kept counting bit of information that were too surreal to be made-up and stopped after about ten...

Lyndon said...

Some of the Moscow markets are amazing - like going to another country except you take the Metro to get there. If you haven't seen it already, BBC Russian has a great topical page on gastarbaitery, and a while back they published an excellent photo essay as well.

Buster said...

Lyndon, Thanks for the links. I didn't know about those pages.

I do miss the markets.

Lyndon said...

By the way, Buster, thanks to GVO, I think the world is closer to connecting the dots re: your secret identity.