My first full day after moving to Moscow, I met a young country woman tending the corner vegetable stand who fit my new definition of "best friend": someone who could speak the same amount of English that I could Russian (about 50 words). With a beautiful smile and a big hello, the vendor wouldn't let me buy blackberries because they weren't so good. Instead, she sold me a huge bag of ripe-picked raspberries, two onions, a summer squash and two big apples for under five dollars.
I soon grew fascinated by what I call Moscow's kiosk economy. There are some large and expensive department stores and many boutique specialty shops, but the places to buy ordinary, everyday items like a screwdriver or a door mat or fresh vegetables are the the stands that dot the sidewalks all over the city. There are permanent kiosks – trailers around six by four feet – and then there are the temporary street stalls, basically folding tables with awnings strung over them, like the raspberry lady's.
The kiosks line the parahoads (underground passages) that transverse major streets or connect metro stations. Most are actually chain stores, their wares and prices consistent city-wide. They are composed mainly of souvenir shops, clothing stores and fast food restaurants. It warms your heart to see the Teremok sign. Even with no command of Russian, you can walk up, choose from the picture menu wallpapered on the outside, and point your preferences to the ladies within. They pour the batter onto the 12" grills and make fresh blini, topping the large, thin pancake with the fillings of your choice. They fold them into quarters and wrap them in a foil bag. You can eat right there in the street, or take the treat home with you.
It took a year living in Moscow before I discovered that the rather tatty-looking bakery kiosk next to the Teremok, right on my corner, carried the best bread in the city. And when I worked up the nerve to approach the somewhat dirty kiosk that sold rotisserie chicken wrapped in warm flat bread – mmmm.
An entire village of kiosks covered about an acre, next to the overpass by the Belaruskaya train station. It formed three alley-ways of shops, the sun barely peeping through the corrugated metal awnings protecting the sales window in each. One sold faucets and plumbing supplies, another, electrical appliances, still another, underwear, and another, cleaning supplies. It was there I bought flower pots for some cuttings a friend gave me, although I had to find a card table set up outside the metro station to purchase potting soil.
Temporary stalls selling clothing, fruits and vegetables in season, pop up Friday afternoons, disappear Sunday evenings. Offering little more protection than tents, they are opened during the short summer season. It is exciting to see them spring up like wild flowers, all the goodies spread out similar to an open air picnic. What is their profit margin? With stock limited to one or two of a few items, how do they stay in business? The vendors work long, long hours, although I suppose that in the winter, they don't work at all.
The vendors in open air markets are often immigrants from ex-Soviet states, often without proper papers, doing these extremely low-paying jobs that Moscovites don't want. They provide produce that is fresher and cheaper than in the stores, yet in the current wave of Russian xenophobia, the mayor of Moscow has declared a campaign against them. By March, 2007, the entire Belaruskaya market had been razed. By May, the cheerful lady who sold candy at the top of our corner parahoad stairs was gone – no more little bags of chocolates for me. In May, a third of all the market stalls were empty, and by the summer of 2008, they are all supposed to be closed down. In a city recently rated the most expensive in the world, the kiosks were the competition that allowed poor citizens to survive, particularly those living on minimal state pensions.
The kiosk economy, so foreign to the average American shopper, lends Moscow a unique folk quality, giving warmth to the block-long Soviet buildings. The temporary market stalls will be sadly missed if the government succeeds in shutting them down. Fortunately, the permanent kiosks will provide the personal, Russian shopping experience, along with a lot of fun.