Monday, July 9, 2012

Back to the Bazaar


One of my favorite things to do while abroad is venture into the supermarkets, boutiques and bazaars and observe all of the unique products. Informal markets (i.e. bazaars) are particularly interesting as they are economic and social structures that have existed throughout history, changing to reflect modifications in consumer tastes and technological innovation. Today for example, farmers selling produce in informal markets compete with supermarket chains for customers. Of course, the experience of going to a local market, admiring the fresh produce and bargaining with the grocer is a unique and valued cultural experience. At the same time, supermarkets are more reliable and offer a calmer shopping experience.

Eager to observe Russian markets (rinok), I ventured on Sunday to the Fakal Market, Vladimir's largest. Having spent last summer regularly visiting bazaars in Kazakhstan, including the international hub-bazaar Baraholka, I was expecting a lively and busy marketplace.

I was so wrong. In fact, at first I thought the market had closed down. When I arrived around noon on Sunday -- "peak time" -- it appeared empty.  So many containers were closed. I had to enter the complex and walk through some empty containers until I found the open vendors. I do not know why these containers were closed -- whether the retailers went out of business or simply not operating that day -- but it is clear that the bazaar economy, the bazaar consumer culture and the bazaar social institution, are not as strong in Russia as in Central Asia.

I asked Olga if she goes to the bazaar and said that only on occasion, when she wants to get a good price for a purchase. Goods at the bazaar tend to be cheaper.

But they are not THAT much cheaper. I walked through the bazaar and saw dresses on sale for anywhere between 300 and 550 rubles, which is comparable to dresses of equal quality in formal retail outlets. I then looked at the produce section and found a five to ten ruble difference between markets and the grocery store. And the same goes for specialty items such as caviar. Yes, the prices are lower in the market and there is more room for bargaining. I guess for pensioners, former soldiers and individuals on a fixed income, shopping at the bazaar, with a wide variety of products at rock-bottom prices, is an easy way to economize.

I was also struck by the ratio of male to female workers in the bazaar. Granted, I did not conduct a methodological survey but there were noticeably more women in the bazaars in Central Asia than in the few bazaars I've visited in Vladimir. I would be curious to visit bazaars throughout Russia and observe this difference. Because so many professions were "feminized" during the Soviet Union, such as accounting, medicine and teaching, women in Russia retained their jobs following the collapse of the USSR to a greater extent than women in Central Asia. Again, I'm just sharing my candid observations and opinions, but perhaps this explanation on professions helps explain the gender composition of workers in the informal bazaar economy.

The bazaar also differed from its Central Asian counterparts in its products. There were various vendors selling fur coats (shuba) and religious Andrei Rublei-style icons. In Central Asia, I saw vendors selling Islamic clothing for women. Markets in both countries are full of shops selling tacky wedding dresses.

It's also worth noting I did stop at other bazaars in Vladimir. One is located inside a brick building not far from the Central Park, but it mostly specialized in foodstuffs. As I saw in Kazakhstan, there were half-masticated cows on sale, as well as hearts, lungs and intestines. While the women sat selling the products, a man was behind them with an ax and a tree truck cutting the meat. I kid you not.

Alas, the moral of the story is that bazaars and informal markets (note I use the word bazaar and market interchangeably here) is that they are dynamic anthropological treasure chests that provide great insights into national cultures and economics. I'm sure I will spend many more Sundays in these markets. For now, enjoy the photos!

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