So let’s get this out of the way: alternate spellings, vernisazh, vernissage, depending on your linguistic inclinations. Either way, Izmaylovo Vernissage is a great day out on the town to experience Moscow and come away with something tangible to show for it.
On the dark blue metro line at the Partizanskaya stop, which features the newer, smoother metro trains, and a classic Soviet era monument, this shopping district will make an American Picker swoon deep into the flea-market stalls, and snap back fresh into the traditional Russian souvenirs. Always a tricky balance it seems – wanting to experience nastoyashaya Rossiya but still clutch to familiar things (like trustworthy vendors, known food groups, and bathrooms which don’t appear to just completely and randomly reinvent how body parts work).
The deeper you wander into Izmaylovo, the more you get a sense of the history and legitimacy of this market. In an age long gone, this was a vital market for eastern world goods that couldn’t always be procured through institutional commerce. East and Central Asian artisans and peddlers brought all sorts of goods to market in a sort of silk road tradition. In Soviet days it was part black market, part artisan vendors. In post-Soviet days it was a vital way for the less privileged to acquire low-cost Chinese winter clothes as well as a place to sell personal goods for anything you could. This latter characteristic still lingers in the mid section of the market. Hundreds of vendors bring in piles of flea-market goods – personal items which have sentimental value in an increasingly commercialized Russia. Of course, there are -literal- treasures to be found. Handcrafted brass ornaments, old tapestries, antique chainiks, Soviet cubism art, and more. These are counterbalanced with military enthusiasts with a wide variety of legitimate and replica Soviet military gear. Just at a glance it’s clear what is truly old gear and what is an attempted replica.
Still deeper in the market you find a true third class of vendors. In darker, broken stalls, most of them makeshift, an older crowd mills about looking for nostalgic items. Items from an age when life was hard, but much more simple. Choices were few, but easier to make. A generation passed by – conflicted with the notion of a free market that diminishes the value of something old, and instead funds the cyclical creation of something newer than yesterday’s new. As an outsider, I see the compelling nature of Soviet pop-art, or monetary instruments. But it’s easy to cast a glance of derision at broken dolls and toys until I reconcile them with my own limited experience of the Soviet Union. It was a place where even if you had money, there was often nothing to buy. A poorly manufactured doll, now 30 years decayed, may hold more meaning now than it did then. Not for its innate value or collectibility. But for sacrifices made.
Finally, at the innermost section of the market are painters and art collectors selling a vast spectrum of original art and knock-off art.
Izmaylovo is a fine display of complex storytelling. Approaching a day at the market should be done not as a souvenir-seeker, but as a culture-seeker. As jarring as it is to weave in and out of this strange mixture of products and people, there is a beauty that is unique. Russia is a culture of survival, generations of which are nakedly on display in Izmaylovo.
This bear-man was brashly singing and playing a folk tune, oblivious to the disapproving glances from passers-by. Somehow bear-man managed to subdue this out-of-tune guitar into dissonant and mournful tonal qualities that actually… sounded… good. Or, you know, folksy. Not unlike Bob Dylan. Seriously, admit it. That guy has major pitch problems, but somehow sounds good. He and his voice have outlived two of his exes, not without reason, I would surmise.
The smell of open-air shashlik (kabob) grills caught our attention. But before we located them, we saw a sign leading us into an Azerbaijani shashlik cafe. Lamb, chicken and beef shashlik, and a cucumber, tomato and olive salad filled us up. I can’t really make sense of the decor (spider web ceiling with locusts, flies and spiders glued to it), but it was an experience in Russia that failed to disappoint us. Everywhere we have gone we have stood out as Americans, and each time we are asked what we’re doing here, and we’ve unsure of what response we’ll get. Of dozens of interactions, not a single one has been negative and we’ve been treated with kindness when it was needed. We’ve even managed to turn quite a few cultural frowns upside down (which is a secret goal of mine in most such interactions, and I won’t deny there are some tough, tough people out there). Izmaylovo vendors, no mistake, are hoping to relieve tourists of their money. But our experience has been that most people are probably just as willing to experience your culture as you are theirs.
“We meet no ordinary people in our lives.”
― C.S. Lewis