Haniel Spring School 2015: City Culture, Public Space and Flea market

by: Anh Pham

Photo credit: Jhon Mateo Magkilat

I was looking forward to today’s lecture because of my personal interest in market spaces. Growing up in a country of market culture, which reveals itself differently from region to region, I found markets the place where visitors could have a fresh experience of local “specialties”, which in my own wisdom were far from fancy souvenirs but exclusively locally produced groceries and hand-crafted necessaries. What was put on sale and how people were involved in the interactions of buying and selling left implications on personality, lifestyle and the culture of the locals. The topic of city culture, public space and flea market promised to be an interesting day of discovery.

Our journey to the flea market was guided by Oleg Pachenkov, who had more than ten years of experience “investigating” flea markets and called himself a “flea market addict”, and whom I call the flea market storyteller rather than lecturer. Oleg told us about history of Udelnaya, the sole significant survivor after the “clearing out flea market” plan of the city in 2001. The need of preserving Udelnaya was more than its economic function. It had embraced itself as public space for local (mostly) elders, who felt somehow isolated from the new generation, to come and socialize with their peers on the weekends. Old vendors brought their own inner thoughts and feelings to the market and hoped for sympathies. Interestingly, each of the things on sale, which mostly had been parts of the vendor’s house for 10, 20 years or even more, had their own history as well. They symbolized “storage culture” as a result of the fear of unpredicted inflation and the shortage of products – the consequences of a planned economy. In another aspect, vendors struggled in contradicting themselves as being “vendors” at the market, who had been strongly influenced by the socialist perception that trading is an illegal or even immoral activity. It explained why visitors could sometimes find them unfriendly and cooperative, and taking pictures was not encouraged! Vendors with their stories and very old things from the Soviet times had brought to gridlocked St. Petersburg a corner with a slower pace of life and moments of communist nostalgia.

We were all excited to visit the Udelnaya flea market in the early afternoon. We separated into small groups and enjoyed our own discovery. The “Soviet time” first came to my knowledge via presents made in Lien Xo (Lien Xo means Russia in the Soviet time in Vietnamese) from my family’s friends who had participated in studying or working exchange programs as the agreements of former “communist bloc”. Today, at the flea market in St. Petersburg, I found many of the homeware that my family had used since my childhood. “I have that in Vietnam. My mum used that for making clothes. My sister even now still uses it sometimes for fixing clothes!”- I exclaimed with both excitement and amazement to see the sewing machine, which was more or less in the same one as the one at my home. I also found the tiny box of Golden Star Balm ointment- authentically made in Vietnam– covered with rust. (The company producing this ointment had been established in the Soviet time). With the story freshly told in the morning about old vendors, I shared with them the feeling of olden-day memories. In my case, which is a bit different, the flea market journey today was a return to childhood.