For a person who has never been to St. Petersburg, his or her first thought about this city might be the most popular places that everyone visits: the Hermitage, orthodox churches, palaces, etc. However, this might as well be the impression for most tourists who have been there. While it is true that the Renaissance styled architectures and fancy shops form up most part of people’s idea of this city, there are also places undiscovered by the majorities that are worth spending time to see. In a park in the suburbs of St. Petersurg “hides” one of the largest flea markets in the world—Udelnaya (Удельная) (or “the Udelka” as the locals call it), which is famous for “the abundance of things that remained from the Second World War and genuine Soviet merchandise” (1). It is almost impossible to set up a flea market that occupies such a huge area in the city center. One convenient way to visit is to take the metro. At station Udelnaya, exit the metro station to the right, and cross the railway tracks. First you will see the stands of second-shops; then walk along to the end you will run into the flea market.
The market is open through the year in the morning on weekends. This time creates the least time conflicts and allows more people to have an opportunity to spend time and rummage around in this huge market. I decided to go to the market on a Sunday morning. As I walked out of the Udelnaya metro station, I realized how different this part of the city was from the city center. The streets were narrow; at some corners were small piles of garbage. There were no fancy renaissance style buildings; only plain, typical soviet style buildings sitting in a small neighborhood. This is a St. Petersburg that most tourists do not see and do not know about, a St. Petersburg with a different kind of vitality.
Although prepared, I was stilled amazed by the size and the amount of items in the market. There were tables and small shops set on both sides of the open area, and in the huge middle space were hundreds of vendors spread on the ground. The market offers a variety of interesting things are quite random, such as “antique samovars, sacred images and busts of Lenin” (2). You could also find products for daily use—chairs, sunglasses, knives, bags—as well as many other obscure items. Many things were picked up from the scrapyards all over St. Petersburg. However, an item that is truly unique often costs much. This place is filled with many secondhand dealers who “ferret out valuable things from the morning and then re-sell them at a significantly higher price” (3). After hours of exploration in the mass amount of products, I obtained a general idea of different categories of goods that are worth spending time to look through.
Badges, Orders, and Decorations
Badges, orders, and decorations serve a very important part in Russian history and culture. On September 16th, 1918, the All-Russian Central Executive Committee issued an order to set up the first medal of the Soviet Union – Order of the Red Banner (Орден Крaсного Знамени). Later on, other medals were issued, such as Order of the Red Banner of Labour (Орден Трудового Красного Знамени), Order of Lenin (Орден Ленина), Order of the Red Star (Орден Красной Звезды). They serve as recognition of achievements and personal accomplishments for both military and civilian. The base of the award system of the Soviet medals and orders is socialism under proletariat dictatorship. While inheriting the historical tradition, it developed its distinctive characteristics of a proletarian nation, making the Soviet Union award system different from any other award systems in other countries, and had influence on other socialist states and several third world countries after World War II.
Under the rule of Brezhnev, one of whose interests was collecting and awarding decorations and medals, the former Soviet Union spent much effort manufacturing them. Thus, most of the real, high-quality, orders in the market nowadays were from the 70s, when the demand of orders was high. It was known that many of the former Soviet Union medal casting molds were sold to the United States in the 90s, so many of the Soviet Union medals sold in the United States are new counterfeits, such as Order of Lenin, which the real ones are rarely seen in the current market.
Some notable decorations: the Hero of the Soviet Union (Герой Cоветского Союза), the highest honorary title given to both civilians and soldiers; the Order of Victory (Орден «Победа»), the highest military decoration for World War II service, the badge depicting the Spasskaya Tower of the Moscow Kremlin, with Lenin’s Mausoleum in front. It was also awarded to five people who did not posses Russian nationality, including Dwight Eisenhower, Bernard Montgomery, and King Michael I of Romania; and the Order of Lenin (Орден Ленина), the highest civil decoration, given to both soldiers and civilians for great service to the motherland.
There were many good artworks, especially paintings, in the flea market. They might have come from an art student, or someone who really loved art and knew how to paint well. Most paintings were painted in a “typical Russian style”: low-saturated, cold-toned colors, with techniques strongly influenced by European Romanticism blended with realism and folk art style (especially paintings from 19th century). Unfortunately, the Russian style of painting is not widely accepted in the Western art world. Excluding contemporary art, the major aesthetical preference of art flow and critics leans heavily toward art styles and techniques from Southern-Northern European countries, especially after the Renaissance period. Late Russian paintings, although influenced by Romanticism and impressionism, were still considered “too academic” for the major aesthetic flow. Therefore, several great Russian painters, such as Ilya Repin, Vasily Surikov, Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, still remain unknown or have little popularity for people in the Western hemisphere.
There were many good artworks, especially paintings, in the flea market. They might have come from an art student, or someone who really loved art and knew
how to paint well. Most paintings were painted in a “typical Russian style”: low-saturated, cold-toned colors, with techniques strongly influenced by European Romanticism blended with realism and folk art style (especially paintings from 19th century). Unfortunately, the Russian style of painting is not widely accepted in the Western art world. Excluding contemporary art, the major aesthetical preference of art flow and critics leans heavily toward art styles and techniques from Southern-Northern European countries, especially after the Renaissance period. Late Russian paintings, although influenced by Romanticism and impressionism, were still considered “too academic” for the major aesthetic flow. Therefore, several great Russian painters, such as Ilya Repin, Vasily Surikov, Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, still remain unknown or have little popularity for people in the Western hemisphere.
There were mainly three kinds of postcards in this market: old and valuable ones, unwritten and ordinary ones, and written ones. At a small stand on the side, I
looked through a stack of old postcards and asked for the price for one of them, on which printed an old photograph and had some words written on the back. The vendor stared at me for a while, and told me that I couldn’t afford it. However, I insisted on knowing the price, and he told me it would cost 6,000 rubles (around 100 USD). At another stand, there were several boxes full of postcards, and almost half of them were written. I started to wonder the source of these postcards, and the possibility of my postcard to my host mother ending up in one of these boxes. After looking through a box of written postcards, despite of my struggle and effort, I still couldn’t decipher most of the handwritings.
Clothes and Shoes
Clothes and shoes seem to be an inseparable part of every flea market in the world. In Udelnaya, you could find trousers that colors are faded, nightgowns, t-shirts that have misspelled Eglish words printed on, or occasionally new clothes wrapped in plastic covers. Fur products are also offered here. To my surprise, the price they charge for furs in the market is no cheaper than the ones in the nicely decorated shops in the center of the city.
Jewelries, Antiques, and Collectibles
In this market, you can find all kinds of jewelries and antiques, from cheap plastic brooches to nice gemstone rings, from used stainless steel cups to 18th century French porcelain teapot set. For most sellers, they simply lay out everything they have on the tables, or put them in boxes and let customers look through. Some sellers have their own shops, a small closed space where more things could be stored and displayed on shelves or in cabinets. However, almost everything is overpriced in these shops. People also sell souvenir-like products from other country: jewelry boxes from Vietnam, bamboo chopsticks from Japan, wooden figurines from China…and charge for an unreasonably high price. I walked into a shop that had a more organized space and more official layout then others. In the glass cupboard lied a chainmail purse, which the shop owner claimed was from 19th century France. The price he offered for the purse was around 800 dollars; however, there are several of those purses that look almost exactly the same offered on eBay for only 1/10th of this price.
There are many items for sale that people do not usually see in regular markets. On a random table that we walked pass lied a couple of guns, rifles, and swords; during the first visit to the market, my friend saw something that looked like a bomb. Besides those dangerous equipment, there are also things that make you wonder if anyone would be interested in buying. For example, heads of broken dolls.
People In the Market
The majority of sellers in the market are citizens who have spent most of their lives in the Soviet period. Most of them will not try to start conversations with people who are not interested in their products. However, there are still some very friendly sellers who enjoy small talks. “Old grannies trading from the ground are the most eye-catching venders at the flea market. They can offer you both pleasant conversation and some great goods at a low price.” (5) There are usually a few tourists wandering along the stalls, but most buyers are local Petersburgians. When I returned home from the market and told my host mother about the experience, she told me excitedly, that the shirt she was wearing at the moment was one of the few things she bought last week from the Udelnaya market.
The market contains memories from the older generations: from the Soviet period, pre-revolutionary times, or even earlier. It records the changing of history,
from time to time. It is possible, that some antiques in the market were to be found and afterwards put into museums. “Udelnaya has illegal, stolen and counterfeit merchandise, as does any other Flea Market.” (6) In the Kremlin Museum in Moscow, the tour guide explained that a large amount of the silverwares
and ornaments from European ambassadors to the Tsar that should have had been in display cases, disappeared during transportation. It is not unreasonable to say that those valuables ended up in the market. However, it is those lost-and-founds that recorded history and presented stories from another period to people in a complete different time and space. This is a unique and interesting place, especially for tourists, because it is so different from what most people see in St. Petersburg, but possibly the most ‘real’ and undecorated part of the city. It is part of the lifestyles and daily lives, which people seldom pay much attention to, of an ordinary Russian citizen.