Touristic Odessa is mythical and uncompromising, fortunately, often it lives and dies somewhere on Deribasivska street and somewhere around it. In the meantime, weekend Odesa is a local flea market that has its secrets and its own rules. Opinion has walked through the Starokinnyy market together with the family of writers Borys and Lyudmyla Khersonsky. Read in our article how it happened.
Odesa flea market strikes you by its ability to exist out of time and combine those things that could never exist together. Jars from Ukrainian villages and Stalin’s busts, Soviet military uniform, and items with Jewish symbols. There is nothing that conflicts with each other here, a strange and every time unexpected unity of opposition. It seems that modern you travel between the artifacts of the past, and it requires neither time-turners nor time machines.
Odesa flea market, spontaneous and at the same time quite logical, works only on weekends. For many, it’s not business but an opportunity to spend free time together with old friends, to liberate a house from unnecessary stuff. On Sunday we meet with Borys and Lyudmyla Khersonsky. On the streets of Moldavanka, as throughout the entire Odesa, it is very warm. Despite the turbulent hustle and bustle, nobody is in a hurry, there is no room for haste.
“Straight away I must say that it would be incorrect to name the place where we are now Starokonka (this is the way locals call Starokinnyy market – translator’s note),” explains Mr. Boris immediately. “This is a street market, which is probably ten times bigger than the area of the market itself. The Starokinnyy itself has turned today into a completely normal market of construction materials. As you might guess such markets are present in every corner of Odesa.”
There’s a little left from the authentic Starokinnyy market: literally a few rows of stalls with birds and fishes. There you also can find spiders, scorpions, and other exotic beasts. Even dogs and cats were pushed beyond its borders.
“In fact, this huge part of Moldavanka district is what saves the name of Starokonka, but it is not that very Starokinnyy. Clearly, the very term ‘Starokinnyy market’ implies two things. First of all, somewhere should be a Novokinnyy market where horses were sold (to understand this joke you need to know that direct translation of Starokinnyy is Old horses’ market, thus Novokinnyy means New horses’ market – translator’s note). However, it was too long ago for me to see it. The second thing which I already remember is the book and antiquities’ market. Well, all of this has changed now, but not so much.”
For the first time, Khersonsky got to the flea market when he was a sophomore. He loved books and gathered his own library, so Odesa flea market was maybe one of the best sources for replenishing his collection.
“By the way, there you could buy self-published books and books from abroad that were forbidden in the USSR. Even ‘The Gulag Archipelago’, which cost 100 rubles at that time (average monthly wage of a Soviet citizen – translator’s note). Of course, it was expensive, but you could pay much more for it – interrogations in the KGB or even more serious sanctions.”
Today, Mr. Borys and his wife are trying to come to the flea fair every weekend. Firstly, you need to go for a walk somewhere. Secondly, a walk around the streets of Moldovanka, shrouded in street trade, is always interesting. By the way, this chaotic from the first sight market is well organized. Every vendor has his own place and changes it only under certain circumstances. Even if you get here during the worst possible weather when only a few are courageous enough to take things out for sale, you won’t see them together – each of them will stay at the very same place where they were standing the previous weekend.
“There are still some remnants of the antiquities’ market. For example, I think you would agree that the letters with the inscription ‘Black Sea Commune’ is certainly a sort of antiquity. (smiles). As they say now, “it’s from the Soviet era”. It’s good that it’s antiquity and not a reality.” Well, indeed, it’s great.
Khersonsky explains, by and large, a flea market is some kind of a second hand. The one that quite often comes from chests of locals. As a rule, people understand what they sell. However, those who don’t understand ask much more for their goods than they really cost.
“Why this second hand is good? The fact is that our women have always loved, known and been able to dress well. All sort of things were always brought here both in the 70ies and in the 80ies. As one of my friends said – I’d better starve, but I will dress.”
Almost immediately after we met each other the Khersonsky family makes their first purchase – some sort of umbrella stand made of bamboo and decorated with primitive carvings. Apparently, a sailor had brought it home from China one day. It surprises me and I wonder why not to negotiate a price. Khersonsky immediately responds – there is certain ethics. “Borys has a rule: if a thing costs this or that much, or even more – he will never bargain,” explains Ms. Lyudmyla.
“Usually, you can see something interesting in a pile of completely uninteresting. This requires an experienced eye. One day my eye snatched Bulgarian silver folk jewelry of the late 19th century in a pile of absolutely horrible knickknacks 20 hryvnias worth. In the end, sometimes an eye must bring something,” says Mr. Boris.
In fact, Khersonsky diminishes his eye, cause it’s much more experienced. In all that time when we were walking around the flea market, he repeatedly examined and characterized things, without even taking them into his hands – something was for sure fixed, something was fake.
Flea markets of Germany are closely linked to the Odesa street market. Today, a lot of goods are brought from there and, for example, from Holland. Since at the German market from time to time you can buy something rather fantastic, sometimes it gets to Odesa.
Something similar, according to the stories of Boris Khersonsky, is also happening at the Kyiv flea market. However, it does not work the opposite way: on our side, there is a certain barrier, we save things that are useless to us. So, even if someone tries to export books of the beginning of the last century, those that worth nothing, they still won’t be let through the border. It turns out that the legal purchase of old things is possible everywhere, except for the “descendants” of the Soviet Union.
Most vendors don’t respond to those who are looking at their goods. After shops where several salesmen rush to you with a bunch of tips and offers, all this seems rather weird, but it has its own explanation – the main point is just to walk and to look, and only then, maybe, to buy something. The market around Starokonka is a separate communication tool. Here you meet a lot of acquaintances. All this looks so natural as if you just went out to your own yard.
“At the flea market, you can get dressed and furnished. There are specific “specialized” places with tools and dishes. Also, they sell furniture. It is usually brought from Belgium and Germany. Sometimes they bring something that came there from some other places too. By the way, some good-looking objects in my office – an armchair, a desk, they are from here,” Khersonsky tells in the meantime.
The flea market that we walk is still forming. Now it has reached Staroportofrankivska, although it occupied only a few blocks not so long time ago. Visitors to the street market at Moldavanka don’t like going to the shops, buying counterfeits made in Odesa. It is better for them to buy something here, and it can be understood. To get this you just need to walk at least once around Odesa flea market.
Khersonsky takes a particular interest in old photos. During our conversation, he and his wife had time to look through dozens of photos, searching for the ones that deserve to be in their home collection. Prices vary depending on the photos and the sellers themselves. Someone offers a box full of 10-15 hryvnias-worth photos, the other keeps his goods in special albums, realizing that these photos cost much more.
“Well, it may seem, what’s interesting in the photo, where a car stands prepared for the May Day demonstration with the inscription ‘Pishchepromavtomatika’? It was a large scientific research institute, known for the fact that there were girls who worked on the copy machine ‘Era’. Almost half of the Odesa self-published books were printed there.”
The most popular busts at the flea market belong to Dzerzhinsky, Lenin, Stalin, and Zhukov. For some reason, all these people seem attractive to someone. But again, there are no dissonances here – one from the upper mentioned company may accompany Taras Bulba and Adam Mickiewicz. Here, they don’t separate goods into “Soviet” and “modern”, “expensive” and “cheap”. As Khersonsky emphasizes, things can be old and uninteresting, as well as old and interesting.
Among all the purchases made by Khersonsky family, there is an old and apparently antique box. It is clear that it needs some kind of fixing and restoration but when you buy something cheap you have to be ready to pay the restorer. In Odesa, there’s almost no such craftsman. Mr. Borys mentions only one, Vitya, who lives near the city. Vitya is an example of an intellectual, who has hands, although quite often restorers have only one thing.
“What have you bought there?” One of the salesmen shouts to Khersonsky. “Ah, it’s from Vova?” I’ve bought a picture from him today. Look, four boars are running. Imagine, I’ve already got 26 pictures from him!”
The man spreads his hands and boasts with his collection. Here everyone knows each other, even if they see you for the first time. In order to start a conversation, you don’t even need to say Hi. You’re already here, you are already a part of one great dialogue: cultural, spatial and temporal.
In fact, it may seem that we’ve already lost the authentic Starokonka because nowadays there is a quite modern market of construction materials. However, the writer calms us down: there is nothing to complain about, the market hasn’t disappeared, it has just been pushed off.
“Boys, give up your camera and take my bottles,” suddenly the saleswoman of “imported” perfumes shouts to us. We’re laughing. “A good title for an article,” says Borys Khersonsky. Well, indeed, it’s a good one.
Text and photo by Dmytro Zhuravel
The author expresses his gratitude for the help to Anton Yermakov