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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Street Traders: Nostalgia for A Dying Breed

I realized just how much Russia has changed when I used the word fartsovshchik to an American student the other day and she just looked at me blankly. "I don't know that word," she said contritely.


Fartsovshchiki, or black marketeers, were an ubiquitous presence in major cities up until a few years ago, and it was a word that every foreign student learned within five minutes of stepping off the plane.


In the good old days, when visitors and students traveled in packs, fartsovshchiki would hang out at tourist sites, and waylay the buses as they drove up. "Change money? Fur hat? Military watch?" went the chant. They also offered money for Western clothes, no matter how worn. Old running shoes were a very popular item, as I recall.


I was here with an American college, shepherding a bunch of eager but sometimes naive students through the labyrinths of Soviet society.


As with so much else in Russia, we both loved and hated the "fartses," as we affectionately called them. Several of my students made friends with representatives of this shady profession, and more than one female fell prey to their charms.


Now the fartsovshchiki seem to have disappeared, or at least they've gone upscale. Currency speculation is no longer conducted in back alleys with timid tourists. It is done on the floor of the Moscow Interbank Currency Exchange, in sums involving millions of dollars. And military watches, belts, and the like are no longer contraband -- you can buy them in bulk at Izmailovsky Park.


It's kind of a shame, though. Some of the romance, intrigue and excitement are gone. I used to feel like a Cold War conspirator, passing money back and forth, or hiding a military belt buckle under my coat.


My old friend Fedya has changed, too. He was not exactly a fartsovshchik, but he did have his little "deals" on the side. He was a mysterious figure to me, and we spent many hours discussing beauty, love and the meaning of life. He had that wonderful Russian feeling for priorities: He would show up at my door at midnight, talk until 3:00 A.M., and fail to show up for work the next day. He was maddening, but lovable.


I had him over for dinner the other night. Fedya is now a successful businessman, and gave me long and stern lecture on Making My Money Work for Me. He has offered to be, in effect, my financial counselor, and promises a 25 percent return on my investments. My eyes began to glaze over, as they often do when people discuss my pathetic finances.


I offered him wine, which he firmly declined: "Have to be at the bank by 8:30 tomorrow morning." What? Is this my Fedya?


Yes, Russia is in many ways neater, more organized, more "normal" now. Many of my friends now show a discipline and drive that I never suspected they possessed. I know I should be happy for them, and welcome them into the world community where mortgages, investments and the like play a greater role in daily life than questions over the role of literature in society.


But I spend many fewer evenings now sitting around various kitchen tables, drinking tea and discussing philosophy. All of my Russian friends are, like my Western friends, too busy making a living. It's normal. It's progress, of a sort. But something's missing. Maybe the fartsovshchiki?