Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Watermelons: Some Sweetness From the South

Describing a stroll through a luscious garden, the 17th-century English poet Andrew Marvell speaks rather comically of "stumbling on melons." This is precisely what happens to one in Moscow at this time of year. The arbuzy (watermelons) and dyni (melons) come up from Central Asia and wherever you go in the city, you are literally tripping over them.

In Soviet times, they were brought in from collective farms and sold on the streets from wire cages. The idea was that the cages could be locked up at night so that the traders, after finishing their statutory eight-hour shifts, could go off and rest. But the cages always seemed to me symbolic, as did the melons with their overtones of sexuality. So repressed as well as repressive was the old Communist system, that it had to imprison fruit.

The free market liberated the melons but made life harder for the traders. Now the fruit just lies in permissive mounds on the pavement while the sellers have to sit nearby until every last melon is sold.

A particularly fruitful place, if you are looking for a juicy melon, is the road leading out to Minsk, the route many Muscovites take to their dachas on the Moskva River. Here, every few meters, are piles of melons, presided over by traders who do not have licenses to sell in the city.

The traders come from Central Asia, but they are mostly ethnic Koreans. I always knew the Koreans were big in the onion business because once, visiting the traditional Cossack lands in southern Russia, I found them growing onions on the banks of the quietly flowing Don. But I did not know they were also melon kings.

Alla Lee, who sits on the roadside on a little folding stool, shading herself from the sun with a red umbrella, explains. "Koreans have been here since the 1940s. Stalin brought us over to work in agriculture. Some went to Russia, some to Central Asia. We kept our culture. We are hardworking, enterprising people. In Central Asia, we concentrated on melons."

Alla is selling yellow dyni at 8,000 rubles ($1.75) a kilo. They were grown on a family allotment in Tashkent. Alla, who is a hairdresser in the Uzbek capital, sacrificed her summer holiday to help her brother bring a truckload of melons to Moscow. She has been sitting here for a week and has sold about half the consignment.

It is dirty and uncomfortable by the roadside, although Alla, a pretty woman in her early 30s, manages to look immaculate. At night she stays in a flat rented by the Korean community. She accepts the loss of her holiday because the trip will help her to make ends meet when she goes home.

"Life is hard for everyone these days," she says. "It's a hard for me, and it's hard for Muscovites too. So I am glad to be able to bring them a little sweetness from the south."

She slices off a sample of melon for a customer from a BMW. A ragged Russian boy approaches. "Got any rotten melons?" he asks. He claims to be hungry, but I suspect he is running a cub-business in spoiled fruit.

I turn to the question of profit. How much will Alla make from her venture and will she have to pay any "tax" to the mafia? At this point a man comes up. Perhaps it is Alla's brother.

"Who are you?" I ask brightly. "Chelovek" (a person), he says through the side of his mouth. The Koreans smile a lot but evidently there are some questions one should not ask.