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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hard Labor on the Suburban Lines

Frustrated construction workers, out-of-work plumbers and angry painters may hawk cheap thrillers and classic fairy tales on Moscow's commuter trains, but it is often their own lives that offer the real drama, the real tragedy.


"If 10 years ago somebody had told me that I would be selling books on the train, I would spit in his face," said Alexandra Vasilevna, a middle-aged woman standing on a crowded platform at Yaroslavsky station as she waited for the next elektrichka to depart.


With a young daughter, an elderly mother and a mother-in-law to support, Alexandra Vasilevna, a former factory worker, ekes out a living of about $10 a day riding the suburban rails, walking the length of the train and shouting herself hoarse with loud pleas for passengers to buy books and toys. She, like many of her comrades in vending, said she would rather be working at her old job, especially now with the weather turning colder.


"It is hard to work here. I think to work in the forge was much easier," said Alexei, 31, a blacksmith-turned-vendor waiting for a train at Yaroslavsky station. Alexei's wares range from historical books to security chief Alexander Lebed's recently published political biography.


"Lebed's book is popular now," Alexei said in a voice resembling the former general's due to constant yelling and heavy consumption of Pall Mall cigarettes.


Although books and current periodicals easily top the list of what is being sold by the elektrichka peddlers, other popular items include cheap Japanese-made umbrellas, magic markers, pens and even screwdrivers. Whatever they were hawking, most vendors agreed it was difficult to take the plunge and begin a new life in a very public role.


Yury, a 39-year-old former economist, said he had to overcome a considerable psychological barrier when he walked onto his first train as a salesman five years ago. Standing not far from Yury on the platform was Olga, 19, who said she had had a similar experience.


"The first cars were the most difficult for us," said Olga, who typically works in a team with her friend Sveta, partly because passengers can become hostile and aggressive on night trains. "Sometimes it is hard to work evenings, but if something happens each car has a button to call the police."


Olga added that vendors, most of whom she reckoned had valid tickets, are rarely hassled by the police or by racketeers because the salespeople don't handle enough money. The elektrichka hawkers working out of Yaroslavsky station, at least, are self-regulating. They organize groups -- called brigady -- which work each 12-car train and vote on whether to accept new members. Despite many salespeople's complaints about their working conditions, some were proud of their occupation.


"We are restoring an old Russian tradition," said Yevgeny, 48, who wore a beard and tweed jacket and looked more like a British university professor than the former professional truck driver he actually was.


Yevgeny explained that he was referring to the pre-Revolutionary existence of korobeiniki -- street vendors who made their living selling books and perfumes door-to-door in Moscow's better neighborhoods.


Still, vendors like Yevgeny were in a distinct minority. "I would be better off working at the factory where it was like doing hard labor in prison," said Vasily, 50, as he surveyed a platform crammed with passengers, some of whom, he added, often behaved like "bastards."


For their part, elektrichka passengers were, in a random sampling, unenthusiastic about the vendors' presence on the trains.


"I once bought a pocket lamp and it broke after a day," said Alexei, 22, looking up from a book he was reading on a Moscow-bound elektrichka.