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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Why Nobody Is Laughing

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In Russia, April 1 is referred to as the "Day of Laughter," as opposed to April Fool's Day, as it is known in the West. The day has traditionally been celebrated in good-humored Russian fashion, but this year it corresponded to its Western name to the letter.

April 1 is usually the day on which newspapers try to outdo each other in playing good-natured practical jokes on their readers, printing improbable, fallacious stories in a serious style, with "April Day of Laughter!" printed at the end to let readers in on the joke.

This year, however, journalists were foiled by the calendar. April 1 fell on a Sunday, so the daily newspapers didn't publish and we had to begin the day without the usual jokes. Maybe that's why when I visited my local outdoor market and saw the rows of recently vacated stalls and new, unfamiliar vendors, the authorities' stupid decision to forbid foreigners from selling goods at such markets did not strike me as particularly funny. And although the news programs on the main television stations tried all Sunday evening to convince me of the wisdom of the government's move, it upset me just the same.

The problem is that seeing these unfamiliar faces at the stalls made me realize how important the market was to my life outside of work. It constitutes almost the only local community life in the highly fragmented existence of a megapolis like Moscow.

Along with the locals, a large number of foreigners worked there. These were primarily Azeris and Moldavians, with a smattering of Armenians and Georgians alongside Russians from Mordovia and Chechnya. Nearby, farmers from the Belgorod, Lipetsk and Volgograd regions sell their vegetables, apples, salted and marinated produce, lard, dried fish and honey straight from their cars. A relationship had developed between all of those regular vendors and their just-as-regular buyers -- which, by the way, are about the only kind of buyers you find in these small markets. We swapped jokes and chatted with each other about how life was going. The vendors knew what we usually bought, recommended the best choices and offered discounts. They also nicknamed my young daughter "the professor" for her habit of engaging them in long, detailed discussions.

I never noticed any antagonism between people of different nationalities there. The farmers from Lipetsk and Belgorod who were selling out of their cars in all kinds of weather until 10 or later every night were operating under less favorable conditions than those in the heated, covered stalls, and it was presumably for their sake that the foreigners were expelled. I once saw a Moldovan woman cross from such a stall to a Russian street vendor and say, "We've got another police check going here. Could you give me some marinated tomatoes to go with the vodka we're serving?" The Russian answered, "take as much as you need." It was either a show of neighborly courtesy or human solidarity with a fellow worker on her part. The only difference was that foreigners had to pay a higher premium for the right to work.

The outcome of all this is strange. The authorities ostensibly wanted to give preference to Russians on their "home territory," while we as buyers see those who have displaced the Azeris and Moldovans almost as invaders, even though it isn't their fault either. This will hopefully work itself out somehow, as such situations have in the past and, despite the cheaper supermarket nearby, we'll again go to the market not only to shop but to socialize as well. "This isn't the first time this has happened," an elderly Azeri woman told me as she made me a parting gift of a couple of wild onions on Saturday evening.

Whatever the case, this April 1 will be remembered as the first April Fool's Day on which nobody was laughing.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Mediaprofi, a monthly magazine for regional media professionals.