Text: Jonas Bickelmann
Foto: Svetlana Khairova, Svetlana Bandurka

A whole row of stalls next to Irkutsk’s Central Market Hall is theirs alone. In the morning, the aged arrive by and by with their homegrown food to offer it for sale. They pay a fee for the stall at a vending machine nearby. What they offer on their tables is varied, though the quantities are small: a few batches of horseradish roots, painstakingly aligned garlic bulbs, tomatoes, zucchini, potatoes, cauliflower and more. Some sell potted plants, flowers, preserves and jam. Those with a garden need to spend less on groceries. Family and friends get something as well and finally the sale of fruit contributes to a balanced budget.

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In Russia, locally sourced food from small scale farming has the reputation of being healthier and tastier. Apart from that, the Irkutsk residents buy from street sellers to help them make a living. Customers know that retirees are at least happy to make some extra money, or even require it to live decently. Although there are rumours in the city that some of the food offered is not dacha grown but rather stems from greenhouses near Irkutsk that are run by Chinese. Vegetables grown there are cheap and can be resold with profits but people in Irkutsk assume they’re less tasty and might contain toxic chemicals.

It’s a sunny September morning. A man pushes a cart loaded with colorful umbrellas along the stalls and opens them next to them. The scene doesn’t only look like a beach, he explains, for the baboushki it has a similar function as well: Getting out of the house and meeting people.

Every seller has a story to tell

What is it that drives retirees to spend hours at the market offering their gardens’ produce?

Financial needs, meeting people, making profits?

Mira* doesn’t have much lying on the blanket in front of her. It was her story that sparked our interest in the stories of the street sellers: „I have a PhD in Neuropsychology and have lived in St Petersburg for 50 years. Back in the 60s I travelled to Germany and saw the chairs Stalin and Churchill sat on at the Potsdam Conference after world war II. Angela Merkel probably got rid of them by now. My sister in law died a while ago so I had to come back to Irkutsk to help my brother. He does the gardening and I sell some of our produce. But it’s hard for me, I’m old and my health is not at its best. I’d prefer my brother to sell the garden but he won’t do it.“

*All names have been changed.

Great variety, small quantities

Valentina: „After I retired, I started selling at the market. I come to Irkutsk from my village about twice a week. My garden is about 1500 square metres and I have two greenhouses with heating. My children just got to the supermarket instead of harvesting there, that’s easier for them. But there’s a poor guy living in the village whom I give some of the food regularly because he helps me with the gardening. The income from the market bolsters my pension but I also do it to have a task in life. I used to be the manager of a canteen. Recently my garden was featured in a TV porgramme. I liked that.“

The woman at the table next to her butts in: „I only sell because otherwise my pension wouldn’t be enough. I don’t grow vegetables for selling them, I only offer leftovers at the market. At least it’s enough to pay for the cost of the dacha. I can make around 1000 to 1500 roubles per week. I’m here one or two days a week. So I earn enough to cover to cost of water, manure and seeds. But there’s women who make 300,000 roubles in one season. They turn it into a serious business.“

Age: 74

Distance from garden to market: ca 30 km

Price of 1 kg of tomatoes: 100 or 120 rubles, depending on the variety

“There’s women who make 300,000 roubles in one season. They turn it into a serious business”

Seller at Irkutsk Central Market Hall

Oksana wears a flower print headscarf and smiles a lot.: „You always plant a bit more than you actually need, just in case plants die. That’s why I often have surplus and I sell those vegetables here. Your own garden’s produce is healthy and organic. You wouldn’t want to poison yourself with toxic chemicals. My grandchildren are happy to eat homegrown vegetables. Sometimes they help with the harvesting. I also have some chickens. It’s not right when people say all animals need to be traeted like pets. My chickens are farm animals. Siberia gets cold and we have to eat meat. I used to work in livestock breeding, doing managerial tasks. I travelled to places like Moscow, St Petersbrug and Krasnodar for business. I’m here to sell food once or twice a week and use the money I make to support my children. Young people like to to go out and buy stuff. I understand that very well. I grew up in the countryside and can’t imagine living withput my own land.“

Age: 65
Distance from garden to market: ca 30 km
Price for 1 kg of tomatoes: 100 roubles

Tatiana: „I’m a doctor and used to work as a surgeon. It was always me who had to work on New Year’s Eve when all the others were partying. When I gave birth to my daughter at the age of 38 my hands suddenly became too weak for doing surgery so I became a radiologist instead. I live here in Irkutsk and have a dacha 40 km away. My husband inherited it from his mother. He’s 81 now and worked as a scientist. I started working in the garden five years ago because I want to stay in shape. For three years we’ve been selling some of our produce but I did a calculation and it’s not very profitable.“

Age: 78
Distance from garden to market: ca 40 km

The market is a place for sharing goods – and the latest gossip

Next to a market out of the centre of Irkutsk people on the sidewalk are waiting with their fruit, too. The authorities can impose a penalty for selling in the street.

Ljudmilla sells us a handful of carots, a hot pepper and tomatoes for 100 roubles: „I’m from a village near Irkutsk where I was born and raised. I come to the city two or three times a week to sell at the market. My grandson goes to uni here and drives me. I support him with the money I make here. I can make a living without selling vegetables but I like gardening anyway. Homegrwon food is just better quality. I was a nurse in a mental hospital and started selling vegetables after I retired.“

Age: 80
Distance from garden to market: ca 35 km

At the market

Nina is binding bouquets of flowers. She’s open to haveing a conversation, but prefers not to have her picture taken. „Our dacha near the city has an area of about 500 square metres. I sell here on most days of the week. I enjoy ist and I can earn some extra money.“

Lidia: „I’d rather stay at home and rest than come to the market. But my pension is not enough. Old people have a tough life in Russia. A relative from Germany came to visit Irkutsk and Baikal. She was 85 and had enough money and energy for a trip like that. In Russia, you see women looking like grannies at the age of 45.“

Age: 65
Distance from garden to market: <10 km
Price for 1 kg of tomatoes: 100 roubles

Distance from garden to market: ca 30 km

“We only sell surplus we can’t eat ourselves.”

“Uncle Kolja”, 72

A man introcuces himself as „Uncle Kolja“. There are people queing for public transport tickets near us: „I don’t need a monthly ticket. Tickets are just 15 roubles which I can pay easily. It’s not worth queing there. My wife and I have a dacha at the other end of the city. It’s the oldest garden of the whole district. We only sell surplus we can’t eat ourselves. I used to be an employee of the Irkutsk tram and I even have a labour veteran’s ID.“

Age: 72
Distance from garden to market: <10 km
Price for 1 kg of tomatoes: 130 roubles

Many people move to their dacha for the warm season