Udelnaya: the story of the biggest Russian flea market

Photo: Daniel Hjorth
At 6am in October, it is still dark and cold in St Petersburg. But the exit of the Udelnaya metro station is unusually busy. People with trolleys, bags and suitcases come here on the first train for their every weekend routine. They cross the railways and pass a long dark row of closed shopping pavilions, rare lamps, sleepy guards and dogs before coming into an open space. Around a hundred people are already there, occupying their spots with oilcloths and cartons as they start setting up. It is the heart of the Udelnaya – Russia’s biggest flea market.

Udelnaya flea market is situated in the north of St Petersburg, just next to the railway station in the direction of Finland. People of low financial status come here to sell their belongings to earn a little extra money while citizens from all over St Petersburg arrive to buy goods for daily use.

The market opens at 5am, but many sellers arrive much earlier – competition for places is high. If you don’t get a good spot, you will hardly sell anything. Alexander, who sells old Soviet dishes and birch bark baskets, arrives at 3am every Saturday morning. He saves a spot for himself and his friends – old ladies who survived “the siege”. Alexander comes to Udelnaya with the night bus – a seasonal luxury that will end in December. During the winter, he will journey from Petrogradskaya by foot with a huge carriage full of things he aims to sell that day.

Family business

The first buyers come at around 8am – local dealers looking for cheap speciality items to re-sell in their own stands at the same flea market. Their day starts with scanning the stalls on the ground, looking for treasures they can buy for a pittance and sell for a fortune.

Two of these dealers, Sasha and Arthur, own the stand called “The Collector” on one of the main avenues of Udelnaya market where they sell antiques. The Italian song “O sole mio” plays loudly inside their stand; the two men flirt with young ladies while keeping an eye on the serious clients. They sell watches, coins, sets of Soviet dishes, old cameras and, of course, busts of Lenin. More curious – and expensive – objects are on their shelves as well. Arthur claims to have the business card of a famous Russian poet of the beginning of the 20th century – Alexander Blok. “I carry it with me,” he says, smiling. “Near to the heart.” Alexander says they once got the cigarette case made by the famous jeweler Karl Faberge. Some stranger found it in trash and brought it to them.

Arthur has been coming to Udelnaya since he was six years old. His grandparents sold antiques here, then his parents, and now him. “It is a family business, it goes on for generations. And my children and grandchildren will do the same.” His face breaks into a smile.

Fishing for treasures

The official name and purpose of Udelnaya  is “the social market for the poorest groups of people”. It belongs to a private owner. “These are very good people,” says Egor, a market administrator wearing a black leather jacket. He refuses to give further comments as he is busy with his duties. Several administrators work on the market every weekend. They know every seller and bring discipline to what seems to be a chaotic conglomerate on the ground.

Udelnaya flea market is situated in a curious place between the railway and the local mental asylum. While the noise of the arriving trains can be clearly heard from the market, few visitors are aware of its proximity to the mental health center.

The market has existed here for some 20 years and has hardly changed during this time, old-timers say. Its name probably comes from the Russian word “to fish” – udit’. Before the city had expanded this far north, people used to fish here. Now people come here to “fish” for treasures in the piles of junk.
The space next to the railway station was always popular among dealers and bargainers. “We used to crowd into a yard just near the metro station,” recalls Alexander, “but the neighbours got annoyed.” Throughout the years, Blokha, “the flea” as Alexander likes to call it, shifted further and further away from the metro. “Soon they will send us outside the city,” he says.

Selling the memories

In recent years, more and more young people and migrants are selling at the market, but the majority of the sellers are still pensioners. Two friends and neighbours, Kirillich and Mikhailich, are among these pensioners. They own a small shed on the market’s outer edges, close to the railway station.

Each Friday and Saturday for the past six years, Kirillich has come to the market to sell his belongings. “Everything that is extra at home from a water tap to books… everything that my wife wants to throw away, I bring here,” says Kirillich. His Udelnaya story started with a passion for collecting postage stamps and coins. “I come here to talk to people, it is like a club for me,” he says and adds, half-jokingly, “also to run away from my wife and kids – it is very important.”

Photo: Daniel Hjorth
“I come here to talk to people, it is like a club for me,” says Kirillich. Photo: Daniel Hjorth

His neighbour and companion in the shed Mikhalich also sells his own possessions. Among the things at their stall is a bone car wheel from a Volga – an old model of a Russian car. Mikhailich used to work as a taxi driver. His first car was a Volga and had the exact same wheel. That was back in 1972.

“How much are you selling this one for?” I ask. 
“30,000 roubles,” Mikhalich says without thinking. 
“Do you think anybody will buy it for that price?” I wonder aloud. 
“You know… I am not sure I want anybody to buy it actually,” he says with hope.

Ground Haggler

To own a shed is a luxury. The rent is several thousand roubles per month. Those who can’t afford one sell on the ground. Here people pay 50-200 roubles for the space, depending on the square metres they occupy.

“Do not take pictures of me,” says an old lady selling her stuff on the ground at the very edge of Udelnaya market. She rings a small bell to attract attention. An open bottle of Putinka vodka and a half-eaten pickle are lying on the ground next to her chair.

“I am a respected person; I work for a social organization. We put flowers on the monuments in honour of those who were repressed during Soviet times. My photos appear in the newspapers,” she says. “Of course I do not want anybody to know that I am selling here, especially not my children.” Clothing, cutlery and coins are spread on the ground. She sells to earn money “to buy meat”. “But not for bread,” she insists. For that, she already has enough.

“How much is this knife?” inquires one man. “700 roubles,” she replies. “Or less… we can make a deal,” she adds with a lower voice. None of the sellers want to bring their unsold goods back home. What was meant to be sold for 500-700 les is eventually given away for 100 by 2pm. These Udelnaya sellers on the ground will earn around 2000 roubles for their work. And that’s on a good day.

A journey into the past

Udelnaya flea market is a well-known tourist attraction of the city. It is not unusual to see foreigners hunting for Soviet-era souvenirs. Hipsters, young locals and students alike scan the stalls in search of vintage clothes. One can find countless objects at Udelnaya to decorate a modern café, bar or studio.

Photo: Daniel Hjorth
The market has existed for over 20 years and people say it hasn’t hardly changed. The name Udelnaya comes from the Russian word “to fish”. Photo: Daniel Hjorth

Some come here to buy goods for their daily life like a new water tap or a winter coat. Some pass by to check it out and end up finding something that reminds them of their childhood. Collectors of different types run between stalls comparing the prices.

Children are an uncommon sight at the market, but those who are there look as if they have just opened a box of treasures. “And those irons?” a small girl asks her father, pointing to a heavy pile of old cast irons. “You used to put those on fire… to heat them,” explains the father. “Interesting… I thought the irons always looked as they do today!” she exclaims, as they continue their journey to the next stall.

Text by Natalia Smolentceva

Photos by Daniel Hjorth

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