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Feature Story November 18, 2005
 
Stranger in a Strange Land
By Asya Passinsky
 
 

I'm not sure how much of this story is true. I thought I'd gotten to know Masha, a Tajik fruit and vegetable seller that I'd befriended by Belorusky Voksal. But then maybe Russian stereotypes about Central Asians have some truth to them: Russians say that they always smile and say yes, but you never really know what they're thinking.

Masha told me that she was leaving this past Monday to return to her family in Khujand. Since there were several credibility gaps in her story already, I decided to call her on Tuesday to see if she'd actually left. She picked up the phone.

We made quite a pair, Masha and I. She's a fruit-selling Tajik who's spent the last six months working 15-hour days at a kiosk near Belorusky Voksal, and I'm a Jewish emigre Berkeley student spending the semester here in Moscow. I met Masha about a month ago, stopping to buy a banana on my way home from classes.

Now, after having spent a day working alongside her, I still had trouble separating fact from fiction when she described her life to me.

One thing I can say for certain is that Masha's life is living hell. It's not that the work is particularly difficult-though I had a hard enough time with it, constantly mixing up prices and adding things up wrong-but that the hours are completely inhumane. Two-thirds of every day Masha spends in a cramped box. And it's not like she gets any days off. According to my calculations, Masha's workweek amounts to 105 hours. 105 hours! Even the brutal Russian Labor Code doesn't sanction that.

Unfortunately for Masha, labor laws in Moscow don't exactly protect illegal migrant workers. And gaining legal status is nearly impossible. On the bright side, it looks like migrant workers are now finally being accepted as a necessary part of the economy, and there are signs from the Kremlin that restrictions on immigrants from the CIS are about to be significantly loosened. Russia's already made it easier and cheaper for Ukrainians to register legally, and the UN's International Labor Organization says that it expects an announcement in December that this policy will be extended in 2006 to immigrants from all CIS countries. Masha's only been harassed by the militsia once, when they took a R500 bribe to release her.

Nobody's really sure just how many migrant workers there are in Moscow, but estimates range into the millions: that's a lot of powerless and exploited people. Tajiks, who come from the poorest CIS state, tend to perform the meanest, lowest-paying jobs. Tajikistan, never exactly the economic engine of the USSR, became even poorer following a brutal five-year ethnic war after gaining independence in 1992. Now, its economy is basically Afghanistan's, minus the opium and international aid. An estimated 60% of the population lives in poverty. It's no wonder Masha wanted to get out.

I arrived at Masha's kiosk at half-past seven in the morning. She was sitting behind the sliding glass window looking bored. Not many people wake up that early on a Sunday morning. Though Masha and I had agreed that I would work alongside her for the day, she still seemed surprised when I showed up. Most customers that she befriends don't really give a damn about her work or her life. I probably showed more interest in her than everyone she's met in Moscow combined. Except, maybe, for the fruit delivery guy who wanted to sleep with her.

Masha let me in through a massive gate and a broken down door. The kiosk was larger than it appeared from the outside. It was only a couple of meters wide, but length-wise it was about the size of a small kitchen. Cartons and cardboard boxes of produce lined the walls. Sealed boxes of fresh bananas obstructed the entrance. Every time I walked through the door, I somehow managed to jab myself against the sharp corner of these boxes.

A funny-looking duck-taped swivel chair sat in the middle of the room. It looked ready to collapse any minute. Closer to the window there was a chipped wooden stool that was apparently used for reaching produce stacked on the top shelves.

Masha now: still smilin' six months later

The floor looked like it hadn't been washed in years and was sticky from all the rotten fruit that's passed over it. When pears and apples fell down from their boxes, Masha just picked them right up and gave them to the next customer.

Masha pulled out some old photos of herself and showed them to me. In one of them, she is about 19 and wearing a black and white dress cotton suit. Her hair is pulled back and parted to the side. With dimples and a slight smile, she looks stunningly beautiful. In her hands she is holding a stuffed animal dressed in bright red pants and a pink hat. On the left stands her sister, cradling a child. The three of them look like a happy, healthy middle class provincial family.

It's hard to tell how attractive she is now, in her lumpy beige-colored working sweater and poorly chopped, dyed hair, which she restyled in an attempt to look more Russian (never mind that she has clearly Asian features). But six months of being stuck in a kiosk all day have taken their toll. She's gained weight, her arms are bulky with muscle, her face is pudgier, and she has deep creases under her eyes, which she ineffectively tries to cover up with cheap cosmetics.

Masha's best years are behind her. But like most women, she still wants to feel beautiful. Last week she bought R600 perfume from some vendor that was going around the kiosks selling beauty products. The sad part is that she has no one to wear it for. All her days are the same: she gets to the kiosk by 8am, works until 11pm with no breaks, rides the bus back to the 2-bedroom apartment she shares with seven of her relatives, takes a shower, does laundry, and goes to bed.

The only people she has to impress are her young-to-middle-aged male customers, whom she desperately clings to. I was her flirting tool for the day. Any time an attractive guy showed up, Masha would introduce me as her American helper, and then say something about how pretty my hair was, or how beautiful my eyes were. I was her conversation hook. It was also her way of fishing for compliments for herself. Sometimes it worked.

Masha tried hard to impress me too. She showed me her transcript from the Dushanbe Medicinal College, where she graduated as a midwife: all 5's except in gynecology. Then she told me all about how she worked in a foreign embassy-or an American and Indian corporation, she couldn't decide which one-during her third year of college. And how she would get coffee served to her at the press of a button. And about how her American boss wanted to marry his son to her. But she wasn't in love with him, so she didn't agree.

"Do people in America kiss only when they're in love?" Masha suddenly asked me.

According to her, that is how things are done in Tajikistan. Yet for all her romantic talk, she is quite a cynic where love is concerned, and not without reason. Masha was 23 when she fell in love with her husband. But shortly after their marriage-when she was pregnant with their son-he left for St. Petersburg to look for work. There he fell for a Tatar woman. At one point he told Masha that he wanted both her and the Tatar woman. Masha wrote him a sentimental poem in Russian that she pulled out for me to see-why it was written in Russian and not in her native language, I don't know. Masha seemed convinced that he cried when he read her poem, though I'm not sure how she could possibly have known if he was thousands of miles away in St. Petersburg.

Gradually he stopped returning her letters. She waited for three years, but didn't hear from him: no fight, no divorce, no money; just an ambiguous and unresolved situation. She said she heard from his friend that he now has a daughter with the Tatar woman. But Masha still loves him and claims the Tatar woman tricked him.

"You know those Tatar women," Masha concluded.

Back at home in Khujand, Tajikistan, a remote city in the country's northern mountains, Masha's parents take care of her 3-year-old son. Meanwhile, Masha is replacing the father as the breadwinner of the family: she's in Moscow trying to make $8,000 to buy her son an apartment in Khujand. She claims she's saved $4000 over the last six months.

Masha gave me varying estimates of her earnings. First she said that her salary was R500 per day. But later she added in commission, saying that everything combined came to about R900 per day. Her commission is R600 for every R25,000 worth of produce that she sells. In a typical day she sells between R15,000 and R20,000 worth. One of her strategies is to always give customers more than they ask for: you ask for 5 bananas, she'll give you 6; you ask for 1 kg of potatoes, she'll give you 1.2. Usually people don't object, since the difference isn't very substantial.

I glanced at the first page of her accounting book. Sure enough, on October 14, R21,050 worth of produce was delivered, R26,256 worth was left over from previous days, and R18,100 worth was sold. Then her commission per day would indeed amount to somewhere around R400, and her hourly salary to a whopping $2.

Masha has another revenue channel that I didn't find out about until later in the day, when I discovered it myself. A customer asked for bananas. Since the prices were only written on the outside of the kiosk, and I still didn't remember most of them, I double checked with Masha. She told me it was 35 rubles. "Isn't it 29?" I asked. Masha winked at me; when I gave her a clueless look, she nudged me to be quiet. After the woman left, Masha asked me how I thought she paid for lunch.

Most people aren't too hard to overcharge, with the exception of babushkas that count up prices for ten minutes, and middle-aged businessmen that complain about everything and bark orders at Masha as if she owed them something. A few times throughout the day Masha got caught, but she just pretended that it was a mistake. She's a great actress.

Masha saves nearly all the money she makes, with the exception of R2000 per month for housing. And the $100 she spent on her mobile flip phone, by the look of it.

The one redeeming feature of Masha's job is that every day is pay day. Her boss, a 30-year-old male from Azerbaijan who owns three other kiosks and a restaurant, comes every night to pay her. Masha said that he started from nothing 16 years ago and worked his way up. That's her dream too: to become a kiosk manager in Moscow-an independent, modern-day businesswoman.

Masha upon arrival: several kilos lighter and looking snappy in her new apron.

Masha couldn't seem to stop talking about her boss. He found her at a market. He was big and handsome. He was her role model. Later she asked me to write nasty things about him in my article. She said that after she quit her job, he didn't give her the R4000 that she had earned by overcharging people. Evidently she had not been taking the money all along, but leaving it for her boss, expecting that he would give it to her at the end. This just sounded too stupid to be the truth, and Masha wasn't a stupid girl. I couldn't help thinking that her relationship with the owner was a little more than just work-but she denied anything of the sort.

Mid-afternoon Masha told me that I had to leave because the delivery guy was coming again. I pointed out that he didn't seem to have a problem with my being there that morning: she herself had described to me how he jokingly asked if I had slept in the kiosk the previous night. She replied that she had unintentionally told him about my being a journalist. I left, suspicious of being kicked out. When I came back, the delivery guy had his arms wrapped around Masha, both of them laughing. Later Masha confessed that there was something going on between them. But she stood by her denial in regards to the owner-then again, I never did see him, so I couldn't exactly call her on anything.

At one point I mentioned to Masha that eXile editor Jake Rudnitsky might stop by. After that, she kept asking me when he was coming, was I sure that he was coming, maybe we should call him to remind him that he should be coming. When he finally came, Masha dropped everything-I even got to work solo for the first time-to talk to him. She showed him her photographs, and told him her life story. Then she went off about all of her past and current admirers and would-be-husbands.

When she was a student at the university, her relatives wanted to marry her off to a cousin. After her husband left, her parents found her a new suitor in Tajikistan. In Moscow, a Russian man proposed to her, saying that he would take care of all her documents. Then a Finnish man proposed to her, saying that he would take her away to Finland. Masha refused all of them.

"I'll show everyone who Masha is," she told Jake.

Masha back in the day

After Jake left, I told her that I needed to go to the bathroom and she handed me a bucket. I looked at her in disbelief and stammered something about other people seeing me through the glass window. She explained that I was to go outside behind the gate, where no one would see. That's what she did.

The change in her demeanor startled me almost as much as the thought of having to pee in a bucket. One minute she was a naive, idealistic young girl; the next she was a pragmatic, common-sense woman already weathered by life. As I took the bucket, I decided that considering Masha's reality, it's not much of a surprise that she clings to her childish fantasies.

And Masha has ample time to dream-her job isn't exactly intellectually demanding or stimulating. She's got the motions down, and her mind is free to wander. Fifteen hours of repetitive work can drag on for days if you don't somehow mix things up. Hell, I'd analyzed my entire time in Moscow: before lunch! Given a couple more days, I might have just thought through my entire life, and not just once. Fantasies are one way out. Relationships with people are another.

Masha described to me how one day when her sister filled in for her, a customer had refused to buy fruit because she wanted Masha back. It's these relationships with customers-be they short conversations or just a few nice words-that make the day bearable.

When a babushka came up and told us that it was her 70th birthday-and that she wanted the best of everything-Masha took special care to pick out the plumpest tomatoes, the ripest grapes, and the roundest pears. Though she didn't throw in any extras, she did listen to the babushka babble on for nearly ten minutes about the party her family was throwing for her. The babushka left happy, and it rubbed off on us.

Like anyone working near a train station, Masha also gets her share of bomzhhi looking for handouts. A woman with bright pink lipstick and a disgusting, toothless smile begged Masha to let her in to her kiosk. Then she tried to sell her a ratty jacket for 50 rubles. Masha told her that she didn't need a jacket, but the woman said that she would just leave the jacket in Masha's kiosk and she could try it out for a few days. Masha again refused. Finally the woman began whimpering about how she really, really needed the money. Masha took out 50 rubles and handed it to her. The woman flashed Masha her toothless grin, and quickly ran out, grabbing a tomato on the way. I asked Masha why she gave the woman money.

"Oh, because she actually gives it back," Masha said. Even relations with the bums are better than solitude and boredom.

Masha's shift was almost over, and she told me to leave one last time because the delivery guy and the owner were coming to do inventory. By this point I was fed up with the entire leaving business: I told Masha that I would just wait in the nearby underpass. After the delivery guy had left-I don't think the owner ever showed up-she waved for me to come back. But within a few minutes, there was a loud banging on the gate, followed by angry yelling in Tajik. Masha went outside and started yelling just as loudly and furiously. I was too shocked-or too scared-to move, so Masha practically pushed me out of the door past the angry delivery guy, who told me to never come back again.

Never come back? For Masha, my friendship was probably one of the only bright spots of her entire time in Moscow. She told me later that she would never forget the day I worked alongside her. But the delivery guy didn't give a damn-and no hugs could make up for that. Maybe he was jealous of the American that Masha spent so much time with. Maybe he really was afraid of an English-language article that neither he nor any of his acquaintances would ever see. Or maybe he had another equally stupid reason that I can't even imagine.

I took Masha to a restaurant that night. My most vivid memory is of us going to the bathroom. It was certainly better than pissing in a bucket: the walls were made to look like ivory, with brown circling lines painted on a cream-colored backdrop. The faucets were big and old-fashioned. The entire room smelled like wood. Masha wouldn't leave. First she washed her hands for nearly ten minutes, scrubbing dirt out of the creases in her palms. But then she just stood there. She looked so out of place, yet so happy. I took a picture of her and promised to send it to her Tajikistan address. But if I do, she might never get it, seeing as it seems like she plans on staying in Moscow.

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