Page last updated at 09:33 GMT, Monday, 7 March 2011

'Buy from babushkas': Markets in Ukraine

Marta Shokalo
BBC Ukrainian Service

Meat on sale at Kiev Market
Ukraine's markets offer cheap prices for buyers and a chance for sellers to supplement meagre incomes

Why do Ukrainians still prefer to buy their food and clothes on the street?

Most Ukrainians shop at the markets which have thrived since the early 1990s. But as the economy grows, will they disappear? Locals doubt it.

"Try my pickled gherkins, crunchy and spicy." 62 year old Nadia invites me to try, and gives me one out of the big bucket.

She travels to Kiev every Saturday from a little town called Pryluky, 200 kilometres away.

Nadia, 62, selling picked gherkins
Nadia travels 200km to sell gherkins so she can support her son

"I need to come here. I am a pensioner and I have a son, who is a student. I try to support him as much as I can." Nadia smiles and buries her hands in her fur coat pockets.

The little market where Nadia sells her gherkins is not far from where I live. Home grown and homemade produce lies out on the side of the pavement including potatoes, beetroot, carrots, apples, dried fruits, jars with pickles, jam and eggs.

On the meat stall there are chops of fresh beef and pork, slightly frozen, as it is -10 C today. Pigs' heads and trotters are on display, alongside homemade blood sausages, or black pudding.

"Buy our potatoes - we grow them at home, freshly homemade sausages, tender pork fat from the pigs we feed ourselves," cry out the villagers.

There is an expression in Ukraine, "buy from babushkas", a synonym for homemade and organic.

This is one of the main reasons people come here for food. Recently Ukrainian shops and supermarkets have started selling imported vegetables and people haven't warmed to the idea.

Blood pudding, Kiev
Homemade blood sausage is a delicacy in Ukraine

There are potatoes from Egypt, beetroot, apples and carrots from Poland and even blackberries from Mexico.

Most of the vendors who buy and sell here have known their customers for years. Sometimes sellers don't even need to ask buyers what they want.

My colleague Svitlana has bought dairy produce from the same lady for more than 10 years.

"She has several regular clients. When she comes to our market every Sunday, she never spends more than an hour there. Good for her and for us", she says.

Some people who sell at the market do it to boost their 700 hryvnia ($88) per month pension. For most young people who live in the countryside, growing and selling food is the only way to earn a living.

Lubny bazaar

Plastic flower stall at Lubny market
Plastic flowers and wreaths are a traditional way to embellish cemeteries

It's Sunday and I'm at the central square of a small town called Lubny, in Poltava region. It is 9 o'clock in the morning and -15 C but the market is packed.

There are stalls with plastic flowers and wreaths for graves - the traditional Ukrainian way to decorate cemeteries.

There are two old ladies selling brooms, there are stalls selling underwear, stationary, perfume, cooking utensils, wheat. In fact, anything you can think of.

There are not many shops in little towns like Lubny, so the bazaar is the best place to go shopping.

Going to market on Sunday is like a special ceremony, it is an opportunity to meet friends, hear news and catch up on gossip, which is exactly what 61 year old Mr Ivan is doing. His wife Maria is not happy about it at all.

"While he is chatting, something is getting nicked off our stall," she complains.

Mr Ivan with his stall, Lubny
Retired teacher Mr Ivan (right) has a stall to subsidise his pension

They sell various hardware, from shoelaces, washcloths and batteries, to fly spray and rat poison.

Mr Ivan used to be a teacher and worked at the market in his spare time. Since retirement, he and his wife have kept their stall to make ends meet.

"We have been here for 15 years, we started our small business because our salary wasn't good enough. And now our pension is not good enough to live on. I have 1000 hryvnias ($126) and my wife has 600 hryvnias ($76) per month. Half of that we spend on utilities," says Mr Ivan as he takes me to one of his former pupils, Iryna.

Iryna is selling children clothes. "Working in sales is the most popular job here," she says. "This is what most young people like me do after they finish studying. They don't have much choice. There is only one factory in the town - a dairy plant."

Neresnystia at dawn

Ukrainian markets operate all week long - with the exception of Mondays, Easter and Christmas - but the busiest market days are usually Saturday and Sunday.

Market day in Neresnytsia, a village in Western Ukraine near the Hungarian border, is on Thursdays, when thousands of people flock here from the surrounding area.

The scale and diversity of this market is impressive, it starts at dawn and if you want to buy a cow or a pig, that's when you have to come.

Neresnytsia, Western Ukraine
Live animals are for sale at Neresnystia market

I am amazed to see a man trying to fit a wriggling piglet into a sack. Another man is bringing in a horse.

Animal smells merge with the scents of hay, sizzling sausages and coffee prepared on an open fire.

"My father used to come here every week. Not to buy something, but to drink, eat and hang out with his friends. Sometimes I came on a tractor to pick him up. By the end of the day he was too drunk to walk," says one of the locals Pavlo Boychuk, who invites me to try some shashlik with stewed cabbage.

Served on a plastic plate with a piece of rye bread and a plastic tumbler of homemade wine, it's truly delicious.

Dying out?

My friend Inna lives in Kiev. Twice a year, in spring and in autumn, with her mum and her sister, she travels to Khmelnytsky to buy clothes.

"It's usually too cold to try something on in the morning. So we just wander around first. But later when it gets packed it makes the changing process even harder.

Clothes stall at Lubny market
50% lower prices make up for no changing rooms

"There are no changing rooms of course, so you just get undressed in front of everyone. The most important thing is not to see when someone is staring at you".

Inna doesn't mind the inconvenience as clothes are 50% cheaper than in Kiev and there is much more choice.

Ukrainians like to say that the tradition of markets there is an old and enduring one. But not everyone agrees.

"Markets in Ukraine will die out when there will be no need for people to buy something cheaper," says historian and ethnographer Ludmyla Nabok from Pereyaslav, a town 70km from Kiev which is famous for its large market.

Homemade oil and chicken, Kiev market
Food from the markets is widely considered to be better and cheaper

Mrs Nabok disagrees and thinks Ukrainians will never stop buying food at the markets as it's always cheaper and better than in the supermarket.

"Although selling clothing and shoes, which started in early 1990s, is now declining and moving into big shopping centres," she says.

It's more comfortable to try a shirt or trousers on in a warm, well lit changing room with a big mirror on the wall rather than standing on a carton in the freezing cold.

Quality products

Khmelnytsky is known as a market city. There are more than 50 of them in Ukraine and it is estimated that at least half of its citizens sell something. This massive surge in entrepreneurship started in early 1990 after the Soviet Union collapsed.

"The Soviet system couldn't provide a quality product that would satisfy customers' needs. Millions of people lost their traditional jobs and they filled the gap [in the market] that had existed... during the Soviet period," says campaigner for small businesses, Oleander Danylyuk.

An apple stall at Kiev market
There are hopes that Ukrainian markets will evolve rather than die out

He believes that markets in Ukraine might disappear in just 5 years because small entrepreneurs can't compete with big retailers.

But he hopes that markets in Ukraine will develop into something more civilised and comfortable for the customers, instead of disappearing completely.

My parents bought me my first pair of jeans in 1993 at the Kiev football stadium market, the same football stadium which will host the Euro 2012 final.

That market went a long time ago and I haven't bought clothes in the open air for at least 15 years.

But in 2011 I still can't imagine my life without cosy street food markets. Babushka's apples will always taste better and more real for me than apples from the supermarket.

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