Structures, Political Cultures and Social Practices
The Ambiguity and Functions of Informality: Some Notes from the Odessa-Chisinau Route
Introduction: A Running Bazaar
Odessa railway station, 11.30 a.m. The sun is shining on people and trains while a crowd overloaded with luggage has gathered on the last platform, leaving the rest of the station almost empty. Despite the heterogeneity of the crowd, one main type of character is immediately noticeable: the babushka. 2 These old ladies jump back and forth with unexpected vitality, carrying huge quantities of goods. Bags full of coffee, flour, cucumbers and cabbages are tied down on improvised trolleys and thrown onboard. People cry, argue, or even fight for a place. This unexpected phenomenon awoke curiosity in me as a casual observer (which I was at that time) and this only increased as I discovered that it was the train I had to take: the elektrichka travelling from Odessa to Chisinau.
An elektrichka, in Soviet terminology, is a small train, with only fourth class carriages, 3 covering a short distance very slowly. In this case it covers ← 415 | 416 → the 180 km separating Odessa from Chisinau in about five hours. What was an internal train commuting between two Soviet cities is nowadays, as a result of the collapse of the USSR, an international train that several hundred people use everyday. The train goes to Chisinau via the Transdnistrian Republic. For this reason Russian and Romanian speakers are evenly distributed but hardly anybody seems to be travelling for any other reason apart from “business”. Actually, trade is the quintessence of...
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