Cross-border kitsch creates tomorrow's tycoons

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I WAS waiting at a village railway station in southern Russia when a train roared through from the west. It was carrying old German buses with German suburban destinations still on their brows, gaudy with advertisements for Kaiser's Coffee, Westphalian savings banks, herbal mouthwash and Tyrolean holidays.

The buses on their flatcars hurtled past and vanished across the steppe towards Asia. Were they a gift from German mayors to Russia, or a deal in second-hand municipal transport concocted by some Chechen entrepreneur? I never discovered. But they were a portent.

Almost 50 years ago, the writer Primo Levi saw something like this. He was in a transit camp near the Urals after his liberation from Auschwitz, waiting for transport home to Italy. Next to the camp ran a main road, and along it came trudging the Red Army, returning from its victory over Germany and bringing its plunder with it. One day, as he stood watching the endless procession of men and horses, Levi saw a hallucination approaching. It was a yellow double-decker Berlin bus, one of those long-bonneted old monsters called Schnauzebus (snout-bus), still with its destination-boards for Spandau or Oberschoneweide. Wagon-shafts had been fixed to its front, and it was being pulled by horses. Crammed with booty, it passed him and slowly wobbled over the horizon towards Siberia.

Trade in Eastern Europe can wear archaic masks. In all the transformations as the Communist empire fell apart, none was more startling than the reappearance of the 'trade route'. Throughout western Eurasia, there began to emerge an ancient pattern of merchants travelling with their goods by caravan, of vast open-air fairs, of conclaves at which powerful men laid down their own exchange rates and credit terms. Routes appeared, crossing frontiers once closed by wire and mines, traversed by convoys of broken- down buses, wheezing Trabants, trains whose corridors were blocked by cartons done up with string, even aircraft so weighed down that they could scarcely crawl off the ground.

To everyone's surprise, the Poles were first into this world of opportunity - the Poles, who had a reputation for disdaining the un-aristocratic business of buying and selling. Well before 1989, the network of Polish trade routes was beginning to cover Central and Eastern Europe. Its western terminus was a market by the old Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. Eastwards, it stretched to a huge bazaar which appeared outside Vilnius in Lithuania, its finances controlled by a cultivated Polish gentleman with a suite in the Lietuva Hotel. A more ambitious circular route curved southwards. The Polish caravans entered Romania, where American dollars could be bought at a good rate, and continued to Istanbul where the dollars were spent on carpets and rugs. From there, goods were taken by ship to Odessa and re-sold for dollars, or loaded into trains which completed the circular journey back to Poland.

Even allowing for the bribes paid to customs, this trade began to create zloty billionaires. But trouble broke out in Berlin in early 1990, soon after the Wall came down, at a time when East and West Germany still had separate currencies. Polish traders were buying the contents of East Berlin supermarkets, selling them in West Berlin for Deutschmarks, buying soft Ostmarks at a colossal discount on the black market and returning to the East to clean out another shop. This trip could be made several times in a day, but the East Berliners rebelled. Polish cars and buses were attacked, and Poles were beaten up or knifed in back streets - in retrospect, the first act in the drama of murderous attacks on foreigners.

Now the picture has changed. The Poles have begun to lose command of the trade routes. But this is evidence of success, not failure. Economic reform is taking root in Poland, and pedlars are turning into businessmen. A merchant importing carpets can now sit in a Warsaw office and order by fax. The economy is stable enough to allow payment by bank transfer, rather than by wads of grimy dollar bills. By the end of 1991, the Eurasian trade routes were passing into the hands of the Russians.

Every afternoon, an Aeroflot plane leaves the Yezilkoy airport in Istanbul for Moscow. By mid-morning there is a queue of trolleys several hundred yards long, each loaded with bales sewn into artificial hessian wrappers. The Russian traders stand with their goods, waiting to be cleared by a squad of Turkish customs officers attached to the Moscow check-in desk. These Russians are young men and women, neatly dressed, well-educated and confi dent. Most of them have united into informal 'travel syndicates' to book tickets, visas, hotel rooms and freight space, and will only disperse when they reach Russia and go off to sell their goods in markets and bazaars. For all their jeans and sunglasses and Walkmans, they are travelling 'merchant companies' from the Middle Ages.

The Russian trade routes now reach into China. The 'caravans' travel out by air, their bags stuffed with dollars, buy Chinese goods in Manchuria (mostly cheap clothes and footwear) and take them back by rail. But Turkey is the big destination for the amateurs, the small-timers. They set off by coach clutching bags crammed with every kind of kitsch and tat, from bath taps and KGB uniforms to carrotgraters and medals of Stalin. They travel from as far away as St Petersburg - a 3,500- mile return trip to the 'Russian Markets' of Rize, Samsun or Trebizond.

The romance of the merchant-venturer? There is nothing romantic about days and nights spent in ill-sprung, unventilated buses, or about snatching sleep on campsites or Black Sea beaches near the Turkish cities. And, as in the Middle Ages, a trade route attracts bandits. The buses are regularly ambushed near the Georgian frontier by gangs who strip the traders of watches, money and Turkish leather jackets. In turn, armed men have to be hired at gruesome prices to escort convoys through bandit country. Duty or bribes have to be paid to customs, and, back in Russia, every flea market has its boss who must be paid for protection.

And yet the caravans keep on coming. This sort of trading is like an elemental force of nature: demand pouring out like water through a breached dam until supply finally allows it to find its own level. Walking through the endless Russian market which stretches down the Trebizond coast highway beside the docks, it seems as if the economies of Russia and Ukraine and Georgia must be bleeding to death, so huge is the cataract of manufactured goods flowing out of those countries every day - and these are goods made for home consumption, not for export.

A Eurasian continent, penned up by protectionist ideology for nearly a century, is greedy for the living standards of the outside world - for what Soviet economists used to call 'primitive accumulation'. From the travellers and traders, a new mercantile class is slowly taking shape. One day, they will wear suits and work out of slick modern offices in Moscow or St Petersburg. But, for the moment, the future of Russia is on the roads.