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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
March 22, 2000

Maybe I'm dating myself here, but I remember a time when all the bad guys in the movies and on TV were the Russians. James Bond was commissioned to fight them, Tom Cruise's class in Top Gun got some close
calls from them, Sean Connery went underwater in The Hunt for Red October to battle them, and our government built new bombs to "defend" us against them. There was a time when the U.S.S.R. was a mainstay in our everyday lives. These days things aren't so clear. These days the bad guys in films are aliens or computer matrixes... But whatever happened to the U.S.S.R.? We all know that the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90's, but what happened then?

This enormous country, that looked bigger than an ocean on world maps, all of a sudden dropped off the face of the planet, so to speak. It was so easy before to just refer to that whole region as the Soviet Union, or incorrectly as "Russia." Now we have no clearly defined "enemy." All of a sudden the world is no longer easily divided into the Allies in the West and the others "Behind the Iron Curtain." The nightly news stopped talking about our "Cold War" against the U.S.S.R., and started talking about actual wars in Eastern Europe between groups of people I hadn't heard of before. Countries I could barely pronounce were fighting each other for reasons I couldn't understand. Here in Turkey, the collapse of the former Soviet Union hit a lot closer to home, and people feel the consequences a lot more directly.

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Here, the U.S.S.R. and its collapse weren't so easily forgotten. In 1991, Turkey, who had maintained closed borders with their imposing neighbor, the Soviet Union, suddenly found itself bordered by Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan...three small nations representing three ethnic groups. Did you know that the Soviet Union was made up of many different ethnicities, and Russians didn't even make up 50% of the population? Did you know that what once was one enormous nation, turned into 15 individual countries in a matter of a few years? What once was one of the greatest superpowers on the planet, became 15 fledgling countries struggling with internal strife, border disputes, and severe economic hardships. Transitioning from a totalitarian state with a communist economy into a democratic state with a liberal economy is no easy task, and the former Soviet republics are learning that the hard way.

Ever since Turkey opened its borders after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., people from the former Soviet Republics have been flooding into Turkish cities desperately looking for ways to make money. Even though the majority of these immigrants come from Georgia and Armenia, most Turks call them all Russians. To these "Russians," Turkey represents a gateway to the West...a European country with a free economy and opportunity to improve their escape from the war-torn, impoverished, and unstable homelands they come from.

Most of these immigrants head to cities in the North-East of Turkey, like Trabzon, on the coast of the Black Sea, but some travel farther into the country. My Turkish friends told me that there are many Russians even here in Istanbul, and that I could find them at the "suitcase" bazaar in Laleli. "Hmmm...I wonder why people from the former Soviet Republics have taken to selling suitcases?" I thought to myself. Laleli is not so far from Sultanahmet , so I decided to go check it out for myself.

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As I walked past the familiar streets, past the familiar mosques and the covered bazaar, I started getting worried that maybe I was lost. I saw shops selling embroidered pillows and Turkish rugs, restaurants and fast food stands, computer stores and sweet shops but still no suitcases. "I wonder if I passed it, or if I'm going the wrong way?" I thought. I passed a young girl selling scarves and used clothing from a suitcase on the street, and I stopped to ask her for directions. I almost started to ask the question when I realized that of course she didn't speak English, so the question would be useless!

As I turned to walk away, I noticed a sign for a restaurant written in Cyrillic script. "Wait a second, that looks like Russian to me. I must be getting close!" I continued to walk and soon passed an old man selling random toiletries and calculators from a suitcase on the next street corner. Finally like a flash of lightening I awakened from my ignorance. The Suitcase Bazaar isn't a place where suitcases are sold, it's a place where the shops are the suitcases! It's called the Suitcase Bazaar, because it's just that. A place where men and women from the former Soviet Republics pack their suitcases full of whatever they can get their hands on and sell their goods in Turkey. When they sell everything, they use the money to buy consumer goods that are unavailable in their countries, refill the suitcases, and return home to sell the rare Turkish goods. Walking around Laleli you will pass many men and women with open suitcases on the sidewalks selling anything from toiletries to clothing to cameras to CD's. If you have the patience to look, you could find almost anything you need for cheap prices, but it helps a lot if you can bargain in Russian!

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Unfortunately, not all Turks are happy with the influx of Russians across the open borders, and many complain that they are nothing but criminals. The sweet girl selling scarves on the corner? A criminal? Nope. No matter how hard I tried to picture her as a sinister suitcase seller...I just couldn't do it. Yes, maybe technically she is breaking the law by selling goods without a permit, but a "criminal" is a harsh word to use. What most Turks are referring to are the other more criminal activities that a different breed of Russian immigrants are involved in. People in need of money will resort to desperate measures to obtain it some times, and, unfortunately, many people from the former Soviet Republics have found themselves in just such a need. In addition to a number of petty thieves, many prostitutes have come in to Turkey from the former Soviet Republics. On Turkish news, you will often hear about "Natashas," as the prostitutes have been dubbed, being forced to leave the country. The police are starting to crack down on these bleach blond women from Russia that are increasing the spread of AIDS and tarnishing Turkey's reputation as a conservative Islamic country.


imposing - to establish authority by force
totalitarian - when a government strictly controls all aspects of a person's life
Cyrillic - alphabet used for writing Russian and other Slavic languages
influx - a coming in

Walking around the streets of Laleli, I did not encounter any Natashas or pickpockets. In fact I had a really nice time. All the salesmen were very friendly, and I was surprised to find that they all spoke a number of languages, including their own Eastern language and Russian, English, German, and, of course, Turkish. Hearing about the different countries they had come from made me realize how little I really know about all of these recently independent countries. As we head east out of Istanbul on our way to Iran, we'll also be getting closer to Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. Hopefully I'll be able to start learning more about these fascinating people. People who have been wrongly called "Russians" and "Natashas," or depicted as criminals and bad guys for so long, but who in actuality have rich histories and distinct cultures that we could all learn a lot from.

- Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Links: Republic of Georgia's US Embassy webpage has history and country profile Armenia resource page with links about culture, history, etc. Information about the history and images of Cyrillic alphabet


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