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Russia: Cobblers Face The Boot In Moscow

Yukhan Bavidov, one of Moscow's vanishing cobblers (RFE/RL) MOSCOW, October 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian winters are unkind to boots and shoes, and have traditionally provided ample opportunity for the ubiquitous cobbler's shop in Moscow. But with more money in their pockets, many Russians today's are buying new shoes instead of mending their old ones. Now the trade faces a more formidable threat: Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is calling for a crackdown on street stalls.  

"My name is Yukhan Daniilovich Bavidov," says a man working in a small street stall. "I've been here in Moscow since 1955. I've had two cobbler's stalls, and I've been in this one for 35 years. Before that I worked in a stall on Chekhov Street, as it used to be called. Now it's Little Dmitrovka Street."

A Service In Demand

Trade is brisk at Bavidov's tiny stall, located just a stone's throw from the Bolshoi Theater in central Moscow. A long row of shoelaces, in every size and color, hangs from a piece of wire that stretches the length of his shop window. Inside, there's just enough room for a cobbler's wheel, a rickety stool, and a battered leather satchel full of tools.

"What is he going to do with the people who work in them? Are they just supposed to lie down and die? You have to provide for people."

A distraught young woman in an expensive suit comes in to have the heel of one of her gold stilettos repaired. She perches on a pile of boxes, as Bavidov lovingly tends to the shoe. Then an old man arrives with three pairs of well-worn winter boots wrapped in a paper bag.

Like many of Moscow's cobblers, Bavidov is an Assyrian Christian, descendents of the ancient kingdom of Assyria through which the Euphrates and Tigris rivers flowed. Bavidov's parents lived in Ottoman Turkey until the empire targeted the Assyrian diaspora in 1914, reportedly massacring hundreds of thousands.

Like thousands of others, Bavidov's parents fled to Russia and the South Caucasus, where they were granted asylum by the tsar.

"From the time of World War I we started to work, to labor, so the sweat stood on our brows, he said. "And then, in 1949, 90 percent of the Assyrian population was banished to Tomsk in Siberia. Most came from Azerbaijan and Georgia. When they arrested us, they forced us to say that we were Kurds, not Assyrians. But we kicked up a great fuss. We wouldn't say we were Kurds. We are Assyrians, and we will always be Assyrians."

Not Following In Dad's Footsteps

Bavidov's family was rehabilitated in 1955 and he moved to Moscow, where he was apprenticed to an Armenian shoemaker. Bavidov says that in those days, 90 percent of Moscow's Assyrian community worked as cobblers and shoe-shiners. The more experienced ones had their own stalls, the younger ones simply set up shop on the pavement.

But today, he says sadly, their children don't want to follow in their fathers' footsteps.

"The old ones have gone, the young ones don't want to be cobblers," he added. "They've become too bright. They have different qualifications. Look here, I have four children. The first went to university. The second went to university. The third went to a vocational college. Do you really think they'd want to become cobblers now?"

Bavidov sets to work hammering a steel cap onto the heel of a man's leather shoe. But this is a sound fast disappearing from the streets of Moscow. It isn't just that Russia's Assyrian community is moving away from the cobbler's trade.

Beware Of Luzhkov

Yury Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, has declared war on the thousands of stalls and kiosks that clutter the capital's streets.

This week, he told television viewers that street stalls were unsanitary and provided poor service -- and vowed to get rid of them all.

But Bavidov, who has lived through exile to Siberia, World War II and the births of four children, seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild, is not worried.

"Oh yes, I read an article about this! But how is he going to do it? OK, so he clears them all away. Fine. But what is he going to do with the people who work in them? Are they just supposed to lie down and die? You have to provide for people. But what do I have to be afraid of now? What do I have to fear? Let's just wait and see what happens."

RFE/RL Russia Report

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