At Moscow's animal market, it's a capitalist jungle


MOSCOW -- Squirming masses of maggots and bloodworms, a feast for your fish at 50 kopecks a scoop; promising puppies of the distinguished Ruslan -- a German shepherd with more medals on his chest than the late Leonid I. Brezhnev -- just 2,500 rubles a pup. It's all here.

If it barks, chirps, meows, hops, wriggles or slithers, you can buy it here. You can buy what it eats, and something to keep it from eating you.

Welcome to Ptichy Rynok, literally the "bird market," actually Moscow's pet market. Welcome to unbridled capitalism. Welcome to animal mania.

It is only 7:30 on Saturday morning, but already half of Moscow seems to be here, sellers standing in the crisp sunshine, offering animal life of every size and brand to discerning buyers.

As a reader of the Western press, you may think of Moscow as a place where half the people are gripped by politics, forming political parties and holding protest rallies, while the other half line up for rotten potatoes.

No, no, no. That's all imperialist propaganda. Spend a couple of hours at Ptichy Rynok and you will soon conclude that even in a time of revolutionary politics and devastating shortages, what Russians care most about is their pets.

"You could say I'm one of those who have a minimal interest in politics," says Pavel, a mustachioed man of 36, selling books near the market gates. "I'm interested in dogs."

On his display are "Huskies and Hunting with Them," "Catalog of the 58th Exhibition of Work Dogs," "Instructions on Trimming and Cutting Poodles," "Breeding Guard Dogs," "The Collie" and a dozen more canine titles. Sixty kopecks gets you postcards of many a fine dog specimen. Four rubles gets you a calendar with a chow pinup.

Pavel declines to give his last name because of the dual threat from tax collectors and extortionists. But he does say he is a cardiologist by training who took a fancy to German shepherds and found it impossible to buy books about them.

A year ago, he quit his 10-year-old medical practice and took up publishing and selling dog books full time. "There's huge interest. I could sell a lot more books if I could get them," Pavel says.

In this chaotic couple of acres, which on certain weekend mornings may be the mostly densely populated place on the planet, people have shopped for decades for devoted companionship in a harsh world.

"The Great Soviet Encyclopedia" does not reveal whether Lenin ever came here, looking for a cocker spaniel or a snowshoe hare. But there are late photographs of him, after he'd had his stroke and retreated to Gorki, outside the capital, with a cat. Maybe he bought her here. Maybe the great revolutionary saw her tangled with her siblings in a cardboard box and couldn't say no.

It happens. At Ptichy Rynok, the most hardened Muscovites grow warm and fuzzy.

The old woman elbowing people into unconsciousness on the trolley bus steps off here and purrs along with the kittens peeking out of her canvas bag. The bureaucrat whose weekday pleasure is --ing young couples' hopes for an apartment lines up with the proletariat to buy sunflower seeds for his parakeet. The drunk usually scavenging for vodka stands here soberly arguing the finer points of feeding the clown triggerfish and the brilliant rasbora.

"I love animals, all of them," says Nina Alexandrovna Nikolaeva, 59, a tall, silver-haired retiree from a textile plant who has paid her 50 kopecks for the right to stand at a table and sell. "At the dacha I have pigs, dogs, cats, chickens and rabbits, and I want to get a goat."

Before her at this moment are two baskets, one containing four 2-month-old Angora kittens, the other containing one 3-month-old Angora kitten.

She says she learned her love for animals on the farm near Bryansk where she spent her early childhood. But the memories were poisoned, she said, by the arrest and exile of her grandfather in 1936, when she was 4.

"He was too good a farmer. We had a little more than the neighbors, so they took him away," she says.

To the passers-by, in a singsong patter, Mrs. Nikolaeva says: "I'll give 'em to you for five rubles, just five. They're adorable. I love animals, all of 'em. Just five rubles. Angora kittens. Five rubles."

A young woman with short brown hair the color of the kittens walks up.

"You have a calm one, a girl?" the woman asks.

"Coming right up," Mrs. Nikolaeva says, deftly flipping the nipping kittens to check their sexes. She finds a female and hands it over. "Just take good care of her, is all I ask. I love 'em all."

Sales at Ptichy Rynok take place against an unbroken background cacophony of barking and chirping. Two men argue at the top of their lungs about the lineage of a homing pigeon.

A big crowd hums around two trucks at the southern end of the market, where two women in white smocks unload day-old chicks and day-old ducklings.

Here and there somebody with something to sell takes advantage of a crowd with money. One man stands guard over a 4-foot lemon tree bearing a half-dozen huge lemons. Another squats beside a blanket on which old tools and a new faucet are spread.

Zhenya Billik, 35, with a red beard, holds the black umbrella shading his apricot miniature poodle, trimmed and combed to perfection.

"How much?"

"One thousand." Mr. Billik pauses, then realizes he is dealing with a naif. "Not for her, she's the mama. For the puppies in that box over there."

Mr. Billik has been coming here all his conscious life, he says. "I had an aquarium. I'd come and look at the fish and birds. It's in my blood."

Though he was born and bred a city boy, Ptichy Rynok has, in a way, changed his life. Keeping his Moscow apartment just in case, he's moved to the country, 50 miles away, to raise goats.

He leased about 25 acres of land for hay last year, but this year the local authorities took it away. "Fascists! They don't need independent people. They need sheep," Mr. Billik says.

But he says he's determined to make it as a new Russian farmer: "I learned to love animals here, and I guess I never forgot."

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