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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Soviet Moscow's Bird Market for pets: A visit in August, 1968

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

From USSR Magazine, August 1968:

Every Sunday. despite spring floods or autumn rain winter frost or summer heat. Muscovites of all ages and professions, from seven-year-old schoolboys to 70-year-old professors, gather at the Bird Market.

Bird Market is a misnomer, for here you find pets of all kinds, sexes and pedigrees: from Great Dane to toy dog, from thoroughbred Doberman pinscher to mongrel, from noble Siamese to alley cat -- untitled kittens, fluffy Angoras, turtles and rabbits, birds and fish. No crocodiles and lions but almost everything else with paws, wings and fins. Buyers begin to gather at about eight in the morning, and by 10 or 11 the Bird Market looks likes a stock exchange on a busy day -- hardly room to move. At four o'clock in the afternoon it begins to look empty.

Nowhere else In Moscow can you feel the change of seasons so sharply as in this oasis surrounded by the concrete, glass. storm and asphalt of a modern city. Here you are reminded that the world Is still full of animals, birds and fish.

The people who frequent the Bird Market fall Into three groups. Most numerous are the animal lovers -- they have been coming here for years and know one another. In the second group are chance visitors driven here by curiosity. And finally there are those who come strictly for business. They sell all kinds of things: river sand, pebbles, seaweed, feed, fish and birds -- mostly pigeons. It is odd to see pebbles and river sand displayed on the counters -- a little like selling air -- but this Is a large city we live in and Its needs are diverse.

The Bird Market differs from other markets because of its many one-time merchants. Those who sell dogs look for a special buyer. They inspect each one carefully -- is he a suitable master for their pet? An acquaintance of mine who bought a charming sheep dog pup at the market was told by the owner "If you decide not to keep it don't give it away to just anyone. Get in touch with me. Here is my address". Dogs and even cats are often visited by former owners who want to know how their pets are doing under different patronage.

Age is irrelevant at the Bird Market; old and young are on equal ground. You might see a group of elderly men standing around a youngster selling pigeons, listening to him as though he were an oracle. You have such curious incidents as this one happening: Not long ago a boy of 12 sold a sparrow he had cleverly painted to resemble a finch.

(Continued after photos)

A word about the very small children parents bring to the Bird Market. Brought up in the city. they are bewildered at first. Once they find the animals are real and can be touched, you can't tear them away. Even the most obedient child will raise the roof unless he goes home with at least a tiny turtle. Older children come here alone a sticky ruble in a clenched fist which the proud possessor will exchange for a fish. Of course there is a zoo in the capital where one can see all the animals and birds. as well as several pet shops, but the Bird Market Is something special.

Aquariums, square and rectangular, oval and round, form a whole row In the Bird Market. They are Inhabited by fish of wondrous beauty -- striped like zebras, spotted like leopards, with tails like fans and crescents on their sides.

The Russian winter that frightens so many foreigners does not disconcert the inhabitants of the Bird Market. The Moscow River may be covered with thick ice, but the temperature in the tiny water reservoirs is the usual 65° F. to 68° F. The aquariums are kept warm by hot water bottles, primus stoves and heaven knows what else.

The row of birds twitters and warbles as if they were still deep in the woods. Bullfinch, titmice, goldfinches and canaries sit all ruffled up on their perches inside the cages. But these birds, despite their looks, are only members of the chorus backing up a famous singer; the male canary reigns here, singing and trilling for admiring crowds. Those who go to these "concerts" are acquainted with one another and sometimes exchange words for politeness' sake. Mostly they listen In reverent silence, and when some canary gives a particularly brilliant performance their faces glow with the Inspired look of music lovers at a concert by Svyatoslav Richter or Mstislav Rostropovich.



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