It was my old friend S. Rangarajan (alias RJ) -- whose strong Russian connection I had mentioned in the preceding note (Jan. 8) and who now lives in America -- who had alerted me about the cobblers of Moscow and Berlin. Which is probably what made me recall this particular article just now!
Incidentally, I must mention here that I was writing the Friday-evening column under the pen-name Raja Vishnu: that's why you'll find my inner-circle friends calling me Vish, as in this cameo about Dilli's omnipresent roadside cobblers.
Evening News, New Delhi
12 March 1976
"I am glad the season is changing," Rajpath Roy said. "I am fed up with wearing all these winter things! I'd like to kick off my shoes, peel off my socks, and relax with a pair of slippers!"
"That's what I used to think," Safdar Singh said. "But I found out that you can get your shoes re-soled quite cheaply by the cobbler in the local market."
"Oh, really?" Kutubullah asked. "I didn't know these cobbler chaps undertook major repairs!"
"They do! And I can say this for my cobbler, he certainly does a good job of it!" Safdar Singh said.
"The cobbler is an interesting character, but he's a village institution," I said. "You can't see a cobbler in every nook and corner of Bombay or Madras. But you can see him in every sectoral market in New Delhi, squatting in a corner under a tree, and invariably puffing away at his hookah!"
"There you go again, Vish, with your pet theory: New Delhi is a hundred villages!" Janapathi said. "Next thing you'll be saying: Moscow is a thousand villages, because in many Moscow boulevards you can see a cobbler -- sometimes a woman -- sitting in a pavement kiosk!"
"In urban Europe the individual cobbler as an institution is dead, though he was very much alive in the 18th century," Rajpath Roy said. "The heroine's father in A Tale Of Two Cities was a Parsian cobbler, remember?"
"But I've seen some roadside cobblers in Berlin , in the second half of the 20th century!" Safdar Singh said.
"Did you hear that, Vish?" Janapathi exclaimed. "Now you can start saying: Berlin is just a big village!"
After keying in that 37-year-old article of mine, out of sheer curiosity I looked for some information online about the past and present status of Moscow's roadside cobblers, and quickly found a couple of reports which tell the whole story succinctly. The following extracts will do if you are in a hurry, but otherwise I would recommend your reading the original texts also, because they're so well written!
San Francisco Chronicle
Peter Finn, Washington Post
30 Sept. 2007
For 50 years, Yevgeny Yivo has worked on Neglinnaya Street performing "emergency surgery," as he puts it, on the battered and broken shoes of passing Muscovites. . . .
Repairing shoes is a family tradition for Yivo, 76, who learned the trade from his father. His Assyrian Christian parents fled to Russia in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I and hostilities between Russia and Turkey.
The Yivos, like many of their refugee compatriots, became cobblers. Since then, Assyrian Christians have been a small but enduring part of this city's streetscape, first as state employees in the Soviet Union, then as entrepreneurs following the collapse of communism.
But it is a way of life that is dying out, in part because younger and educated members of the Assyrian community are eschewing their parents' trade and also because Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has declared war on the city's kiosks. . . .
"The future looks very uncertain, but we hope the mayor will see that we are still essential," Yivo said. "We were like a dynasty, generation to generation, but after all these years it's coming to an end."
Radio Free Europe
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.
By Chloe Arnold
14 Oct. 2007
"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."
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. . . .
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. . . . 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. Yury Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, has declared war on the thousands of stalls and kiosks that clutter the capital's streets. . . . 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? . . . . You have to provide for people. . . . Let's just wait and see what happens!"