To the Germans the word probably meant something different than to me. And as to what it means in today’s Moscow, it is explained below by Ilya Varlamov, a long time photographer of the gastarbayters in Moscow, in his blog post “What is Moscow’s strength”, translated from Russian for Río Wang and illustrated with his earlier photo sets.
If there’s nowhere to go, people go to Moscow. They escape the bad life, go for the money, love, luck – Moscow has it all. And now already whole districts, including those of the historical center, are full of those people who have been called “season workers”, then limitchiks, and now gastarbayters. They only come for a while to earn a little extra money, and then it will remain so permanently.
Moscow has been built and shaped by the visitors since the beginnings of its history. The “true-born Moscovians” is just a well-publicized brand of yesterday’s visitors. There is nobody in Moscow whose great-grandparents at least did not come from Saratov, Nizhni Novgorod or other cities near and far. Even Moscow’s venerated founder, Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy is only a pseudo-founder. If you open any schoolbook, you will find written in black and white that when the Prince arrived at the location of the future city, there has been already a settlement there, an estate of Boyar Kuchka. It is true that Dolgorukiy for some reason did not sympathize with Boyar Kuchka, so he soon did away with him – well, not every people rushing to Moscow are equally useful. So this is how Moscow was founded: he who comes last is the founder.
You newcomers who wail that Moscow is not what it was, wipe your eyes, blow your nose and calm down. Moscow is still, or perhaps even more, what it was some ten or twenty years ago. Come, fellow natives, let us return to our favorite classics. Take down from the shelf the most Moscovian of all Moscovians, Vladimir Gilyarovsky, let us open the immortal “Moscow and the Moscovians”. Sure you know him, my folks! This book was the source of so many of our childhood experiences, and certainly you also read to your children, also true Moscovians, its beginning lines trembling with emotion: “I’m a Moscovian! How happy is the one who can utter these words and relate them to himself: I’m a Moscovian!”
You’ve read? Well, now close the book and spit. Spit, I say! Gilyarovsky was born and raised near Vologda, then he lived in Tambov, Voronezh, Penza, Ryazan, Saratov, served in the Caucasus, and finally packed up and came here when there was nowhere else to go.
“Slave market” on the Yaroslavka, at km 4 of Yaroslavskoye shosse
However, re-open the book and read carefully whom the author honors with the proud name of “Moscovians”. The seasonal workers, college students, wandering painters and travel agents. These are the true Moscovians for Gilyarovsky.
For some reason he does not write much about the old world babushki and dedushki who lived all their lives in the ancient seat town, and he does not write either about how the newcomers seize the workplaces and occupy every place; he only watches with admiration the life of the city. Now let us take this enchanting Moscow of Gilyarovsky and let us compare it with that of today: everything tallies again in every detail. Here are the poor cottages as well as the luxurious clubs and restaurants, the coachmen Vanka coming from the countryside (although these days they are called rather Arseni), the gray markets and the arrogant foreign merchants (who are now called expats). Even the gastarbayter markets are in the same places, on the Yaroslavka and at the Kasirsky dvor, and the surroundings of the three railway stations are also well revitalized. Interestingly, on a square near to the three stations already in 1929, when Gilyarovsky still lived and worked, a statue was erected in honor of the “seasonal worker” – i.e. gastarbayter –, which still stands there.
Ivan Shadr: “Seasonal worker” (1929) on the Krasnykh Vorot square, the theater of the labor force market in the early 1920s
Because in those good old days they were still honored, since whatever good was built in Moscow, was built by the gastarbayters, from Stalin’s Seven Sisters and the metro to today’s “Moscow-Siti” quarter.
To Moscow always rushed the best – and the worst. Just this is the strength of this city. What we see today is but a return to the historical traditions of this city, whose streets were trampled for centuries by Russians, Tatars, Asians, Caucasians and Jews, and which at some point, of course, was a pure Russian city. But then Yuri Dolgorukiy came from Kiev, and ruined everything.