“Shuttle traders” or, getting rid of old wool

28 Apr

Old wool

Having to move and going through old stuff could be productive: old stuff gets thrown out while, by the very virtue of being thrown out, it brings in new ideas. I was going through some boxes of clothing in my basement last week and found this old woolen sweater (see photo) at the bottom of one of them. The sweater is still a few sizes bigger than what I could conceivably wear today – I can only imagine how ridiculous I must have looked in it at age 15 when this item was purchased for me at an open air market in the city where I grew up in Russia when I was a man of an even more diminutive stature than I am today.

Such sweaters came from India and/or Turkey and were brought to provincial markets in Russia by a breed of people who were  products of the early unregulated capitalist economy of the waning Soviet years and the early post-Soviet ones. These people were called chelnoki (singular: chelnok) – a word, whose original meaning  refers to a small boat that shuttles between two banks of a river carrying goods and passengers across. These shuttle traders set out on long and dangerous voyages (usually, by bus) to some faraway places, risking a great deal because they were prone to attacks from highway robbers, thieves, and, once their wares were brought back to Russia, competing chelnoki and policemen demanding protection money. I don’t recall the history of this specific sweater, but I know that some sweater (maybe this one even) was once ordered directly for me directly from one of the shuttle traders my parents knew – ordered, supposedly, in a size that far exceeded my own. My parents must have hoped that I’d fill out in a few years’ time and fill in the sweater that I would have already come into my possession by then.

I am not sure why this sweater ended up coming with us to the States though my mother also brought some old knives, a few pots and pans, a couple of pillows and even a fur coat which she was warned not to wear around town for the fear of angering animal rights protesters who were rumored to throw paint at be-furred ladies (she wore her furs under the cover of night, walking our dog through deserted suburban streets, for the first couple of winters in America before hanging up her coat for good).

The shuttle traders who brought me my big woolen sweater from some faraway land, no longer – for the most part – exist. They (mostly) vanished over the course of the 2000s as Russian capitalism became less wild – or, perhaps, less wild only in certain ways. One provincial city – located, in fact, not far from my own hometown – even opened a monument to chelnoki at one of the city’s markets in 2009 (pictured below) solidifying their status as a site of cultural memory. At least one of their sweaters even made it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. a piece of cultural memory that spent several years in a box of clothing in my basement.

I am surprised that American moths haven’t eaten this Indian-made / Russian-traded  oversized sweater  of mine in a decade and a half while they’ve managed to devour my newer and leaner merino wool sweaters purchased  at one or another boringly legal shop. Perhaps, the tough passage of these sweaters and their traders across borders, mountains, forests and other dangerous terrains made them resistant to insects.  I haven’t worn this sweater since I was 16; and, given its size and the fact that my BMI is still a  reasonable ratio of body to mass for my now more advanced years, I wasn’t likely to wear it any time soon. Upon making this discovery, I did for a moment entertain the idea of calling my mother to inquire whether I was allowed to send the sweater to Salvation Army. However, my partner, who set the rules for this exploration of the basement as “if you haven’t worn it in more than 10 years, it gets thrown out,” assured me that I didn’t have to call my mother to ask for her consent.

I did, of course, raise the matter of wanting to consult my mother about wanting to get rid of the sweater with my therapist.

A monument to "shuttle traders" in the provincial Russian city of Ekaterinburg.

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