A year ago Tamara was the wife of a Russian Army captain. Her daily routine consisted of caring for two young children in a quiet neighborhood of high-rises 40 minutes from the center of Moscow.
But when Tamara and her husband decided they could no longer bear Russia's soaring inflation on his $100 a month salary, he quit the Army to stay at home with the children. She joined the ranks of "suitcase traders" who pack daily charter flights to Istanbul, arriving with thousands of dollars in cash and buying up huge quantities of clothes and other goods in Istanbul's Aksaray and Laleli neighborhoods.
These areas have been transformed in recent years into a Little Russia that caters to the booming trade. Cheap hotels abound offering special tour packages. Salespeople speak fluent Russian, and streetside menus written in Russian offer food and drink to weary traders.
The traders arrive from all over the former Soviet Union, crowding stores and sidewalk stands and filling plastic shopping bags with cheap lingerie made in China, synthetic-knit dresses, thick blankets, even fake Christmas trees. "We buy everything," laughs one woman trader flashing a gold-toothed grin, "because people will buy it all back home."
'I never spend less than $10,000'
Tamara concedes that the work is grueling. She comes to Turkey twice a month, spending seven days shopping from morning to night.
"I've just come back from the stores and haven't had even a moment to wash my hands," she says. It is 8 p.m., and Tamara and her friend and fellow trader Liuda, a young honors graduate from Moscow's prestigious Plekhanov Institute for Economics, are surrounded by a sea of plastic bags in a fast-food restaurant in Aksaray having their first meal since breakfast.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union several years ago and the ensuing inflation, the pioneers of suitcase trading arrived in Turkey, setting up tables along the banks of the Golden Horn, an inlet from the Bosporus Strait, and hawking items ranging from vodka and matryoshka nesting dolls to kitchen utensils and hospital instruments. With the money they earned, they bought cheap clothes and other goods to sell in Moscow's street bazaars.
Many traders don't bother selling and just try to buy as much as possible. The rewards back home can be as high as 20 to 60 percent in profit. "I never spend less than $10,000 a trip, or it's not worth it," Tamara says. "I'll go home now and make a profit of at least $4,000."
In Russia, where a teacher makes $75 a month and two loaves of bread cost $1, people are forced to be resourceful. Among the hordes of traders that crowd the stores of Aksaray and Laleli are teachers, doctors, or engineers who abandoned their careers to support their families. Few voice regrets. Most are proud of the money they earn as traders.
Unofficial estimates put the amount suitcase traders spend on Turkish goods at anywhere from $5 billion to $7 billion a year, says Omer Urender, a specialist on the former Soviet states at the Turkish government's Foreign Economic Relations Board.
Only about $1 billion is spent yearly in Turkey on imported Russian goods, such as the matryoshka dolls and old Soviet paraphernalia.
Five-year, multiple-entry visas are liberally issued to ex-Soviet citizens, who flood in with luggage carts and huge empty suitcases. A standard payoff of about $100 to customs officials allows them to slip back into their countries without paying a 50 percent import tax.
"What you are seeing is an enormous amount of very low-quality Turkish goods being imported and sold at inflated prices," explains Mr. Urender. "Russia would like very much to stop this influx of goods, but there is nothing it can do."
While most Russians in Istanbul are traders, some of the women come to earn money as prostitutes, or Natashas, as they are called in Turkey. Luxurious Mercedes and BMWs cruise through the narrow streets of Aksaray at night, their drivers looking for prostitutes. Heavily made-up Russian women in stiletto heels pace the park outside a fast-food restaurant, a well-known pickup spot.
Like the suitcase traders, many of the prostitutes have abandoned legal but low-paying careers in Russia. Others work as both traders and prostitutes.
"I need the money," explains Irina, a shy young law student from southern Russian who has been coming to Istanbul to trade since she was 20. Her room in a modest hotel in Aksaray is piled high with plastic parcels of synthetic sweaters, blankets, and lingerie, the fruits of six full days of shopping. Last year she decided to bolster her earnings as a trader by working as a prostitute. The work is easy, she says. She and her girlfriend Gulya always go out together.
It is early evening. Irina and Gulya, a mother of two, put on tight jeans and fluffy angora sweaters. They descend to the hotel lobby - a sea of shopping bags and leather-jacketed traders - and head onto the street where their Turkish pimp waits in an idling car.
Magnet for Moldovans
Riding on the coattails of the traders, other citizens from ex-Soviet states have come to live in Istanbul, finding work in Turkish shops that sell to the traders.
Liuba, a Russian from Moldova, works in a Turkish dress store selling racks of synthetic sweater dresses to traders. Several years ago she was laid off from her job at a state-run clothing store, and her family of four has been struggling ever since. In desperation, she took a bus to Istanbul three months ago. She now shares a tiny apartment near Aksaray with her younger sister and works 12-hour days, six days a week.
"In Moldova, I made $10 a month. Here I make $10 a day. For me, that is a lot of money," she explains in a tired voice, wrapping her wool scarf tight around her shoulders.