The tradition of open air markets and festivals in Russia has a very long and impressive history. It all began many centuries ago, when the first yarmarkas started appearing in the country.
It happened in 10th – 12th centuries. At the time they were called “torzhki” or “torgi”, which basically means trading. The word “yarmarka” became popular much later, when in the 17th century foreign merchants started arriving in the country to sell their goods. The term originates from German words “Jahr” – year and “Markt” – market.
Yarmarkas generally lasted for a couple of days. There people sold and bought bread, fabric, meat, salt and many other items. But they were not only business events. From the very early time, an important part of those fairs were also various entertainments that attracted many people. There were performances, fistfights, shows with wild animals and loud music. Many church authorities were, in fact, very dissatisfied with how rowdy the crowd could get in their amusements. They even sent complaints to the tzar, telling about drunk atrocities committed by the common folk during the market time.
In the end of the 13th century, the fairs became more widespread and were held in every part of the country. The biggest ones could have lasted for several weeks and people bought and sold almost everything one can imagine. The most famous yarmarkas took place in the cities of Nizhny Novgorod, Perm, Orenburg, and Barnaul. Of course, the fun part of it were, again, countless performances of artists, singers, and puppeteers. At the time, since things sometimes got a bit wild, local police were overlooking the crowd to prevent disorderly conduct.
In the 19th century, the markets stated to play a very important cultural role too. It was the place where people met, exchanged news, received information from all over the world from foreign guests. There was even a special newspaper of a sort – “Irbitskiy Yarmarochniy Listok” (Irbit Yarmarka Leaf) – it printed commercials, news about the fair, stories about fascinating or ridiculous situations that happened on the market. Some of the famous Russian literature authors also wrote for this newspaper, one of them was Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak.
The most prominent yarmarka of that time was, probably, the one held in Nizhniy Novgorod – Makaryevskaya. Many came there for the fish, salt, furs, foreign alcohol, craft items and teas. Drugs and pharmaceutical goods were always in a great demand too. Sweets and candies were also popular, many men bought them as a souvenir for their children and foreigners brought home a little taste of Russia. By the way, the amount of guests and businessmen from other countries was very impressive. The merchants arrived not only from Europe but also from Asia, Armenia, and Persia. The market was so lively and the amount of money spent and earned was so huge, that people called Nizhny Novgorod “the pocket” of the country.
It was even decided to update the city’s architecture to better suit the needs of this event. The government invested in building the long rows of shopping stalls, a new orthodox cathedral, even churches of other confessions. In the centre of the shopping district was a square with stores, pharmacies, taverns, barber shops, theatres, and a bank. The taverns, of course, flourished during the yarmarka weeks. They were selling alcohol to people not in glasses, but in buckets! Different shows were also present for the crowd’s pleasure. Public had a chance to see comedies, go to a photo salon or hear a concert. The variety of entertainment became even wider, when in the middle of the 19th century, many foreign artists started arriving to Makaryevskaya yarmarka. For example Italian opera singers, who gave shows like “Faust”.
Up to this day, during many holidays, there are countless small shops that gather on the city squares or in the parks. They offer food, drinks, sell crafts and souvenirs. Loud music and games also surround the whole affair. It all looks very much like the yarmarkas of the old times, even if they are not as spacious as they used to be.