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May 21, 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. 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.
Tamara concedes that the work is grueling. She comes to Turkey twice a month, spending seven days shopping from morning to night. 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. 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. Five-year, multiple-entry visas are liberally issued to ex-Soviet citizens, who flood in with luggage carts and huge empty suitcases. 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.