Soviet socialism was no good at groceries

  • Themes: Russia

The collapse of the Soviet Union has been forensically studied by academics and economists for decades, but for an insight into the day-to-day life of ordinary Russians in the 1980s and 1990s, we should consult the Snickers Index. If Soviet Socialism was bad at delivering groceries, then the free market was, at first, even worse.

Muscovites queue up outside a shop selling milk and dairy products in Moscow during difficult economic times just before the dissolution of the USSR.
Muscovites queue up outside a shop selling milk and dairy products in Moscow during difficult economic times just before the dissolution of the USSR. Credit: Arnold Drapkin / ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Like most of us, I watched Adam Curtis’ BBC series about the anguished birth of contemporary Russia, the aptly named Traumazone, with admiration (for its filmmaker) and distress (about the facts). In my case, however, the story felt personal. I made my first visit to Moscow in 1982. They should have warned me that the place would be addictive; they couldn’t know that it would change so fast. I witnessed the dawn of perestroika as a graduate student at Moscow State University. I was outside in the sunshine when Chernobyl’s core blew up. But that was just the beginning. Visiting annually, often for months at a time, I lived the Russian drama in unfolding episodes — a month here, three months there, a gap, then more. Each time, of course, I had to eat. The shopping was an epic in itself.

A Westerner was privileged back in the Soviet world. As a British postgraduate, I was even permitted, grudgingly, to make a few small purchases at our Embassy shop; not food, but toothbrushes and soap. The Americans, as usual, had it easier; nearly 40 years on, I can remember every knobble on the pineapple that my roommate brought home, fragrant and so full of juice, to break the tyranny of boiled roots. A week later, a consignment of Cuban orange juice caused a small riot; we hadn’t seen the stuff for months. Real Existing Socialism was just no good at groceries.

The free market, at first, was worse. As Gorbachev’s reforms collapsed, food vanished overnight. By 1991, the sole commodities on open sale were pornography and cold hamburgers. True, the hamburgers were genuine MacDonald’s: queued for, purchased, then re-sold (‘only one hour old’) by pensioners in need of funds. But the porn was ubiquitous; the images of naked females — or merely select body parts — hung over every market stall like surreal sides of meat. It was a challenge to buy a plain box of matches.  For edible food, however, I turned to the foreign currency supermarket near the Paveletsky station, a place run jointly with the Finns. It was a house of wonders — tinned fish was a speciality — but it had a drawback for the English shopper. Not being fluent in Finnish, I could never be sure if the bright little cans contained jellied chicken, bitter chocolate or shoe polish. We called the place the Pick and Pray.

That supermarket wasn’t cheap, but prices everywhere were high. As teams of economists arrived from Europe and the US to oversee the mysteries of Transitology, I tracked life by a simpler rule: the Snickers Index. You could always buy Snickers (and sometimes they were all you could buy) but inflation was cruel. The price could double in a week; triple in an afternoon.  Meanwhile, another change took hold. Russians can be the most hospitable people in the world, but life was getting very tough. The suspicion began to dawn that I was no longer a foreign guest, let alone an expert one. I had become prey.

Those Snickers bars, for instance. One afternoon, as I tore into one beside the news stand on Tverskoi Proezd, a doughty figure in a coloured headscarf approached, crossing herself with a gnarled right hand. Wiping a tear from her cheek, she muttered that she couldn’t even afford Snickers for her little grandson. Of course, I gave the bar to her. Back by the archive window later on, I watched her repeat that act two dozen times, no doubt to sell the entire lot back at her own small stall.

Those hard years saw some people starve. No Russian I knew was fat. By the mid-1990s, however, as prices and imports both increased, new supermarkets opened up, at first just for the young new rich. ‘She’s obviously English,’ I overheard someone remark. ‘She won’t be able to shop in here.’ And that was starting to be true. No longer the privileged outsider, I had to accept what I was — an academic on a meagre salary in a city that had just gone wild. It was also around this time that my research assistant, an anthropology graduate, began to moonlight as a market researcher. I remember a project on foreign beer, another on Tampax. One round of interviews for foreign companies would keep her family for months.

The tension around food remained, but now it was class war. As bastions of bourgeois wealth, the supermarkets employed armed guards. The Soviet mindset was still strong and so there were strict rules as well; all bags to be deposited in lockers, all shoppers to use baskets, said baskets to be kept in sight, fruit to be weighed, bread to be labelled, dairy counter out of bounds to foreigners and dogs. Not having read the manual, I always seemed to get things wrong. One evening, tired of the scoldings (and tired full stop), I set myself the task of getting round my local shop without incurring a fault. All seemed to be well until the final hurdle — where to place the basket for the till lady to check. She pounced — they’d all been watching me — and my stiff reprimand began. Tap tap went her sharp polished nails; I’d violated space reserved for their display of chewing gum. But I had had enough this time; I picked up the offending basket, full of what I’d planned to eat, and then I hurled it down the shop.

There was a chorus of sharp breaths; a shopper in another queue even covered her eyes. Sensing a good evening’s sport, the shop goons all advanced on me, their hands already hovering beside their loaded guns. But something in my space had changed; it felt like clouds of kindliness. ‘Poor girl,’ the till lady announced. ‘She’s only tired. We’re all so tired.’ They never scolded me again. I might have had the means to leave — a passport and a ticket home — but I was not a foreigner. New Russians had the money now; I was the one who couldn’t buy the nice imported wine.

I’ve no idea if I’ll go back. I do know things have changed. Meanwhile, my old friend’s work has long moved on from tampons and cheap beer. Last time we talked she’d just been interviewing the wives of Russian oligarchs. They’re testing out some new designs for armoured 4x4s.


Catherine Merridale