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Soviet trade system

[This is a rough translation of some soviet reminiscences by my favorite Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya. Following the main text are the comments to the original post in Russian by the readers, who also happened to live the Soviet regime].

All goods in Soviet Russia were either socialist or capitalist. The capitalist goods were unavailable to the ordinary Soviet folk – they were sold only at “Berezkas” (“Birches” stores) to the nomenklatura people or to secret dealers. Those who had money, had contacts – so they had access to capitalist goods as well. However, the latter were very very expensive.
Imagine a family with five grown-up children. They all need clothes, so do I. In 1974, I am going to get married. I need a pair of nice wedding shoes. In shoe-stores you will find nothing. No wedding shoes, no sandals. You can only chose between boots “goodbye youth” and felt flip-flops “no step back”. The only shoes, that were on the shelf, were horrible – they were made in Romania and had a poopy-brown color, with laces. Our family was friends with a Frenchman who ultimately went with me to the Berezka store and we got a decent pair of wedding shoes “Gabor”. My wedding dress was made of rough silk and patterned with large yellow flowers, short and tailored. My tailor Valentina would steal fabric all the time.
However, you can’t wear Gabor pumps for a hike or to go sunbathing at a sea-resort. You need a pair of sandals. There was no way to get sandals in 1974. I was asking around my friends if they knew some old ladies who would remember the 1919 and how to weave sandals out of ropes. Once I had found one, another problem popped up – in 1974, no ropes were sold in the stores. I can’t remember now how I made it through, but I clearly recall a woman in our hiking group – she was wearing a summer coat. A summer coat when it was 85 F out! So I asked her privately – why? And she whispered – “I have no dress”.
We also had a special dealer, although mother disapproved of dealers – she believed that dealing was unfair. My sister and I didn’t take mother’s principles seriously, so we just let her have her own opinion. Meanwhile, we bought two identical puff coats (made in Finland, with click-buttons!) from the dealer, and then our sister-in-law bought one for herself too. So we all three were dressed in identical puffers, and thought that we were very very cool.
What was also cool was to wear a mohair scarf. Men would wear them. Once I happened to be at our dealer’s home. All her shelves and cupboards were stuffed with crystal wares. A double bed was covered with a huge mohair plaid with Scottish checkers. It was 2×3 meters in size. That was unbelievable! Had one happened to see it, the dealer would have ended badly.
Socialist goods could be found and purchased in special shops in Moscow. “Vanda” was selling polish eye-shades, whereas neighboring “Sofia” had some terrible rose butter that caused splitting headaches. There was “Leipzieg” in the middle of nowhere and “Yadran” in the combes.
I went to “Yadran” once. Some roll-sweaters called “banlons” and blouses were given out. But “given out” did not simply mean “sold out”, no-no, nothing was simple back then. Blouses were wrapped in plastic and it was prohibited to unwrap the package and try the thing on. Don’t ask why. Because. You first buy and then try on! They were made in Yugoslavia so the cut was different from the  normal Russian one, thus it was impossible to guess which size was right. So, what women would do was first, they would stand in line for hours – the closer you are to the counter the tighter you are getting squeezed by the others behind you – also willing to grab a blouse. Finally, you get a couple of blouses of the size you guess will probably fit you (normally, two blouses because if one doesn’t fit, the other will). Yet, it’s not the end of the story. After you grab the blouses, sweaty and blowzy, you step out of the crowd onto the street, or, rather, in the combes. And there, on the unpaved road, you open the package and try the blouse on. You are not the only one doing that – many other women are doing absolutely the same, with no shame or fear for men around them (who are equally hunting for mens clothes).
If the blouse doesn’t fit you, patiently wrap it pack in plastic and sell to another woman, who the blouse will more likely fit. At times, there is a police officer walking around and arresting women for illegal trade (“speculation”). I happened to be approached by police once and was threatened with a detain. In my defense, I said that “speculation” is something when you buy a thing at one price and sell it at another price, so that you benefit from the deal. In my situation, I was selling the unfit blouse by the exact same price I had bought it at the store. “If you arrest me and bring to the police station, you’ll simply waste both your and my time”, I said to the officer. He looked at me in surprise and then walked away.

Comments by people:

“A cold winter night… and a line in 3-4 circles to a store. People are lining for a Rubic’s cube.”
“In “Passage” (a department store), there was a multiple meter long line to get Japanese umbrellas.”
“Sometimes you see a queue and and just join it, with no idea what people are standing for. You just stay in this line because everything you could think of was in short, while you need everything.”

“In bridal salons, one could buy good shoes and clothes. For this, one should have a special checking book from the Vital Register with coupons valid for everything in the bridal salon – varying from underwear to kitchen utensils. Many people would send their fake applications for marriage licenses several times – for the sake of obtaining the bridal salon checking book.”

“When toilet paper was available (“was trown out”), people would buy it amass, string it up on a rope and carry such a “necklace” home.”

“When I was five I remember standing in line for 2-3 hours to get an ice-cream. We lived in a small military town, where the ice-cream truck would come only twice a year.”

“People from Tver’ would travel 3 hours to and 3 hours back from Moscow to buy groceries.”

“My mother was lucky to get a beautiful crimson coat in a small provincial town in exchange for two sacks of pumpkin seeds. When she arrived at a place to get the coat, she was pointed out that the seeds “were not fanned”. So, my mother and my uncle started fanning the seeds in the street shuffling them from one sack into another back and forth… ”

“When Russians traveled to Lithuania in 1987 and saw 5 types of bread in the supermarket there, they couldn’t believe their eyes and thought it was a miracle. And then they came back to Russia and told their friends, and the friends couldn’t believe.”

In the 70s, a soviet citizen was supposed to get 200 gr butter, 0,5 kilo sausage, 0,5 kilo meat, 1 kilo rice and a lill bit of something more per MONTH! The money my parents-academicians earned went all on food from the market. Once a month my dad and his professor friend would travel to Moscow and bring meat, butter, chocolates, whiskey, cognac and Finnish cheese “viola”with them back home.

“When I was a high-school student it was impossible to get a lipstick. You could only buy it from gypsies at the railway station, and it costed 10 rubles. However, I didn’t dare to ask my mother for money (for two reasons: first, it was embarrassing, second, parents would usually say that it’s a bad manner to color leaps with a lipstick and unhealthy, because lipsticks are poisonous). So I had to color my leaps with a red pencil and then put a layer of petroleum ointment… I also remember the only type of mascara available in stores. It was a box of black dry and solid paste in it with a small brush, you spit in the paste and smoosh the paste with the brush and then but that mixture on the eyelashes.”


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