Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stories from a Russian...

I belong to a group within the American Women’s Organization called Understanding Russia.  We meet once a week at a group member’s home and listen to Lena, a native Russian and tour guide by trade, share amazing stories about the history, culture and people of Russia.  She is wonderful to listen to and allows us to ask questions about life under communist rule in the USSR...

  • Pixar Animation Studios is opened.
  • In London, Prince Andrew, Duke of York, marries Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey.
  • Greg LeMond wins the Tour de France.
  • Out of Africa wins Best Picture at the Oscars.

What were you doing?
I was graduating from high school and heading off to college - with all the comforts of life in the United States.  Boundless opportunities lay before me....
In her own words, this is what Lena, and most Russians, were doing in 1986...

My daughter was born in 1986. In my family we are still, today, using a spoon we bought for 65 kopeks, a fork for 55 kopeks and a knife for 60 kopeks which were presented to her when she was little, [insert my side note - 65 kopeks is the equivalent of about $.20 today - and much less back then].  I don’t have such a wonderful memory to remember the prices : they were stamped on almost every item produced by the Soviet industry. Prices were approved and fixed by the state and the same set of cutlery was sold for the same money across our big country.
I remember visiting the Ukranian State Department store on the main street in Kiev and got several pairs of children’s shoes of different sizes for my daughter to grow into. Those shoes were produced in Belorussia and were available in Kiev but were very hard to get in Moscow. Good quality shoes were a dream of every person in this country. As a guide working with American and British tourists I had a privilege of buying a pair of western quality shoes in a special shop once a year.  We lost this privilege in 1990-es during economic reforms in Russia.

Once at that difficult period we were offered to make an order for imported shoes, three pairs per person. Guides were very exited and stayed in the office waiting for the truck with the shoes to arrive after the working day was over. 11:00 p.m. we were told that we needed to come back next day as the truck was still somewhere on the way. Next day at 10:00 p.m. it finally arrived but unfortunately the sizes and fashions did not match the ones from our orders. Never mind! We bought whatever was offered : I gave one pair of shoes to my step daughter, the other one to my friend , and the third one I put on the shelf for someone from my family to grow into it. Some guides were more practical: they went to the market near Luzhniki stadium where people traded  shoes of wrong sizes and fashions for the ones needed. The good quality shoes were imported from Romania , Yugoslavia and Finland (the best!).  People would line for hours to get anything of good quality. We used the word “to get” rather than “to buy” (”Where did you get it?”) as with the inflation growing and fixed prices many goods were disappearing from our shops. A shop assistant in a store selling shoes could keep a pair under a counter for her friend till evening so the friend could buy it. Next time her friend could inform her say about new arrivals of chicken to her food store and keep one or two till her friend could come. It was easy to negotiated with the director of this or that store to inform you about goods you needed if you had something to offer in exchange.

Every year more and more goods were disappearing as people had lots of money and the prices did not grow. People were hoarding for the most basic goods afraid that they may become scarce. My 80 year old aunt recently told me (rather proudly) that she is still using soap, toilet paper, rice and buckwheat she had purchased 20 years ago.  In 1980-es the government introduced rationing  for butter (half a kilo per person in a line),  for  sugar, vodka. My grandmother and her babushka-friends would stand in different lines to buy as much as possible. Some of them shopped with young grandchildren to buy a double ration.  
I never had enough patience to wait in a line. Also I did not like it that often by the time your turn would come  the goods were sold. I had a different style for shopping.  I would go around my neighborhood and look into every food store: sometimes I would be lucky to be first in a line for new arrivals of meat or chicken.  Meat was usually sold with bones : first in the line I could pick up the best pieces with more meat on them. 

As compared to 1980-es the food situation worsened dramatically in 1990-es. Almost everybody was hoarding then. My retired neighbor asked me once to help . Her refrigerator went out of order, she wanted me to put her frozen meat into mine.  Instead of one or two pieces as I expected she had several kilos which we could hardly pack into our family freezer. Such supplies helped people to survive when prices were liberalized in January of 1992, and for a while we had a dramatic discrepancy between the earnings of the population and new prices in the shops. 

The most well known black market in 1980-es was near Space monument across the road of hotel Cosmos. Young boys were eager to buy or trade worn blue jeans for hard currency or caviar. 100 grams jar of black caviar was sold for 5 US dollars in the hotel itself by the waiters in the restaurant at lunch time.  It was so cheap that people did not care if they would be able to take it through the customs and out of the country. Once my group got  20 jars, and about 10 were detained at customs. My tourists gave them to me. It was a pity I did not like caviar, but my family was very happy!