The supermarket challenge
Political analysts, sociologists, and economists have spent countless hours arguing about what caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. But if we had to sum things up in one word, it would definitely be “deficit.” This isn’t a reference to an abstract concept like freedom, but about empty shelves in the country’s stores and warehouses.
“Does Russia have the right to be offended at the fact that somebody (the West, NATO, America) took away the USSR? Not really,” famous writer Viktor Yerofeyev wrote, “because the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own organic vices, brought about by the maniacal lack of freedom across all spheres of life. Had the Soviet Union existed without any neighbors and enemies, it would have collapsed even sooner.”
Out of these “organic vices,” one of the most important ones was the empty shelves in Soviet stores.
Yes, the inability to buy simple salami or a pair of jeans was enough for millions of Soviet citizens to bid farewell to “developed socialism,” which was what Politburo members called the Soviet society up until the beginning of Gorbachev’s perestroika in 1985.
But according to many economists, perestroika started at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons. Mikhail Gorbachev started the country’s economic reforms with the heavy industry, which didn’t experience that many problems in the USSR. It would have made more sense to start with radical reforms in the light industries, which exist to feed and clothe the general population. It’s odd that, over the course of 70 years, the leadership of the USSR never implemented one of Lenin’s key postulates. One of the things Lenin always talked about is this: before teaching people to be politically conscious and changing them, you have to feed them. Incidentally, the Chinese listened to Lenin. When they implemented their first economic reforms, they started with agriculture and other industries focused on clothing and feeding the people.
It makes sense that Soviet propaganda always made fun of capitalist consumer culture, urging Soviet people to focus on spirituality. But it’s difficult to focus on spirituality when you’re hungry, right? Like the Russian saying goes, the well-fed can’t understand the hungry. But, all negative things aside, there were some positive aspects to the USSR. Overall, people valued spirituality. They were softer, kinder, more honest, more loving and empathetic.
In any case, the history of the USSR is the history of a country in a total deficit. People didn’t buy products, clothes, and shoes at the store. They acquired them. If something did appear in a store, people had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, in order to purchase it. It’s no wonder the USSR was often referred to as “the country of endless lines.” There were lines for absolutely everything. Even for necessities – meat, butter, cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers… Fish was almost entirely impossible to find at Soviet store stands. This was the case even though the country had more rivers, lakes, and seas than just about any other country in the world. There were a ton of jokes about this back in the day.
The “Book of Tasty and Healthy Food,” which was published in the USSR every year starting in 1952, was basically a cruel joke. Millions of people looked through the delicious recipes and beautiful pictures, knowing that they’ll never get a chance to try sterlet jelly, baked sturgeon, fried pork, or oysters.
Do you know what the biggest challenge Soviet people who visited a country like the United States had to overcome was? The supermarket challenge! Mikhail Zhvanetsky, who ended up in the States in the 80s for the first time, had a lot to say about this. “American supermarkets really do a number on the Soviet person,” he wrote, “You want to hang yourself in the beginning, the middle, and the end of the store. There will never be good relations between our countries while America eats like this. We have to do something, comrades. There are meat stands stretching for two or three hundred meters and sausage falling from the ceiling like rain. Ham, cuts of meat on the bone or without it… Our tourists start to feel sick there. People offer to take them outside for some fresh air, but they refuse to go. The fruit and vegetable section completely destroys them. Avocado, papaya, kiwi, mango, stuff you’ve never even seen, something in a shell that tastes like pineapple, something sliced like our five-pointed star, with a citrus slant, pears that taste like grapefruit on the inside…”
Soon after perestroika, when everything in the USSR started to fall apart, the food and clothing shortages got so bad that they prompted the so-called “sausage migration.” People started to go abroad not because they were dissidents, but almost exclusively because they were afraid of staying hungry at home.
Luckily, everything comes to an end. These days, you can go to a store in Russia and buy strawberries even during the winter months. The country has supermarkets for all tastes and price ranges. Over the past 32 years, the country transformed from “developed socialism” to a “consumer society” – the same as any other society in the modern world. Maybe even a bit over the top. In any case, it sometimes seems like nobody enjoys shopping as much as Russians do (in spite of the fact that real income for Russians decreased by 1.2% since the beginning of 2017)
But is this a good thing?
Of course not.
So what needs to be done? The truth, like with most things, is somewhere between two extremes. If we want to thrive, it’s time to start thinking about how to combine capitalist greed with socialist spirituality. Maybe Russia can help us find the answer.