jump to navigation
  • Joys of Supermarket Shopping in the Soviet Union August 11, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    The Soviet Union ran a centrally-planned economic system. This meant that bureaucrats, using five-year plans, had to anticipate the changing wants and needs of Soviet citizens looking into their cracked crystal balls. It is not that these planners did so badly, they did so with verve and cunning and best intentions: it is just that bureaucrats are far worse at anticipating needs than the invisible hand of the free market. The best Cold War example that Beach has come across of this is the literature on Cold War spying. The Soviets had the better trainers, the better agents and had fewer scruples about spilling blood, a plus in this field. However, in one thing, the KGB could not compete: technology. The CIA farmed out its technological operations to different firms, playing this and that company off against each other, and sometimes gave commissions to boys in garages, who promised them impossible but occasionally achieved inventions. The KGB had only one state run labs to do its magic. The result was that your average KGB agent was more than a match for his or her CIA equivalent in 1980, but had an audio bug that was perhaps twice as big and four times as likely to break down.


    Anyway, Beach digresses. These are stills from a moving video of a Soviet supermarket in 1986. It lasts seventeen minutes, which might be too much for some viewers: Beach’s kids didn’t last long watching it.

    The most striking thing, of course, is the lack of food both in terms of types and quantity: it is tempting to write something about quality but given the horrors in our western food system (twenty ingredients to make ‘white’ wholemeal bread’ etc etc) that might be too much. Interesting, though, how many wily old women smell the frozen meat. These are things that would only, with difficulty, come out in a photograph.

    Also note that the Soviet system would have differentiated between range and quantity. For a Soviet planner a range of different brands seemed a bourgeois indulgence: whereas quantity was a matter of Soviet pride. A capitalist might respond that quantity and range are inseparable, particularly in supermarkets. Note that presumably supplies were even worse in provincial or rural centres?

    Another point. Someone was allowed to film, apparently in 1986? Video cameras were difficult to come by in the Soviet Union. You would have needed permission for this kind of a glance under the hood of Soviet society. It would be tempting to suggest that the camera was somehow hidden: difficult in the late 1980s! Note, though, how so few people seem to see the camera in their presence. Any explanations or background to this film: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT COM

    It is also nice to see the stolid long-suffering Muscovites foraging: anyone over forty, remember, in this video, had lived through the ‘Great Patriotic War’; many men and not a few women filmed here will have carried guns in that conflict for Mother Russia. The beautiful young woman in the final seconds of the film – sorry couldn’t resist – will now be in her sixties, hopefully with ten grandchildren. ‘Time, you thief!’

    Beach looked in vain for other good photographs of Soviet era shopping in supermarkets. The problem, presumably, is that when shops were full and impressive the range of goods has not made them very interesting as internet fodder!