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  • 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!

    Filip G explains the date, 29 Aug 2017: The store was videotaped in 1990/91, not in 1986 (see the description), which answers your question… In 1986 that would be espionage, but 1990… the end is near… nobody cared, I guess.

    And actually, it was not that bad, at least there was _something_ in the shop – you know, Moscow was the showcase of communism… (it’s funny that showcases of communism are worse than business as usual in capitalism… like this one: (North_Korea))

    And here are some photos from Poland under the communist regime:


    I think this photo is the most known in Poland:

    Poland 1981

    Note this was not exaggeration or something… I remember when, as a

    small boy, I visited a shoe shop with my mother – there were empty

    racks and just one pair of little baby shoes.

    Chris S. 29 Aug 2017: Here’s some info about Soviet citizens visiting, or defecting to, the west and being astonished by the disparity. First we have Viktor Belenko, who stole a MIG-25 and brought it to the west.
    “The story of Viktor Belenko’s defection, and particularly his acclimatization to life in the United States, was told brilliantly in the 1980 biography MiG Pilot by John Barron, which I read years ago and greatly enjoyed. As a (now) high-profile Soviet defector, Belenko thought, during his early days in the USA, that CIA officials arranged things for him to make the United States look good–a supermarket, for example. In a memorable incident recounted in MiG Pilot, Belenko went into a store, was overwhelmed by the vast array of goods for sale, and thought it was sort of a Potemkin village created for his benefit–only to learn later that all stores are like that.”
    Next we have Boris Yeltsin.
    “Yeltsin, then 58, “roamed the aisles of Randall’s nodding his head in amazement,” wrote Asin. He told his fellow Russians in his entourage that if their people, who often must wait in line for most goods, saw the conditions of U.S. supermarkets, “there would be a revolution.””