This is the second post in a series discussing my experiences in the Soviet Union from the early 1980s to the happy demise of this monstrous country.
During the “stagnation years” (the late 1970s and the decade of the 1980s), food was especially scarce. Grocery stores stood empty. Once a day, chunks of butter or sometimes cheese were thrown out of huge metal dispensers in the grocery stores towards the customers. You had to sweep aside all other people gathered around the dispensers and pounce on your own carelessly packaged portion of butter. There was no possibility of choosing the chunk you preferred. You had to grab whatever was close at hand and guard it carefully from the less fortunate customers. Of course, this contest was always won by the most aggressive people, the ones who were ready to push everybody aside and practically walk all over other customers in the store.
Then you had to proceed to the cashier’s and wait in an endless line towards the perennially angry cashier who’d insult you any way she could.
“What are they throwing today?” became a stock phrase. Everybody knew what “throwing” referred to. Food was something that powers that be threw at you, whenever they felt like it.
Have you ever seen animals at the zoo fighting for a piece of meat? At least, the zoo animals are not expected to work in exchange for it.
Every day, after finishing work, the Soviet women (it was always women, even though all our women worked as much as men) had to embark on a journey of hunting for food. They went from one store to another, waiting in lines for hours, trying to find enough food to make dinner. I spent half of my childhood accompanying my mother on these trips. Ask me again, why I hate the Soviet Union.
Of course, the grocery stores were not the only place to buy food. There were also farmers’ markets. The markets (we called them bazaars) were filled with beautiful fresh meat and delicious fruit and vegetables. (Not fish, though. We lived too far inland and never got any fish. Remind me to tell you a funny story about this one time we bought fish.)
“So what’s the problem?” you’ll ask. “Why not just buy whatever you need at these great farmers’ markets?”
The reason why we only rarely visited the bazaars was that everything was insanely expensive there. N. tried remembering the occasions when his parents bought anything at the bazaar but could barely think of any. Instead, his parents cultivated their own plot of land on the outskirts of town. This meant that every weekend they had to take the train to their tiny plot and spend the entire weekend tending to the plants. In the scorching heat in summer and in the rain in autumn, with no roof over their heads and no toilet facilities, his white-collar parents had to work the land because they had no other way to give any fresh produce to their two children.
My parents didn’t have such a plot of land because my father is prevented by a disability from doing any manual labor. So we had to scrimp and save to buy food at the bazaar every once in a while. Of course, the vendors cheated like there was no tomorrow. They had to pay all sorts of bribes to be given access to the market, so their scales were always fixed. But the scales at the state grocery stores were also fixed in order to cheat the customers. After I moved to Canada, it took me a while to get out of the habit of coming home and checking the weight of everything I bought at the supermarket on my own home scales.
I remember once when I was 7 or 8 (which means this was 1983-4) my mother bought some beautiful apples at the bazaar. I was supposed to eat only one apple per day but I started reading, got lost in my book, and accidentally ate 3 apples. That was a disaster because they were so expensive. We lived in Ukraine, people. The Ukrainian lands are the most fertile in Europe. Everything grows and flourishes. You are not supposed to lack for apples in Ukraine.
More than the absence of apples or sea-food, however, I was tortured by all the aggression, humiliation, dishonesty and anger that surrounded the process of getting food. As much as I love fish, I can do without. But if I can’t have self-respect, that makes life hardly worth living.
(There is more I have to say on this subject, so expect a third post in the series.)