Soviet Colors

In 1988 – already perestroika but still USSR – I’d go to the underpass and buy a packet of bubble gum for a rouble. Just so you understand what a rouble was, my father made 110 roubles a month before taxes. It wasn’t easy for a kid to come across a whole rouble to spend on illegal underpass purchases.

I don’t like gum, so that isn’t why I bought it. The gum packets had inserts with pictures of Disney characters. But I didn’t know them, so this wasn’t the reason either.

I bought the gum because of the colors. The inserts were very bright, and I’d never seen such colors before. Looking at them was an escape from the drab Soviet reality to a world of color. I stored the inserts in a matchbox and spent hours contemplating them.

A couple of years later we were finally allowed to have “private cooperatives” (tiny proto-businesses), and they flooded the city with neon green and orange blouses and skirts. We all looked like road repair crews but we we were desperate not to look grey any more.

Women were also finally allowed to feel like women and not industrial cogs, and it all resulted in everybody dressing like neon-bright streetwalkers for a few years because we didn’t know how else to manifest our newfound womanness.

The private cooperatives started making shoelaces which had been impossible to find in the USSR. They colored the shoelaces in the same neon orange and green, and we wore them as hair ties, necklaces, and bracelets. It was as if suddenly the whole world had exploded in color.

9 thoughts on “Soviet Colors

  1. Do you remember the bright chocolate wrappers our pen pal from Bulgaria used to send us? We also stared at them in perpetuity because of the bright neon colors.

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  2. I remember the shoe laces. I also had a neon pink hat and a scarf. People would travel to Turkey and buy a few suitcases of ugly outfits and sell them on the ‘bazar’.

    I also remember the bubble gum. It was called ‘Donald’ in Poland and we would trade the little stories that came with it at school.

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    1. Those ugly sweaters from Turkey that everybody suddenly started wearing! Oh, memories.

      We had this huge informal bazar in my city. It was called “Under the Bridge” because it was located under a bridge, in the open air. If you wanted to try on clothes, you had to undress right there, in front of a crowd. But nobody cared.

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      1. “informal bazar”

        I remember a couple of streets downtown set up with hundreds of sellers with everything from electronics, ladies underwear, household items, smoked eels, live snakes, birds and hamsters and used porn magazines… that only lasted a couple of years, but lots of memories.
        The weird thing is the street sellers mostly offered better service and guarantees than physical stores of the time. I once bought a cassette player that turned out to be defective (it played but didn’t record which was one of the things I wanted it for). I went back the next day and he exchanged it for one that worked with no argument. I cannot imagine doing that in a brick and mortar store of the time (whether state owned or private).
        There were also “Russian” markets full of of people from the USSR selling anything they could beg, borrow or steal (you didn’t want to ask out loud) and get across the border to sell….

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        1. “Going to Poland to sell stuff” was a hallowed traditional in early post-Soviet times. I wanted to go when I was in high school but my parents were reasonably horrified by the idea.

          Oh, those were great times. I finally bought some clothes that nobody had ever worn before. I was 15. It felt so cool to have my own clothes.

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    1. Nothing was manufactured in bright colors. Everything was made from flimsy materials that faded easily. Trash everywhere. Everything grimy.

      People in developed countries have no idea what it’s like to live in a large industrial city the size of Philadelphia filled with crowds of stray dogs and cats that leave excrement everywhere.

      Air quality was bad. There were times where we’d almost passed out from the stench. (We lived next to a meat-processing factory.)

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      1. Smelly air brings back the memories… my high school was situated right beside a brewery and a coffee roasting place, both producing strong smelly air and sometimes at the same time.

        The problem with clothing and shoes was also that there was really no choice. If you, for example, needed a new pair of shoes and went to a store to get it, there would be exactly one pair that would fit you. You don’t like the color (or the lack of there of)? You don’t have shoes. On the bright side, no need to think about what you want! I still have analysis paralysis when I need to buy something in American stores. My sister ended up teaching herself how to sew and knit so she can dress a little better. I remember her recycling a lot of clothing that way.

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