Full Accessible Transcript of Yevhenii Ostroverkhov’s post on Packback
By Yevhenii Ostroverkhov, a student at Penn State University
What do you think Soviet queues are like? What is it like to stay in a thousand-people line?
Hello. As you can see from my avatar, my name is Yevhenii Ostroverkhov and I am from Ukraine. I am one of the first members of my family who was born only after the USSR collapsed, therefore I have lots of stories about life in the USSR, told by my family members, mostly by my grandfather.
I want to share parts of those little personal stories from time to time, as well as some facts of the Soviet economy (I love history) and to learn your perspectives on them. I would like you to feel these stories going through you. Try to imagine yourself in such situations. I also want to know what you think.
After all, we are not going to have many chances to look more deeply into the USSR economic history after this week, so take the time to learn and discover something new from this post/discussion. I believe you will find lots of interesting things here.
My grandpa’s name is Vladimir Rentyuk, he is currently an independent translator and writer on topics such as low-frequency analog circuit design, schematics, computer simulations, electronics, robotics, IoT, AI and so on. Born in the 1950s, he experienced all aspects of USSR life: from always hungry “college” student to a little less hungry Chief Designer of the large plant. He stayed in many queues, including the one with more than one thousand people.
First, it is necessary to mention several important details of the Soviet economy:
- The queues are not explained by problems in the supply chains (which were still terrible), but rather by a general absence of goods and products which in turn are the results of the whole ideology concept with its forced labor like kolkhozes (communal farms under full government control), etc.
- Soviet Industry can be divided into two groups:
- Military factories and enterprises
- Everything else
The military was the main focus of the USSR economy as it was necessary to achieve a “global” communist revolution. The military received the best products and workers there (not soldiers, they were forced to work for free) usually had a bigger salary of about an additional 25%.
While military production was in focus almost all other industries experienced a big “backwater”, deadlock. Plus, resources from other industries like food ones, specifically farming, were often converted whether to support communist regimes in other countries or to support the Soviet military production. That is why there were not enough goods and food for basically all common people (“common people” means everyone who was not a top member of the communist party). Here is the example to better understand it: once, in order to buy 500 grams of cheese (which is actually more than was given to a one person) and a piece of ham my grandpa needed to stop by and stay in the line, in the city of Voronezh which is 397 miles (638.91 km) away from the city where he (and later I) lived — Zaporizhia. What is ironic is that Zaporizhia was and still is a big (800 000 population) industrial (specialized in making steel) city which had its own dairy factories, as well as a meat-processing plant. Yet, it did not have cheese and enough meat. However now, when its dairy factories and the meat-processing plant lost the competition and closed quite a long time ago, there are plenty of different kinds of cheese and meat in the supermarkets which are made in Ukraine as well as imported from all parts of the world while you rarely can find lines to cash registers longer than 5 people.
Indeed, these examples are nothing to compare how hard it was to get clothes. You would not buy most of the clothes in your city, even in the nearest cities too. In order to get those you would usually need to travel to the biggest cities of the Soviet Union, like Leningrad or Soviet capital — Moscow. The lines there were truly gigantic.
As a simple example of such a line, here is a photo of my grandpa (left corner, in the yellow circle which I drew for you to better see him) staying in the line for shoes for my grandma. Over the store, there is a simple signboard with the word “shoes” on it. It may seem that the line is not so big, but keep in mind that Soviet queues are not the same as you experience while staying to the cash register in the store. My grandpa waited three hours without progress at that line, so he gave up on this idea. If you are really going to stay in the line, you need to be ready to spend many hours even in the small queues.
However, I know that you are here mostly for the story of a thousand-people line. Well, it is a true story. The line was actually even longer than 1000 people, but let the story go step by step.
Firstly, my grandfather, as a “face” of a factory where he worked, often used to go on many business trips, including the ones to Moscow and other Soviet cities (after the USSR collapsed he actually continued traveling, but these times all around Europe and South Asia). Because such trips were one of the few ways to get some goods and products, returning home empty hands would be highly inappropriate. Grandpa used to bring a lot of different and cool staff according to him, grandma, my uncle, and my mom. On one such trip, there was a possibility to buy a COAT! A good coat for Soviet people often represented something otherworldly, it could even go from generation to generation. So, Vladimir (grandpa) decided to buy one for my grandmother. Because it was Moscow (capital of the whole Soviet Union!) lines there were slightly more civilized, so a number as designation was given to every new person who came, but it was not some tickets’ system, it was the system of self-organized people in the line; for example you was not able to keep your place in the line if you would go to the WC. My grandpa received his own personal number, too. He was… a 1656th person in the line! He did not freak out (nobody was freaking out because of that in the USSR) and this time he decided to wait longer to see how the line goes. After a few hours, there was literally no progress, almost at all. Eventually, my grandfather made the right choice and went to a hotel instead of waiting in the line for a coat which he still had a decent chance of not getting.
In conclusion, I wonder what you think about such a life. What would you do if you were there? How would you choose to survive? Do you have any alike stories you can share? What is your overall position regarding queues, the Soviet Union, and command economies?