Behind The Iron Curtain:Shortages

In my recent post about shopping in the USSR the following photo and its caption raised some questions about the shortages:

Cheese display with names and descriptions of various cheeses. In 1983 a display like this would’ve looked like an insulting joke.©Time, Carl Mydans

I implied that by the time when I was growing up® no elaborate displays or advertisements were necessary, items appeared in stores sporadically and people swept them off the shelves. Even everyday groceries like bread and milk  frequently required standing in line. Any imported clothes, perfume, shoes, and even toys had the lines snaking out of the door and around the block. Supplies depended on the city; Moscow where the government was located and frequently visited by foreigners was known for its well stocked stores with items that were never seen elsewhere. People from surrounding areas were making long-distance shopping trips to Moscow to stock up on food and imported hard-to-find retail goods. Those who lived too far from Moscow had to either know someone in retail or pay black market prices.

In the early 80’s standing in line was pretty much the norm of life. Once I was walking home from school in the 4th or 5th grade when I noticed a huge line to the kiosk selling mandarins. Mandarins were a rare find, available only in winter. I didn’t have any money with me so I got a spot in line and had a number scribbled on my hand to verify my place. Then I went home, got the money and was back before too long. By then the people were worried that the mandarins will run out and people in the back of the line would have to leave empty-handed. I showed my number and got back in line, although some people where not too happy that I came back. Even with me running home I still had to stand in line for several hours. Not sure if I wanted the mandarins so badly or just didn’t want to leave half-way to the end of the line. Somehow I remember this one night and tell this story often, and, of course, I am eating a mandarin as I type this.

The reason I remember standing in line that night is that I wasn’t exposed to shopping very often. My parents did their share of waiting in lines or found other ways of getting stuff they needed like farmer’s market for foods which weren’t that cheap or black market for other things. Knowing someone in retail or grocery store was a goldmine. These people knew when the deliveries were scheduled and could hold on to an item for their friends, relatives and people who were willing to overpay. There was also barter going on, a retail employee would trade a favor with a doctor who could in turn try to find a rare medicine, or an auto mechanic who had access to hard-to-procure spare parts. Trading favors and black market led to some items never appearing in the front of the stores for general public, they were gone as soon as the delivery truck left the dock.

And now for some photos. Unfortunately not too many people had a bright idea to photograph the lines and empty stores; in some cases it could be interpreted as some anti-Soviet activity. Many photos floating around the internet are taken from here and I found a few more elsewhere.

Clothing store line.

Stores usually closed for one hour lunch break. People are waiting for the store to open.

Line in the produce store

Line to buy shoes, probably imported. Soviet shoes were ugly, heavy and uncomfortable.

Another line.

People are looking at the meager selection at the meat store

People in line always worried that the stuff will run out and the time will be wasted.

People are forming a line in anticipation of delivery. Many times it never happened.

If a delivery did occur, pushing and shoving was not uncommon. Sometimes there were fights but not very often.

Another line


Buy lingerie first then see if it fits.

Not so fast food

No comment

Bread line

Liquor store

Empty shelves

Liquor store inside view

Unwanted items

When people think socialism, they often have these images in mind, but in all truth this has nothing to do with socialism; this was the result of many years of corrupt power, terror, breeding out competition, trying to force rules and principles on people that were going against common sense and human nature. Labels applied to what was built in the USSR are irrelevant; was it communism, socialism or just a big lie – what difference does it make. The only thing that matters is learning something from this experience. Then the years the Soviet people spent standing in various lines would account for something.

My kid gets annoyed when I walk out of a store or a restaurant when I see too many people waiting in line. I tell her that all the time in my life that was allocated for standing in lines has been used up already and I have little patience for waiting in one.

And then I buy more mandarins.

  • Mandarins? Honestly? I’d be buying meat… or beets and sour cream, so I could make borscht.

  • We didn’t have shortage of beets 🙂 But it’s not a bad idea.

  • midtown miscreant

    Prison ruined me for lines. Always with the lines, today I wont stand in anything with enough people to consider it a Line. I thought the picof the Mcdonalds line was rough, then I saw the mob at the liquor store…..brutal.

  • So you were eating mandarins…. were you hungry again after an hour?

  • I travel for JOOLS

    These posts are really interesting. We are so spoiled … but don’t get me wrong … I like being spoiled. Even growing up dirt poor, we had plenty of food, most of which we raised ourselves. I wonder about our future.

  • Rick

    With all due respect, Meesha, I don’t think you can separate shortages from socialism/communism. Just as you can’t separate poverty from capitalism.

  • Rick,my point was that they didn’t have true “by-the-book” socialism, just like there is no capitalism here at least not since the crash of 1929.

  • Rick

    On second thought, I should add that I believe (and what do I know? I’m no economist or political scientist…) that capitalistic practices lead inevitably not just to poverty for many, but to great wealth for a few; in other words, to economic disparity. Euro-Asian communism, in particular, seemed to be marked by this sort of shortage, at least until the Chinese became more capitalistic … How are things now for friends and relatives back in the former Soviet Union? Are there lines for meat still? sometimes?

  • I don’t think there are lines anymore,the stores are stocked up but it doesn’t mean everyone can afford good food and things.Few people made it big, many peoples are doing pretty well in the middle but there is a whole bunch of poor people, especially retirees. It’s not unusual to see the most expensive cars on the street, very expensive restaurants, exclusive stores etc. while other people are dumpster-diving, so the disparity is obvious. There were people with money in the 70’s and 80’s but they couldn’t spend it in the open. Now the difference is huge.

  • Alex J.

    In “The Russians” Hedrick Smith talked about shopping at GUM. He said you had to wait in three different lines. One to choose your item, another to pay and a third to get it. This was in the 70s. He also said that the shelves were packed — with worthless merchandise, like zinc pots that would ruin the taste of your food.

    • 3 lines is exactly right, some grocery stores had different counters for meat,dairy etc. you’d go to one counter, have your purchase weighed and packaged, they would write the price on the package, then off to the cashier, back to the counter with receipt to pick up your order. repeat at the next counter.
      also correct on filling shelves with useless stuff, empty shelves would send wrong messages about the soviet economy.

  • Kelly

    Now the situation in small towns is so very different, yet so very the same. I have spent a lot of time in small towns in Donetsk region in Ukraine, and there are millions of things to buy. The majority are at the bazaar of course, and usually cheap things made in China (and not what we think of as ‘made in China’ – these are clearly different factories or different quality requirements) There is plenty of food in fairly modern grocery stores (although there are still more of the old style, with everything behind the shelves) to buy. The problem is that so many people in these towns have no job, no chance at getting one, and no money to buy the stuff. So they don’t stand in lines. They sit at home. As my friend, who is now 46 and so came of age in Soviet times, says, “We used to have money and nothing to buy. Now we have everything to buy and no money.” Love this blog – SO interesting! Keep writing, Misha!