Some people imagine that there was never enough food in Communist Russia and we starved most of the time. This is not true. Although our shops could hardly be compared with modern Western supermarkets we had all the necessary foods and even some choice. It is true that we never had thirty kinds of cheese in the shops but we always had three or four to choose from. We never starved. The food was always fresh, nice and cheap. The prices were stable and hardly ever changed. Queues were rare and mostly occurred when the fresh bread was delivered or the season for watermelons or other exotic fruit had just started.
Due to the "planned communist economy" some shortages occasionally occurred and a product could disappear from the shops for a time, then be on the shelves again. Sometimes something different arrived 'out of the blue'. One winter I remember they were selling a lot of frozen fruit from Poland. I especially remember plums and cherries which were absolutely delicious!
It might sound strange but the shortage of this or that product added a lot of fun to our lives. For example, oranges and mandarins were only brought to Siberia around Christmas and New Year. The smell of citrus fruit still brings those wonderful memories of the New Year celebrations back to me. Our parents usually bought a big box weighing about forty pounds. They never restricted us children to one or two fruit a day, we could eat as many as we wanted until they ran out.
The end of August or beginning of September was the time for beautiful grapes and sweet watermelons. Then a real feast started! We knew that there would be no more until the next year.
It is a special skill to choose a good ripe watermelon. It has to have a yellow patch on it (which 'proves' it has been lying in the sun) and its 'tail' has to be dry. Then it has to be placed against the ear, knocked on and listened to what the sound is like. The clearer (sharper) the sound, the riper the watermelon. I still choose them by these characteristics and watermelon is still one of my favourite fruit.
The stories about this or that shortage are numerous. One of the most interesting that comes to my memory is how we bought furniture in 1963. My parents decided it was time to buy some new furniture but the stuff that was available in the local shops was of very poor quality and was not worth spending money on. There were rumours that they made really good furniture in Riga, the capital of Latvia. So one fine day my father decided to make a journey to Riga for furniture.
He took Yura with him and they went to Moscow by train, which took them two and a half days. In Moscow they changed trains and travelled another day to Riga. In Riga they stayed in a hotel for several days until they bought the furniture, and sent it to Achinsk in a big container. On the way back they went to Leningrad and stayed with our relatives there for a week.
The furniture arrived in Achinsk before Father and Yura came home. Mother and I were so excited that we immediately started to put it all into places. We liked it all, it was really beautiful. We were not disappointed with a single thing. We worked day and night to prepare everything by the time father came home. There were also two red and yellow carpets which we put on the floor. The flat looked different and we were very pleased.
We did not tell father anything when we met him at the station so all the way home he was telling us proudly the stories about his trip and what wonderful furniture he had bought. It was worth seeing his face when he entered the room!
What was most precious to me as a girl was that father also brought from Riga a set of nice wooden furniture for my dolls. I played with it for years and then gave it away together with the other toys and nice clothes to some friends' or relatives' children. When I remember my toys I always treasure in my memory a little standard lamp with two lampshades, red and blue. It worked from a battery and looked like real.
What I wrote about shortages until now was written about1960s. In 1970s the problem was getting worse and by 1980s it often became so ugly that some of the stories are a real shame to tell. They were really humiliating to Russian people and life started to turn into one long every day humiliation.
The problems in the Soviet economy were increasing and more and more things were disappearing from the shelves. The quality of Soviet produce was also deteriorating rapidly, so if anything imported appeared in the shops long queues formed within minutes. Often people joined the queue first and then asked what it was they were queuing for.
In 1980s nearly everything was a problem. To make life a little easier for teachers (and more humiliating) there was a new rule introduced. Goods were distributed to the schools each month e.g. twenty pairs of men's socks, two pairs of winter boots size 37, five suites, fifteen knickers, so on. The teachers got together in the staff room and drew lots to make it fair and to give everyone a chance to win. Later I could hear one teacher asking another "Do you want to swap a pair of socks for a pair of knickers?" Absolutely ridiculous!
I liked green tinned peas very much and always had some in stock to use as a side dish. I ran out of peas and could not find any in the shops for quite a while. One fine summer evening I decided to go to a theatre. It took me about one hour and a half to get to the centre of Leningrad from Otradnoye where I then lived. Beautifully dressed I was walking slowly along the Nevski Prospect looking forward to the performance.
Suddenly I noticed a queue in one of the side streets. I approached it and ... they were selling Hungarian tinned peas, my favourite! It took me about ten seconds to make a decision. I could always go to the theatre some other time but I might not come across Hungarian tinned green peas for another year, maybe more.
I queued for about an hour and bought two cases, twelve tins in each. I must have been quite a sight in an evening dress with a big case of tins under each arm! An hour and a half back to Otradnoye, what a journey! I thought I was lucky, those peas lasted us quite a while. This is one example of how shortages ruled our lives.
When sugar was rationed under Gorbachov I had quite a stock of it at home. Artyom and I did not eat much sugar. My parents in Siberia on the contrary ran out of the "white poison" very quickly, they had a dacha where they grew all sorts of berries and made their own jam, which used lots of sugar. Sometimes my mother had to borrow some from her neighbour.
Rereading one of her old letters to me recently I read to my surprise "Lyuda, I owe 12.5 kilos of sugar to Roslikova. Please, send me some if you can. I am relying on you." I remember sending her seven kilos of sugar to Siberia, more than a thousand miles away! And that was not the end of the story. Later in the year when the weather was getting cooler, towards Christmas, we got two or three boxes of home made jam from Siberia, our sugar back! My father was very good at packing it into plastic bags, it never leaked.
In 1960s we started to go to the South of the Soviet Union every year for our summer holidays. It was my mother's idea. We went to the Black Sea coast either to Sochi or further to Georgia, places like Gagra, Sukhumi or Pizunda.
To come to the South of the country by train we needed to change in Moscow. It became a ritual to stay in Moscow for four or five days, sometimes a week and do our yearly shopping. This is where I come back to shortages again. It was fun to shop in Moscow, but not to queue!
We had lots of money with us because we were saving all winter towards the holiday. With my mother's job she did not have much time to go shopping during the school year. The choice of goods in our little Siberian town was not as big as in the capital and there was always the possibility of being dressed the same as our next door neighbour. What we bought in Moscow was always different. So during the winter we only shopped for food and one solid week a year we shopped for clothes and other things thousands miles away from home!
Even then, in the middle and late sixties there were quite a lot of queues already. Sometimes we happened to be at the beginning of a queue, sometimes we had to queue for a couple of hours. The worst thing about queuing was that you could never be sure whether there was enough goods on sale. It could very well happen that by the time you got to the counter they had run out of goods or only the wrong size was left. Then you would only be frustrated about spending all that time queuing.
My mother loved wearing high heeled shoes and she often bought them in Moscow. She did not even have them repaired but wore them only until the heels were worn out. It was easier for her to buy a new pair then to bother finding time to go to a repair shop. There were a lot of shoes in Russia then imported from Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia and other countries . She used to buy several pairs at once.
I remember a very showery day in Moscow when we visited several shoe shops. I loved Moscow showers: they were heavy and very warm and the streams of water started to run along the streets just after several minutes of rain. I was always tempted to take my shoes off and to run barefoot in the rain. The cartons of shoes became soaked in my hands. By the time I was sitting on the metro train I must have been a strange sight of a girl: all wet, with the water pouring down my hair and red, black, beige and white heels peeping out of something that had until recently been boxes.