Soviet food store

Life Hacks From Soviet Time Or The Story of Deficit

Timely post. Self-imposed embargo on food products from a range of countries makes many of us think about Soviet time.  I abstain from politics in this blog, so I am not going to give my evaluation of the current events. I just want to tell you some real life stories and life hacks – what Russian people did when there was shortage (“deficit”) of goods and food.

What Kind of Goods Were In “Deficit” In The USSR?

Soviet economy was a planned economy. It wasn’t based on efficient market principles of demand and supply regulations. So there was a shortage of a lot of things:

Italian shoes, canned peas, mayonnaise, pantyhose, salami, champagne, sport shoes, underwear, chocolate candies, buckwheat, mascara, construction materials, toilet paper, french perfume, canned salmon, fresh fruit, cars, any nice clothes made in the West, stationery, handbags, theater tickets etc. This list is endless. The word “deficit” turned into a noun – people used to say “there is line in the store there – they must sell deficit, let’s look”. Easier to say what was available in stores – in the end of Soviet era.

Bread in the store

Bread in the store – choice is limited

Typical grocery store of that time in Moscow would have the following “non-deficit” food: bread, 1-2 types of pastries, milk, kefir, cream, sour cream, butter, 1-2 varieties of cheese, 1-2 varieties of sausage, canned sea cabbage and canned fish, some sort of meat and frozen fish, some non-alcohol beverages and sweets. Anything above was “deficit” (rare and sought after goods) and created long lines.

Line to the store

Line to the store

Typical fruit& vegetable store (yes, they were separate from grocery stores) would have potatoes, onion, carrots, beets, cabbage and maybe some seasonal fruit. Anything above (bananas or oranges) was “deficit” and created long lines. For some reason bananas were always sold green and one had to wait until they become ripe (if one has a ail power to wait)

Typical “mall” (Univermag) would have shoes and garments which were out of fashion even at that time. Any foreign merchandise was considered “deficit” and created long lines. People often bought stuff they did not need or shoes of wrong sizes to exchange with somebody at work.

Typical household stuff store (“Hozyaistvenniy”) had cleaning and grooming products and various household equipment, but all of that was “made in the USSR”, so quality was low. Polish shampoo would create a huge line and be considered “deficit”.

Paradox Of The Soviet Time

Deficit foodNothing in stores, but lot’s of good things in people’s fridges and on the festive dinner tables. How that was possible??

Well, partially that was a famous Russian hospitality. You always offer your guests all you have. Partially that was a result of making stocks. But in the most part – that was using zillions of life hacks.


Life Hacks Of The Soviet Times

It is a vast topic, but here are the main vectors:

1) Straightforward Approach – stock on all goods you might need. If you need canned peas and mayonnaise and pickled cucumbers for your Russian Salad – make sure you buy all the ingredients not the day before, but when you see them in store (applicable for food with long shelf life). Yes, you have to stay in line to get them. AND, there probably will be a limit of stuff you can buy (3 cans of peas or 1 kg of chocolate candies). Other people behind you also want that stuff.

2) Networking Approach – that approach will be easy to understand for all my B-school friends. Similar as you network to get a job, you network to get a special treatment from the grocery store or department store directors or a butcher or even a sales person in a store. He or she can let you know if they have salami or Italian shoes in store and you can even avoid staying in line to get them (either for money or, exchanging favors. Lets say you can give theater tickets to a popular play in exchange…)

3) Frugal approach – best explained in my post about the lifecycle of things or – balcony, dacha, trash can. You just do not throw away things. Old coat could always be remodeled, nails could be re-used, glass jars from pickles will hold next years’ jam etc. Also, you would’ve needed an empty glass jar if you want to buy sour cream in the store. You were supposed to bring your own jar, to carry the sour cream home!

Avos'ka bag

Avos’ka bag

Another weird thing – all Russians (even the wealthy ones) still save plastic bags from grocery stores – we never throw them away, since we can re-use them! (even if we never actually do that and they just pile up under the kitchen sink). Explanation for that – In Soviet times there were no plastic bags in grocery stores. At all! So most people had an “Avos’ka bag” with them in case they do grocery shopping during the day. The name “Avos’ka” comes from difficult to explain phenomena, called “avos'”. Avos’ does not have a direct translation, the closest translation is “perhaps”. Like in: “Perhaps I come across something valuable in the store, I will need a bag to carry it home”. Funny as it may seem – re-using glass jars and having an avos’ka bag with you for shopping was very environmentally friendly.

To give you a further illustration of a frugal approach – let’s look at the life cycle of pantyhose (tights). You used either the straightforward or a networking approach to get a pair. You wear them, but of course sooner or later you get a hole in them. What do you do if you are living in the USSR? First thing you do is you reach for the nail polish. And, no, not to do mani-pedi since now you are out of stock of tights)). You seal the running of the hole with clear nail polish. And when you come home, you mend the hole. There were even special hooks which were used for mending tights (huge deficit!).

Tights mending kit

Tights mending kit

You use that pair of tights until holes are really visible. What do you do afterwards? Toss them? No, absolutely not. You wear them in winter under trousers! Nobody can see you have tights with holes if you wear trousers on top of them, right? And an extra layer does keep you warm.

Ok, even if you are super careful and frugal and spend winter evenings mending the garment – eventually it wears out. Now you toss it, right? Not yet! You wash it and then handicraft other objects out of it!

4) Handcrafts/Innovation Approach

Storing onions in tights

Storing onions in tights

Ok, so what exactly could one craft from old tights?! Plenty of things. For starters – one could just use them (after washing) for storing onions. But if you are really crafty you can knit a door map or even a dishwashing cloth))

Innovation was a main mode of Soviet people for 70 years. Plastic tubes for IV? You should see the gorgeous fish decorations, made of them! Old ropes? Just give them to me and I will make a macramé technique owl or a decorative panel picture out of them! Knitting a dress or sewing one – easy! Creating hats to protect your hair from paint spills when painting – any kid could do that! Opening a bottle of wine with a pair of pliers and a screw etc.

Food was an especially creative area. Americans often wonder how people cook from scratch. Guess what?! To make a cheesecake in the USSR, you first needed to make cottage cheese. Out of milk!!! To make a Russian salad sometimes you needed to make your own mayonnaise! Out of oil, egg yolk, pepper and mustard!

Making home-made jams or baking cakes was considered cooking 101)) One of popular Soviet films features a story of a single girl, who works in a large state corp and looks for a guy among her coworkers. Hilarius movie! But what is relevant here – they do technical drawing at work by hand and need good erasers to correct mistakes. Good erasers at that time were made in Europe, but they were difficult to get and costly. What she did – she soaked Soviet erasers in kerosene and they became as good and soft as the European ones. And of course she also cooked home-made biscuits and sweets, since “the shortcut to men’s heart is via his stomach”.

Resume Of The Story

I initially planned to write a rosy post – briefly mentioning USSR times, but mostly writing about current cornucopia in all kinds of stores. Everything – from fresh oysters to French cheeses was available up until recently. Recent embargo has shown us that such cornucopia might have been a temporary thing. I do not think we will get a real shortage (‘deficit”) of important goods since many of the world countries can substitute whatever is imported from France with their import (Argentinian and Chilean wines are on par with French wines, Argentinian beef will be costly, but same or even better quality etc.) But my main point was not to show how we will live here in absence of Parmesan and foie gras – but to show how people in the USSR lived in absence of any of those imported goods.

Russians will  survive that and many other hardships easily. I just wonder – why exactly we have to face that on behalf of our government? But as I said – I promised myself that I am keeping this blog out of politics zone. So, no good or bad evaluations.

Let me know if you want a recipe of a home-made cottage cheese or mayonnaise sauce though))

I know that some of my readers are well-known food bloggers. And some of my readers surely have great recycling ideas! Share you recipes here, lets exchange cool life hack ideas! 

Leave a Reply

  • ak - 7 years ago

    There was another source of deficit goods in the Soviet times: stealing materials from work, which was not considered a bad thing to do among ordinary people (but of course was a crime if you got caught). So, a worker from a sweet factory would have “free” sugar, a nurse would bring home some medicine, a builder would renovate his dacha with materials from a building site, a restaurant cook would come home with jars of “leftovers”, etc. There are many such scenes in Soviet movies. Russians even invented such a verb as “skommunizdit” (to apply the communism slogan “to each according to his need” towards your workplace’s materials).

  • Liz - 6 years ago

    Its good to be self sufficient, and I find the use of the word deficit interesting. It reminds me of the tears brought to some people who know deficit as a noun when they first see a market of plenty. The irony is that it’s somewhat hollow. Foods made of food derivatives and factory farmed animal products line shelves. If you buy real food, it is relatively difficult in some areas of the U.S. to do so. The sale of raw milk, to make cheese, is all but outlawed here. Milk prices have dropped so low, since trade sanctions, that I can buy over 3 L.(1 gal) For less than 2 dollars, which can also buy 2-3 kilos potatoes or 2 heads of cabbage. That is appropriate for milk only useful for drinking or gravy making. My impression growing up of the USSR was that of a life of famine and theft, retaliation of community property, and the destruction of farms and internal food production resources. I have never heard the side of ingenuity, thrift, and resourcefulness that is obvious in the survival of your people. It is fascinating, though Not surprising.

  • Anonymous - 5 years ago

    Hi, with regards to avoska bag, I would suggest the word ” what if ” rather then perhaps

  • Anonymous - 5 years ago

    One friend of mine from France studied Russian and wanted to visit Russia and stay there few months to be immersed and learn language better. Friends from Moscow who helped her to settle told her when she came: “If you have any problem, if you need something – don’t hold it, don’t be shy. Tell us, what you need. And we will help you right away. We’ll explain you how you can do without it.”

  • Anonymous - 5 years ago

    I was ;lucky to be able to visit my friends in Moscow in the late 1980ies. My suitcase being full of Tan Marks and Spencers tights and hold ups for my friends family. Other goodies included M&S cotton nickers and lots and lots of cosmetics. My friend, her mother and her sister only wore the tights at family gatherings. Wearing them at work or in the city wold have been noticed. Not a good idea.

  • Miguel Aresta - 5 years ago

    Hi! What is the name of the movie featuring the girl who does technical drawings?

    • ak - 4 years ago

      Самая обаятельная и привлекательная?

  • Anonymous - 4 years ago

    I noticed many of the things my mother and bunica do are mentioned here! I thought all families did this. As someone who lives in luxury, it is humbling to hear such accounts of creativity in times of deficit. With the way things are going, this might be the fate of many countries soon. But we are used to luxury. We need to learn a lesson or two from the ingenuity of the Soviet people. Or listen to bunica more!

  • Anonymous - 4 years ago

    We, too, had shortages for a few things, such as gas (petrol), margarine, LPG stored in short and long heavier portable tanks, in Turkey in the 70’s despite we had no planned economy. BTW, I am 50. Gas (petrol) for vehicles was available in limited volume by presenting a long pink carton paper forms to be date stamped (similar to coupons). But never like the deficit in the USSR. Turkey had an efficient farming, so our government was bartering for durable goods esp. with the USSR. Also, limited import quotas were available for traders of foreign goods. Many traders were exchanging for specific products within each other. However, almost everyone was happier than today where everything is available everywhere.

    • Tanya Golubeva - 4 years ago

      Thank you for the insightful comments! Time of change is never easy for people in the country, hopefully these reforms are economically sound and will lead to the improvement of life!

  • Anonymous - 2 years ago

    You neglect to mention the main reason for shortages were the artificial low prices in communist countries for political reasons. The ussr was the second highest producer of food.
    Also your experience appears to be with late gorbachev shortages, when the economy was being privatized and deteriorating

  • Laura Filshtein - 1 year ago

    I never knew why my Russia- born father would refer to this exact same salad as “French Salad” and now I know why. :)