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.
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.
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.
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”.
Nothing 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.
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!
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!).
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
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”.
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!
© 2016 Tatiana Golubeva. All rights reserved.