USSR Avos'ka bag

Packaging In The USSR Or Why We Keep Plastic Bags

A year ago I was in Cuba and bought some fresh mangoes and papayas to take home with me. Finding a wooden or a cardboard box, a scotch tape or even a rope to package all that proved to be a real challenge. That story made me remember USSR time, when packaging was scarce and valuable. Now you will learn something that will make you wonder and smile.

Grocery Shopping In The USSR

Living in the world, where all food items are already packaged for you or will be packaged by a store assistant, it is nearly impossible to imagine how you would shop if products were not packaged. How would you carry home eggs, beverages, produce and other stuff?

Milk products bottles with foil lids

Milk products bottles with colored foil lids (by type of product)

In a typical Soviet grocery store only some products (such as milk or kefir) came in bottles or plastic packaging. Meat, cheese, sausage or fish would be wrapped for you in a grey paper. But stuff like sour cream or eggs or bread did not have packaging. And nobody gave you a paper or plastic bag with purchase.

Avoska bag

Avos’ka bag

So, when going grocery shopping, you first had to bring a re-usable shopping bag with you. Or, better, carry a very portable grocery bag with you all the time. One of the most favorite grocery bags was called “Avos’ka” – the name comes from the Russian word “Avos'”, which is impossible to translate into English. The closest translation is Perhaps (like in “Perhaps I will do grocery shopping today” or “Perhaps there will be something really good in the grocery store on my way home from work”.

But for some items you had to plan in advance. If you wanted to buy sour cream, which as we know is a product Russians love – you had to bring with you a glass jar with the lid.

Or, let’s say you wanted to buy eggs. There was a special metal bag that you used for that:

Metal egg holder

Metal egg holder

Or if you wanted to buy Kvas – our traditional non-alcoholic beverage – you had to bring a metal jar “bidon” with you:

bidon for kvas

bidon for kvas

Toilet paper

Typical way of carrying toilet paper home from the store in USSR

People also created a way to transport some non-food products – here is an example. I know it looks weird, but that is how people were typically carrying the paper rolls. And why does he need that many? Because it was also a “deficit good”, so one had to stock on it.

You would ask – why didn’t people just use plastic bags? The answer is simple – there were no plastic bags! During Perestroika time plastic bags were among the goods that cooperatives started to produce. These plastic bags usually had a catchy picture on them and were quite expensive, so people washed them when they got dirty and re-used again and again. I was living abroad with my parents in the beginning of the 90s and then returned to Moscow. Of course I had many plastic bags from shopping in Europe. Guess what – one of my classmates approached me and offered to buy some of my plastic bags. I still remember that she offered 3 Rub per one bag, which was a lot (ice-cream was 20 kopeks, a big cake was 2-3 Rub). I did decline the offer though. I thought that if my parents find out I am selling plastic bags in school, they will not be happy with such side business of their daughter. (now I think I should’ve sold the bags)

These times were much more environmentally friendly though. I often wish we had less plastic packaging from food. And the funny thing is that people still do not throw away plastic bags, so each household has a stock of them somewhere at home. Now you also understand – why!

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  • Renu Nathan - 6 years ago

    Goodness! Now I know from where those “avoska” bags in India in the late 1980s and early 1990s turned up. They were even called “avoska” here and no one knew why. My Mum bought me a purple one and I think it’s still somewhere in the attic. Great to know the history behind it!

  • Nova Town - 5 years ago

    Good to know – shows terrible Russiab economic and cultural isolation and depression but at the same time makes us think how much garbage we produce and pay for our extra “conveniences” in the West :))) I would be scared of buying any food in Russia even now…
    you never know where the real producers are, and what “stuff” beside “chicken”, or “colbasa” is used in food, no telephone or address mentioned on labels…. Scary country….

  • Patricia - 4 years ago

    So interesting! Actually nowadays you can look those practices as being quite environmentally friendly–no excess packaging, and bringing your own bag. Of course though it is quite an inconvenience but in some ways the USSR was ahead of its time.

  • Anonymous - 4 years ago