Episode 29: Empty Shelves, Full Pantries

Audio Link

Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Today we will be discussing Sergey Grechishkin’s lighthearted but terrifying memoir “Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid”.   It describes his life growing up as a middle-class child in Leningrad in the 1970s and 1980s, in the final decades of the Soviet Union’s existence.    As you’ll see, his world can seem quite alien to those of us who grew up in the West during the same period, with many of the daily comforts we take for granted having been beyond young Sergey’s imagination.

To start with, Grechishkin talks about the apartments that Leningrad residents were forced to live in.   There was a major housing shortage in nearly every Soviet city, so hopeful residents could be on waiting lists for decades to get into a communal apartment, or “kommunakala”, meanwhile living with their parents well into adulthood.    And what were these communal apartments?

These were very large, once-opulent residences that the Soviet government had confiscated from their wealthy former owners after the 1917 Revolution and then divided between multiple families. The bigger the apartment, the more people were crammed into it, usually one household per room. 

In January 1971, one such communal flat became my first home. Grandma, Mom, and little brand-new me were pretty well off; we had two connecting rooms to ourselves. Our kommunalka was not very big: besides us, there were only seven other families in it, about twenty people altogether. Still, that meant twenty people squeezing past each other through the narrow hallways, arguing over who got to use the phone next, jostling each other in the kitchen over multiple stoves with pots on permanent boil, and fidgeting in line for the single, continuously used toilet.

Grechishkin, Sergey. Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid (p. 8). Inkshares. Kindle Edition. 

After his parents divorced when he was two, Grechishkin’s grandmother decided to take him and raise him herself.   They exchanged apartments with someone in Peterhof, a suburb about a half hour’s train ride from the Leningrad center.   This further complicated the family’s situation, since his mother had to live close to work, so unofficially moved in with her new boyfriend Tolya in the city:  

Officially, Mom lived with Grandma and myself at the Peterhof apartment, meaning she was registered as a resident at that address…  to make sure places like Moscow and Leningrad didn’t get overrun by folks from the countryside, the police were empowered to stop anyone at any time, and anywhere, and demand to see their address registration papers. If the papers weren’t in perfect order, the person could be ordered to leave town or even thrown in jail.

Of course at such a young age, he wasn’t aware of anything missing in his life, but he shares an anecdote that shows the level of economic challenge they were facing:

One day when I was four years old, Grandma and I were returning from Leningrad to Peterhof with a distant relative of ours. She had married a man from Sudan and now mostly lived abroad. She got me an awesome present: a piece of chewing gum. Had I been given such a thing several years later, I would have squirreled it away to share with my friends on some meaningful occasion or to trade it to a schoolmate for some other valuable object, perhaps a toy soldier. 

But I was still naive in the ways of the world, so I opened it immediately. Inside the outer wrapper was an inner one, with a picture of some Western animated character on it. The rarity and value of this souvenir were entirely lost on me. I popped the pink gum into my mouth and began chewing with gusto. It was my first piece of gum ever, and it tasted like nothing I’d ever had before—a mixture of strawberry, banana, and vanilla! ...

Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

Eventually Grechishkin’s mother married her new boyfriend and had a second child, and she and his grandmother decided to merge their households, exchanging their & Tolya’s communal apartments for one larger one.    It seems like an odd decision after spending several years apart, but it was probably better to be crowded in with relatives than with strangers.   This was actually common at the time:

Because of a chronic real estate shortage, marriage in the USSR often meant the merging of old households rather than the formation of a new one. Everyone would move in together: the happy couple, their parents, their grandparents, their siblings, children from previous marriages, and so on. This merger of family residences after a marriage was called a s’ezd, which translates handily as “congress,” same as what the Communist Party did every five years…

By Soviet standards, [ours] was rather large, with three rooms and a kitchen. I say “rooms” rather than “bedrooms” because the idea of a dedicated living room where no one slept at night was absurd. Our living room doubled as the master bedroom.

 The memoir goes on to share numerous anecdotes and ironies about Grechishkin’s school years.   One of the most surprising comes when he describes how the Soviet government decided to clean up Leningrad for the 1980 Olympics:

In preparation for the Olympics, the authorities decided to clean up Moscow and Leningrad, both literally and metaphorically. Many known dissidents—troublesome artists and other unreliable types—were temporarily deported “beyond the 101st kilometer,” (i.e., forbidden to enter within 100 kilometers of Moscow or Leningrad). Black market dealers, prostitutes, and habitual drunkards prone to public misbehavior were also rounded up and either locked away or kicked out of town. To my utter shock, they did the same to all the children. 
About six months before the opening ceremony, Ekaterina Alexandrovna, like all homeroom teachers in Moscow and Leningrad, held a special PTA meeting. She had received “instructions from above” that no children would be allowed in either Moscow or Leningrad for the duration of the Games. All parents had to notify the authorities within two weeks as to where their children would be staying.
(p. 47)

Luckily, his grandmother was fairly well-off by Soviet standards, and was able to take Grechishkin on an extended vacation to Estonia, while his mother, brother, and Tolya left to stay with Tolya’s parents for a few weeks.    His grandmother took him to watch the boat races, but young Grechishkin’s attention was grabbed by another strange novelty.

While the adults peered through binoculars and cheered, I sat in anticipation of something truly thrilling: the souvenir shops…   There was an abundance of posters, key fobs, and T-shirts, and they weren’t just for foreigners: regular Soviet citizens could buy them, too! 

My materialistic soul was in paradise. I got a blue T-shirt and a cap with “Olympics-80” on it, and a mega-cool key chain with the Olympic bear. All in all, I spent over five rubles of my birthday present money. Grandma approved of my purchases. In fact, she rather approved too much. 

The key chain, she said, was far too nice to use every day, and if I were to take it to school, someone was sure to steal it from me. It would be best, she said, to keep it in a special drawer in her room, with other valuable toys that I was allowed to play with only on special occasions.

If that wasn’t enough, he was also introduced to the wonders of foreign soft drinks, and all that accompanied them:

But Pepsi was something else entirely. The soft drink brought with it another innovation to the USSR: kiosks that served cola in disposable plastic cups. This was a pleasant surprise, for two reasons. For one, kvass was served in actual glass mugs that got only a brief rinse between customers. Grandma would often tell me, “You should never drink from those communal glasses. Who knows what sort of germs are on them?”…

Now, we got a free gift with our soda purchase! Who would throw away a perfectly reusable plastic cup? Not any Soviet person, that’s for sure. Those cups still had long and productive lives ahead of them as drinking vessels, ashtrays, seedling pots, containers for bolts and nails, et cetera.

The excitement of this type of shopping contrasted with the dreary burden of obtaining groceries as part of day-to-day life in the cities.    When something interesting like oranges or bananas appeared in the market, people would line up for hours just to have a chance at buying a few.   On most days, access to such items was unimaginable.

Scarcity accompanied every Soviet citizen every step of the way from the cradle to the grave. The key word for Soviet shoppers was defitzit. If an item was in deficit, that meant it almost never appeared for sale in stores. So many food items were defitzit that it’s easier to say what wasn’t: potatoes, bread, pasta, salt, and canned fish. Those were the only items you could always count on finding in the stores….

Paradoxically, empty stores often meant full pantries. Since no one ever knew when any particular item might appear in stores, everything even remotely useful was bought on sight, regardless of whether it was actually needed. This went for food as well, making constant shortages a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In our house, the cupboards were always bursting with various flours, grains, and legumes. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough well-sealed containers to hold them all. Every few years, Mom and Grandma would inspect their food supply and invariably have to throw out most of it, because it was infested with little multilegged black vermin known under the generic term zhuchki, or “bugs.” Then they’d buy more fresh flour and grains. It was a vicious cycle without end. Insects infested every nook and cranny of Soviet life.

If someone said about some kid, “His parents are rich,” we wouldn’t know what to make of it. If they had said, “His mom is a director of a gastronom [market],” that would’ve been something! That kid probably ate ham and bananas every day, like the big shots in the Kremlin.

The lack of goods extended well beyond food, of course.

Our parents didn’t have the slightest clue about modern conveniences like trash bags, wet wipes, paper handkerchiefs, disposable diapers, shaving gel, and tampons (or any other types of female sanitary products). Until the mid-1970s, there wasn’t even such a thing as deodorant…

A typical Soviet apartment of those days looked like it belonged to hoarders. Nothing was ever thrown out, not even things that were hopelessly broken. After all, a broken thing might still get fixed someday, or at least used for scrap parts. So, families stockpiled rubbish—worn-out shoes, parts of broken furniture, punctured bicycle tires, et cetera—in their already cramped apartments, filling cluttered balconies, basements, and sometimes entire rooms with items left to gather dust and await the day, usually in vain, when they would be fixed or repurposed.

Because laws of supply and demand did not apply, and shortages were permanent, the only way to procure many items was through blat. Blat meant knowing a guy, or knowing a guy who knew a guy…  If you could get people a sheepskin coat or a regular supply of good cuts of meat, then you’d be able to leverage those favors for other favors: quality medical care, a spot at a Black Sea resort, university placement for an underachieving child, or even the papers necessary to avoid a military draft.

As the years went on, Grechishkin was encouraged to join the Young Pioneers, often thought of as the Soviet answer to the Boy Scouts.   There were a few differences though:

Unlike the American Boy Scouts, who overflow with sincere Old Glory patriotism, the Young Pioneers understood that they were part of a sham. Everyone knew our drums and red flags were just pageantry for the sake of pageantry. We marched because we were instructed to do so by the teachers, not because we were genuinely excited by the advent of Communism. And the teachers made sure we did it not because they wanted to mold us into good Communists but because they didn’t want a visit from the city district officials.

He also joined another group, the International Friendship Club, which came with some amazing benefits, due to their role in hosting visiting delegations from foreign leftist groups.    The small trinkets the foreigners would give him, like pencils with cartoon characters or scented erasers, were mysterious treasures to the Soviet students.   

Gifts were the most valuable aspect of heading the International Friendship Club; my childhood aspirations were mostly material. There was practically no end to my material desires, stifled as they were by Soviet austerity. 

I didn’t nurture hopes of my parents getting back together, like other children of divorce. I yearned not for academic honors or sports trophies. I didn’t dream of becoming a cosmonaut. I had no hope of any abstract freedoms, like being able to read whatever book I wanted in peace without the KGB breathing down my neck. 

I just wanted lots and lots of foreign pencils and erasers and stickers. I wanted our family to have a car. I also wanted my own room, and a color TV, and of course, lots and lots of toy soldiers—not the flat plastic ones but the awesome 3-D ones. And sweets, oh my God: cake, chocolate, Pepsi, some of that Donald chewing gum. And bananas. I would have killed for bananas.

Grechishkin continues describing his school years, and his gradually growing awareness of the pervasiveness of the propaganda constantly surrounding him.    By listening to Voice of America and similar sources, he started to realize the dramatic differences between his lifestyle and that of the prosperous West.   Further crazy-sounding anecdotes focus on other issues like the state of Soviet medical care, attitudes towards sex and dating, and the prevalence of workplace theft as a tool to supplement the pitiful salaries paid by the government.    In addition, he expands on the official corruption and anti-semitism that he repeatedly observed.    He also shares the sad story of his father, a dissident who was eventually committed to a mental hospital for daring to criticize the Soviet system.

But in the 1980s, after Brezhnev’s death and a couple of short-lived successors, the Gorbachev reforms began, totally upending many details of daily life.   Fortunately for Grechishkin, Gorbachev eliminated the military draft just before he became eligible.    As controls over the media loosened, he was able to see “Star Wars” in a movie theater, and suddenly it dawned on him that he, too, could escape the “evil empire”.    

All movies are essentially escapes from reality, and sci-fi space operas even more so, but in this case, the divide between the magic on the screen and the dead, gray routine of real life was simply too much to bear….

The Soviet Union had always excused its sad state of poverty and dilapidation with its striving for Communism; it seems unreasonable to expect things to be clean, attractive, and in good order during such a monumental transition. All Soviet citizens were born, grew up, worked, gave birth, and died under an all-encompassing implied sign: “Pardon Our Dust, Work in Progress.” 

But in the last years, it had been dawning on people more and more that there was no actual work being done—there was only dust.   The USSR was not decrepit and poor because it was putting all its effort into building a bright, shiny tomorrow for all the people, with limitless food, free toys for all children, vacations on Mars, and a room for every person to themselves, in a separate apartment without endless lines for the toilet. It was that way because construction had long stopped.

  even if the tech crew ever got people over to Mars on one of their hundreds of flying saucers that seemed to consume all resources and talent, the only thing one could imagine them doing there was sitting in on party meetings (albeit perhaps in space suits) and eating the same meatballs with the same cockroaches, which would surely survive the trip even better than the human travelers. 

And all the while, somewhere else, people really were dreaming big, and having grand visions of cosmic proportions, and inspiring each other to strive for the forces of light in the face of all adversity.

He eventually managed to get accepted into a Chinese Studies department in college, correctly figuring that becoming an expert in a foreign language would increase his chances of traveling abroad.    As a result, he succeeded in leaving the USSR, and later began a successful career as a Western banker.  

One final point we can’t finish without mentioning is the jokes.   Grechishkin opens each chapter with a short joke, and many of these are quite revealing about Soviet life.   Here are just a few of our favorite examples:

A woman is taking a bath in a communal apartment and notices a man’s face watching her from behind frosted glass.    “What’s the matter with you?!” she yells.    “Oh please, like you’ve got something I’ve not seen before,” he says. “I’m just making sure you’re not using my soap!”

A teacher in a Soviet kindergarten tells her class, “Unlike in the capitalist countries, in the USSR, children have plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear. They live in large apartments, and they have lots of wonderful toys to play with.”    In the back row, a little boy starts to cry. “I don’t want to live here anymore!” he says. “I want to live in the USSR!”

The USSR developed a new brand of boiled sausage and decided to send it to a laboratory in America for independent testing. Three weeks later, they received the reply: “There were no parasites identified in this stool sample.”

<closing conversation with Manuel>

As usual, there is plenty more to learn from Grechishkin’s memoir, besides the tiny bits we’ve excerpted here.    Be sure to follow the link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com, or look up his book “Everything Is Normal” yourself, and you can read more of the sad but ironic truths about life under Communist rule.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.