Sunday, January 23, 2022

Food Queues, USSR Style

Coming Soon, To A Store Near You!

From the queue management mavens at Qminder:

Back in the USSR: The Art of Soviet Queues

Queues are a thing that came to happen naturally in many countries around the world, but there’s been one country where queues were an important part of life. This country is not even on the map anymore — it’s the Soviet Union.

Queue-standing in the USSR was not only a means of getting something — it was almost a sport, an activity in itself. Queues were a good enough reason to socialize, share news, gossip and pass time.

Have you ever complained about how long you had to wait? Let’s roll back a few decades and see whether you don’t have it as bad as you think.

A Brief History of the Soviet Union Breadlines
We can’t talk about Soviet queues without talking about breadlines.

The word “breadline” is something that, in itself, has become almost synonymous with communism. Soviet economy was, to quote Peter Gatrell, “an economy of absolute shortage”.

In fact, even the October Revolution of 1917 was caused partly by bread shortages. The subsequent Civil War did nothing to help the situation, and in 1920, grain production was only at 60% of its prewar numbers.

The failure to provide the population with bread, capitalize on the country’s agricultural potential, and create reasonable allocation policies led to several famines in the first half of the 20th century. Most infamous, the Povolzhye Famine, claimed lives of five million people.

This scarcity spread over to other products. In post-Stalin era, there were efforts to improve the lives of citizens by increasing wages and mass-manufacturing basic consumer goods (soap, shoes, clothes, etc.). Despite all that, queues remained the central part of the existence in the USSR.

Scarcity of food and consumer goods went uninterrupted for the entire durations of the Soviet Union’s existence. It is Gorbachev’s refusal to change the state price policy that worsened the shortages.

It’s arguable what exactly led to the USSR’s eventual collapse in 1991, but it’s self-evident that shortages became the tell-tale sign of the degradation of the centrally-planned economy.

And has the USSR tried to fight against its growing queues and unsatisfactory customer experience? It has, but as you might have guessed from us discussing this topic right now, not to great effect.

Reports from the NKVD mention thousand-people long queues in city stores in the late 30s and early 40s. Instead of trying to improve the situation, law enforcement agencies went about it their own way.

In 1940, queues were practically outlawed: there could be a queue inside a store during its working hours, but queues outside the store were punishable by fines.

That’s like putting on makeup on a leper — it’s a surface-level “cure” that only serves to make you not notice open sores.

Queues and Life in the USSR
But the question remains, where did queues come from in the USSR?

Naturally, queues form whenever the number of people seeking a product or a service exceeds the number of available products or service providers.

This situation, familiar to everyone in our modern capitalist times, was grossly exacerbated by the Soviet-style planned economy, where most products — with the exception of military equipment — were produced in inadequate quantities.

No matter how people may wax nostalgic about the USSR’s supposed superiority in quality, most Soviet products were far from top-grade items.

And the reason? No free market and no commercial competition, which means no matter the quality, the products were going to be snatched from the shelves, either way.

To put it simply, there was no incentive for manufacturers to do better. In a closed economy, buyer has limited choice and thus also limited rights....


And from Young Pioneer Tours*:

7. Soviet Shopping
A man walks into a shop. He asks the clerk, “You don’t have any meat?” The clerk says, “No, here we don’t have any fish. The shop that doesn’t have any meat is across the street.”
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