queues in soviet union

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

history of ussr 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

customer service in 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.

From Breadlines to Meatlines

The Soviet queuing practices turned “First come, first served” into a social Darwinist principle. The first few people in line for meat could get their hands on the best pieces — “the best” being relative to the country’s average quality. The rest of queue-standers had to be content with bones and skin with lower meat contents.

This same Darwinist principle applied not only to stores but nation as a whole. The shops in Moscow were better-stocked with meat and other goods, and thus attracted provincial shoppers from as far as 100 miles away.

This “meat tourism” became the subject of this famous Soviet joke riddle: What is something that is green, long and smells of sausage? A tram from Moscow.

In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev, the first and last President of the Soviet Union, and George H. W. Bush signed a trade agreement about exporting American-made frozen chicken legs to the USSR. The quality of these chicken legs was, relative to the existing standards and especially at the time of food deficit, unheard of.

These chicken legs were quickly dubbed “Bush legs”.

Soviet queues weren’t just about bread and meat, though. There were monstrous queues for exotic, rare products — such as bananas, tangerines, watermelons and melons. Pretty much any fruit that wasn’t an apple was in deficit.

In the 1980s, coffee and caviar became scarce as well. Despite there being a number of Warsaw Pact countries that traded between themselves, they couldn’t effectively close the gap in each other’s supply.

The retail in the USSR was inefficient, if not to say almost non-existent. The way it was organized, buyers had to stand in separate line for specific products — meat, dairy, vegetables, etc. — and then wait in another, general line at the cashier.

Queues for Other Consumer Goods

soviet union food scarcity

Soviet newspapers were always trumpeting manufacturing successes, with constant stream of “increases in production” for shoes, clothes, etc. Despite all that, good clothes and shoes were hard to find.

Again, there was simply no competition in the industry. It was the higher-ups and not the buyers who got to dictate how many pairs of shoes were needed. Good luck finding shoes that fit! The shelves were filled with boots that were too big for anyone but got produced anyway because of the government plans.

Once people have tasted the quality from beyond the Iron Curtain, their patriotism was likely to take toll. Foreign-made denim wear was a rare commodity, but it still enjoyed popularity among not only youth but also adults. It wasn’t uncommon to buy a pair of American jeans for nearly a month’s worth of your salary.

Even alcohol, a product whose consumption rose to unprecedented heights under the Soviet regime, suffered from inadequate supply. Soviet’s cheap and accessible brand of sparkling wine, called simply Soviet Champagne, was nothing but a pale imitation.

But in the absence of any alternatives, people didn’t and couldn’t know any better.

When Gorbachev kickstarted prohibition in the USSR (so-called “dry law”), alcohol shortage turned for the worse, with not only limited availability but also limited time for purchase. Kilometer-long queues before shops during the five-hour opportunity windows became the norm.

Queues for Toilet Paper

soviet union waiting lines

Not even toilet paper was spared the brunt of Soviet queues.

It has to be noted that in the beginning, toilet paper wasn’t as widely-used. People would use newspapers instead, oblivious to the detrimental effects of the lead-heavy newspaper ink.

In a fashion that sounds outright kafkaesque right now, Soviet authorities had to launch a large-scale advertising campaign: there was advertising of toilet paper in newspapers, magazines and even cinemas, before movies.

And the Soviets succeeded, people warmed up to toilet paper, but what happened then was what always happens in a closed economic system whenever a product becomes too popular.

Soviet planning could not keep pace with the demand, prompting huge queues for the toilet paper in stores. Buyers would get a dozen rolls of toilet paper, put a string through them and then put this absurd toilet paper bracelet on themselves.

Even More Queues

And that’s just products! In addition to these shorter queues, Soviet people also had to stand in years-long queues for furniture, cars, and housing. You needed to enter the list

If a person missed his turn, no one would think twice of reminding him. For all the anti-capitalism propaganda, it was the Soviet Union that was the true dog-eat-dog world.

A big lover of jokes at the expense of the Soviet Union, Ronald Reagan once told this tale:

There is a 10 year wait for getting your own car, and you have to put up the money in advance. One man laid down the money, and the fellow in charge said to him: “Come back in 10 years and get your car.”

The man answered: “Morning or afternoon?”

And the fellow behind the counter said: “Ten years from now, what difference does it make?”

The man replied: “Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.”

The Queue to the First McDonald’s in USSR

first mcdonalds in ussr

There was one Soviet queue that made the headings of newspapers around the world. You may have even seen the pictures — the opening of the first McDonald’s fast food restaurant in Moscow.

McDonald’s has been discussing the idea of opening a restaurant with Soviet officials since 1976. In 1988, they finally got a permission, and construction works started. A year later, over 50 million USD has been invested in this project, with a special factory for producing brand ingredients.

Over 35,000 people applied for a cashier position. At the time, Moscow restaurant set a record for being the largest McDonald’s in the world, with 700 inside and 200 outside seatings and almost 30 cash registers.

The first Soviet McDonald’s restaurant opened its down on Pushkin Square, Moscow, on 31 January 1990. Initially, company projected 1,000 people coming to the opening of the restaurant. They were off by several thousands — five thousand people queued up to taste silly-sounding meals.

Throughout its launch day, Moscow McDonald’s set another record by serving more than 30 thousand visitors. Though it took people over five hours to get to the front, it wasn’t anything they haven’t experienced before — in the Soviet Union, waiting was part and parcel of life.

(Unrelated, but this is how people used to eat Big Mac at first: they’d pick it apart, layer by later, and eat each layer separately with a knife and fork.)

McDonald’s launch in Moscow has almost become a myth in itself. There are a lot of anecdotes surrounding the launch of the Soviet McDonald’s.

Supposedly, there was a sign on the door stating the limit of burgers one person could order. This, of course, was in conflict with the mindset of Soviet people, who took deficit for granted and always bought in stock.

Another contrast was in customer service. As we’ve pointed out above, customer service was nonexistent in the USSR. That’s why managers had to train new cashiers to smile when serving. It may sound absurd to some, but smiling wasn’t a sign of politeness and friendliness. If anything, it may have hinted at mischievousness.

That goes back to a classic Russian saying: “A laugh without a reason is a sign of a fool”.

You Can’t Say “USSR” Without Saying “US”

apple launch waiting lines

The waiting lines may not have been a Soviet invention, but they were a pervasive element in the life of all citizens of the USSR.

In a way, queues became the ultimate symbol of true Soviet equality. No matter who you were or where you came from, you had to stand in the same long lines for the same poor-quality products.

And this is all the more surprising, seeing how long queues, once again, become the part of our lives. But instead of justifiable anger, some of these queues become the source of pride — joy, even.

How many times have you heard about the people who’ve been standing in line for hours, if not days, just to buy an iPhone a day earlier than anybody else? How many people consider staying in line for tickets for their favorite band or football team an important part of experience?

We need to remember that queues are, first and foremost, a failure in the supply system. All these companies who boast online about their long waiting lines are openly acknowledging their inability to properly serve you, their customer.

Queues in the USSR were a symbol of absurd government policies and overall feeling of hopelessness and dejection. No wonder they became a frequent topic of political jokes passed around in private.

What better way to end this article than by retelling the most biting one.

A man is waiting in line for vodka, but because of new Gorbachev laws, the man’s already been waiting for hours, with no end in sight. He finally loses it and yell: “I can’t take this waiting anymore! I’m going straight to the Kremlin and I will kill this damn Gorbachev!”

The man leaves but after an hour, the people in the queue see him come back. “So… have you done it?” whispers someone. The man replies: “No. I got to the Kremlin, but the line to kill Gorbachev was even longer.”


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