'Who’s last?': Shopping Soviet-style

In a “deficit” society, advertising was a paradox: the aim was not to increase demand, but to satisfy it somehow. / For all the people.

In a “deficit” society, advertising was a paradox: the aim was not to increase demand, but to satisfy it somehow. / For all the people.

Lev Borodulin / MAMM
If you visit a Russian supermarket today, you’ll see people lining up at the cash registers with full carts — in this sense, contemporary Russia is hardly different from other countries. During the Soviet era, standing in line for goods was a national pastime.
This situation was described with the verbs “to give” or “to throw out” (the short from of the expression “they threw it out for sale”), as in: “They’re giving coffee at the bakery!” or “They threw out jeans at the department store!”. / People standing in line for sugar.
There was a popular joke about a woman who, seeing a line, walks up to the end of it and asks, “Who’s last?” and then, “And what are they giving?” The joke is not very far from the truth: Soviets, even when they did not set out to go shopping, would carry with them a mesh bag just in case. / Alcohol has arrived.
As early as the 1930s, thanks to stand-up comedian Arkady Raikin, this bag got the name avoska, or “string bag.” The name comes from the old Russian word avos, which can be translated as “What if?” The bag was carried just on the off chance you might run into a line where something was being given out. / In front of a store window.
Remaining in line was not a requirement: you could simply “occupy a place.” Someone would ask, “Who’s last?” and after receiving an answer, would say to the last person, “I’m after you.” / At a shoe store.
It was considered completely acceptable to step away for an indeterminate amount of time, keeping the right to this place in line. The person who was “last” in line had to warn the next person who came over that. / The GUM department store, Moscow.
Sometimes shoppers used a felt-tip pen to note their position on their hand / Position in line.
All items, even the most basic necessities, were the stuff of dreams. Some things just had to be “got” (as people said), and sometimes working and earning money weren’t enough. To achieve the “dream,” boots were exchanged for textiles, textiles for vacuum cleaners, etc. Everything was then swapped for “premium” goods in short supply: books, theater tickets, a fridge, a new car... / Moskvich car in front of the Peter the Great monument.
Soviet advertising didn’t just show books, toothpaste, boots, mayonnaise, juice, champagne, caviar, TV sets, etc. Every billboard aimed to depict a happy, abundant society and reinforce the old Soviet slogan: Life has become better, life has become merrier! / In the sun in front of Detsky Mir department store, Moscow.
Although these days people can buy anything they want, old habits die hard, especially Soviet ones. The previous year Muscovites stood in line for Valentin Serov exhibition, the latest iPhone or Kanye West sneakers. You can still see grannies or “babushkas” lined up outside the subway or bus stops selling homegrown flowers and vegetables, or homemade jam. / Selling flowers for September 1, Gorki settlement. The photos were on display at the exhibition "A consumer's dream" in Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow.
In Soviet times, store shelves were stocked with “unsellable” items, i.e. goods no one wanted. If something people actually needed went on sale, the lines could stretch for eternity. /  waiting for goods.
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