19 May Babinsky. Family (1967 – 1975). 5: Non-Food Shopping. Community Service
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Non-Food Shopping: Strategies and Tactics.
Shopping for non-food was done dutifully but hopelessly. Like with food, the ambition was to encounter a crowded store. People did not necessarily know what deficit would be “dumped” but it didn’t matter: everybody needed everything.
The nearly all-female queues were hostile, acrimonious, eager to expose interlopers; each tired, beleaguered woman was ready to scream, push, and shove to protect her spot in the sun, her slice of luck beckoning from the distant counter.
But at the same time, the women knew not to hope before they even joined the queue or anywhere else, for that matter—motherland’s love, no age discrimination, gender equality in action.
If the allowed limit shrank midway to the goal, the unlucky contenders accepted their fate docilely. If the goods ran out, the queue dispersed docilely.
Lethargic salespeople surveyed the expectant mass with annoyance. They got angry easily, they had the power to deny service, to snap “Either take it or move on,” or “There are many of you and just one of me.” They despised customers.
Toilet paper and paper napkins belonged in a class of their own.
The decision was forced by a Western communist who, safely back home, ridiculed the newspaper squares in his hotel bathroom. After a brief period of bewilderment when the public did not understand the purpose for the unusual paper rolls, toilet paper became a hit and instantly joined the ranks of deficit.
The music-records store in our building did not attract customers with its approved labels. It was empty most of the time which jeopardized its monthly targets. “Dumping” toilet paper at month end, one roll per person, allowed it not only to meet the plan but exceed it and thus get a bonus.
When a neighbor caught sight of the delivery she sprinted along the building screaming “Toilet paper! Send out the kids!” She bought as many rolls as there were children surrounding her. Then the children moved on to the next neighbor in line.
A garland of white rolls around one’s neck (just in case, a piece of string was always in the purse) attracted passersby like an Olympic medal would. “Where is it being ‘dumped’?” they asked and rushed off in the direction indicated.
(Not meeting the monthly sales or production plans constituted a criminal offense. Stores waited until the last days of the month to see if they would hit the numbers without begging their ministries for some deficit; when they didn’t, their higher-ups had to come to the rescue because they were evaluated based on the target numbers. As a result, the probability of successful shopping was much higher at month-end.)
Armed with wish lists, money, avoskas and suitcases, representatives from remote factories headed to Kiev to buy enormous amounts of food – they considered Kievites spoiled and impatient. Returning home, they stuffed train compartments to the roof, calling themselves paratroopers on a sausage raid. A joke that expressed their feelings “Proletarians of all countries, my apologies! Yours, Marx” paraphrased Marx’s quote from the Communist Manifesto “Proletarians of all countries, unite!”
The country’s working urban population and the military volunteered—was volunteered—to lend a hand in harvesting and storing kolkhoz crops and do community work. That hand was far from enthusiastic and largely useless, but that did not enter into the equation. No one was exempt, except women with children under three, expectant mothers, students enrolled in evening programs, the disabled, and the company management.
College students in day programs spent the first month of each school year harvesting, digging, weeding.
Kolkhoz members barely contributed their compulsory minimum effort. They concentrated on their private lots and barns to supply what city folk paid exorbitant prices for in farmer markets. It was not uncommon for the buses heading to the city and the buses delivering students to the village to meet on the road, with the passengers of former openly laughing at those of the latter.
But it was the subbotnik – from subbota, Russian for Saturday – that was the dreaded integral part of city life, a day of unpaid work outside regular working hours getting rid of fallen leaves, clearing debris, planting saplings. (Of course, the spot they beautified could be torn up for construction next day, but so what?)
The first subbotnik took place in the midst of the Civil War. The country suffered catastrophic shortage of functioning railway equipment and Lenin called on workers to help rectify the situation. On Saturday, April 12, 1919, fifteen workers of one of the Moscow depots, thirteen of them Bolsheviks, remained in the workshop after their shift to repair three locomotives. According to their recollections, work continued harmoniously and extra-efficiently for ten hours in spite of cold weather and no lights. At 6 in the morning the team rested and had tea and decided to repeat the event weekly until the complete victory in the war. In conclusion, they sang The Internationale.
Other depots followed the example. Lenin wrote an article about the ideological component of such initiatives and called the participants heroes. At the time, the subbotniks were completely voluntary, a sincere impulse of hopeful people. They became official a year later. The idea of volunteering for the common good had gained momentum. On May 1, 1920, the first All-Russian subbotnik attracted about 425 thousand people in Moscow alone, one of them Lenin himself.
Of all the subbotniks taking place every year, mostly on Saturday but sometimes on Sunday, one was sacred: the annual Communist subbotnik dedicated to Lenin’s birthday. And as luck would have it, that date, April 22, was close to the hallowed International Workers’ Day on May 1. Gradually, subbotniks became just another piece of the voluntary-compulsory communist education of the masses. Refusal to join was denounced and administrative penalties applied to the dodgers, not that many dared to try. Soviet media obediently reported unprecedented accomplishments on the “holiday of liberated labor” though it did not mention the enthusiasm of the masses anylonger.
Lenin and the Log
There was not a person in the Soviet Union unfamiliar, since early childhood, with the photograph of Lenin participating in the removal of debris from the area around Kremlin that remained there since the battles of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It showed him last in a row, one of six people carrying a massive log.
On that day, May 1, 1920, the leaders of the Soviet state came to the first All-Russian subbotnik in history to support the new tradition by personal example. Most work was done by the cadets of a military school. Lenin, 50-years-old and less than two years after an injury sustained in an assassination attempt, carried logs along with the others for several hours until it was time to appear at the laying ceremony of the monument to Karl Marx.
The lack of other photographic proof led the imagination of Soviet artists roam free on on the theme “Lenin and the Log.” The best known paintings based on the photo, are the 1957 postal stamp where Lenin handles the log on his own and the 1965 painting where he appears at the front of the row. Whatever the version, the image was meant to summon us to follow his example.
(As inescapable were statues of Lenin in the Soviet Union—a total of 7,000 of statues and busts in outside public places, including one hundred in the city of Leningrad, plus those inside various lobbies and offices—many showing him with arm outstretched and cap clenched in his fist.
The monument at the Volga-Don canal is registered in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest statue in the world dedicated to a real person. Its height, with the pedestal, is 57 meters.
The statue of Lenin in Kiev was considered the only one that was a work of art. The statue was over 10 meters high, counting the seven-meter pedestal. The body was made from red polished granite, and the pedestal from a rare stone used in building the Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow.
During WWII, the Nazis conducted public executions on the spot where the monument would be installed in 1946 on the tenth anniversary of Stalin’s Constitution.
Prior to the installation, this statue and a statue of Stalin were exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. The statue was demolished in 2013.)
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