The Soviet Union, a place where everyone was equal(ly miserable). Incredibly, there are still people around who style themselves as apologists for the most evil regime the world has ever known. In this article I will not talk about the untold millions of corpses or the human rights abuses. Instead, I’ll enumerate some of the basic everyday items that a centrally-planned economy was not able to provide for the common comrade.
Images of breadlines are a poignant reminder of how things really were in the land of socialism. Food shops were literally empty. Forget about “exotic” fruit like bananas or avocados, forget about meat or fish, forget about yoghurts. Coffee was also hard to get, only through people who worked in restaurants for the elite. Even then, coffee was reused multiple times, and lost colour was added in the form of potassium permanganate powder. So how did people eat? Many had relatives in the countryside, others bought in black market markets.
Toilet paper only existed in myth and hotels meant for foreign visitors. The only way to get it was through collecting masses of waste paper to receive vouchers, and even then it was not guaranteed. Commonly, newspaper was used, or pages from the Works of Lenin. Newspapers were rougher than they are now, and the ink was leaded. There’s a term rarely heard that was common back then was “to rumple newspaper”, i.e., make it a bit softer.
If you think that’s horrifying, there’s more. There’s also a semi-rhetorical question from the period: “how to wipe with a nail?” The answer is: wipe with your finger, then wipe the finger on the nail and use the sharp bit to get bits that are stuck off. This may sound like a joke, but it was very easy to run out of newspaper, especially in public work places, communes or the army.
Soviets only started making their own toilet paper in 1969, but it remained a luxury bourgeois item until the very end.
The preferable option was cotton wool wrapped in bandage cloth. Except that was rarely available, unless you worked or had friends who worked in hospitals. Failing that, there was the soviet “hygienic belt”, which looked like a g-string from hell. The pad attached at the “working end” had the same feeling and absorption as newspaper. Needless to say, “that time of the month” was appropriately horrific. After all, in the mentality of communism, women were equal to men, and men don’t get periods.
It’s popular these days to hear eco-idiots lauding the eco-benefits of cloth nappies. As someone who grew up when they were still unavailable or as good as, it blows my mind. Unlike modern eco-idiots, however, soviet women (and men) had little time to wash the masses and masses of dirty cloth, and few had access to a washing machine. Therefore tons upon tons of cloth nappies in every household. An appropriately horrifying invention was concocted in the 1970s called the “plastic nappy”, which simply enclosed all the mess inside, and if the parents did not get them off fast enough, the rashes were simply awful. Needless to say, that invention did not catch on. The upside of all of this, at least little ones were potty trained fast, and there was rarely the horror of seeing a 3-year-old child in a nappy.
Plastic bags are another item eco-idiots like to decry. However, in the Soviet Union, they were carefully hoarded, because you didn’t know when you’d get a new one. Also, branded plastic bags from abroad were treated with the same reverence as a Gucci handbag.
Rubbish bags did not exist either, the almighty soviet newspaper came to the rescue once more.
Cars, homes, etc.
It was not uncommon for newlywed couples to move in with parents, because you could not simply buy or rent a home. No, you had to wait for the State to assign you one who knows where. It was not uncommon for 3 or 4 generations to live in a one-bedroom flat. Same with cars, you had to wait in line to get your bucket of rust. At least there were no traffic jams.
Of course, just like in Animal Farm, these problems did not apply to the elite of the CP. They had their own shops, their own restaurants, their goods from the West and their palatial mansions.