Where does the waiting line lead?
THERE are frequent misunderstandings in foreigners' judgments of Soviet society -- points on which there is total incomprehension, and hence a feeling that Soviet life is truly inscrutable. It seems to us that these are because Westerners -- scientists, politicians, journalists, or tourists -- do not take into account the main factor governing the day-to-day life, social contacts, psychological reactions, political sympathies, and even the ideals of the Soviet person.Skip to next paragraph
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That main factor is the waiting line.
Like mournful, irritating background music, the waiting line accompanies a Soviet person throughout life, from birth to death. First, there is the queue for pacifiers, feeding bottles, and diapers; then the line (with special tickets and a policeman on duty at the store's door) for a wedding dress; and finally, the line for the black slippers in which Soviet people bury their dead. Many of a Russian's notions about life and the universe are formed by the waiting line. And if, in our childhood, standing in round-the-clock waiting lines for flour, sugar, and eggs, we looked up at the sky, it was only to see which line was moving faster -- ours or the one in the heavens.
There is almost no product or thing in the Soviet Union for which there have not been waiting lines. One is familiar with the classic lines for fruits and vegetables, newspapers, thermometers, New Year's trees, toilet paper, men's socks, meat, absorbent cotton and gauze, razors, pillows, underwear, shoes; the line in front of Lenin's Tomb -- and of course, the lifelong wait for an apartment.
The simple word ``buy'' has virtually disappeared from the Russian language in favor of terms like ``scrounge,'' ``rip off,'' and other synonyms. The same is true of the word ``sell.'' A Soviet person, taking his place in a line, never asks, ``What are they selling?'' but ``What are they giving out?'' or ``What are they throwing out?''
And the monetary transaction takes place somewhere outside the framework of the acquisition of the thing. Psychologically, it is the least significant part of that whole, almost magical procedure, which includes, first, the many hours of standing in line and, as its ``stellar hour,'' the moment of acquiring the thing and the incomparable feeling of soaring like a bird because of such a success.
In waiting lines, the Soviet develops and perfects the hunter's instinct. Like a real hunter, when he goes off ``hunting'' in the morning he doesn't know what he'll get by evening -- because the purchase follows the principle of ``what are they throwing out,'' not what one needs or wants to buy.
True, there are lofty, forbidden dreams: a pair of imported shoes, colored linoleum for the kitchen, a Finnish refrigerator. But realizing them is like tracking down and killing a bear. And the moral values of Soviet society are more and more taking on a primitive character, like those of a tribe of hunters. A person is judged by what he has gotten his hands on during the day. Within the family, a man's worth is subjected to doubt if he returns empty-handed from the hunt.