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How to Please Your Moscow Hosts

Gifts of nylons and coffee are welcome - but beware the misstep our writer made with soap. TRAVEL: SOVIET UNION

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 1990


IT began as a typical Russian night out. Before sitting down for a long evening of eating and toasting and debating, I reached into my bag, Santa Claus-style, and pulled out gifts for everybody: A flowered apron and pot-holder for Galina. Sweatshirts for Tolya and son Vasya. My friends, like a second family to me in my student days here 10 years ago, seemed pleased.

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Then I insulted them: I presented them with two bars of soap.

With the Great Soviet Soap Shortage still raging, nothing could be more welcome, I had thought. But when Galina opened a drawer in their china cabinet, revealing what must have been a two-year supply, I knew I had thought wrong.

``See? We have plenty,'' Galina declared, her pride wounded. ``Vasya has good connections.''

More than ever, life in Moscow for locals and foreigners alike is all about Things - finding, buying, trading, selling. It's the No. 1 topic of conversation in every stratum of society. In Russian, the pursuit of attractive clothing even has its own word - shmotkomania, literally ``mania for rags.''

Ironically, for this self-confessed ``shopaholic,'' Moscow is a relief from America's relentless shopping-mall culture. But for a country where only 50 of the 1,000 basic consumer items are freely available, there's no debate over the pursuit of material goods. Everyone does it. For new parents: Pampers

With Moscow store shelves growing ever lighter, Soviets are taking to new heights their famous ability to get things through unofficial channels. Sometimes they try to use as one of those channels their good friend, the foreign correspondent, who has access to hard-currency stores and is by definition rich.

But heaven help you if, as you select the obligatory gift when you go visiting, you choose defitsitny (deficit) items that your friends have so skillfully acquired on their own.

Since that evening with Galina and her family, I discovered a Soviet opinion poll that surprised me: A majority of the respondents to the poll, released in December '89, described their nation's economic situation as critical.

But 68 percent felt their personal economic situation has remained stable over the past two to three years. And of them, 23 percent thought their situation has actually improved.

Still, there are some enduringly popular gifts for Soviet friends, such as coffee (even instant is a big hit), nylon stockings, and cosmetics.

If your hosts are new parents, the answer is easy: They need everything. Baby clothes, especially 100 percent cotton ones, are impossible to buy in stores. Doctor Spock's baby book is still in demand in certain circles, also.

But if you really want to treat your friends to a foreign extravagance, the answer is ... disposable diapers, known affectionately as odnorazovye podguzniki, or ``one-time under-bums.'' When my newest little friend, Masha, arrived last Nov. 28, I headed straight for Stockmann's, a credit-card-only Finnish grocery store, and bought two packages of the newborn size.

Masha's parents were delighted. And it soon became evident that each diaper would be lovingly rationed. After all, father Misha figured, each box of 44 costs $23. Calculated on the new tourist exchange rate of roughly six rubles to the dollar, that's the equivalent of 138 rubles.

But with the black market rate at about 13 rubles per dollar, that's 300 rubles - more than an average month's salary.