Where telephone books and tinfoil are luxuries
Moscow — Clear plastic wrap. Bouillon cubes. Large paper tissues. Rice Crispies. Credit cards. Checkbooks. Secondhand furniture shops. Carbon paper. Copying machines. Videotape cassettes. . . .
Telephone books listing individuals rather then government offices. Decent spark plugs. Night cream and other cosmetics. Hardware stores. Automatic clothes washers. Clothes dryers. Film for 35-mm cameras that comes in its own cassette, ready to be loaded. Chests of drawers . . . .
Clean, comfortable coffee bars. Clean hotel rooms. Meat and fruit all year round. A wide choice of cars, quickly available. direct-dial telephones to the rest of the world. Real estate agents. Ice cream in more than two or three flavors. Deep freezes . . . .
These are just some of the everyday bits and pieces of modern life that Americans and Europeans and Japanese take for granted, that the privileged elite here has had some access to, but that the average Soviet citizen just does not see.
They are the price of the SS-20 missile, of the T-72 battle tank, of keeping 4 million men under arms, of equaling the United States in nuclear and conventional forces, of one-party control.
Well, well, you say. Many of the items are frivolous anyway. americans don't really need them. Why should Russians?
Yet Westerners still seem to think Soviet people live as they do -- oh, a bit poorer, perhaps, but of course they have credit cards, don't they? I mean, doesn't everyone?
No, they don't. Outside of the military forces, life has an old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century air here. Branches of the one and only state bank have inkwells and nib pens, even in Moscow.
It is comfort and convenience that people here lack.
They do have some things, of course. Apartments are below Western standards, but the rent is cheap. One friend pays 17 rubles and 62 kopecks ($26.50) for a threeroom apartment about half an hour by subway from the city center. He pays 4 rubles ($6) more a month for heat (through radiators) and electricity, and 2 more rubles a month for telephone ($3); after that, all calls are free within the city. That amounts to $35.50 a month for housing, or 14 percent of the average wage here of about $240 a month.
Almost always, however, both husband and wife work, so it is only about 7 percent of combined income.
And the state spends huge sums to keep basic food prices down: more than $40 billion a year. Bread, meat, cheese, sugar, butter, and most fish prices have not changed for more than a decade.
The catch is that quality is also low. People don't spend the money they have because they say there's nothing interesting to buy. Many keep their cash in mattresses or in old socks rather than entrusting it to the state bank. When people do go out to buy a touch of class, they find it is just the fancy items that have risen in price. Carpets, for instance, shot up 50 percent in January 1977, then another 50 percent in July 1979.
A favorite device is to put a new item, or an old one with a new label, and charge a higher price for it. Officially, "inflation" doesn't exist here. But the cost of living goes up steadily. If Russians decide the poor-quality food in the state stores isn't good enough and shop instead at the 6,500 farmers' markets around the country, they say they have little money left over for anything else. Market prices can be five times as high as state prices, or more.
"You can get tinfoil," says one Muscovite defensively. "You can get decorative candles, from the Baltic states. You can get tiny packets of kukuruznyie khlopya [corn flakes], but we don't eat them much, and when we do, we take them dry, from the box. You have to know where to look, where to go. You have to stand in line. You have to buy now: Later it will have gone. I even saw lemons the other day -- imagine! I would have joined the line, but it was very long and I was in a hurry . . . ."
That last comment is pure Soviet, heard everywhere.
People also cannot get large bank loans. A friend and her intellectual husband were suddenly told late in 1980 that their long-pending application to buy a car had risen to the top of the list and had been granted. Joy -- but despair, too -- set in: Where could they lay their hands on the 8,700 rubles ($ 13,000) required for their four-cylinder Russian-made subcompact? If they didn't hurry, they would lose their turn.
They did it the Russian, developing-country way. The wife sat down in the morning and began telephoning all her friends and asking for loans. By the end of the day she had raised the money. "And now we must keep track of who wants it back in a week, who in a month, who in six months, who in a year, who can wait indefinitely," she said.
The only Moscow telephone book was published in 1978 in a limited edition of 170,000 and lists only offices and state stores, not individuals. "Most people don't need a phone book anyway," says a party-supporting acquaintance. "What would they use it for?"
Cramped housing creates and intensifies social frictions. Almost everyone lives in an apartment -- generally with one, two, or three rooms, a tiny kitchen , and even smaller bathroom. Housing is assigned by the state: No one can simply move at will, unless he is a top party official. Millions of new units are built each year, but they hardly dent the shortage.
Unofficial swapping of houses is a part of many lives -- deals within deals, two rooms high up in one outlying building for two rooms low in another closer in.
Deals, often struck on street corners, must be registered with the authorities. People involved must prove they have permission to live in the city; the stamp "Moscow" in an internal passport is most highly prized. Shops are better stocked here. There's more to do.
To get a "Moscow" stamp, many a man from out-of- town pays a Moscow girl to go through a wedding ceremony. Once he is registered as the spouse of a Muscovite, he leaves her and goes his own way. Both profit. "And it happens more often than you might think," says a friend.
The party elite lives in well-built, brown-brick apartment houses tucked away on inner-city streets and guarded by police. The rest of the population struggles as best it can.
Up to 30 percent of all housing in downtown Moscow and Leningrad remains communal. I shall never forget the first time I visited one. In a Western capital, the street would have been high-rent, chic, sought-after, close to shops and theaters, fashionable.
In Moscow, beyond the usual litter and debris in the lobby, the ancient elvator clanked to an upper floor. My friend put a finger on his lips. I was not to speak, in case someone heard I was not Russian. In the dim light of a 25 - watt bulb, he opened a tall door and we stepped into a long corridor, also dim. Seven doors along the right-hand wall, three along the left. Behind each of the seven doors a separate family: 23 people in all. All shared the one bathroom, one toilet, one kitchen.
The bathroom was a disaster: tub dirty and leaning wearily to the right, no shower curtain, grimy floor, cracked gray tiles, single weak bulb suspended from the ceiling, no shade. Seven zinc tubs hung from seven pegs on the wall -- for washing clothes.
The room our friends lived in was tall and long, but shabby. Whenever they visited their parents, who had a small apartment in a new building about half an hour away by metro, they refused to eat, on principle: "We can take care of ourselves." But they gratefully ran baths and luxuriated in the hot water without someone constantly banging on the door to get in.
"What do you do here," I asked, "if you don't feel well, or if you are in a hurry in the morning? If you need the bathroom?"
"We do what all Russia does," was the simple reply.