YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Changing Lifestyles : In Moscow, Everyone Is the Family Breadwinner : Shortages and high prices force each member of the household to take part in the hunt for food. Shopping means long lines and citywide foraging.


MOSCOW — As part of his Tuesday routine, Leonid A. Ivanov went to the steamy cafeteria at the small technical school where he teaches, took a plastic shopping bag out of his pocket and bought 4 1/2 pounds of hot dogs to bring home to his family.

Empty shelves in Soviet grocery stores have become commonplace over the last year, and people like Ivanov have had to become more resourceful to feed their families. Many depend on food they can buy through their company cafes, which are quite typical in the Soviet Union.

"It costs a little more," said Ivanov, 36, a teacher of mining engineering. "But I don't have to stand in line for two hours to get it. And at a state store they could limit my purchase to one pound. Here I can buy enough for the whole week. I can't imagine what people would do if they couldn't buy food at work."

Panic over food shortages in the Soviet Union reached a peak last fall. Soviet consumers feared their economy's downward spiral would cause famine, and the world sent tens of thousands of tons of food in response to an SOS sent out by Soviet leaders.

Even through the most difficult of times, however, the Ivanovs and millions like them have managed to get by, turning themselves into modern hunter-gatherers, foraging daily in the streets of Moscow.

"Everyone said we would run out of food this winter," said Ivanov's wife, Lyudmila, 35. "But up until now, we have not gone hungry. It's a Russian trait. There's nothing in the stores, but you visit someone and the table is groaning with food."

Tracking the shopping and eating habits of an average Soviet family over the course of a week sheds some light on how they do it.

For one thing, it's quickly clear that food shopping is very much a family affair. Everyone pitches in--even the children are sent out to the bread store.

Buying food has become such a central concern of everyday Soviet life that most people keep a constant eye on food stores and markets even when they're going about other business. A lot of the Ivanovs' food supplies were bought on the way home from work, while going to the beauty parlor or even while taking an evening stroll with the children.

The cafe at the Moscow Subway Construction Technical School where Leonid Ivanov teaches has been a key food source, providing such essentials of the Soviet diet as sausage, hot dogs, ham or chicken, and sour cream or milk, which have periodically disappeared from stores. But the supply there is unpredictable, and the variety falls far short of the Ivanovs' needs.

The couple has two children and lives with Lyudmila Ivanov's mother and grandmother.

During the first week of February, the Ivanovs made 12 separate shopping trips and spent 105.49 rubles for food--about half of the family's combined average weekly earnings.

Leonid Ivanov earns an average of 350 rubles per month. His wife earns anywhere from 40 rubles to 600 rubles a month as a free-lance florist and teacher of flower arranging. Her mother, Marianna A. Voronkova, 58, an analytical chemist at a Moscow factory, earns 300 rubles per month. And her grandmother, Nina V. Naumova, 85, has a pension that was increased this month from 100 rubles to 141 rubles. She also earns about 40 rubles a month teaching flower-arranging classes. The Ivanovs have no savings.

(At the inflated official rate of exchange, the ruble is worth $1.82; at the commercial rate, however, one ruble is worth 61 cents, and on the black market a ruble is worth less than five cents.)

Voronkova made the month's first food purchase for the family, stopping after work to buy sausage. She found some in the third store she visited and then had to wait "only 25 minutes" in line to buy it.

"We waste much more time searching for food now than we do actually standing in line," Voronkova said. "I wasted more than two hours just to buy two pounds of sausage and two pounds of ham. But I do it because my grandchildren love it."

On average, Voronkova said, she spends three hours every other day scouring the city for food, even though she also manages occasionally to buy food at her factory. "It really wears on your patience and nerves," Voronkova said. "Let them raise prices three or four times. I'd rather food was more expensive, but available."

Added Leonid Ivanov: "In some ways, it's better when the stores are empty. When there was more in the stores, we spent more time in lines. It's crazy to spend two hours a day in line."

Saturday afternoon was typical of how the Ivanovs find the food that now fills both of their refrigerators and every spare inch of their tiny apartment in one of Moscow's castle-like skyscrapers, built in the Stalinist architectural style.

When Lyudmila Ivanov was on the way home from teaching a class Saturday afternoon, she saw long lines snaking out of the grocery store on the first floor of her apartment building. After saving a place in a line for imported canned meat, she ran home to get her husband to stand in another line for butter.

Los Angeles Times Articles