You can listen to this in voice on my video about 'Living in the Soviet Union'.
One word that aptly captures the quality of living in the USSR – and the quality of growing up in the USSR which happened to me – is scarcity: as in ‘scarce goods’, ‘scarce commodities’. The popular Ukrainian and Russian word was дефицит, which obviously has the same origin with the English ‘deficit’. However, дефицит developed the so called transferred meaning. People used it for the very stuff, which was in short supply, not for the socio-economic reality, in general. Various delicacies and imported foods, stylish clothes, quality footwear, ceramic tiles, new furniture, even a set of nice tea cups that could not have been bought over the counter in a Soviet store or a pair of sheer tight for women were ‘the deficit’. The verb often teamed with the nouns for scarce goods was діставати, or доставать in Russian, meaning ‘to get’, ‘to obtain’ or ‘to fetch’… This was a euphemistic usage to avoid calling a spade a spade – to skip describing the shady process which could imply pulling strings, wangling, paying under the counter and paying more, etc. Actually, the methods or the skills remained unclear for me. My family hardly ever got hold of scarce goods, unless by accident. But I knew that some other people had them more often, or had the right connections: some friends’ friends whose friends had friends or relations in a cushy job involving the distribution of goods in the Soviet Union.
You know that the Union the command economy in which the state decided which consumer commodities needed to be produced or imported. Then the same state, certain authorities or people in power decided how those goods would be distributed between the republics or regions. So most of the good goods found their owners somewhere in transition, and very little quality stuff trickled down into the retail outlets, especially in places far from the power centres. Lviv, my native town in Western Ukraine, was on the outskirts of the Soviet Union literally and in terms of power. There is even this anecdote in which Brezhnev is flying over the Union with whoever was the American President at that time and some other capitalist country leader. So they are on a plane after the sunset. And they see a brightly lit area beneath. Brezhnev comments that this is Moscow, the capital city of the USSR. They fly further and see St. Petersburg or Leningrad at the time. And then they fly over a poorly lit area and the American leader asks: ‘And what is this backcountry?’ To which Brezhniev replies: ‘Oh, that’s our testing ground: the city of Lvov. They get next to nothing but somehow strive.’
You know, it feels like there was truth to it. I will always remember one instance in Lviv. I was quite small, and we went out for stroll. My sis was not even with us, so I had to be three years old or so. Suddenly, we heard a piercing scream that probably carried over half a kilometre of the street: ‘Bananas! They are selling bananas!’ I can’t tell you how much I knew about bananas at that time. But I think I had a vague concept in my head. It was some exotics that could be bought in Moscow or Leningrad. We went up to that spot and got in the queue for bananas, which was, you can imagine, huge. And, of course, there were always those individuals who tried to cheat the system. The Soviet style queue has a way of expanding sideways unpredictably. Some people would let their friends or family jump the queue in front of them. You never knew how many people would get in band make the purchase before you. I think on that day folks in the beginning of the queue tried to purchase as many bananas as they could carry. I am not sure if they rationed bananas from the start, but after a while we heard that a purchase was limited by, I think, two kilos per person. Bananas ended before our turn came so on that historic day I only caught a glimpse of bananas in Lviv. Their peel was more black than yellow, they were rotting. But, still, if they announced the queen of England came visiting Lviv at the same time, bananas would have stolen her show. She would have to wait.
Actually, I never heard of someone buying bananas under the counter in Lviv either. But once I found out that there were people who got them somehow. A school mate, a slip of a girl who normally would not eat anything, was extremely sickly skinny - invited a couple of girls over to her home for some reason. When we came, her family said sure you can play or whatever but after she – the girl - eats her dinner which meant that it could take a while because she was such a poor eater. Worried about her condition, they were very particular about feeding her properly. So her family left us in the girl’s room to play for the time while they took her to the kitchen. They closed the door. We did see or hear her eat. It took her about an hour - it felt like an hour. And when she returned, there was a smell of banana in her breath. As the eventual question why it took you so long hanged in the air she volunteered an explanation that she had also had a banana. I do not know what she meant by that: whether that it was such a feat to eat a dinner and then a banana, or if took her time to relish the treat… Anyway, that was a kind of revelation day for me: one of those days when you learn something important about life: that certain people could get bananas in Lviv. I am not sure the girl’s family would have been happy about her confession. I think they would rather keep mum about the fact. For all I know, those bananas could have been brought from Moscow. However, something in the wider context prompted me that was not the case. Come to think of it, if there had been someone in her circle fresh come from Moscow or Leningrad, it would have been news to discuss during school breaks: it would be awesome to share - kids could earn some rep that way. Perhaps, there was something else the conclusion was based on that I cannot remember now.