Jobs were often not very demanding and people had a lot free time which was often spent nurturing friendships. A typical work day for an office worker consisted of sipping tea and chatting with friends in the morning, talking with friends on the phone, a long lunch break, waiting in line for rationed goods in the afternoon for dinner. Days rolled by with monotonous regularity; people didn't grow and they lacked motivation

One East German told National Geographic, "Our life...was more personal, more relaxed, a lot friendlier. East Germans tended to work out things rather than quarrel the way Westerners do. We weren't as focused on material things. Life was simpler, easier to manage."

Life seemed to characterized by lethargy. There was never a sense or urgency or making the most of one's time. Things seemed to move in slow motion and people did as little as possible, ascribing to the motto "Your pretend to pay us and we pretend to work."

Bureaucratic Hassles and Red Tape in the Communist Era

Because legal codes were often confusing and contradictory, bureaucrats could interpret them to suit their purposes. Getting approval for something was often a search for the right person with the authority, open-mindedness, desire and will to approve it. One architect told the New York Times , “You go to one person who says yes and then another person says no, We were almost there, and the person died of a heart attack, and we had start all over again with a new person. No one wants to be responsible."

Describing an effort to secure a document of approval for a scheduled meeting, marketing consultant Michael Dinner wrote in the International Herald Tribune, “Arriving at the government office, your assistant finds two men, a woman and a roomful of silence. Two were gazing at newspapers splayed out on their desks, while the third takes a long pull on his cigarette. The men face each other across worn wooden tables piled with papers. Your assistant still needs an official approval for tomorrow's meeting. In China, that means getting an official “chop” on a number of documents."

“The documents first goes to Number Two, who makes sure all the papers were complete and correct. He lays his imprint on the stack and directs your assistant to the woman. The woman makes her own careful review and adds her chop, before redirecting your assistant to Number One, the Party member. Number One leans forward, puts out his cigarette, and starts reading. "Are you in a hurry?”, he asks, as he motions you assistant to sit down on a stool by a desk."

Achieving success required skill of navigating through the messy tangle of governmental bodies — national, provincial, city, county township, and even village and neighborhood — and dealing with a certain amount murkiness and not asking a lot of unnecessary questions such as where the money came from.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Executive say government and party officials demand payments and abuse their power to award contracts and issue permits. Companies that lowball or otherwise anger officials learn quickly that the most routine inspection can turn into a nightmare. Though cash was straightforward, executives said gifts of department store and restaurant vouchers were more difficult to trace, as were artwork and stock, paid “study” trips, prostitutes or paying overseas tuition of officials’ children."

Bureaucracy and Ordinary People in the Communist Era

In most Communist countries citizen at all times were required to carry identity cards that contained the holder's photograph, ID number, name, sex, birth date and addresses and lists of dependents and relatives. Many also listed the person’s religion and contained information about his work history (including the reason why the person lost his job if he was unemployed).

People also carried residence permits, which gave them permission to live in a certain place. Without this permit they faced eviction not only from their house but from an entire city. Papers and documents were also needed to get apartments, and receive ration cards and other necessities and benefits. Visas were required on internal passports to travel from one town to another; and when they arrived at their destination hotel guests were required to register with the police.

Doing simple things like buying a train ticket or shopping for meat could turn be bureaucratic nightmares. Permission and documents were needed for the most basic things and people of authority inevitably said go and see someone else.

Thomas Hammond, a history professor at the University of Virginia, found out that even getting books from a library was no easy task. First he needed permission to use the library he wanted. When he was given permission "in principal" he then he he needed to give the archivist time to gather his materials. Every week he went to check on the books he requested. Every time he was told "in a few days." After 3½ months of this he was told to read some books he had already read in the United States. When he returned home to Virginia there was a letter in his mailbox that said his books were ready.¤

Bad Service and Surly Clerks

Bad service was a fixture of life in the Communist era. Friendship stores, for example, were famous for their sullen, slow sales people. In hotels, the staff often seemed to were more intent on spying on you than helping you. Repairs were done with string, tape and pieces or wire.

The Soviet Union was famous for it insulting, surly store clerks. The excuse for the surliness was that sales people were never trained to be polite.

Workers were usually reluctant to perform tasks assigned to someone else out of fear of being blamed for making a mistake. This caused problems for tourists, because usually there was one person assigned to one task and one task only: one person who changed money, another who rented bikes, one person who took care of maintenance and another who checked people into the hotel. If the person assigned to the task wasn't there no else would do the task, which meant that tourists would have to wait around for the person to come back.

Non-Capitalist Mentality

In the Communist era, making profits, selling things and trading was considered exploitative, shady and sleazy. Peddling goods on the streets was against the law. When asked why he didn't start his own business, when there was clearly a demand for it, one welder in the Caspian Sea area told National Geographic, "That depends on people higher than me...They wouldn't let me. They'd beat me down, say, 'You're nothing.'"

Russians and other Slavic people have traditionally believed that buying and selling goods to make a profit or charging interest on loans was "cheating one's neighbor." This belief arises in part from the tsarist institution of “mir”, the periodic redistribution of land in accordance with family size. Russian anti-Semitism stems partly from the fact that Jews were the only ones allowed to lend money and trade goods. [Source: "The Villagers" by Richard Critchfield, Anchor Books]

Soviet-era scholars wrote articles suggesting that "individualistic, money-oriented mentality" of the West was alien to Russians. Historian and philosopher won awards essays in which they wrote things like: "For a European, social importance lies in business skills, in wealth, hence the guiding values: freedom and law. For a Russian, the important thing is society, motherland, glory and power."

One Russian man told the Los Angeles Times, "There's an old Soviet song, 'Everything around here belongs to the collective farm, so everything round here belongs to me. That's still the psychology of the local people." A real estate consultant told the Los Angeles Times, "There was a time when everything was forbidden and nothing was allowed. Now we've switched to a time where everything is allowed and nothing forbidden."

Some have argued that Russians don’t have a strong work ethic like some Asians and Americans. Presidential candidate and former general Aleksandr Lebed told Newsweek: "They ask a Japanese worker: 'How do you work. The Japanese says: 'I spend four hours working for myself, two hours working for my boss and two hours working for Japan.' Then they ask the Russian worker the same question. He replies: 'I spend four hours working for myself, we don't have a boss and why should I work for Japan.'”

In the Soviet era, stealing stuff and "speculation" were regarded as equally bad crimes. One guide told National Geographic Traveler magazine, “When you’ve never known free enterprise, you see, coping with it seems like an aberration of nature.”

Soviet Era Shopping

In state stores prices were fixed and supply was determined by state-mandated quotas. State stores included bakeries, milk depots, shoe stores, clothing stores. Large cities had large department stores. Consumer cooperatives included restaurants, shops, kiosks and stalls selling food and drink.

The stores tended be drab, small, cramped, and generic. They had names like "Food" and "Furniture." The signs were so small and indiscreet foreign visitors often had difficulty sorting what was a store and what wasn't. There was no advertising or neon signs. Products had names like “Butter,” “Bread” or “Milk”.

Food bought on the streets—even ice cream cones—were often measured out with little scales. In the summer, unpasteurized Russian milk has a shelf-life of only six hours.

The traditional method of Russian shopping goes like this: First a customer waits in one line to tell a clerk behind a counter what product he wants. Then he waits in another line and pays for it. With a receipt in hand, the customer returns to first counter and waits in line again to collect the item. Worse part about the whole thing is that you are supposed to go through the same process for each item you buy.

Buying food in a cafeteria was equally troublesome. First you have to wait in line and pay the cashier. Then you wait in another line to get to the service counter. At the service counter you present you ticket and an employee reaches into a trough and plops some mashed potatoes and stew on a plate. Then you wait in another line to get soup and if you want bread it is necessary to queue up in a third line behind a girl who measures it out by the gram. Many cafeterias fail to supply forks and knives and customers are inevitably left trying to tear tough meat into pieces with a spoon.¤

Rations and Lines

Meat was sold at a cheap price mandated by the government, using ration coupons. Typically a family was allocated 2.5 kilograms of meat a month and had to wait in lines to get it. On the black market meat was often sold for dollars.

People spent hours waiting in line to shop in ill-stocked stores; pushed and shoved to get a few sausages; and waited in line for hours outside stores only to reach the inside and find there was nothing left but sacks of potatoes. Bread sold in bread stores often sold out with minutes after the store opened, purchased by people who waited for hours before the store opened.

The supply of goods used to be so poor that people lined up around the block just to buy a newspaper and getting a snack could be an hours-long ordeal. One Russian man told AP, "When I was little people spent the whole day in line to get bread. They came, marked their place, went home and then came back. Buying bread took all day."

Not every one loathed the lines. One diehard Communist told Newsweek, "The lines were romantic. You found out all the news while waiting on line, and you didn't lose half your salary when you bought something."

See Food


Shortages were common. One of the first Russian words that foreigners became acquainted with in Russia was “defisitnii”, meaning "in short supply." Toilet paper, vegetable oil, aluminum foil, bricks, can openers, sausage , vodka, potatoes, eggs, bread, cigarettes, bananas and fish were among the things that were frequently in short supply. Basic parts to fix things were often not available. Most coffee shops didn’t have any coffee. Many Siberians went years without seeing any cheese. About the only things that could be reliably found on store shelves were tomato sauce, jam and pickled squash.

People in Moscow hoarded sacks of potatoes so they didn’t go hungry. Panes of glass in the telephone booths were stolen to repair windows at home. When department stores got in shipment of new clothes the clerks often didn’t bother to put them on the shelf. People line up outside the store and when the store is opened they make a B-line straight for the boxes and start grabbing shirts and shoes out of boxes caring less about the size or color.☹

Savvy travelers to Russia brought their own soap and toilet papers and even light bulbs,—items which were often next to impossible to buy or find in hotels. Sometimes there is a shortage of flour and bread is made from ground up peas. When eggs start arriving in the springtime everyone in Moscow was talking about. The one problem was there are no cartons and customers walked home with their limit of 30 eggs stacke din a bag or piled up in their arms.

Every year there were shortages and every year foreign journalist predict food riots in the cities in the winters, but these never materialized.

Black Market

With all these shortages it was no surprise that the black market thrived. Often it seemed like every other person was a black marketeer, with much of the trade conducted in dollars. People with dollars can buy anything they wanted and were willing to pay up to ten times the official price for items to avoid waiting in long lines.

On the black market blue jeans went for as much as US$200. Coveted items included bras, foreign razor blades, choice cuts of meat, fruit and records by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Black marketeers sometimes ran around with blood stained backpacks with entire calves inside selling veal. The black market was especially active in border towns. Things like coffee were hidden under the fenders of cars and resold on the other side of the border.

Underground Economy

Because the government had difficulty providing basic goods and services to the people, food and other commodities were exchanged and shared in informal networks of friends and relatives. Many of the material goods owned by families, such as cars, appliances and attractive clothes, was earned by moonlighting in the "underground economy."

Much of the underground economy consists of service sector jobs such as plumbing, drapery and Venetian blind sales, and home repair. Many of the homes built were constructed by people working in the underground economy.

In some places in the mid-1980s, some 75 percent of all families had at least one member who worked an extra job and some worked two or three. Instead of private companies, the system operated through associations of builders, plumbers ad other trades.

In some places factory worker were let out of work at 2:00pm, allowing them to hold second jobs, rent rooms to tourists, make souvenirs and tend small garden plots outside their village which produce much of the fruit and vegetables.

Soviet-Era Social Security and Welfare

The "social umbrella" of the Soviet Union's socialist system nominally guaranteed all citizens employment, health care, child care, pensions, and universal, high-quality education. It guaranteed everybody food, housing and social benefits and ate up as much as 30 percent of the national budget. The benefits were especially good for people who worked directly for the state. Many people have held on to low-paying government jobs since the collapse of Communism not so much for the salaries but for the benefits.

The cradle-to-grave social security system of the state provided free education, low-rent housing, after school recreation; guaranteed lifetime jobs, pensions, worker's holiday camps and free medical and dental care. Women were given a year's paid maternity leave, access to free day-care centers and free abortion on demand.

The government subsidized theaters and concerts; factories and hospitals organize tours and trips and provided workers with homes, kindergartens, sports stadiums, holiday centers, summer camps for children, cultural centers, sports facilities, and rest and rehabilitation spas with whirlpool baths, massages, bee-sting acupuncture, oxygen cocktails, and drinks enriched with glucose, vitamins and pure oxygen. Private charity was forbidden in the Soviet Union because the state was supposed to be able to meet all the workers needs.

Under the Soviet social security system neither entrepreneurship or hard work were rewarded. By the 1980s, many of the more than 200 million citizens covered by the umbrella began receiving fewer benefits or benefits of lesser quality. The Soviet education and health systems, which offered top-quality service only to the country's political, scientific, and cultural elite, were undermined by the infrastructural and organizational failures inherent in such centrally planned systems. The Soviet concept of guaranteed employment eroded the national economy by encouraging slipshod labor and malingering. [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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