When shops stood empty in Moscow

We are still in Moscow in the 1990s right when the whole country and its neighbours experienced traumatic changes, that would never be reversed, and I wouldn’t claim that they led to anything better. Some people will disagree with me, of course, on this matter, saying that capitalism is better than socialism, that before the regime was too corrupted, people had less chances, and no one was able to travel outside of the Soviet Union.

I agree that it’s always better when one has more choices and more freedom, and while I was able to execute it in practice more than perhaps the majority of the world’s population (I lived in 4 different countries, and managed to live in two countries twice, so in total I moved 5 times in between countries), I am not that sure that people outside of Moscow and Saint Petersburg have that many choices, and the only choice that seems to be presented to young people of today, is to know how to make money. The success of today is measured by one’s bank account, which is a good thing to have, but if it becomes the main goal, it denies one of some other important aspects of meaningful human existence, such as value of friendship, enjoying nature for the sake of enjoying it, meditating on the meaning of life, and being able to appreciate the purity of unexpectedness of life, when one isn’t looking to get richer and better off.

My own approach to money, and well, shopping, was shaped during the 1990s, and stayed with me till today. I lived in between two families (my dad’s and my grandma), and I experienced the deprivation periods on different levels, as a result. In 1991 my sister was born, the year when instead of products and cash money, we were presented with ‘coupons’ by our unfortunate government. It was a constant struggle for my step-mum, as we were five of us, and to feed the lot, with a small baby in tow, needed lots of imagination and sometimes, pure luck.

I remember the day when my step-mum asked me to go and explore whether our local product delivery center had any sugar and floor. Yes, even these products were rare, and one needed coupons to get them. These were also quite good products, as one could then make some pies, which could last for a week, and easily feed the whole family.

I started my walk with the coupons in my pockets on a freezing February afternoon, without hoping to return with anything back (floor and sugar were absent for a month already), but was delighted to see a big crowd waiting outside of the product center when I approached it. People outside meant that there was something, and sometimes it didn’t even matter what it was. Washing powder, outdated yogurts, tea, or even bread, everything was good when shops stood empty.

But oh, my delight when it appeared that the center was giving both sugar and the floor, as long as one had coupons, one could take as many as one could carry. I was so excited by the prospect, that I managed to stand in the queue for more than an hour, in an absolutely debilitating cold. I remember that when I finally presented my coupons, I had problems to hold them in my fingers because they lost any sensation due to the cold.

But then the march back home began. On the peak of my enthusiasm for sugar and floor, I got indeed as much as I could possibly carry, and ended up with twenty kilos of weight as a result. I was a teenager then, still very young and fragile, and the burden turned out to be way too big. It took me an hour to drag it all with me, as I had to stop every couple of minutes to take a breath. I was crying by the end but I went on.  Step by step, one meter after another. I couldn’t wait to see the happy smile on my step-mum’s face, because my weight carried really good news. We would have both floor and sugar for good three months, at least.

The face of my step-mum wasn’t a happy one when I arrived, but full of worry, as I was absent for three hours, it was already dark, and it was clear that I was an emergency situation by the time I finally showed up. I turned into a purple colour.

“You should have just left it, and run home,” my step-mum was telling me, “it isn’t worth it if you end up with pneumonia.” But when I was in my hot bath, I could already smell the preparation of the pies, and this was perhaps a reason as to why I didn’t end up ill after all. The motivation for something is sometimes stronger than the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the wish.

In another apartment, but in the same bloc, my grandma lived. Her circumstances were different and perhaps even more challenging, as she had less of coupons. When I was in her household, I had to learn the basic survival techniques. Like what to do when you run out of bread, there is nothing else to eat, and shops don’t sell any bread? We struggled without anything for quite some time (living on the dry milk, which I was receiving as ‘American’ aid parcel at school), until someone finally tipped me with a solution. One had to put the bread in the freezer! Buy as much as you can, when it is available, and freeze it! Ah, the feeling of happiness when I learned the trick, my sense of pride that I was some sort of ‘provider’ at the age when I was supposed to have no worries but only fun.

But so, to come back to the beginning of my post, capitalism is presented to us as a given, as a regime which survived and flourished much better than all other ideologies. We have many of its manifestations nowadays: financial capitalism with the power of the banks, informational capitalism with the power of Silicon Valley, medical capitalism with the power of Big Pharma, and so on.

But I was there when it arrived to my native country, and I saw what it did to it. Yes, we started to have a variety of products at some point, too many of them in fact. But I cherish the memory of the days when there were only two types of sausages in the shop, one type of bread, and two types of cheese. These were the days when people cooked at home among friends, read books in the park, trusted strangers, and spent so much less time on shopping.

Because shopping, while providing instant gratification, has absolutely no value in a longer term of meaningful life, takes precious time away from more rewarding activities (such as reading a book), and brainwashes the brain into believing that it is something nice to do.

But then capitalism is based in shopping and buying more and more stuff, and we are told that it’s the best way for us to conduct our existence.

Is it? Is it really?

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(I could reflect on all these things while enjoying a nice stroll in Leeuwarden, where I currently live, and there people don’t really shop that much, which is a welcoming sign of a town that preserved something deeper than constant consumption)

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