After All: The black market value of a broken electric light bulb

The second in our series of columns marking the centenary of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia looks at centralised planning and offers an old Soviet riddle.

“The Soviet system of economy possesses advantages that not a single bourgeois state can dare to dream of” - Joseph Stalin

A modern Western reader, particularly an engineer, may be tempted to dismiss the following anecdotes as products of the wild satirist’s imagination. Yet as the first investigative journalist in the former USSR, I can vouch for their complete authenticity.

When food shortages in Moscow reached their peak in summer of 1990, the 73rd year of the Soviet power, the city council decided to issue a ration card to every Muscovite over 14 years of age. Such a card would serve as proof of Moscow registration (residence) and would give them the right to acquire scarce foodstuffs. The cards never came into being. The reason? They couldn’t find enough cardboard to print them on!

I will never forget how, on entering a rather large footwear store round the corner from our block of flats in a Moscow suburb adjacent (rather ironically) to the USSR Exhibition of Economic Achievements where everything was always hunky dory, I was stunned by the empty shelves, with just one (!) pair of giant size-20 kersey high-boots out.

And those never-ending queues, snaking all over the uncomplaining Soviet capital, like boa constrictors... queues for everything from pale-grey sausages to milk and vodka, no doubt. The longest queue I happened to ‘stand’ in was two full days (and nights), with roll-calls conducted every hour, and those who had absconded, no matter how briefly, mercilessly crossed off the waiting list.

The shortages were totally unpredictable: toothpaste, buttons, condoms, fountain pens. I had a film director friend in Leningrad to whom I was always bringing piles of crude and holey Soviet-made condoms during my visits from Moscow; he, in turn, would supply me with toothpaste and toothbrushes, so I had about 20 of the latter – one for each of my remaining teeth.

Some of my hapless Soviet contemporaries were inclined to believe that the authorities were engineering the shortages to keep the people busy with hunting for everyday basics in the hope that it would leave them little time and energy to question the system at the core of all the deficiencies. Their logic was that, for most people, freedom of sausage comes first, and freedom of speech follows. And they were partially right. As a travelling special correspondent of the satirical magazine Krokodil, I knew that the main reason lay in the so-called planned economy and public (read: government) ownership of existing means of manufacturing and production.

On an assignment in a town in western Ukraine (then part of the USSR) in the mid-1980s, I got talking with the director of the local factory of agricultural machinery. In accordance with the finicky rules of the centralised economy, they were receiving spare parts for combine harvesters from other factories all over the country. One small component (I think it was a steering axle) was particularly difficult to procure. Even the hardened factory tolkachi (pushers), who roamed the country in search of supplies, could not find it. It transpired, however, that the spare part was used in the mini-tractors assembled at a tractor factory in the Urals, hundreds of miles away. So the first factory started ordering big consignments of the tractors, only to dismantle them, take out the coveted small component and throw away all the rest!

When I said to the director that I was tempted to write a report on the sheer absurdity of it, he changed countenance and pleaded: “No, please don’t! After such a story, they will stop sending us tractors and we won’t be able to meet our plan targets!”

On another occasion, in Rostov-na-Donu in the south of Russia, I was shown two factories standing – literally – side by side. One of them produced metallic hoops for wooden barrels, and the other – wooden carcasses for the same barrels. You might think the neighbours would happily cooperate with each other. Nothing of the kind! The first factory sent its hoops to the Far East, thousands of miles away, and the second received the same hoops from a plant in Moscow, only hundreds of miles away from Rostov.

'Temporary Hitch' cartoon by Low

Cartoonist Low’s Western take on Soviet industry from his 1932 ‘Low’s Russian Sketch Book’

At this point, you may start wondering how on earth, with all that mess, in the country that was unable to produce taps and condoms that would not leak, they still managed to manufacture spacecraft, ballistic missiles and particle accelerators. The answer is simple – I call it the ballet principle. “And in the area of ballet, we are ahead of the whole planet,” a popular Soviet bard Vladimir Vyssotsky sang ironically. The Soviet system, which excelled in throwing dust in the eyes of the much-hated, yet covertly admired, West, never forgot to cynically throw unlimited resources to such ‘prestigious’ showcase areas as space exploration, nuclear physics, circus, ballet and weaponry to the detriment of the beleaguered Soviet consumers, whom the system wanted to turn into obedient robots, with no voice, no initiative, no integrity and no humour.

They failed, of course. Force breeds counterforce, according to Newton’s First Law of Motion, and the so-called homo sovieticus (an expression coined by Russian writer and philosopher Alexander Zinov’yev) had become the most resourceful and ingenious species that ever lived. Here’s an example. In the late 1980s, there existed in Moscow a thriving business of trading in used electric bulbs. The bulbs on sale, nicked from the dark stairways of apartment blocks, were all dead, not able to light up anything for love nor money – and still selling like hot Russian pirozhki on the black market. Why would the Soviet people buy them? What was the use of all those broken bulbs?

Think about the answer, which I will reveal in the next ‘After All’. Those who guess correctly could claim a prize of a broken ballpoint pen that doesn’t write.

Put on the Soviet military-style peaked thinking caps and email your thoughts to vvitaliev@theiet.org. I look forward to hearing from you, Comrades.

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