Some blokes in hats and their birds

After All: A dead electric bulb in a peaked Soviet-style thinking cap

Our columnist sums up readers’ prolific responses to his broken lightbulbs mini-quiz.

“I bet you begin to wish you hadn’t raised the subject,” Denis Sharp, this column’s long-time correspondent, remarked in his email – one of the many dozens received in response to my fairly innocent (or so I thought) question, posed in the October issue’s ‘After All’: why were burnt-out lightbulbs coveted merchandise in late-1980s Moscow? Mr Sharp, who, unfortunately, did not guess the correct answer to the question itself, was right, but only partially so: the sheer number of readers’ emails has set an absolute record in the column’s 10-odd-year-long history.

In fact, they still keep trickling in as I am writing these lines, and the latest one – from Leo Jk, a construction engineer, went bing in my inbox a minute ago. It contained a suggestion (also made earlier by a couple of other readers) that dead lightbulbs could be used to darn socks – a daring (or shall I say ‘darning’?) and witty guess, but unfortunately incorrect.One contributor, Michael Twitchett, insists that engineers, being professionals, should always say ‘lamps’, not ‘bulbs’. “When I was an apprentice in the 1950s on the London Underground railway, I was told in no uncertain terms that bulbs were things that you planted in the ground and up come flowers,” he wrote.

Despite the huge number of replies, however, I do not regret posing the question in the first place. All your emails – no matter how correct or incorrect the answer – demonstrated not just your well-developed engineers’ curiosity, but also your ingenuity, wit and a degree of compassion for the less lucky fellow humans who found themselves living in a totalitarian state and had to demonstrate inventiveness on a daily basis in order to survive.

I absolutely loved reading your little anecdotes and snippets of relevant reveries from your lives, travels and careers and would have happily reproduced many of them here, had it not been for the space constraints. I will try to use some of them in my new blog at

Before I proceed to actual answers, I cannot help saying how moved I was by your warm wishes of quick recovery and good health as well as by your praise for this column, which almost every email contained. Thank you all from the bottom of my freshly mended heart!

Back to our electric riddle. The most common incorrect guesses can be divided into two main categories. A number of readers suggested that the burnt-out lightbulbs (or lamps – pace Mr Twitchett) were on sale in the USSR due to the hard-to-obtain spare parts they contained. To quote reader Nigel Bennett: “For Russians, collecting lightbulbs must have been the opportunity to make a rouble or two from recycling valuable metals in the end caps and especially the tungsten from filaments.” And Stephen Wright took it further by assuming that “the filaments from the bulbs could be used to repair electrical fuses”.

Well, let me assure you that neither the buyers nor the sellers of broken bulbs whom I often saw at Moscow’s Ptichiy Rinok flea market in the late 1980s looked anything like the ingenious characters capable of telling a filament from a fuse. The only products they were keen on recycling were stiff alcoholic drinks – and in the most natural way too, without any technology involved.

The other and by far the most popular wrong guess, so widespread that I am tempted to call it a common fallacy (or a ‘forfeit’, as we used to refer to a very plausible wrong answer at the popular BBC TV quiz show ‘QI’, where I once worked as writer and researcher), was that in the USSR one could only be allowed to buy a new bulb in exchange for a broken one to be handed over in a shop. Many readers came to the above conclusion forgetting that (as I repeatedly emphasised in my columns) practically nothing at all was for sale in the shops of the 1980s Soviet Union, and new electric bulbs, among many other popular consumer items, could not be obtained for love nor money, let alone for a broken lamp.

I do understand why so many of you opted for the above ‘forfeit’: it is very difficult, if not impossible, for a normal ‘Western’ person to imagine the sheer dearth of goods in our Soviet existence. There is no better way, therefore, of marking the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik coup d’etat (on 7 November 2017), which led to the above-mentioned shortages, than trying to understand the mentality of a beleaguered Homo Sovieticus by donning a peaked military-style Soviet thinking cap – even if just for a couple of minutes.

That peculiar head gear appeared to fit (if not quite to suit) six ‘After All’ readers, who came up with the right answer, best formulated in the email from Edward McDonnell, director of the Centre for Applied Data Analytics (CeADAR) in Dublin: “Over lunch I spoke with Russian co-workers about the puzzle... After a lot of debate, the conclusion was that people would take the dead lightbulbs from their apartment blocks [or buy them on the black market –VV] and swap them for working bulbs at their place of work.”

And, although Mr McDonnell, in full accordance with his position, used some ‘data analytics’ (i.e. his “Russian co-workers”) to arrive at his conclusion, this is the one and only right answer! Well done, Edward, as well as the other five winners: Peter Shortland (who justified his name by putting his laconic answer in the Subject area of his email with not a single word in its body); Mike Griffith MSc, MIET; Bruce Taylor from Switzerland; Brian Burgess FMM, FIMechE, FIET, FCMI (to which he can now add ‘SLE’ – Soviet lightbulb expert); and the ever-so-brilliant Colette Gates from Australia. And, of course, Edward McDonnell’s anonymous Russian co-workers!

Congratulations to the winners, all of whom had magnanimously refused the prize of a broken Soviet-style ball-point pen that doesn’t write. I can understand them: in a way, we are all winners living in the safer and brighter world where the USSR is no more.

And another thing: I am still waiting for your photos of decrepit cars in the World’s Worst Banger competition (and this one, unlike the lightbulb quiz, has a real prize attached to it). The deadline has now been extended to the end of February 2018:

Good luck, fingers crossed and fiat lux!

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