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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • Classic Tricks (Matthew Gurewitsch, Hong Kong, June 25, 1997).

  • Alone on the Brink (William Langewiesche, Chile, June 11, 1997).

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

    Share your tales of life abroad in the Global Views forum of Post & Riposte.

  • sausaghd picture
    July 16, 1997

    Not long ago, in the town of Ozyory, about a hundred miles south of Moscow, I wandered into the state-run Produkty ("Groceries") store off the central square to buy some sausage. Meat of all varieties is usually available outside the capital these days, but the number of stores selling it -- or anything else -- has not grown as quickly as one might expect, owing to punishing tax laws, the spread of state corruption, and the prevalence of organized crime. As a result, one of the banes of Soviet life -- standing in line -- has not disappeared from Russia. Nor has the hostility that lines inevitably provoke among the long-suffering Russian people.

    Inside the store I took my place behind ten or twelve rubber-booted babushki by the meat counter. A minute later the rotund woman I was standing behind addressed me.

    "Muzhchina (man)! Will you hold my place in line? I want to go to the fish counter."

    I agreed. She wobbled away.

    Seconds later the door opened and a fierce-eyed, halt old codger with a cane -- the prototypical ornery Soviet-era survivor -- limped into the store. He shoved me aside and pried his cane between the babushki. Because of his age I pardoned him, but the woman ahead of me, herself in her sixties, didn't.

    "Get to the back of the line, old goat!" she shouted.

    "I'm a second-class invalid and a war veteran! I don't have to wait in line -- look at that sign!" (The state divides the disabled into classes according to the severity of their disability and the benefits they receive.)


    "I'm a second-class invalid myself!" she shouted. "You don't see me crashing lines. No one pays attention to those signs these days!"

    The woman whose place I was holding returned swinging a two-foot-long dried herring like a truncheon. She hollered at the invader.

    "Get behind this young man! That's my place you're in!"

    He muttered but obeyed.

    The line progressed. Two women in white smocks and tall white paper hats stood behind the counter. One was quite pretty, with limpid blue eyes and flaxen hair; the other, the butcher, resembled a pug-nosed prize fighter. Both looked exceedingly put-upon, as if customers were unexpected intruders in their private idyll of sausages and beef shanks.

    "What do you want?" the butcher barked at a woman ahead of me.

    "I'll take a kilo of that red sausage there."

    "Which red sausage? Make up your mind!"

    "I can't see the label. That one, you know -- "

    "It's not up to me to read your mind!"

    The woman behind me interceded.

    "She wants some of that Kazanskaya brand."

    The butcher yanked a hank of sausage out of the moldy display case, whacked at it with her cleaver, hurled it onto her scale, and barked, "Five thousand rubles. To the cashier." She shoved a chit at the woman, who scurried mincingly off to the cashier. The woman paid, then scurried back, handed in the chit, and the butcher slammed her sausage down in front of her.

    My turn came, but as I stepped up to the counter the butcher charged off.

    I waited. The other employee averted her eyes. The crowd began grumbling.

    "Uncultured apes! Always the same!"

    "These people don't know how to work!"

    "I would file a complaint, but who listens nowadays!"

    As they continued their litany of rancor I drifted in thought back to the trip I made around the U.S.S.R. in 1985. In those days the situation was markedly worse: outside Moscow and Leningrad few towns had stores with meat, and in some even butter was a rarity. The lines were the same, with the same angry characters, the same verbiage uttered in the same belligerent tones. Twelve years on so little has changed outside the capital. This was all truly saddening, and I felt myself giving in to the hopelessness that afflicts so many Russians now.

    The butcher finally stomped back to her place. I got my sausage and left as another altercation erupted in line. Outside, a pair of militiamen were dragging a hapless trader out of his kiosk, demanding to see his license; three hearty peasant women with smiles of gold teeth were lugging sacks of beets down the lane to the market nearby. They were laughing -- and making the best of it.

    Jeffrey Tayler is a freelance writer and traveler based in Moscow. He has recently written on Transylvania, Siberia, and Zaire for The Atlantic Monthly. He contributes regularly to Atlantic Abroad.

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