1965: My First Visit to Soviet Russia – Full of Lines and Surprises

New York, N.Y.  For the first time in 1965, I went to Russia to accompany my husband’s performance of 10 cities tour. At that time, the country was still called the Soviet Union, the strongest Communist country in the world. I thought about souvenirs to take there. There were no nylon socks or ballpoint pens, which was the best souvenir item at that time. The ball point pens I had in my pocket were stolen, disappearing immediately.

Moscow_July_2011-16I first explored Red Square in Moscow, 1965 – unchanged by time.

At that time, the fixed exchange rate was one dollar officially at one ruble. However, one dollar could be 40 to 50 rubles if you secretly exchange money inside a taxi. Foreigners’ shopping was limited to stores called ‘dollar shops.’ However, there was nothing to buy there, except caviar.

The hotel was completely standardized. With the same design no matter where you went in the Soviet Union, We went 10 cities but the equipment, furniture, towels, soap, toilet paper, and the restaurant menu are exactly the same throughout , So we ate just the same meal every day. I never saw any local goods or food.

First we arrived at Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. As my husband spoke some Russian, We went outside of the hotel. I noticed that everyone was carrying a large frozen fish at the tail and walking from one direction and people were running against the fish carrying people. Which was a direction of the Market. It was a weird sight.

il_fullxfull.1475555782_5om0In 1965, when I first visited Russia, there was nothing to buy there except caviar.

In fact, I noticed that everyone in town always carry a bag. Whether lemon’s “only, often white content, inside” is sold, the skin has already been used by the Government for something else. About 20 pieces are put in a bag, as everyone can only buy the same amount.

I was told that there is no vitamin C in winter, so it seems everyone catch a cold all over town. Usually, the central government suddenly starts selling goods in the market. It may be hard to imagine for us living in a democratic country, but at that time people have to shop right there. Shop at that place right away when any goods arrive.

When the goods appear and the sale starts, everyone run there. It is possible to sell only the same amount and everything sells out quickly, so at the end, when it’s gone its gone.

That day, you can only buy the goods sold only at that time. There was a great matrix there.

marketA marketplace was the centerpiece of almost every town and village.

We often went out to town without guides and interpreters, One morning, we were able to go to the market early, so we can see and understand of the general citizen there.

There was an orange sale on that morning. When I went, it had already come to almost the end of goods. As only the certain amount can be purchased, the seller uses the traditional hanging balance-scale to place the weight on the other side and sell. Next to the box of fresh fruits, there was another box for the rotten spoiled oranges.

Apparently, when the weight is not enough, they adjust the weight and sell it by adding a few pieces of rotten ones. When we were there, one of them complained because the seller put two oranges from the rotten box… Then the seller gave the portion to the one behind him. The angry person got so angry that she couldn’t buy it anymore. It became a serious fight, yelling, scratching and pulling hair, it was so awful to witness.


They know usually how many grams of butter people buy, so the butter should be wrapped beforehand, but they will weigh the butter from the heap every time. The bread is also cut in half to adjust the weight. In that way, because they sell while weighing one by one, the line doesn’t move well, with everyone waiting for 2 hours or 3 hours each time to buy just one thing.

It usually took six hours just to buy bread and butter and by then the day was over, and so on. They put jams in jars that people brought with them, but they weigh them, add them, and weigh them again…

No one was reading a book or studying. People just waited and waited for hours for simple shopping. By watching them, I wondered what a waste of human power. Perhaps the Soviet government at that time did not want its citizens to think or be educated. But this is spring of 1965.

Originally published as Vol. 55 in Weekly Biz, January 22, 2019; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



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