Was there ample Food Supplies in the late Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact?

Ok I read in a book about the fall of the Soviet Union stories of fresh fish rotting on the docks of the pacific coast of Russia while Moscow shelves were bare.

Someone else who grew up in the late 1980’s Russia said it was a good time but there wasn’t enough food.

Someone else who was from Soviet Russia said no, no, there was plenty of food and seemed surprised by the question.

So was the Soviet Union (in particular I am referring to the last third of it’s existence, maybe 60’s, 1970’s and especially 80’s, with a concentration on Russia, Ukraine, and mabe the European Warsaw pact countries) a problem with food supplies for the average citizen? Was it privation but sufficient food?

How bad would our Moscow 1989 dinner party be? Champagne & Caviar or Crackers and old cheese?

I remember hearing a joke during the 1980s, which was purported to be popular in Poland at the time.

Pole #1: Where are you going?
Pole #2: To Krakow, to buy bread.
Pole #1: Krakow? I heard that only Warsaw has bread.
Pole #2: That’s true. But the end of the line is in Krakow.

I have no idea if it really did circulate in Poland, but I do remember that the conventional wisdom (here in the West, at least) was that the centralized, state-run economies of the Warsaw Pact countries led to shortages, and products being in the wrong place. I also remember reading that, at least in Russia, a lot had to do with how connected you were – if you were a Communist Party member, or otherwise privileged, you had access to products in stores which the typical Russian wasn’t able to go to.

I traveled in the Soviet Union and several other bloc countries on business as late as 1987-91. Stores in capital cities such as Moscow, Sofia and Bucharest typically had empty shelves, or many units of one particular item and little else. Budapest and Prague were a lot better. Bread stores always had lines down the street. Always. As did other stores. A rumor of an item being available would generate a line immediately. When making a reservation at a restaurant in Moscow, one had to specify what he wanted for dinner. Meat wasn’t always an option. Supply lines from the farms of eastern Russia were nearly medieval, with dirt roads and unrefrigerated trucks.

I’ve spoken with Russians who lived through the Soviet days. The shelves in stores were bare, but if you went into people’s homes they had closets full of goods. One guy called it “A Soviet miracle.” If you could buy something, you’d purchase it whether you needed it or not, because you never knew if it would be available when you did need it. That kind of hoarding causes a lot of inefficiencies in the market. On the other hand, having people spend 12 hours a week lined up to buy coffee they didn’t need may have kept them out of trouble.

That reminded me of another anecdote (though a more first-hand one).

My (then-future) wife and sister-in-law toured the Soviet Union in the summer of 1991, as part of a choir. All of the choir members were from the U.S., and they ate pretty well. They had meat at nearly every meal, though the meat was often questionable – at each meal, they’d have a rotating member of their circle take a taste of the meat, and if it was disagreeable, none of the rest of them would eat any of it (there was one occasion in which they were certain they’d been served caribou meat). They did this because they discovered that, if they partially ate a meal, when the dishes were cleared, the remnants would be thrown away…but the kitchen staff and waitstaff were allowed to eat any meal which had gone untouched.

To be clear, all of the Warsaw Pact countries were European, and none of them were part of the Soviet Union (unless you count the Soviet Union itself).

I’m sure you will get a lot of anecdotal reports in this thread, but if you want actual statistics, or at least meticulously documented references to them with a nicely presented summary and commentary, you can find this for East Germany in Mary Fullbrook’s The People’s State: East Germany Society from Hitler to Honecker (Yale University Press, 2005). For the period in question, she writes:

I lived in the Soviet Union (mostly Moscow, but also Leningrad and Tambov for extended periods) from September 1990 to June 1991, and this pretty much describes my experience.

You could find food, but you couldn’t always find what you wanted. People weren’t starving, by any means, but there were shortages of almost everything, exacerbated by hoarding when supplies appeared. I remember standing in line for 90 minutes to buy cocoa, just to have something to trade. In ten months I saw toilet paper for sale twice.

Plus, a lot of the better food supplies were distributed outside of the stores, at your place of work. My workplace cafeteria always had food, though that winter a lot of the food was cabbage. I remember looking at my tray one day and seeing

  1. pickled cabbage salad
  2. cabbage soup
  3. meatballs and boiled cabbage

It was filling, but repetitive and a more than a little depressing, especially given the lack of any spices other than salt. I was fortunate that I had brought a lot of Tabasco sauce with me.

It’s hard to generalize. The Warsaw Pact countries usually had better food situations than the Soviet Union, and Moscow and Leningrad were generally better than the provincial cities. Also, conditions in the Soviet Union deteriorated significantly in the last years of soviet rule. 1991 was much worse than 1988.

Some “food jokes” from USSR in the 80s:

A customer walks into a store and says “Do you have food here?”. “Yes” the clerk says. “Wrap me up a couple of pounds of it” the customer says.

A customer walks into a store and asks “Do you have any meat?”. “No, this is a fish store” says the clerk, “so we don’t have any fish. There is no meat in the store across the street.”

I left Russia in 1980, thus missing the worst food supply years, but in the 70s the “basics” were always there - bread, milk, potatoes (usually half rotten) - but for any kind of higher quality stuff like meat, chicken (even the blue starved chickens that were dubbed "Buchenvald chickens), quality sausage, there were lines as soon as the stuff got to the store and it was bought out right away.

Ok but why were there shortages in the 1980’s when there should have been rising crops with technology? How did the planned economy get so bad after 70 years or so of practice? I don’t remember any serious drought or natural disasters there.

The explanation would take a fairly thick book. The tl;dr version would be that when you decouple reward from effort at work, the productivity plummets.

The only reason the Soviet Union in the 70s-80s didn’t experience mass starvation was because of the “enlightened” policy that allowed the collectivized peasants to have a tiny amount of land (about 4% of the total) on which they could grow “personal” foodstuffs. That “personal” produce, sold in cities by those peasants, supplied about 30% of all food consumed in the USSR. That’s at a minimum - since unknown amount of that private produce was also sold to the state and then distributed by the state, the percentage could have been 50% or more.

There was a bit in one of the Renko mysteries (written by Martin Cruz Smith, which you’ll notice is not a very Russian name, so take with a grain of salt) where the detective gets the opportunity to shop at an American store in Alaska, IIRC, and he’s thrilled not to have to check the date on the electronics - in the USSR, he says, you want something made in the middle of the month because at the end they’re filling boxes with bricks to make the quota and in the beginning, I forget, perhaps they’re not bothering for some reason?

The beginning of the month is right after the previous month’s salaries are paid. The workers are usually too drunk to produce anything of reasonable quality.

At the beginning of the month they’re drunk or hungover, and not concerned about meeting the months quota. Rushing to finish up the quota was called “storming,” the whole negative phenomenon was called “shturmovshchina.” But it’s true, a Soviet television would have on its label the day and month it was made. Soviet televisions, though, had a general problem of bursting into flames. Everyone knew that you had to unplug your television when not watching it.

The Soviet planned economy worked for the small number of areas the leadership could focus on. Lots of T-34 tanks, or Delta class subs, or whatever. It was making all of the intermediate goods, or consumer goods that was beyond the planned economy. Add to that problems with the increasing complexity of the economy, and the general sclerosis of the bureaucracy that accelerated after Khrushchev, and you created a situation where the system only worked with a whole alternate, illegal system of fixers, what were called “tolkachi.”

Another problem with plans. Apparently the plan for light bulbs was so many millions of watts of light bulbs. The result was that when we needed a replacement light bulb for our toilet (Russians put the toilet in a separate room from the shower and sink), the only light bulb we could find was a 300-watt bulb. Man, was that bright. I felt like confessing every time I took a dump.

Oh, and mouse traps. No way. The only traps available were big enough to trap rats as large as cats.

See, I thought that’s what it was but I was too polite to say it. :slight_smile:

I remember reading about Estonians watching our Finnish TV programs from across the bay (more or less secretly of course), and thinking that our commercials for meat were Western propaganda given the selection of different things on display.

My anecdotal snapshot is from bicycling around Poland in the summer of 1981. This was just after the first flowering of Solidarity, and before the declaration of martial law later that winter.

My friend and I were bicycling between 60 and 120 miles a day. Usually one of the best parts of a bike tour is that you can eat anything you want, calories be damned. But that summer, without the ration cards that a Polish citizen had, it was almost impossible to get anything but bread and milk. Rarely there would be an enterprising farmer taking a risk and selling plums or raspberries at the roadside.

In the bigger towns that had a Pewex foreign-exchange store, we could buy a few foodstuffs with dollars to supplement our meager fare: canned pineapple, roasted peanuts and bad chocolate. The regular shops had mostly empty shelves, and people waited in line for hours with their ration cards for a little bit of meat or cheese.

At night, tired and hungry after cycling all day, we dreamed about what we would eat when more than bread was available. The rumor was that the government was orchestrating the shortages trying to control the populace and make Solidarity look bad. I don’t know how much of that was true.

We ultimately crossed into Czechoslovakia and immediately saw stores with goods on the shelves and food in the restaurants, and we made up for lost calories.

IANAEOA (I am not an expert on anything.)

But from all I’ve read, over at least the last hundred years or so the Soviet Union hasn’t had an ample food supply…Ever. At any time. For any reason.

They may be the only people to use different spices to make shoe soles taste New Again!

Kruschev tried to fix agricultural shortages by mandating corn as a crop throughout the territory even though the climate and soil were not suitable. in most regions the corn failed continuously but of course no scientist or agricultiural expert would speak out against the program, and the farmers had no choice but to follow the program. Kruschev wanted to grow corn for both a good reason (its one of the most productive crops per acre on the planet) and a bad reason (The Americans were good at it). By 1963 this was such a hashup that the Soviet Union was actually importing grain.

In “Mig Pilot” the defector Belenko described some of the more small-scale problems he observed.

Essentially in areas where there actually were plenty of crops, they could not get the harvest in. No mechanization and not enough healthy population that wasn’t malnourished or drunk off their ass. Eventually – usually once the crop had begun to spoil – they would call in the army to help with the harvest, and being mostly city boys they would do the best they could but mostly fuck it up, and half the crop would be ruined anyway by the delay. The local authorities would not call for help sooner, even though the lack of manpower was obvious, because it “looked bad.”

After he came to the US he also thought grocery stores were a put on. Also, he said that US cat food was as good or better than canned meats available in his day. In line with what others have said, in his discription they had food for the most part but were starving for protein.

I was in Bulgaria in 1997, and even then you could hardly get anything in the “official stores.” Luckily the farmer’s market was by then quite legal as were any number of small food enterprises (people selling honey, homebaked pastries, yogurt and such), so in the summer at least you had a fair variety. Imported western canned goods and imported fresh goods were available but quite expensive compared to local products. Like, you might pay 3-4 lev for a pound of plums grown nearby, which was about a dollar. For the same price you could buy one banana.

Ironically to the whole Krushchev thing, Bulgaria is a place where apparently you CAN grow corn and in August they would pick a small amount of the fodder corn when it’s young and set up stands where they would boil it to order and sell you an ear - very popular treat. Not as good as “human food” sweet corn but a welcome change of pace.

It varied by country.
Poland never had food problems-largely because they never collectivized their farms. Incomes were low, but if you had access to the country, you could buy foods direct from farmers. Also, Poland exported high quality ham and sausage all through the communist years.
Czechoslovakia was similar-my BIL said that the food could be monotonous (especially in winter), nobody was starving.
Countries that DID collectivize their farming DID experience freqent and severe food shortages-the mighty USSR had to buy wheat, chicken, beef, etc. in the late 1950’s, mid 60’s and all through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Romania was similar-despite excellent farming land, there was severe famine in Romania in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Of course, having your farms run by comunist party breaucrats was helpful-especially when they had bright ideas…like planting corn in Siberia.

Yes, I remember that. After getting out of USSR in 1980, one of the first things I did was walk into a supermarket in Austria. It wasn’t a very big supermarket, at least not compared to US supermarkets, but the shock of seeing stuff like dozens of different cheeses, dozens of different brands of coffee, and the amazing produce section was amazing. And when we got to the meat counter, with the sausages and steaks, it was hard to believe all that stuff was real. It was like walking into a museum of food.