The Last Years of the Soviet Empire: Snapshots from 1985-1991

By Vladimir Shlapentokh; Neil F. O'Donnell | Go to book overview

BREAD, CAKE, AND FLOWERS IN MOSCOW SEPTEMBER 1990

Snapshots of Moscow always present studies in contrast--in this case, poverty
and plenty in the same picture. Unfortunately for Gorbachev, however,
such contrasts served only to highlight the failures, rather than the successes,
of his reforms. The result, as previous snapshots have shown, was that the
Soviet people felt resigned rather than rejuvenated.

Earlier this month I traveled to the Soviet Union, where I spent considerable time in Moscow. My experiences there convinced me that Marie Antoinette's fictive advice to the French people--to eat cake if they had no bread--may actually have been less outrageous than it has seemed for the last two centuries.

During my stay at the hotel "Sputnik," I and the other guests ate only pastries for breakfast. Our choice was determined not by a collective sweet tooth, but by necessity: eggs, sausages, and bread--the restaurant's standard breakfast fare--were simply unavailable.

One morning, my schedule dictated that my breakfast of pastries be followed by a meeting with a prominent scholar, who is both the director of a leading research institution and a deputy of the Soviet parliament. After our meeting, my host invited me to lunch, where my thoughts again turned to the less-than-compassionate French queen--my amiable host could offer me only pastries, explaining that even if she had bread, she lacked anything to spread on it.

Later that day, I and several of my former graduate students tried in vain to make our way into half a dozen Moscow restaurants. Much to our dismay, all the restaurants, whether owned by the state or by private cooperatives, were either filled to capacity or closed altogether. After a lengthy foray through several state stores, we finally gathered enough food for us to have dinner together.

During our search for a place to eat, I was surprised to see that wherever I turned, flowers, which had always been a scarce commodity in Moscow, were being sold by private businesswomen. Even more surprising was the lack of competition among the vendors. Prices were uniformly high--three to four times higher, in fact, than those a year earlier.

The scarcity of staples such as bread and meat, coupled with the relative availability of such "luxury" items as flowers, typifies the Soviet Union's current economic situation. The economy has deteriorated drastically since

____________________
This article originally appeared as "In Moscow, Let Them Eat Cake" in The Christian Science Monitor on October 11, 1990.

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