Food Lines and Family Budgets

Nizhni Novgorod (formerly Gorky) could be called Russia’s “Pittsburgh.” Located 230 miles east of Moscow, this center of industry and commerce is the third largest city in the republic. At the junction of the Volga and Oka rivers, the impressive Kremlin of Nizhni Novgorod offers an imposing view from its high embankment. These rivers serve as transportation lifelines for food, raw materials, and industrial products.

Until the Fall of 1991, this city of 2 million people was “closed” to all foreigners. It had gained infamy as the place where dissident Andrei Sakharov was exiled. Nizhni Novgorod has grown in significance recently because the Yeltsin government has chosen it as a “test site” for economic reform and privatization. The issues and solutions that are discussed in Moscow and St. Petersburg are planned to someday be put into practice in Nizhni.

As the first foreigners to serve as visiting professors at Nizhni Novgorod State University in Spring 1992, my wife Marge and I were in a unique position to experience the difficulties of living through a period of massive economic changes. Prices had skyrocketed and hyperinflation had effectively removed all savings from the economy in less than a year. Except for a small percentage of party elite, everyone was now living from payday to payday.

There were no outward signs of hunger; we saw no starving people. But life was clearly very difficult and survival had become an all-encompassing preoccupation. As a full-time professor, I received 2,000 rubles ($20.00) per month, enough to buy a pair of gym shoes. The rector (president) of the university was paid 2,500 rubles per month; by comparison, the monthly salary of the bus driver who transported both of us to work was 3,000 rubles. If one of us wanted to buy a kilo (2.2 pounds) of coffee, we had to be willing to pay a quarter of our month’s income. Wages for most people were four times what they had been in the middle of 1990; some wages had gone up by a factor of eight. Food and transportation costs, however, had gone up by a factor of twenty to 100.

Bread, the mainstay of the Russian diet, was readily available, although one often had to stand in line for it. In May of 1990, a loaf cost .14 rubles; a year later, 1.40 rubles. In May 1992, a loaf of bread cost seven rubles. Because of the declining value of the ruble on the international market, a loaf of bread for seven cents was a great deal for us Americans, but for Russians, an increase of 5,000 percent was a near tragedy. They had suffered similar price increases for other basics as well, including meat, cheese, and milk.

Food was available, but there was never much variety, and the quality of fruits and vegetables made us long for the American supermarket. It took us four hours to shop in downtown markets, a task that would require twenty minutes back home. The hard reality, however, was that almost everyone spent between 80 and 100 percent of their monthly income on food. There was little left for clothes, shoes, or other consumer items. Every payday was an important event. When the central bank in Moscow was unable to disburse monthly allotments to Nizhni’s central bank, there was no paycheck for anyone; this happened twice during our stay.

Despite these difficulties, there was much warmth and hospitality to be found in Nizhni. Invitations to dinner in the apartments of Russian friends led to joyful times, loving gatherings for which no expense was spared. Food was in abundance, beautifully presented; all the best of what was available was offered to us as guests.

The difficulties of buying food and standing in food lines will soon be forgotten, but the warmth and generosity of our new Russian friends, struggling to survive through enormous changes in their society, will long be remembered.

– reprinted from
Hunger 1993 – Uprooted Peoples
(Bread for the World Institute on Hunger and Development),
October 1993