It was 30 years ago that Mikhail Gorbachev became the new General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At 54 he was the youngest man to take charge since Josef Stalin. His predecessor, Konstantin Chernenko, lasted in office for mere 13 months and died of liver cirrhosis and heart failure at the age of 73. Gorbachev was quick to announce his intentions to modernise the Soviet Union: reforms were badly needed to improve productivity and accelerate economic growth. The Soviet system was famous for its bureaucracy and censorship – the new General Secretary promised to tackle that too.
Whether Gorbachev was a true reformer or simply the right man at the right time, his tenure at the helm of the Soviet Union was transformational. The following year after his appointment he announced radically new policies at the party congress. Glasnost – the policy of openness – called for increased transparency throughout the Soviet Union and freedom of information. Apparatchiks did not know what had hit them. Perestroika, which means restructuring, aimed at transformation of the Soviet command economy to the market one. The West welcomed the new tidings. Even Margaret Thatcher paid a compliment: “I like Mr Gorbachev, we can do business together.”
In the Soviet Union things changed quickly – for the worse. While the state-owned media focussed the news on the progress of perestroika, the reality in the shops was very different. Shortages seemed worse than during the Forties, by account of people who had survived the Second World War. When the state abolished its monopoly over the economic sector, the established supply and demand chain broke down, causing bottlenecks, before the grassroot enterprises found their footing. Before Gorbachev, there was little choice in grocery stores; by the end of Eighties, queues of hungry people, desperate to get a piece of frozen meat, a bag of sugar or a loaf of bread, had to be regulated with metal barriers to control chaos.
I was six years old when Gorbachev announced perestroika. I remember being sent to the local supermarket to buy butter. There was just one variety sold in the Soviet Union. It was wrapped into milky white paper with the name “butter” printed across in green letters. The information on the wrapper ensured consumers that the butter had been produced according to GOST – the state standards set for each particular product, including its ingredients, recipe and nutritional values. No artificial colourings or harmful chemicals were allowed.
The producers varied throughout the country, but their products tasted the same. The state guaranteed the quality. There was no chance for horsemeat to appear in a Soviet GOST-certified burger unannounced. Before perestroika, in addition to plain butter, on occasion, you could get hold of chocolate butter and even shrimp butter. However, from the middle of Eighties, butter had to be rationed to 300g per person per month and was sold for a coupon, a pale yellow, precious piece of paper, distributed to every household in advance.
Gradually, imported goods appeared in the shops. With butter still rationed and being a perishable product, unable to outlast the doggedness of the Soviet customs, entrepreneurial businessmen imported long-life margarine to delight Soviet consumers. Home cooks weren’t impressed but those were dire times. Some ate German margarine, baked with it and hoped (in vain) that it lowered cholesterol. Others could not afford it and existed on stale bread instead.
Finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian economy grew, the standards of living improved and consumer products hit the shelves in their variety. A couple of years ago I wanted to make a carrot cake for my parents, when I was visiting them over the summer. In a supermarket I was duly impressed with the choice of butter, including Europe’s best brands from Denmark and France. Of course, I wanted to support a local producer. There were at least 15 varieties to choose from, many brands signalling wholesomeness, tradition and purity with the help of nostalgic-sounding brand names and artisanal packaging.
I chose butter with a mid-range price tag. I followed the recipe’s instructions and put a piece of butter into a saucepan to melt it over low heat. After a while, nothing happened. The butter was still solid, reminding me of those creepy pictures of processed food that never goes off. It is no wonder that many Russians feel nostalgic about the olden days when the state regulated the quality of the produce. Some consumers spend hours on internet forums debating which brand is closest to delivering on the promise of “the taste of childhood”. The less affluent Russians reminisce about the days when butter was not just tasty but actually affordable.
Today the picture is different once again. With sanctions on imported goods, there is no Lurpak being chilled in the supermarket refrigerators. From the myopic point of view, this is good news for the Russian dairy producers, who are now taking advantage of the patriotic sentiment spread liberally across the country. However, it is pretty clear that any protected industry has no incentive to improve the quality of the products it churns out or to lower the prices in the absence of competition. The diminished purchasing power of the rouble and the political uncertainty encourage capital flight, which means the domestic industries won’t be able to compete in the future either. With real butter becoming a treat again, it is no wonder Russians aren’t celebrating.