Material Mined

Catriona Kelly

Rereading Serguei Oushakine, “‘Against the Cult of Things’: On Soviet Productivism, Storage Economy, and Commodities with No Destination,” The Russian Review 73, 2 (April 2014): 198-236.


             Let there be plenty, plenty of everything!

             But let something be missing![1]


Arriving as students in the USSR during the Brezhnev years, we fully expected to have difficulty in buying almost anything. Fascinating to the Western press and the general public, shortages and lines also figured prominently in the reports that students wrote on return.[2] When we arrived, though, it turned out that Voronezh, our temporary home for 10 months, pretty well had no lines, or not ones visible to the naked eye.[3] Yes, it took a while to buy tickets at the nearby main station, particularly to Moscow, but they were available without a wait, though at much higher cost, from the city’s branch of Intourist, the place where foreigners were officially supposed to get them. At least a limited selection of food was freely obtainable without a long wait (the exception was meat, which you could buy only at the collective farm market).  Clothes, shoes, household items, sporting goods, textiles, and large numbers of decorative and gift items were on view in the prospect Revoliutsii department store and in various specialty stores in the surrounding streets.   

It did not take us long to realize that while Voronezh had no lines, there was little that people actually wanted to buy. Coffee beans, for example, could easily be purchased from the city’s main Gastronom in the local Flatiron building (whose resemblance to the New York original began and ended with the fact that it was a corner block). However, the beans were always stale: the price (20 rubles per kilo, or around 13% of the average monthly wage) was higher than most people could afford. The three different kinds of root vegetable, onions, and cabbages, cheese, tinned goods, eggs, milk products, baked goods, and condiments that lent the shops seeming abundance were generally of mediocre quality (bread and kefir apart), and the so-called butter was so awful that a visitor to Voronezh once stopped me in the street to ask where you could get better. “It’s all there is,” I replied with a seasoned shrug.

Moscow was very different. I don’t remember ever seeing such frighteningly empty shops in Voronezh as I encountered when failing to realize that I should have prepared early for the shopping surge that overcame the capital just before Orthodox Easter 1981 (a holiday that I naively supposed would not have much impact on the store shelves of an officially atheist state). Yet the lines and the shortages in the capital reflected the expected abundance that drew in crowds on local and long-distance transport. All in all, the situation that the Western press reported regularly in terms of “shortages” was plainly as much about what was available as about what wasn’t.[4]

The embarrassment of surplus was noted by the USSR’s leadership also. On July 28, 1983, Politburo member Valerii Vorotnikov noted in his diary how Yuri Andropov had presented figures indicating a mismatch between a rise in production of 4%, and a rise in sales of only 1%. Some wholesale markets were refusing to accept goods from Soviet factories, while there was, for example, a chronic shortage of cotton socks and towels. “We need to learn how to trade,” Vorotnikov wrote.[5]

One reason why Serguei Oushakine’s article proves so rewarding is precisely because it goes beyond the tropes of shortages as dislocating absences in order to argue for what a material anthropologist writing in a different context has described as “the precarious balance between presence and absence.”[6] Here, that balance involved not just the fluctuating presence and absence of the desired object, but the assertive presence, indeed superfluity, of objects that were not desired. And, one could add, the presence of competing, yet mutually reinforcing, desires.[7] In Mikhail Zhvanetskii’s sketch, “Defitsit,” from which my epigraph is taken, shortages underwrite a smug feeling of abundance:

I come over to your place, you’ve pulled strings with the warehouse manager, the shop director, the store buyer, and got hold of defitsit through the back door. It’s delicious. Respect! […] You come over to my place, I’ve pulled strings with the warehouse manager, the shop director, the store buyer, and got hold of defitsit through the back door. It’s delicious. Respect! You respect me. I respect you. We’re two respectable people.”[8]

To “get hold of defitsit” brings home the whole issue: you possess something that is not there.  Zhvanetskii’s and Oushakine’s position is thus not that shortages did not exist or did not matter, but that they mattered in different ways from those we expect.

Aside from the paradoxicality of defitsit, another important insight of Oushakine’s article relates to the political rationale from which that cultural institution emerged. Discussions of consumption in the USSR (and the socialist world generally) have tended to focus on retail.[9] Oushakine’s article, on the other hand, usefully moves the discussion to the state planning end of the process.[10] By 1983, Yuri Andropov also saw the problem as lying in the low quality of home-produced goods: “Their level is several generations behind the output of foreign firms.”[11] However, in the 1970s, as Oushakine records, the emphasis lay, rather, on the “productionist” significance of manufactured goods, and excluded such important considerations as their emotional value, in terms of the “pleasure” that they generated to their owners.

Overall, Oushakine’s discussion doesn’t primarily address actual goods. The reference in one of the epigraphs to Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood’s instruction, “treat [commodities] as a non-verbal medium for the human thinking faculty,” presages and legitimates a slide into the analysis of the discursive universe of Soviet production and consumption, or, to put it differently, the planning of industry and trade. This is valuable as, among other things, a continuation of Julie Hessler’s large-scale exploration of the same subjects in the first decades of Soviet power, illuminating a history in which the circulation of commodities, benefits, and objects was to be at once equal to and different from anything achieved in other countries.[12] At the same time, this shift to the verbal and the abstract lays bare a “tyranny of the [thinking, human] subject” that has come under examination in a later evolution of the material anthropology on which Oushakine draws.[13] The objects circulated according to the (dys)functions of the practical and symbolic order known in the late Soviet period itself as defitsit were important not simply for their resonance or their demonstration of failures at the level of cost outlay and supply and demand relations. They had an actual presence (or a sorely felt absence). Equally, the “storage” that Oushakine delineates so compellingly was the product not just of intention, but of concrete factors such as buyers’ cash surplus (making it possible for them to invest in things that were not immediately needed) and not least, the existence of storage space, provided rather generously (by modern urban standards) in the state-owned housing of the post-1955 building boom. If residents of the notorious kommunalka had little or no access to private and secure storage space, the apartments of the 1960s and 1970s were designed with ceiling space (antresoli), wall closets (vstroennye shkafy), and larder cupboards (kholodnye shkafy). Communal apartments had accommodated glorious heaps of discarded junk (the chulan, or shared closet, became a metaphorical echo of the chaotic intermixture of people and possessions in the apartments themselves). However, items of value, particularly food, that were left in shared spaces had a habit of not lying around for long. In this sense, storage became much easier during the final decades of the USSR’s existence. Thus, the expansion of storage did not simply represent a failure of imagination in official planning, or result from a contradiction in its logic. It had explicit practical causes – and, likewise, practical effects.[14] Storage was not simply an imaginative reality, a socialist equivalent of commodities futures: it was about the accommodation of real objects in real spaces.

In saying this, I am not advocating naïve materialism. There is no domain in which we can unproblematically interact with things from the Soviet past.[15]After 1991, the objects and substances that formerly exercised hypnotic fascination stepped into the cultural background, when not vanishing from view altogether. To a large extent, the Soviet past is now a virtual phenomenon. A rule-proving exception is the Museum of Industrial Culture in Kuz’minki, Moscow. This resembles an industrial warehouse in which – aside just a few attempts to create improvised living-rooms from selected objects – there is no narrative, but only rough-and-ready categorization: twenty electric fans here, fifty teapots there. Rather than a metatext of the Soviet period, or even an anthology of objects from it, this is what one might call a nature reserve. It is not really even curated, given that the collection depends on donations in order to proliferate (and one gets the impression that pretty well anything is accepted).[16]

Museum of Industrial Culture, Moscow, April 7, 2014. Photograph by author.

The Museum itself is a former “people’s museum” set up in the late 1980s and run (most unusually) on a community/volunteer basis since that time. It is thus quite unlike the private museums that are the creation of a single person (and usually steeply priced). It’s what you might call a relic of the past, bearing the imprint of its original creation. Equally, the fashion for Soviet retro cafés was very much a phenomenon of the years immediately following the collapse, at any rate in the centers of major cities.[17] These places represent something like a storm beach of the past, where visitors are left puzzling over the objects that have washed up. They are far outnumbered by nostalgia websites, social website posts, and other “back then” content on the Internet. It is pictures of objects, and the verbal packing round the pictures, that have become the currency as of now.

So one might wonder whether, in engaging with or analyzing the past, we might be able to get beyond the virtual. Obviously, an essay like this is hardly a good start. What I propose here is something different. I want to suggest both that shortages themselves, at the time they existed, had material significance, and that the resonance of missing, or present, objects was more than symbolic.

In retrospective testimony such as oral history, scarcity tends to be represented either as a problem of marginal significance, or as one which I (the person telling the story) successfully negotiated. It is a sign of success now that one was not adversely affected then.[18] Absence, as it were, comes to signify presence of mind. In diaries though, things look different:

Today I visited the stores on Komsomol’skii prospekt. Like an authentic Soviet citizen living on the principle “grab what you can, or it’ll melt away,” I headed straight for the cranberries in polythene bags (they vanished a while back, and Dima really misses them). I grabbed ten whole bags, and paid for my greed right away. I had string bags with me, and I also got hold of some cocoa, which is likewise turning into defitsit, and bread, this and that other thing.  Three of the polythene bags with cranberries got torn and started dripping juice. I bolted for my studio like a scalded cat, cranberry juice pouring everywhere, and concerned passers-by kept shouting that I’d got a leak. Eventually, I had to stop and (oh horror!) throw out the tins, then set off again with my soggy, sticky string bags, without even worrying about why I wasn’t in the crazy lines for horseradish sauce in mayo jars. God, will these lines ever vanish?[19]

Iuliia Nel’skaia, who wrote these words on April 20, 1973, was a writer and teacher of French literature, and married to the well-known sculptor, Vadim Sidur. A starkly self-aware writer, she is at all times conscious of her effect on the reader. Yet unlike retrospective commentaries that suggest Soviet citizens were somehow above concerns with materiality, preoccupied as they were above all with questions of “how to live better and perfect yourself,” Nel’skaia’s diary entry focuses on exactly those concerns. She sees herself as engaged in a struggle in which, as the writer Iurii Olesha put it in Envy, “things don’t like me.” Her trip to the shops is not a triumph of presence of mind, but a search for presence that’s defeated by absence – primarily of capability on her part.[20]

Even in retrospective testimony, the physicality of objects can become particularly urgent. One woman’s main memory of her visit to the GDR was borrowing a library copy of Bulgakov’s sought-after and scarce novel The Master and Margarita there. The impact was not the book’s contents, but its mystique as a physical object: “There’s this rumpus going on about it, and everyone wants it and no one can get it, and then I arrive and I get it with no trouble at all.” Her reaction was equally physical: “I read it in some kind of fever of excitement and thought: What do I do now? It’s so boring in the evenings. You finish work – that’s it. And so I immediately copied it out by hand.”[21] 

Deficit as absence can also have a very significant presence in recollections of the Soviet past. This is as obvious in the denials of shortages as in direct memories of them. I remember how a conversation with an elegant and urbane Muscovite writer suddenly took an unexpected turn as I casually remembered the late 1980s as a time when sosiski, or Soviet frankfurters, seemed to appear at every meal.[22] “That’s a myth!” she exploded. “I kept a wonderful table!” Then followed a long narrative about how she, unlike the lazy people who ate sosiski, had offered private lessons to earn extra money, and cultivated useful contacts (the phrase to have a friendly butcher [imet’ znakomogo miasnika] is proverbial, but she used it “straight” about her personal past: ia imela znakomogo miasnika). This can’t be described as nostalgia; it was a refusal to repudiate the past, a rejection of the imputation that she might not have had something or other back then, more than 15 years previously. Classical recollections of shortage often take the form, “we had no shoes but we were happy”; in this case, it seemed essential to the writer’s current personal happiness that she did have shoes back then. But that’s not the only possibility. A woman born in the 1960s (significantly, from a much less privileged background than my interlocutor) who described her ideal of happiness as “going back to the past, only with the full shelves we have now” identified material absence as much more troubling, and the absence of the present (“you never get it all at once”) as something rather easier to accept.[23]

The rejection of “shortage” as an optic for the perception of the late Soviet period has a compelling logic: why should people wish to be stigmatized by what is lacking? There is an uncomfortable link between stories about lines for tangerines and bananas, and the time-honored interpretation of Russian culture primarily in terms of the absences from it of things or phenomena taken for granted in “civilized” society (for example, in Chaadaev’s “First Philosophical Letter,” the absence of heritage or indeed “history” in the ordinary sense).[24] All the same, I think we need to resurrect a sense of the materiality of shortage – not in order to suggest that there was something abnormal about the USSR in this respect, but to reassess what the terms “normal” and “normalization” might mean. Why should shortages actually seem abnormal? From whose perspective are they so? My sense is that the governing point of view is that of affluent late twentieth-century North American consumer culture. Yet this model of consumerism is anything but “normal” to many European observers, even those from fairly privileged backgrounds. When I was writing a doctoral dissertation in the early 1980s, a visiting graduate student from the U. S. observed that she found British supermarkets very odd because it was quite common to see empty sections of shelving where a particular line had sold out. In America, she told us, supermarket staff were kept busy replenishing the shelves so that nothing disturbed the shopper’s sense of plenty. Our reaction to this information, rather than envy or defensiveness, was bewilderment: what on earth was the object of the exercise? It seemed almost superstitious, like those people who hold their breath or avert their eyes as they pass a cemetery, because otherwise it might be “bad luck,” as though ignoring death could somehow make you live forever.

I am writing these words in a peculiar time. Around a year ago, as panic rose about the likely impact of Covid-19, food shortages resurfaced in a range of prosperous Western countries, at levels unmatched since the years immediately following World War II. The experience of lockdown resembled a kind of immersion in a (partial and temporary, of course) version of Soviet reality: closed borders, little to no official nightlife, energetic acquisition and storage of non-perishable foods, lavatory paper, and other rapidly vanishing resources (or to use a more loaded term, “hoarding behavior”). We rapidly acquired savvy: which shop would not have sold out of what, where the lines were shortest (knowledge, though, that often proved faulty). My own experience of Soviet reality back in the 1980s set me up well for the lines at our local bread shop: go as early as possible because you’ll have higher chance of actually getting something; be sure to take a book. But a comparison of the contemporary and the Soviet would be trivial.[25] Rather, the recent past has significance not because it represents a precise parallel to former times, but because it has unsettled the “normal.” This is not, in reference to the cliché, a “new normal,” but an era of crisis that has equipped us, arguably better than before, to understand other times of crisis (not of the heroic kinds, such as revolution and war, that have tended to appeal to Western observers of Russia, but crises of the everyday). The catastrophic immiseration of entire social groups during just a few months has created a sense of likeness rather than difference. We are not “above” shortage: we are actually in it.[26]

What we might hope for here is not some Eureka moment (“now we understand!”), but rather, a new kind of sensitivity to how diverse the experience of “deficit” could be – that it was something beyond the compass of the matter-of-fact chronicles of outsiders back in the 1970s. Arguably, that was an era when reacting to shortages reflectively was particularly vexed. And not just by the slogans that propounded prosperity -- “you never had it so good,” “the American dream,” and so on – but by the rather recent Western memories of shortages (above all a factor in Britain, with its decade and a half of wartime and postwar rationing, utility furniture, hand-me-downs, and make do and mend), and denial of their importance to “us.”[27] In a thought-provoking study, Zsuzsa Gille has underlined the importance of recycling in late socialist culture and the extent to which this constituted a rational and functional system.[28] Perhaps a sense that populations can work with shortages, as well as being victimized and prostrated by them, is another insight that we can draw from the late Soviet period. While always being conscious, on the other hand, of just how materially and psychologically unsettling that process of adaptation can be – for us, as well as for those whose lives we describe and remember.

Catriona Kelly is Senior Research Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, UK, and Honorary Professor at the University of Cambridge.

[1] “Pust’ budet izobilie, pust’ budet vse! No pust’ chego-to ne khvataet!” (Mikhail Zhvanetskii, “Defitsit,”

[2] See the regular articles by correspondents such as David Bonavia of The Times (London): “Lament of the Moscow Housewife,” August 27, 1970, 6; “Why Irritated Russians Queue for Shoes,” November 22, 1971, 5; “Supermarkets Ease Burden of Moscow Housewife,” ibid., April 11, 1972, 9; Michael Binyon (also of The Times, London), “Moscow Diary,” July 5, 1979, 16; July 19, 1979, 16; August 10, 1980, 16, March 14, 1980,16 etc.; “These Shoes are Not For Walking,” April 14, 1978, 10; “The Food Cupboards in Russian Homes Are Running Low,” August 30, 1980, 1, 6. As for the reports, they were not routinely kept by the British Council, which used them for debriefing the next set of students to go out, though perhaps they exist somewhere in the closed archive of MI6, to which, one assumes, they were copied.

[3] On the distinction between visible and invisible lines, see Konstantin Bogdanov, “The Queue as Narrative: A Soviet Case Study,” in Albert Baiburin, Catriona Kelly, and Nikolai Vakhtin (eds.), Russian Anthropology after the Collapse of Communism (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012), 77-102. There were certainly invisible lines for cars, apartments, and other desirables in Voronezh.

[4] Just so, the peculiarity of Soviet money, to a contemporary Western observer, lay not simply in the fact that small change (meloch’) constantly ran out; in an economy without checkbooks, let alone credit or debit cards, we rapidly started handling far larger sums of cash than we were used to.

[5] Vitalii Vorotnikov, A bylo eto tak… Iz dnevnika chlena Politbiuro TsK KPSS (Moscow: Sovet veteranov knigoizdaniia, SI-MAR, 1995), quoted from online database

[6] The quotation comes from Lynn Meskell, “Objects in the Mirror Appear Closer Than They Are” in Daniel Miller, ed., Materiality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005), 67. The topic of discussion is the paradoxical assertion of the spiritual through the material in Ancient Egyptian culture.

[7] For a brief exposition of the famous theory of “mediated” or “mimetic” desire, see René Girard, “Mimetic Desire in the Underground,” in Resurrection from the Underground, trans. James G. Williams (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2012), 76.

[8] See This was one of many such numbers by Zhvanetskii: see also the lament, “Never in your life will you work out what’ll vanish tomorrow; because if you do guess, then it’ll vanish today” (“Defitsit,” from the 1979 TV show “Vokrug sveta,” on the Gosteleradio channel, Youtube,

[9] See e.g. Natalya Chernyshova, Soviet Consumer Culture in the Brezhnev Era (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013).

[10] A precedent for this is the article by Mark Pittaway, “The Politics of Legitimacy and Hungary's Postwar Transition,” Contemporary European History 13, 4 (2004): 453-75.

[11] Vorotnikov, A bylo eto tak…, quoted from online database

[12]Julie Hessler, A Social History of Soviet Trade (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).

[13] The phrase comes from one of the most influential exponents of this line of argument, Daniel Miller: see his Introduction to Materiality, 36-43. For a rewarding application of the “thick description” of objects and their functions to the Russian context (arguing, for example, that an aquarium in a working-class household is not a “status symbol” but an “internal good” that reflects the communal DIY activity required for its manufacture), see Jeremy Morris, “Beyond Coping? Alternatives to Consumption within a Social Network of Russian Workers,” Ethnography vol. 14, 1 (2013): 83-105. I am attempting something similar in a current project on the history of Russian food (Russian Food Since 1800: Empire at Table, for the Bloomsbury Russian Shorts series, ed. Eugene Avrutin and Stephen Norris), arguing, for example, that consumption of sweet things is multi-valent: a sign of sufficiency and time, a tribute to the skill of the maker, an outlet for the decorative impulse, and an action of ambiguous status in modern food culture, dominated as it is by health objectives. For a recent general study showing how “Soviet objects and spaces interfered in the processes of subjectivation by suggesting forms of selfhood that fell out of the civilizing frameworks of the Soviet enlightenment project,” and how materiality impacted, for example, on bodily existence, see Alexey Golubev, The Things of Life: Modernity in Late Soviet Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2020). 

[14] If one pushed forward the argument that Oushakine advances, then a question rewarding further investigation would be why the “productionist” treatment of goods, which had prevailed for decades in Soviet society, proved so out of kilter with consumer demand. Two possible explanations lie in the increasing emphasis on “personal happiness” that was a characteristic of the era (see the essays by Julian Graffy and Susan Reid in Maria Balina and Evgeny Dobrenko, eds., Petrified Utopia: Happiness Soviet Style (London: Anthem Press, 2009), and in the rise of “the imaginary West” as a prism for the interpretation of commodities at this era (see Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The “Last” Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), which by definition made anything locally-produced seem second-rate (or worse).

[15] Or any other, arguably, but the sense of rupture here is especially strong given that the fact of state production has lent the sense of a particularly intimate link between those things and the overall socio-political order. The disintegration of the latter has led to a sense of the altered or diminished meaning of the former. Hence the poignancy and instability of the “virtual Soviet reality” present on the Internet.

[16] For a discussion of the MIC’s eccentricity relative to conventional museums, see Roman Abramov, “Grani neformal’noi muzeefikatsii ‘real’nogo sotsializma’: materializatsii nostal’gicheskogo affekta,” in A. Zavadskii, V. Sklez, K. Suverina, eds., Politika affekta: muzei kak prostranstvo publichnoi istorii (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2019), 285-6.

[17] See, for example, Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, Basic Books, 2001).

[18] See, for instance, Anna Kushkova, “Surviving in the Time of Deficit: The Narrative Construction of a Soviet Identity.” in Mark Bassin and Catriona Kelly, eds., Soviet and Post-Soviet Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 278-96.

[19] Iuliia Nel’skaia, “Vremia, kogda ne pishut dnevnikov i pisem…” Khronika odnogo podvala. Dnevniki 1968-1973, ed., Vladimir Volovnikov (Moscow: AIRO-XXI, and St Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2015). Quoted from

[20] For the quotation, see Bloknot propagandista: Mif o sovetskom defitsite i rossiiskaia real’nost’ (Moscow: Communist Party of the Russian Federation, 2003),

[21] Interview with woman born Perm’, late 1930s, by Svetlana Sirotinina: see Oxford Archive of Russian Life History, Oxf/Lev-P-05 PF3B SS.

[22] In relatively privileged and well-fed metropolitan households, I should add.

[23] Interview by Alexandra Piir, Oxf/Lev-SPb-03 PF16A AP.

[24] My St Petersburg: Shadows of the Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014) was precisely an attempt to identify what people do remember, and what they did have in the past (and do have now), rather than what is regrettably absent from their lives.

[25] And particularly since I and other people cushioned by salaried earnings could regard the shortages as a temporary inconvenience, unlike those who were suddenly pushed into using foodbanks, or of course, had already been using them anyway – 1.9 million in the U.K. as of end 2019. That said, one of the few things that post factum commentators agree on in the contentious spaces of internet forums, whether nostalgia-oriented or, like the vituperative Facebook page, “What I/We Don’t Like About the USSR” (Ne nravitsia v SSSR), the reverse, is that experiences of shortages in Soviet times varied widely – above all regionally. Kiev, for example, as well as Leningrad and of course Moscow, was particularly fortunate. Voronezh, a third category town, was significantly better supplied than Ufa, where, in the 1980s, almost nothing people wanted to buy was available and people lived on a barter system; some other regional cities had introduced rationing by the start of the decade, and so on. (My information here is based on reports by visitors to these places – a proper academic study of these topics is urgently needed.) And dietary profiles were also strongly linked to income, as a secret report on Leningrad families’ consumption in 1963 recorded: intake of milk products and meat, for instance, was about 50% higher in the top income band than in the bottom (TsGAIPD-SPb., f. 25, op. 91, d. 103, ll. 37-40).

[26] Equally, this experience has lent a new awareness of those for whom food and consumer goods are inaccessible for reasons of economic need: the large population dependent on food banks, for instance.

[27] That said, I recall that my elder relations were understanding, rather than derisive, when reading my letters from Voronezh (“it sounds just like the war!”) – but public discussions had a different tenor.

[28] Zsuzsa Gille, From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2007).