Perestroika created a huge appetite in the West for details of how ordinary Soviet people lived. I could describe what Russians had for breakfast and be sure the readers in Britain would lap it up. The Iron Curtain had isolated us from each other for so long that now there was a great yearning to discover our common humanity.
Towards the end of Gorbachev’s rule and in the early days of the Yeltsin era (1990-1992), the pressing question became: are Russians going hungry? Looking at the empty shop shelves, you might have thought so. But I knew my Russian friends always managed, somehow, to put food on the table.
Monitoring the food situation, I regularly went shopping with two Russian housewives, Tamara and Irina. Once, for the Independent on Sunday, we set off in search of ingredients to make a lemon pie. After scouring a number of shops, we managed to find flour, sugar and butter but lemons were unavailable, so the pie had no filling. The readers loved it. The editors wanted more. Irina migrated to Israel.
Tamara stayed in Moscow and it was to her I turned when trying to pin down the facts about “Russian starvation”.
After food-rationing was introduced in December 1990, the British press went wild with stories about “hunger and possible political repercussions”. One newspaper, while writing accurately about supplies, carried a misleading photograph of Muscovites queuing in the snow outside St. Basil’s Cathedral.
This prompted an angry letter from a reader: “The implication was that these were frozen people waiting for food when anyone who knows Moscow would be aware that it showed people queuing for communion at the cathedral,” wrote Disgusted of London SE10.
Tamara showed me what Russians were buying and eating. With 60 roubles (then officially worth 60 dollars), we went shopping on Solyanka Street. “There’s an assistant behind that counter,” said Tamara hopefully. “That means she’s got something to sell.”
The shop was offering herbs, jars of apple sauce, inferior Turkish tea and “coffee drink powder”. In another shop, we found scrappy meat but 30 people were queuing for it, so we moved on.
In a third shop, there were bad pomegranates and mouldy grapes but good apples, carrots and beetroots, which Tamara bought. Later, she would send her husband with a rucksack to fetch the heavy potatoes and onions. And there was always bread.
Tamara had spent 15 of a possible 60 roubles and could make borsht that night. “Fine for a vegetarian,” she said, “but my children need protein: milk, eggs and cheese.”
Reading these stories of limited nutrition if not starvation, well-intentioned readers in England began sending donations. It was the start of “gum-po” (humanitarian aid).
I delivered some food parcels and remember one old woman saying to me, as 1990 turned into 1991: “It may be Christmas for you but it’s not Christmas for us yet. We don’t want your charity.”
Russians felt humiliated. In the West, people felt rebuffed. As time went on, the misunderstandings would grow. We were a way off yet from that elusive common humanity.