A Soviet Citizen’s Reaction to a Western Department Store

Stockmann, Helsinki

Here’s a vignette from the time I was posted to the U.S. consulate-general in Leningrad, 1976-78.

Sasha, one of our Soviet-citizen drivers,* had just been granted a passport, a privilege that very few Soviet citizens enjoyed. This allowed him to drive the consulate’s truck (a vehicle very much like a UPS delivery van) into neighboring Finland, where we would regularly send it on a variety of errands, such as picking up orders of milk and fresh vegetables (which were unavailable in the USSR except in summer) for the consulate staff.

On Sasha’s first trip to Helsinki, roughly four hours’ drive from Leningrad, he was accompanied by a couple of my consulate colleagues. Upon arrival, the Americans — as was our invariable habit on any trip to Helsinki — headed straight for Stockmann, Finland’s equivalent of Macy’s, where you could buy hundreds of things that were unavailable in the USSR.

My colleagues took Sasha along with them. As they went through the door, they later told me, Sasha stopped dead in his tracks, stared at the cornucopia of luxury goods (as it surely appeared to him) on display, and asked, “Am I allowed in this place?”

The closest thing to it that he’d ever seen were, no doubt, the Soviet Union’s special shops, off-limits to ordinary people, where big shots and foreign diplomats could buy goods that were unavailable in ordinary stores. In these shops a very limited selection of such goods were sold only to the handful of extremely well-placed Soviet citizens who had legal access to dollars or other hard currencies. He was astonished that “just anybody” could shop in, or even be permitted to enter, a place like that.

Sasha’s reaction reminds me of a passage in a book I read long ago about a Soviet military pilot, Viktor Belenko, who defected to the West by flying his late-model MiG to Japan. He was given asylum in the U.S. and at one point, early in his stay near CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, his handlers took him to a supermarket. He too was astonished and thought at first that this display of material abundance had been set up just to impress him. He had a hard time believing that this is how everyday Americans live and shop.

I’ve seen both capitalism and communism, and I’ll take capitalism any day. Here, in an old Soviet joke, is how Russians used to explain the two systems:

“What’s the difference between capitalism and communism?”

“Under capitalism, you have the exploitation of man by man. Under communism, it’s just the other way around.”


* It was well understood by all concerned that all the locally hired employees of our consulate and the U.S. embassy in Moscow were also employed by the KGB, to which they were expected to regularly report on whatever they learned at their jobs in the U.S. diplomatic missions.

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