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Soviet life is drawn in lines

Published Oct. 18, 2005

For Valentina Yusupova, slumped on a child's bed in Furniture Store No. 37, a 10-month ordeal was reaching its climax. Since January, when she signed up to buy a sofa, the 703rd person in a 1,500-person line, she had come to the store to reassert her claim once a month, then once a week as her name rose on the list.

Now, finally a member of the coveted "first 10," she planned to spend all day, every day for the next week in the dim showroom, waiting for the sofa's delivery to make sure that no one waylaid it before it reached her.

"It will be a liberation when it comes," the plump, gentle-faced pensioner said. "I get so tired these days. I come home like a corpse."

Yusupova was caught up in one of the cruelest and most elaborate of daily Soviet tribulations: She was slave to a line that, from a simple string of people, had taken on a monstrous life of its own.

Under the slow collapse of the Soviet economy, factories are producing less, and more goods are getting sidetracked into the black market. Stores, as a result, are emptier than they have been since World War II, and panicked consumers are forced to spend hours waiting in line for items they used to buy freely.

Some Muscovites estimate they are now spending double the time in line that they did two years ago _ up to three hours and more a day _ and with less to show for it.

Until this year, Soviet people spent an average of 1{ hours a day in line for food and other essentials, according to a report

from the Communist Party newspaper Pravda quoted by American author Thomas Heyman in his book On an Average Day. Heyman used the figure as a comparison, estimating that the equivalent time for Americans is 25 minutes.

The endless waiting, with its physical and emotional strain, has spawned a complex culture and code of behavior of its own that, when first encountered, can appear as mysterious as the purposeful swarming of bees or ants.

Outside Furniture Store No.

37 on a recent Monday evening, several hundred people in a busily mingling mob pressed against the windows, forming into tight knots and dispersing in the deepening dusk.

"Where's the third hundred for the "Slava' brand wall unit from Sept. 17?"

"Is it you who's noting people down?"

"What are you doing here, signing off?"

All these people had come to the store on a certain day and signed up for furniture offered for sale, then divided themselves into groups of 100 and elected a volunteer to keep track of their names.

Now, they have to gather outside the store as often as that volunteer decrees, to "sign off" _ to show themselves to prove that they still want the furniture badly enough.

The rules are merciless: If a person has shown up regularly for a year, then drops from sight for one or two signoffs with no explanation, his or her name is crossed out.

"The line is very tough," said Anatoly Z. Rubinov, a specialist on the meaner side of life for the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta and author of Cardiogram of a Line, a book analyzing Soviet line behavior. "When someone is crossed off the list, everyone rejoices."

When the signoffs are required daily, as they are for the more than 3,200 people waiting for airplane tickets to America that are doled out at the rate of 10 or 20 a day, the demands on people's time become unbearable. Then they organize even further, breaking down the groups of 100 into groups of 10 or 20 who take turns signing off for other members.

Arkady Mekertumov, the volunteer who runs the Aeroflot line with tight discipline and a touch of hammy showmanship, said that he tolerates the breakup into small groups.

"That way, at least they suffer a little less," he said. "I feel sorry for them _ they're all pushed around so much, and it's not their fault."

But he has waged repeated purges to fight the profiteers who sign off only in order to eventually sell their place near the front of the line for hefty payoffs.

It is often financially strapped pensioners who make money by selling their places in line for vodka or for tickets. It is normal line behavior to hold a place for someone else, so sellers generally just step out and let the buyer in.

Invalids, war veterans or mothers of large families have the right to skip to the front of a line, and some of these people sell their line privileges.

In a line for Czechoslovak crystal the other day in the sprawling Moskovsky department store, a shuffling, scruffy old man approached a young woman who still had a good two-hour wait ahead of her.

"Should I help you?" he asked. "Should I help you get it?"

Leaning toward her conspiratorially, he flashed a red-framed identification card that showed he was a veteran of World War II and thus entitled to jump to the front of the line.

He found a willing customer, but the sales clerk had been too vigilant.

"We saw how you were making deals with people," she said. "We won't give it to you."

"But I defended Moscow," he complained loudly _ but to no avail.

The line was already grumbling against him, displaying the nasty temper that the collective can show the individual who breaks its rules.

"The line has its moral code," Rubinov said. "And the most forbidden thing is to put anyone in ahead of the other people."

Rubinov is now working on an expose on line deaths, the largely undocumented but increasingly frequent incidents in which people are trampled to death, and line riots, when stores are trashed and pillaged as those in line go berserk.

"We are slaves, and we have always been slaves," Valentina Yusupova said in the furniture store. "This is just the way our life is for the time being."

The vast majority of the Soviet population share her passive anger, a survey by an independent polling service found.

Among more than 7,000 people who sent back questionnaires, 99 percent said that they spent hours in lines, and about 90 percent felt either "passively negative" or "actively indignant" about it.

Who belongs to that perverse 10 percent who do not mind standing for hours with, as Rubinov puts it, "their noses in a strange back?"

"Some people love standing in lines, especially single women, who find out the news that way," Rubinov said. "And a person who has stood through a line and reached the front starts to consider himself very special, and he's very content."

Lines also become little communities.

"People meet, get married and find lovers there," he said.