Moscow a Mecca for Shoppers Aboard the Sausage Express

Times Staff Writer

There’s a riddle often told in the towns and villages that surround Moscow: What’s long and green and smells of sausage? The answer: The commuter train from Moscow.

The riddle points up the mass invasion of the Soviet capital each day by an estimated 2 million people. Nearly all of them come to the city intent on doing some shopping, and most do a lot.

Compared to other Soviet cities, let alone small towns, Moscow is well supplied with food and merchandise. As a result, it draws millions of outsiders daily to compete with 9 million Muscovites for available supplies.


One of the capital’s shopping meccas is the Moscow Department Store, only a short walk from three major railroad stations and a brief subway ride from four other rail terminals. The Moscow store serves from 150,000 to 200,000 customers each day, who spend between 1.5 million and 2 million rubles ($2.37 million to $3.16 million at the official exchange rate).

Among sophisticated Muscovites, the store is regarded as strictly for rustics, but store officials say that about one-third of the buyers are from the Moscow region and two-thirds from more distant parts.

Lubov Garanina, for example, said she visits the store regularly, since it’s only a 90-minute train ride from her home in Zagorsk, north of Moscow. She brought her two daughters along on a recent trip; they were looking for gifts to take on a trip to Minsk.

Store officials said other customers come from as far away as Siberia and Kazakhstan to search for winter coats, television sets, a better selection of fabrics and other items that are termed “deficit,” indicating there aren’t any in their hometowns.

On a recent weekday morning, for example, more than 100 women stood in line to buy a bra, made in Czechoslovakia, that sold for 9 rubles (about $14.22).

“About an hour and a half wait,” commented a young woman. “No one would stand in line that long for a Soviet bra because they just don’t fit right.”


Shoes from Yugoslavia or even Romania also cause excitement among Moscow shoppers. At times, police assigned to the store have to set up metal barricades and shout orders over bullhorns to keep the crowds from getting out of hand.

Lineup for Sneakers

During a recent lineup to get sneakers with adhesive closures instead of laces, however, a policeman crashed the queue himself to buy a pair before they were all gone.

A middle-aged woman from Grozhny, a three-hour train ride away, recently joined the rear of a line with scores of women ahead of her.

“I don’t know what they’re selling,” she explained to a friend. “I just want to look.” The woman was one of many who come to Moscow on their vacations, mainly to shop. In some nearby cities, such as the industrial center of Kallinin, factory workers sometimes arrange bus tours on the pretext of visiting historic sites or the opera but spend all their time inside department stores.

Food remains one of the prime attractions. Some villages near the capital report practically no meat, cheese or butter in their stores, but Moscow usually can provide some of each scarce commodity.

Sausage, a staple of Soviet diet, appears to be the most popular item in the shoppers’ basket. In fact, in Russian it is called lubiterskaya, or favorite. This sausage is sold for 2.30 rubles a kilogram, or about $1.75 a pound. There is a cheaper version, a gray liver sausage in hot-dog form, that sells for less than a ruble a kilogram, or 2.2 pounds.


Even in Moscow, however, customers complain about the poor selection and poor quality of fruits and vegetables. A recent article in Pravda, the main Communist Party newspaper, confirmed that letter-writers complained mostly about the shortage of fresh produce, especially in summer, when growing conditions should be ideal but supplies are still scarce.

The newspaper blamed the shortages on a breakdown in transportation and distribution--a common failure in Soviet society. It said, for example, that 191 freight cars with fruits and vegetables were waiting to be unloaded in Moscow rail yards; and, unfortunately, they were not refrigerator cars.

Local authorities in rural areas, the newspaper said, effectively prevent state and collective farms from selling fruits and vegetables in private markets here simply by refusing to provide trucks for hauling.

Even at the popular and reasonably well-stocked Moscow Department Store, the fresh fruit and vegetable counter is almost bare. Still, the out-of-town crowds jam around the meat, cheese and butter sections, confident that their long train rides were worthwhile.