In the wake of his timely and characteristically anticlimactic death in 1982, Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, otets-kormilets, left an uneasy procession. His ceremonial reign marked an era of socioeconomic stagnation and political regression that left the Union’s collective body – both Soviet and soviet – putrefied: politically apathetic and personally unfulfilled. The procession was both literal and metonymical, and, after Brezhnev, became funerary in both senses: as fulfillment of Lenin’s covenant eroded, the procession – the ordered line, the queue – had become a regular ritual of profound, if not transcendent, import.
Here, in the bread line, in the floral shop, in the boundless black market flourishing “in broad daylight”, in crowded prisons and apartments, in pharmacies and at the kvass barrel: here, the faithful citizen waited, meditated, “thought about socialism, class struggle” – perhaps tongue-in-cheek, perhaps merely out of habit or maybe some noble hope – and, in return for their duty, were compensated. The citizen was rewarded not merely with the needed gratification or temporal pleasure of a good or service, a necessary correction or a space to inhabit, but also with union and self-acknowledgement, with a sense of routine agency and wish-fulfillment that opposed the merely vocational or political.
Though its cult, by all superficial accounts, persevered until the very end, by Brezhnev’s death, Marxism-Leninism had become a reluctant religion for most Soviets. To the people – that abstract entity on whose behalf the party-state claimed its mandate – the ideological catechism that had mostly succeeded in coercing previous generations was, by now, deeply unappealing. This in the face of real and perceived failures on the part of the Soviet apparat, chiefly its mismanagement of the economy: the neglect of rising inflation, the declining rate of growth, the abandonment of necessary reforms, the acceleration of blat, corruption. This played out in a transparent burlesque in the city center and the countryside. Shortages of basic goods were common. Quality of life, never having reached the utopian heights promised by the Bolsheviks’ bloody divination, was declining.
The inefficiencies of the Soviet command economy set the stage for a burgeoning black market which – coupled with the residual repressive tendencies of the state armature – ultimately forced the queue into its most cohesive, dynamic, and liberating state. The Soviet underground economy, host to some of the country’s longest and most impressive processions, was an inherently ill-defined space, thus free from the residual repressive tendencies of the state armature, from party interpellation and its constant “curtailment of information”.
A game of Russian scandal, words were freely exchanged here – a spoken samizdat – phonemes fashioned into sharp barbs, oral arrows aimed just above the Kremlin walls, the metonymical seat of an arrogant authority. In a time of ironic privilege and alienation, the queue provided a familial atmosphere, one predicated on camaraderie as well as common disdain. It was a popular collectivism, a force of nominal unity and equality in a contradictory space: the steel worker, the journalist, the drunkard, the student, the teacher, the apparatchik, the quiet dissident, the hammer, the sickle, the Slav, the Georgian, the disenchanted youth, the babushka: all welded in an indestructible union of freeborn micro-republics created by the will of the people. In the queue, the citizen could take refuge, divorced from policy and social convention, yet reassured by the fellow citizen, by a union that mattered.
It has been said that the average Soviet spent a third of each day waiting in line. Though that statistic is difficult to confirm for obvious reasons, the queue was, for almost every citizen, certainly a daily, repeated ritual, one that, by the 1980s, had become a defining characteristic of Soviet life and personhood. The Russian word sluzhba, meaning job or service (e.g. church service), itself denotes not only vocation or function, connoting also an orthostatic posture, a kind of contrapposto, the action of standing. The statement “I stood through an all-night mass” could also be translated “I stood in line all night”. And the queue was a job, a service. “Families”, Service writes, operated as collective foragers in an urban wilderness”, concentrating on the often limited pleasures they could get out of their private lives.
Thus, the line took a certain precedence: in order to receive cargo, one had to wait patiently, often for hours, swaying as in a trance. But the awaited transaction – a ruble and fifty kopeks for a bar of toilet soap, perhaps, or twenty rubles for a kilogram of caviar – was an event of supreme individual affirmation and self-actualization. The queue, collective in nature, suckled an individualistic instinct, one antithetical to the party-state’s ideological and repressive apparatuses. It moreover broadened a theretofore bludgeoned consumerist curiosity, already nascent by way of détente’s greater economic globalization. So-called Western “imports” – Italian shoes, “stateside denim”, West-German knitwear, totems of class and culture – had curiously begun to appear upon the legs and feet and backs of Moscow and Leningrad urbanites, the deluxe set, by the mid-1970s. Needs were becoming wants, and wants needs. I buy it because I need it became I buy it because I like it.
The queue fanned this blue flame by providing a space that encouraged a theatric agency in vacuum: In a time of declining livelihood and widespread shortage, the arrival of a much-needed article in one’s life struck with a kind of magic realism, one that validated the hassle and monotony of queuing, the sluzhba of it all, so to speak. This “conscientious fulfillment” of duty similarly liberated the Soviet psyche from the wants of everyday life, temporal or otherwise. The queues of the late black market were a spiritual good of particular novelty and irony: retaining an ethic and aesthetic of vaguely Bolshevik association, but promoting the kind of consumerism and “prosperity without culture” to which the Party and its apologists were vehemently opposed. It was in this diametric way that the queue promised something neither work nor patriotism nor political orthodoxy nor “developed socialism” or “really existing socialism” nor even the ghost of Comrade Lenin could ever really deliver for the latter-day Soviet: a regular practice of personal operation that guaranteed measurable individual utility.
The image of the infinite, many-headed queue that became internationally synonymous with the late Soviet Union was a source of increasing embarrassment to its leaders, and its black market – a high tide of Western artifacts – one of consternation. But the queue was more protestant than protest and, if ritual, it was hardly liturgical. Not even Brezhnev, in his own way of ritualistic verbiage, called for decreased societal activity, or at the least, its cynical performance, the former of which the queue was certainly a dimension. It retained its own moral code: its own collective sense of honor, its own restrained justice. What Brezhnev and many of the nomenklatura failed to understand was just how much comfort, comradery, leisure, liberation that the wait and the transaction offered, not just for the collective body, but for the individual. Together, as if in pews, they swayed.