Trading a Favor for Shoes in the Soviet Union

(Photo: Courtesy Margarita Gokun Silver)

My toes felt scrunched. The nails I’d forgotten to cut pushed against my white tights and the new, stiff leather.

“How are they?” my grandfather asked. He’d just brought over these shoes from his house and the moment he took them out of the box I was in love. The most beautiful things I’d seen in the short, seven years I’d been alive, they were lacquered, a chocolate brown color and had a great big buckle in the middle. They smelled of leather and sported a very small, square heel that to me put them in the same category as my mother’s platforms.

And they were made in Japan. For the 1970s Soviet citizen this may as well have been the Manolo Blahnik workshop. Foreign goods — and foreign shoes, in particular — captivated us. We were stuck behind the Iron Wall and forced to wear the ugly, shoddy creations of the planned Communist economy. The few of our citizenry who traveled abroad always came back with their suitcases bursting with goods for both their families and the favor exchange.

My grandfather paid for my shoes with black caviar.

My new shoes came to me via the latter. The Moscow of my youth lived off favors. Since nothing worth having was ever available on the open market, we procured things creatively. If you worked at a hotel, you’d get someone a reservation when they had visitors and not enough space in their tiny apartment to accommodate them. They’d still pay for the room but you’d reserve it for them, the favor being the reservation itself. In return, they’d get you the latest model of Polish-made vacuum cleaner because they had friends at a warehouse where Eastern-bloc appliances arrived and from which they disappeared, destination unknown. This transaction would put them in debt with their friend at the warehouse, but the next time that friend needed tickets to the Nutcracker performance at the Bolshoi, they’d repay the favor because either they or someone they knew had access to those tickets.

My grandfather paid for my shoes with black caviar. A veteran of the Second World War, he had access to special care packages distributed only on holidays and among those who fought. Caviar, smoked fish and boxed chocolates made an appearance in those packages once a year and because none of those things were available in stores, my grandfather saved them for favors on very special occasions. These shoes symbolized one such occasion. I was going to wear them on my very first day at school.

The 1st of September, a.k.a. the first day of school, now goes by the name of the Day of Knowledge. During the Brezhnev stagnation years, however, it went by the name of the-second-most-exciting-day-of-the-year, the first one being New Year’s Eve. It was a day of ironed school dresses; white aprons and oversized lace bows for the girls; white shirts for the boys; gladioli for the teacher, and, in the case of a first-grader, parents and grandparents beaming with pride.

Back at home, August 31, I was trying on my school uniform. My grandparents and parents looked on, marveling how the brown lacquer of the shoes perfectly matched my brown school dress and how the white apron, white tights and white bows complimented the silver buckle.

I couldn’t tell them that my grandfather’s contact had made a mistake and brought us a pair of shoes that were one size too small. Although young, I already subscribed to the Soviet women’s shoe mantra. “Wrong size isn’t a good enough reason not to wear them.” My mother and her friends often repeated this adage, made famous by Mikhail Zhvanetsky, an Odessa-born satirist.

“They’re great,” I said to my grandfather. “They are absolutely perfect.”

When you get your shoes by foregoing the caviar your grandfather had earned on a battlefield, you don’t fuss about a one or two size difference.

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