|Thursday, January 23, 2020||2:00PM - 4:00PM||108N, North House, Munk School of Global Affairs|
1 Devonshire Place
Central Asia Lecture Series
Stalin and other early Soviet leaders saw the Caucasus as the USSR’s fruit and vegetable basket, reshaping agricultural practices and altering the natural landscape to favor “export” agriculture. Such beliefs only became realized much later, however, and hardly in the way these leaders envisioned. As the USSR became a consumer society, centered on major Russian cities, Caucasus—and, later, Central Asian—growers realized the money that could be made selling their products directly to northern customers. Municipal officials in Moscow and elsewhere realized the value of this trade to their citizens, who believed in the better quality of fresh fruits, vegetables and even flowers from the Soviet south. Existing in a “gray zone” between first and second economies, this long-distance movement of fresh food and flowers proliferated in the Soviet Union’s last two decades. Images of the time, which still dominate characterizations of the late USSR, showed mostly-empty grocery stores shelves and long queues for food. I argue however that these beliefs of the Soviet Union as a land of scarcity miss the dynamic, and quite capitalist, nature of food sales in the late USSR. This movement—of people and goods—had varied consequences on everything from natural environments in the Soviet south to family life among traders as well as the health of the Russian population. Racism was one significant outgrowth of this trade. Southern traders, denigrated as “blacks” were seen to befoul as well as benefit Moscow with their unofficial and ostensibly exploitative practices. The host Russian population’s racist stereotypes towards these traders began to apply more broadly to Soviet citizens of the Caucasus and Central Asia. In memories, nonetheless, these long-distance food traders believed that the USSR offered them a chance to overcome mundane lives in southern villages and succeed at its very center.
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