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The Troubles of shopping in Russia
A large crowd gathered outside a photographic studio in Arbat Street, one of the busiest shopping streets in Moscow, recently. There was no policeman within sight and the crowd was blocking the pavement. The centre of attraction - and amusement - was a fairly well-dressed man, perhaps some official, who was waving his arm out of the ventilation window of the studio and begging to be allowed out. The woman in charge of the studio was standing outside and arguing with him. The man had apparently arrived just when the studio was about to close for lunch and insisted upon taking delivery of some prints which had been promised to him. He refused to wait so the staff had locked the shop and gone away for lunch. The incident was an extreme example of the common attitude in service industries in the Soviet Union generally, and especially in Moscow. Shop assistants do not consider the customer as a valuable client but as a nuisance of some kind who has to be treated with little ceremony and without concern for his requirements.
For nearly a decade, the Soviet authorities have been trying to improve the service facilities. More shops are being opened, more restaurants are being established and the press frequently runs campaigns urging better service in shops and places of entertainment. It is all to no avail. The main reason for this is shortage of staff. Young people are more reluctant to make a career in shops, restaurants and other such establishments. Older staff are gradually retiring and this leaves a big gap. It is not at all unusual to see part of a restaurant or a shop roped off because there is nobody available to serve. Sometimes, establishments have been known to be closed for several days because of this.
One reason for the unpopularity of jobs in the service industries is their low prestige. Soviet papers and journals have reported that people generally consider most shop assistants to be dishonest and this conviction remains unshakeable. Several directors of business establishments, for instance, who are loudest in complaining about shortage of labour, are also equally vehement that they will not let their children have anything to do with trade.
The greatest irritant for the people is not the shortage of goods but the time consumed in hunting for them and queuing up to buy them. This naturally causes ill-feeling between the shoppers and the assistants behind the counters, though often it may not be the fault of the assistants at all. This too, damages hopes of attracting new recruits. Many educated youngsters would be ashamed to have to behave in such a negative way.
Rules and regulations laid down by the shop managers often have little regard for logic or convenience. An irate Soviet journalist recently told of his experiences when trying to have an electric shaver repaired. Outside a repair shop he saw a notice: 'Repairs done within 45 minutes.' After queuing for 45 minutes he was asked what brand of shaver he owned. He identified it and was told that the shop only mended shavers made in a particular factory and he would have to go to another shop, four miles away. When he complained, the red-faced girl behind the counter could only tell him miserably that those were her instructions.
All organisations connected with youth, particularly the Young Communist League (Komsomo1), have been instructed to help in the campaign for better recruitment to service industries. The Komsomol provides a nicely-printed application form which is given to anyone asking for a job. But one district head of a distribution organisation claimed that in the last in years only one person had come to him with this form. 'We do not need fancy paper. We do need people!' he said. More and more people are arguing that the only way to solve the problem is to introduce mechanisation. In grocery stores, for instance, the work load could be made easier with mechanical devices to move sacks and heavy packages.
The shortages of workers are bringing unfortunate consequences in other areas. Minor rackets flourish. Only a few days ago, Pravda, the Communist Party newspaper, carried a long humorous feature about a plumber who earns a lot of extra money on the side and gets gloriously drunk every night. He is nominally in charge of looking after 300 flats and is paid for it. But whenever he has a repair job to do, he manages to screw some more money from the flat dwellers, pretending that spare parts are required. Complaints against him have no effect because the housing board responsible is afraid that they will be unable to get a replacement. In a few years' time, things could be even worse if the supply of recruits to these jobs dries up altogether.
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