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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Official 'Invitation' To Line Up for Food

In the days before last week's presidential election, signs appeared outside of stores all over Russia bearing an intimidating picture of Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov and the words, kupi edy v posledny raz (stock up on food one last time). One would think the images of the long lines of Soviet times were indelibly etched on the Russian mind.

But this is not necessarily the case, as I discovered in a museum in Yekaterinburg that took the food-shortage theme a step further by setting up an entire exhibit of Soviet-era talony, or ration coupons. The main thing that struck me at this exhibit was the reaction of the Russian museum-goers surrounding me, who stood staring at the exhibits as if they were looking at some incomprehensible artifacts from ancient Samaria, rather than everyday items from their not-so-distant past. How quickly, it seems, we forget.

Even though the basic idea behind each talon was the same, the wealth of language used to break up the monotony of lines and shortages was truly impressive. The basic format of the ration coupon reads something like, talon na realizatsiyu stiral'no-moyushchikh sredstv (coupon for a sale of laundry detergents).

Beyond such simple forms, there evolved an array of parallel expressions in the same genre. Limitnaya kartochka na avtobenzin (ration card for gasoline), or predvaritel'nyi zakaz na priobreteniye spichek (advance order for the purchase of matches). My favorite comes from Samara, priglasheniye na realizatsiyu kolbasnykh izdelii (invitation to a sale of sausage products). For the language connoisseur, the word "invitation" alone is nearly enough to take the edge off standing in line three hours for some Soviet sausage.

Moreover, although the average talon was no more than a few square inches in size, the designers took full advantage of the latest Soviet advances in micro-printing in order to fill them with all sorts of rules, limitations and dire warnings. Talony bez kartochki nedeistvitel'ny (coupons are not valid without booklet), warns one. Poddelka, kuplya i prodazha presleduyetsya po zakonu (counterfeiting and the buying and selling of coupons are prosecuted by law), says another.

But the most touching exhibit was in the last display case. There, next to some drab talony na pokupku shkol'noi formy (coupons for the purchase of a school uniform) and talony na shkol'nye tetradi (coupons for school notebooks), were some brightly colored talony that really caught your eye. They had been drawn in crayon by children, playing ration-coupon games in imitation of the life around them. Talon na raschyosku (coupon for a hair-brushing) or talon na zhvachku (coupon for chewing gum).

The children who drew these coupons in the mid-1980s are just now reaching voting age.