I was born in a line. My mother was in a maternity hospital at the time, waiting to be registered, when her labor pains started. Unfortunately, she had forgotten to bring along her passport - the internal passport required of all adult Soviet citizens. My father raced back home to get it, but by the time he reached my mother again, I had already been born in the corridor.
Since then, standing in line has been a basic part of my existence. I met my wife while standing in line for a train ticket, and not too long after that we found ourselves in another long line of couples waiting to get married.
I was only a boy when I saw my first line of people waiting to be arrested. Men and wome packed their underwear and some bread and stood interminably, sleeplessly, docilely, waiting to be taken into custody. Then there was another waiting line for the investigation of their cases.After the trial they stood in line again, waiting to be shipped to the deportation point, and finally in a fourth line for shipment to the labor camp. Inside the camp, there were many quite ordinary, normal lines: for a hunk of bread, say, or a mug of water.
Today, our Soviet newspapers are filled with photos of endless lines of American cars waiting to get gas. How do we react to such scenes? To be frank, we're thrilled. You see, we Russians love lines. Standing in line and waiting our turn is not only an occupation and a hobby with us, its a way of life.
If you happen to be a writer and would like to join the Union of Soviet Writers, you'll be in line for quite a while. I waited in that line for six years. My friend called me on the phone one day and said, "Hey, listen, I hear they're sellin Mandelstam." (Osip Mandelstam, perhaps the greatest Soviet poet, died in in one of Stalin's labor camps. His works were banned for decades.) I grabbed a taxi. In 20 minutes I was in the middle of a milling crowd near a closed bookshop reserved exclusively for members of the Writers' Union. The person in charge of the line wrote a number on the palm of my hand: 384. For half a day I waited for my copy of Mandelstam. The last copy went to 381.
The rest of us all went home. The next day, it goes without saying, officers and high officials of the Writers' Union came inconspicuously to the shop, where the salespeople wrapped their books under the counter, so that ordinary writers (to say nothing of ordinary readers) wouldn't see what was going on.
When a writer dies, his obituary has to wait in line to be published in the newspapers. The Communist Reginal Pary Committee will give permission for publication if the deceased behaved properly in his lifetime. The funeral may have been held three weeks earlier, but not until now does the public learn of the event. Every newspaper in Moscow has the right to print death announcements, but in proportion. Two Russians, let's say for the sake of discussion, to one Jew. If you should ever happen to notice a copy of Vechernyaya Moskva lying around, take a look at page 4: the dead Russians are on top and the dead Jews are underneath.
Excuse me. My reflections on dying sometimes crop up out of turn, and the censor who resides permanently inside my head cannot permit that. So let's turn to the lines of the living.
We Soviet citizens are so accustomed to standing in line that we cannot conceive of living in any other way. We stand in line for new movies. (So do you, I'm told.) We also stand in line for old movies. My wife suddenly had an inexplicable craving to see an American film in English. She had to buy her ticket a month in advance. She stood in line for it for six hours, and then came home in tears, without the ticket. There had been scuffles for places in the line, outbursts of anger, a physical fight.
If one of our provincial citizens makes a trip to Moscow to pay a visit to the Lenin Mausoleum and reaches it by sunrise, he may be out by 5 p.m. I once registered myself in a list containing the names of people applying to purchase a refrigerator, with the hope of receiving it in three years. After waiting seven years to buy a car, I received a postcard: "No. 83746.Your automobile has arrived. Payment in advance by 7:30 p.m. today." First of all I stood in line waiting to buy tires for the car, and then in a second line for a service contract. I was deliriously happy anyway, because I had already been waiting for 13 years to move out of our communal apartment into a separate one with our own kitchen and our own toilet.
Kitchens make me think of fruits and vegetables. Our kitchen was filled with them this past winter, but they were all hanging on the wall. Superb food photographs from an American wall calendar - asparagus, strawberries, grapes: a luscious closeup for each month, with a recipe at the bottom of the page. It gave us an idea. Why not buy ourselves a gadget called sokouyzhimalka - a juicer? One slight problem: the virtual disappearance of fresh produce in Moscow state stores between October and June. Sporadic shipments of apples from Bulgaria or oranges from Morocco which vanish almost siultaneously with their arrival. Half-frozen, half-rotted cabbages and potatoes. But carrots might be called a staple. Not those nice clean carrots that come sealed in the plastic packages you complain about so bitterly, but old ones unearthed from long storage, wrinkled and black with ancient dirt, recognizable only by their general outline. Still, our heads were full of visions of bright orange carrot juice, brimming with vitamins against the rigors of winter. That mental picture eased the strain of waiting in line for the juicer.
Luckily, we were spared the necessity of standing in the carrot line. Carrots disappeared from the shops this winter.
Every woman knows that if there is no line standing outside a shop, there is nothing inside worth buying. But the converse does not necessarily apply. In former times we used to stand in line for specific items. Nowadays one goes for a walk and sees a long line stretching down the pavement. Old women, those traditional Russian bubushkas, have brought their own stools and are sitting outside the shop.
"Tell me, auntie, what are they giving away?" (Meaning, "What are they selling?")
"Then what are you waiting for?"
"Well...maybe they'll throw something out to us." (Meaning, "The possibility exists that something - anything - might be offered for sale.")
The technique of standing in line is a special skill. There are women who manage to be in six lines at three shops and one department store at the same time, and still turn up at each place in time to get the coveted article.
The ultimate art is getting what you want without standing in line at all. Deputies to the Supreme Soviet and Heroes of the Soviet Union are entitled to this exemption, and notices are posted in the shops to that effect. As to higher officials in general, since there are so many of them, allocations are set in advance for certain categories of individuals. Their chauffeurs, secretaries and maids go to special distribution centers and serve as stand-ins for the VIPs. VIPs are busy pondering our future and cannot waste time standing in line for caviar, French wines, Armenian cognac and out-of-season fruits flown in from exotic places. Ordinary people stand in line for ordinary potatoes. The most outspoken ones look back at the length of the potato line and sometimes mutter insolent things about VIPs.
There are certain very simple types of lines. For these, one may even order by telephone. If you have no telephone, there's no cause for concern. The waiting list for a new phone is no more than five to seven years.
The right to stand in line can be inherited. If a father dies, his son is allowed to register for the father's right to buy a rug or an article of furniture. The son must put in an appearance at the shop once a month to keep his name on the registry list.
A foreigner once asked me, "But why should lines exist in your country at all? Your population is so vast - couldn't you hire three saleswomen instead of one?" He didn't understand that three saleswomen would sell out the supply of sausage in 30 minutes - and then what would the shop do for the rest of the day?
I think someone must be interested in the perpetuation of lines. Physicists use the term "dissipation of energy." A line is an ingenious discovery in the field of dissipation of human energy. Life without lines would be unimaginable, even frightening. What would people do with themselves all day if they didn't have to stand in line?
Now you understand why we are overjoyed when we learn about gas lines forming in the West as a result of your energy crisis. We are proud of this cultural contribution of ours and pleased to pass it on to other countries.
I've saved the most interesting line of all for last. That's the one at OVIR, the Soviet Visas and Emigration Office, the department which issues exit visas or denials of them to persons wishing to emigrate to another country of their choice. You'll find plenty of sub-lines at OVIR: one for people waiting to receive their applications to fill out, another to find out from the supervisor how to fill them out, a third to hand the applications in to the authorities, a fourth to try to find out when permission will be granted to hand them in.
I stood in that line for six months while my background was investigated and researched. The answer was "No." During the years following my first "no," I have been standing in another special line waiting my turn. Theis particular line has its own private clubs and its own rumors. It is rumored, for example, that those who do not wish to leave will be persuaded to leave, and that those who do wish to leave will stand in line forever.
I ran into an old friend yesterday in a little lane near GUM, the State Department Store. We noticed an exceptionally long line waiting outside a door marked "Ladies' Room." There must have been 200 females there: young girls, women, grandmothers, all dancing with impatience to get to the other side of that door. Suddenly, a middle-aged woman with an expression of glazed bewilderment on her face broke into our conversation.
"Are you at the end of the line?" she asked me.
"Who - me?"
But without waiting for an answer, she shouted happily, "I'm next!" And there she stood behind me - on the alert. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Allen Carroll for The Washington Post; Picture 1, Yuri Druzhnikov had eight books for and about children published in the Soviet Union before July 1977, when he applied for emigration. Since then, three book manuscripts already approved or set in type have been rejected, a play withdrawn and meetings with his readers forbidden; Picture 2, no caption