Russia: Chewing Gum in the Soviet Union

Global Voices Online
Monday, November 12, 2007

Like a million other things, chewing gum wasn't freely available in the Soviet Union: a true defitsit item, zhvachka was not something to be taken for granted - especially if you were a kid.

In the post translated below (RUS), LJ user tvoron recalls a childhood experience that appears comical now, but must have been rather traumatic at the time, 30 years ago:

In 1977, when our class was preparing for the "Farewell to the ABC Book" holiday, a group of French visitors arrived to our school.

It happened during the long break. The French were walking down the hallway, giving presents to the kids.

The French knew very well what the kids lacked, what kept them from being totally happy. We lacked chewing gum...

Actually, some of us could've been missing it, but I, aged seven and a half, haven't even tried it once, even though I was rather knowledgeable about the subject and had even seen it more than once in the possession of my friend Natasha: with obvious pleasure, she was sending Tutti-Frutti sticks - bought by her parents [on checks at Beryozka store] - into her mouth. Natasha wasn't greedy: sometimes she'd take a little white ball out of her mouth and offer it to me to finish chewing on it. But, for some reason, I was too squeamish...

Finally, though, the great moment arrived. The French were offering sacred stuff to the kids. Some received dragées, others - stick gum, still others - little balls, and some - little cubes... And I got a strange flat round thing that looked like a little medal, from a smiling elderly lady...

Chocolate medallions wrapped in gilded foil weren't new to me, but it was for the first time in my life that I was seeing a medallion-shaped chewing gum. Well, that made it even more interesting. I tried to scratch the foil off the coveted chewing gum, but in vain. And only when my teeth squeaked in a mean way a couple times as they touched the little medal did I realize that it wasn't a chewing gum. It was some junk with a profile of some unknown guy engraved on it, that's what it was...

I sat shocked throughout the last class and the whole time after school, and only in the evening, when I entered the apartment, I wept out loud. I was bemoaning all the hopes that hadn't come true and didn't listen to my parents' consolation attempts. And I absolutely didn't care about the anniversary medal issued to mark 200 years since the birth of Napoleon...

Here's part of the discussion of this sad story:


[...] The pseudo-zhvachka is still there, by the way - at a closer look, it turned out to be extremely nice ;)


Yes, that's what I wanted to ask: what's become of it?
Today's first-graders wouldn't cry if given a medallion, I guess, quite the opposite :)


It's been lying in a box for 30 years already. Sometimes I take it out and look at it.


Poor child.


It's okay. My parents, deeply affected, bought me a whole pack later, from the Arabs at the [Patrice Lumumba Peoples' Friendship University dorm]. [...]


[...] Someone gave me a bubble gum cigarette in 1966, when I was in the second grade, and I was totally excited. I was extremely proud, and the girls envied me. I was biting off small pieces and chewed and chewed and chewed on them, and then I kept this bubble gum in a candy wrapper for a long time... :)


Oh, how familiar it is: to chew - to save it - then to chew again. Bubble gum cigarettes, they were made in Czechoslovakia, no?


I don't remember - I mean, I don't know. A girl named Irochka Ushakova gave it to me. Her parents worked either at the [Ministry of Foreign Trade] or the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs].


How horrible. It's nothing but a tragedy when you're seven.

One of my mama's patients presented her with a large pack of chewing gum, and mama used to give me one every Saturday after checking my [grades] - and only if every single grade of the week was an A, I'd receive this joy. There was an educational element present in it. But from the health point of view it was harmful, because I used to chew this gum for three or four and sometimes even five days, since I knew that I wouldn't get another one until next Saturday. And it's terrible unhealthy - you can only chew one gum for half an hour, or an hour at the longest, and not for over 70 hours, and it ended up turning black and melted away like burned cellophane, and, most likely, turned into some horrible poison.


To learn more about chewing gum in the Soviet Union, read Alex Novikovski's pieces at Gum Wrapper Times: the Online Chewing Gum and Wrappers Collector's Newsletter - here and here.

To see the wrappers of Soviet-made chewing gums, click here.

A YouTube video of the Soviet-time Estonian chewing gum commercial is here.

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