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  • Most of your time doing research in government archives is spending days not finding a lot of the sexy blood and guts stuff, but mostly sifting through dry, nuts and bolts bureaucratic paperwork. Cotton production figures, irrigation construction plans, the mechanization of the countryside. While not as exciting as firing on religious processions, killing village commies, or bandits swooping down from the mountains, this stuff can be just as important as the fun stuff.

    During the first years of the Soviet Union, the current countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia were a part of the Transcaucasus Federation within the USSR, more commonly known in Russian as the ZSFSR. Looking through the through the files of the ZSFSR party central committee, I came across a document that had nothing to do with my research, but I couldn't pass up. It seems there was a lack of toilet soap in the ZSFSR in the summer of 1930.

    In June of that year, there was such a shortage of soap that the problem landed on the desk of the central committee. "Users began the intensive buying up of toilet soap in the cooperatives and other organizations...", and there were no measures in place "to stop the stir on the market." What could be done?

    The central committee called on another bureaucracy to create a report in two days explaining "the reason for the delay of the heavy stocks of soap stored" by another bureaucracy. The central committee then called on yet another bureaucracy "to consider all the reserves of toilet soap both in storage and in cooperative organizations, and to distribute it from the point of view of softening the crisis..."

    In the middle of 1930 there was absolute chaos in the countryside, with a virtual civil war going on between the peasants and the state during Stalin’s First Five-year Plan. Most people would consider soap one of the basic necessities of life, not something which could be done without. So at a time of incredible uncertainty, people tried to buy up as much soap as possible before the shelves emptied, which, of course, exacerbated the problem. When I lived in Russia in 1998 as the ruble collapsed, the shelves emptied of sugar and flour instantly, the basic stables of existence. Even in America, after an earthquake in California or a hurricane in Louisiana, grocery store shelves can quickly empty of almost everything.

    This also gives us an example of the maze of bureaucracies that made up the Soviet Union, something that has continued to this day. All governments are a collection of bureaucracies, but anybody that had dealt with the bureaucracies in Russia know that theirs is something special. The Soviet state was a bureaucratic state par excellence, often to the detriment of getting anything done. Fortunately today there is plenty of soap to be had in the old Soviet Union (the benefits of the free market?).

    Source -- RGASPI f. 17, op. 23, d. 35, l. 14

    The seal has ZSFSR in Armenian, Russian, Georgian and Azerbaijani, with "Proletariat of the World Unite" in Russian at the bottom.
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