The Soviet fossils in Ashgabat are strewn over the surface of daily life here. One in particular is the bukhanka. This is the Russian word for “loaf”, as in “loaf of bread”. However, the word is used as a standard sort of measure of the state-subsidized and state-produced bread that fills a lot of stomachs here in the capital of the country with the second largest natural gas field in the world.
During the USSR, a bukhanka was a standard, one kilogram loaf of bread. Stuffed with starch, it was not great but it apparently sold for just kopeks (cents in a ruble). Cheap bread subsidized by the productive areas of the economy, and especially oil exports, was a cornerstone of the USSR’s policies towards the citizen.
Ashgabat’s residents try to catch the bread as it just gets delivered. It is pretty tolerable when fresh, straight from the factory. It is a completely different story just a few hours out of the oven. The crust is tough and chewy with burn marks at the points where the pan sat on the rack. The bread is stacked on a shelf, several deep, and everyone handles this with the same care you might show a shoe box.
It is not possible to blame the bad taste on the handling, though. The gray color of the bread stems from using the worst available flour. This shows itself in the taste and the only way I have been able to eat it was to either dipping in soup or salting each slice, salt having been one of the last corners to cut. And instead of a standard weight of one kilogram, the loaf is at least a third less. And yet, it gets taken off the shelf almost as fast as it is re-stocked by the bread truck’s bread boy.
The reason for the local tolerance to such a shabby product is the price. The state controls the production of the bread and charges a price of four loaves for one manat (which makes each loaf about eight US cents). Consumers come in and grab eight loaves at a time. Those with exact change and just buying the bukhanka effectively have a second check-out line where a flash of the loaves and some tossed coins is enough to walk out. Within an hour, this terrible tasting and poor quality bread is gone. The non-subsidized, but much better quality bread is between four and ten times more expensive. This is the kind I buy with my rich foreigner tastes.
This subsidy and the bread distribution system is a direct carry-over of the Soviet era. The state-owned trucks plying the streets, labeled simply in Turkmen, “Bread”. The state-owned grocery stores stocking the bread keep people satisfied and fed despite their low salaries. Paid for with foreign currency, the bukhanka will continue to fill the shelves and stomachs of a lot of people here in Ashgabat.
Read the first post in this series: Landing in Ashgabat
This post has been written by an expatriate currently working in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.