The cold war not only influenced the ideology and military sector of the Soviet Union, but served as an engine that jumpstarted its consumer economy — in particular, the food industry. In an article published in the journal Russian History, HSE historian Elena Kochetkova traces the development of the Soviet dairy industry and the production of dairy packaging in the post-war period. Her article recounts how milk became a staple of state propaganda and how Tetra Pak packaging came to be used in the USSR.
After World War II, many countries made rapid advancements in the chemical industry, as well as the related industries of pulp-and-paper, textiles, food, and others. This industrial growth prompted countries to compete with each other in terms of their consumption levels and quality of life. The USA and countries of Western Europe became world leaders in this regard.
The Eastern Bloc, too, began to put greater focus on increasing the domestic demand for consumer goods and improving standards of living. However, countries of the socialist camp first had to overcome the disadvantages inherent to a planned economy, such as chronic shortages, poor quality, and meager selection of goods.
Starting in the mid-1950s, the USSR showed its first signs of consumption growth. However, it was generally still much lower than in the West. Some researchers believe that Soviet products were characterized by inner quality, but not style, beauty, convenience, or ergonomic comfort. In their view, products were created solely as utilitarian products, designed to perform certain functions.
Others, however, point out that Soviet specialists, at least in the 1960s, did consider the aesthetic side of products, such as their appearance and design. The policy of Nikita Khrushchev opened a new phase of Western-style consumption. It became clear that not just the product itself is important, but its packaging and supply. This change is especially noticeable in the technological evolution of the production and distribution of milk and dairy products.
In pre-revolutionary Russia, the dairy industry was concentrated mainly in the production of butter and cheese. Until 1917, its production reached 2 million tons per year, 95% of which was cheese. Cheese factories were mainly located in Siberia and the Baltic States.
During the first decades of Soviet rule, milk production exceeded that of the pre-revolutionary period by 20 times.
‘Milk had traditionally been one of the staple foods in Russia, and when the Bolsheviks came to power, the issue of milk consumption became a part of their ideological agenda. Increasing consumer demand for it became an important issue since it enabled the state to produce a sought-after product,’ notes Kochetkova.
According to Soviet statistics, milk factories produced 1.3 million tons of milk in 1940 and 8.3 million tons of milk in 1960. Under Krushchev, large enterprises such as the Ostankovsky and Ochakovsky dairy plants and the Cherkizovsky dairy plant were opened. All in all, from 1959 to 1964, dairy production increased by 15%. If the country had about 200 dairy plants in 1940, by 1960 they had 307.
After World War II, the Soviet Union began an active propaganda campaign for milk and dairy products. Special emphasis was placed on the scientifically proven benefits of their consumption. Cities hosted special events where medical workers told visitors about the value of milk and its beneficial properties in combating various diseases. In addition, workers employed in hazardous industries were given half a liter of milk a day.
‘In endeavoring to produce more milk, the state under Krushchev, on the one hand, sought to produce a basic food product, and, on the other hand, sought to compete with Western countries. Winning the competition would show that Soviet agriculture and production were strong and that the Soviet people ate well,’ says the researcher.
In light of the appeal of the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Part of the Soviet Union (CPSU) to ‘catch up and surpass the USA in milk and meat production’, propaganda promoting the consumption of milk and dairy products became especially prevalent. This propaganda brought about changes in both the dairy industry itself as well as in the production of glass containers and other packaging.
As for milk consumption, in the 1960s, some Soviet experts predicted an increase by the end of the decade to 0.5 liters per person per day. After the end of the Khrushchev era, the real level of consumption was lower than expected, but nonetheless higher than that in the US. In 1989, the United States consumed 263 kg of milk annually per capita compared to 378 kg in the USSR.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the range of dairy products in Russia expanded significantly. New dairy products such as fermented baked milk (riazhenka), curd paste (tvorozhnaia pasta), chocolate glazed curd bars, and processed cheese appeared.
‘The emergence of new types of products was made possible with advances in production technology, and, no less significant, the advent of chemistry in the food industry. At the same time, some types of milk had been known in the world much earlier. For example, processed cheese started being produced at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not produced in the USSR until the 1930s. After the efforts of the Khrushchev leadership and the expansion of consumption in the 50s-60s, we got the famous “Wave” and “Friendship” processed cheeses,’ explains Elena Kochetkova.
In 1968, the Soviet dairy industry produced 93 types of products. However, they were only available to consumers in large cities. While city dwellers enjoyed a more or less varied diet, the main form of nourishment in small towns and rural areas continued to be bread and potatoes.
In developed countries, scientific and technological progress had led to the use of antibiotics and other chemical components in agriculture as well as in the food industry. In the Soviet Union, however, the level of implementation of scientific research was lower than in the West. Khrushchev’s policy therefore sought to increase the role of science, especially chemistry, in technological processes.
In Western countries, paper milk packages were coming into wider and wider use. They were considered to be more practical than glass bottles, and they kept the product fresher at room temperature for longer.
The development of the packaging industry in the West presented a challenge for the Soviet Union. In the USSR, the pulp and paper industry in the late 1950s was poorly developed.
In a report on the state of the pulp and paper industry, Soviet experts from the Central Research Institute for the Pulp and Paper Industry (TsNIIB) and the State Economic Council reported a significant lag behind the West: the USSR did not produce many types of paper. This was especially true of cardboard packaging, which competing countries produced in a variety of forms. This type of packaging was used for milk, eggs, frozen foods, ice cream, and much more.
The joint report also provided statistics on paper consumption. In 1959, the USSR consumed an average of 15 kg of paper per person, while the US consumed 188 kg, Sweden consumed 105 kg, England consumed 94 kg, and France consumed 73 kg.
The Soviet pulp and paper industry could not cope with the growing production of the food industry. In stores, most products were sold without packaging, despite its importance if only for sanitation purposes.
In 1959, the CPSU Central Committee decided to take measures to overcome its lag in the pulp and paper industry. The decree was followed by investment, the opening of new enterprises, and technological development. Soviet scientists and engineers planned to catch up with the West by improving the technology involved in combining paper and polymers. It was calculated that polymers would give packaging the necessary properties to preserve the quality of the food and increase its shelf life.
The question was, which is better to use: a glass container or a paper package with polymer coating? Economically, the latter was less profitable. The production of one bottle cost 0.9 kopecks, and a paper package cost 1.5 kopecks. However, from the standpoint of practical convenience for producers and consumers, paper packaging was preferable. Due to its weight and dimensions, it allowed producers to reduce labor costs threefold during production and fourfold during implementation.
In 1960, more than 67% of glass bottles would break in transit only in Moscow. And broken glassware was difficult to recycle.
Despite the advantages of paper packaging, by the end of the 1960s, 80% of milk in the Soviet Union continued to be produced in glass bottles, and in 1975, 60% was still produced in this manner. Paper milk packages accounted for only 20% of milk packaging in 1969 and 30% in 1970.
For comparison, the share of glass containers in the USA was 12% in 1969 and 7% in 1975. In 1969, paper packaging made up 77% of the market.
In Sweden, home of the Tetra Pak packaging company, 99% of the milk was sold in paper packaging in 1969. Milk stored in glass bottles accounted for only 1% of sales.
In the USSR, numerous experiments for creating paper packaging similar to the American kind—a sample of which was obtained by specialists of TsNIIB in 1947. It was assumed that Goznak (a conglomerate of paper and printing factories and mints) and the Volodarsky Paper Mill would be able to figure it out. However, in the end, Soviet developers were forced to admit that none of the factories in the USSR could produce paper that would meet the standards of the foreign sample. Only after the modernizing German machinery from 1905 could the Volodarsky Paper Mill make paper packaging suitable for milk.
In 1967, work commenced on the development of special packaging paper for butter. Until that time, it was customary to sell it wrapped in parchment, which did not protect the product from light and air. Parchment kept the butter suitable for use no longer than three days. After this time, it would become covered in a yellow film and acquire an unpleasant taste.
In the 1960s, many Western countries introduced food production requirements. The rules stated that their packaging should not allow water, gas, grease, air, or odor to pass through.
Soviet engineers developed new packaging for butter, combining parchment paper and foil, which was similar to the packaging used in Austria. Meanwhile, work was carried out in various Soviet institutes to create packaging materials for other types of products.
Soviet consumers responded in different ways to the new paper milk packaging. Some liked its convenience and practicality. Others didn’t like the fact that with paper packaging you cannot see the product you are buying. In addition, the quality of the Soviet packing paper was low. Due to poor sealing, milk often leaked. This was due to the quality of the raw materials and the overall backwardness of the packaging industry. Some Soviet manufacturers believed that only technology imported from the West could correct the situation. In their opinion, there was no point in pursuing their own experiments and research into packaging production, which was already widespread in other countries.
Soviet specialists learned about the success of Tetra Pak, a Swedish company that gained authority not only in Sweden, but France, Italy, Germany, Japan and other countries. The company also came to their attention in industry magazines. During the Cold War, professional publications served as a kind of advertising platform to showcase company achievements to one’s competitors. Publications about Tetra Pak, appearing in the journal Dairy Industry, were mainly aimed at selling the company's equipment. Milk packages were simply shown as an illustration of the equipment’s work. In particular, the ads stated that milk in Tetra Pak packaging is sterile and retains its freshness for up to four weeks at room temperature. Since the majority of Soviet citizens did not have reliable refrigerators, this advantage of the packaging was very important.
In addition, the Swedish company asserted that its equipment reduces noise and improves sanitation conditions in production. This was also important, since in the early 1960s, intestinal bacteria were detected at several dairy farms. The issue of health standards began to receive increased attention, and in 1973, at the ministerial level, a proposal was made to ban dairy plants from producing milk in tanks.
Milk in metal canisters (bidony) and cisterns began to symbolize backwardness, while milk in paper packaging came to embody progressiveness.
In 1959, the first Tetra Pak machines in the USSR for producing 0.5- and 0.25-liter milk packages were installed at the Cherkizovsky Dairy Plant. They produced up to 5,800 packs per hour.
In 1963, 12 Soviet factories were producing milk in Tetra Pak packs. In 1972, 1.1 million tons of milk was produced in paper packaging. However, their share increased more slowly than planned. In 1973, the new packaging accounted for less than 50% of the market instead of the expected 95-97%.
In the 1960s, Soviet enterprises gradually began to produce packaging for various dairy products, using foreign equipment or copying Western designs. From 1966 to 1970, about 33 types of new packaging were developed under experimental conditions.
Paper packaging fully displaced glassware only in the 2000s; it was only at this time that drinks sold in paper packaging made up 85% of the Russian market. Tetra Pack and its later modified versions played a significant role in this process.
* This research will be continued as part of the collective project, ‘The Material World of Late Soviet Society in Cold War Conditions: Technological Innovations in Production and Representation of Consumer Goods’, supported by the Russian Science Foundation.