It’s been 20 years since the winds of change shook Europe, but I still feel there’s a gap of understanding in what the end of communism meant to the people that broke free. Here is my attempt to shed more light on the artificial reality that “a soviet person” lived in.
Having been born in “Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic” during the years of Brezhnev stagnation, I feel obliged to share funny, sad and absurd tales from a USSR – a pathetic oppressive experiment with people’s lives that led nowhere. What was it like growing up in the Eastern block for a kid whose parents were neither a part of nomenklatura nor enemies of the state?
“My address is neither a house nor street, my address is the Soviet Union”, says a popular song of the communist period.
Soviet citizens were supposed to be uniform and standard. We wore uniform uniforms at uniform schools, lived in identical blocks of tiny flats (mostly khrushchovkas) with same pieces of furniture, VEF radios and telephones. We rode identical Škoda trolleybuses, Ikarus busses and Lada, Moskvich and Zaporozhec cars, shopped in univermag department stores and dreamed of toys from detskij mir (children’s world).
Soviet man lived collective life. S/he shared a glass to get carbonated drinks in gazirovka machines or kvas from bright yellow trailer barrels.
Certainly, there were 2 types of people outside the box: members of nomenklatura that were more equal than others and dissidents /”enemies of the state” who were locked up, deported or “treated” in psychiatric hospitals.
The bliss of ignorance
Those protected from the truth had a happy childhood in the soviet “Matrix”. Schoolchildren became octobrists, continued as pioneers with red ties and later on as komsomolcy. Special relationship with comrade Lenin was crowned by becoming a member of the party. We were surrounded by red banners, stars, sickles and hammers, five-year plans, bold slogans and parades with empty speeches.
In the backdrop of all this theatre of absurd, we were playing in the yard, buying ice-cream for the money from returned bottles and watching great cartoons (multiki). We didn’t know that even they were censured to be ideologically correct. Our happy childhoods were overshadowed only by the fact that Americans were always ready to drop a bomb. Nevertheless, civil defence training kept us vigilant.
Communist regime tried to replace Christmas traditions by emphasising New Year’s celebration. Presents were brought by Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), accompanied by Snegurochka (Snow Maiden).
The land of the deficit
Centrally planned Soviet Union was a land of deficit (economic shortage), therefore queuing was an important part of everybody’s, including kids, life. Naturally, those in control of distribution became important and under-counter trade was widespread.
“If you want to live, learn how to dodge”, goes the Soviet saying. And everyone starting with collective farmers and ending with apparatchiks learnt to do that. Directors of hotels, storehouses, canteens and shops could lavish their kids with products their brought home, while nomenklatura got foreign goods in dollar stores.
Getting a car or a flat meant long waiting lists before you’d receive a warrant. The ultimate happiness for a soviet child was eating a banana. They would only appear in stock couple of times a year and you would queue for hours to get them.
Soviet nostalgia: good old days
“Back then it was better”, you can hear even some people of my age say. Sure it was, but we were happy because it was our childhood, not because it was soviet. Some great cartoons, movies, books and songs from the soviet period will always be a part of me.
There is no way I could feel nostalgic about USSR. How can someone happily live in an oppressive dictatorship based on bigger and smaller lies covered up by propaganda and brainwash? Live in oppression, conformism, fear and russification?
Some people claim that we were better off, less materialistic, had free education and medicine. Alas, most of this was illusionary and self-delusionary. Yes, freedom has its price: you have to show initiative, make choices and learn from your mistakes, but it is the only way to true self-realisation.
Next: more on grimaces of soviet life and a portrait of homo sovieticus.
I’ll explain why I feel shivers hearing Soviet anthem (re-introduced by Russia with new lyrics) and seeing people wearing T-shirts with sickle and hammer. Yes, I think creation of the Soviet Union was probably one of the biggest geopolitical catastrophes of the 20th century.