How did people live in the USSR? This idea is quite interesting for those who heard a lot of jokes or mysteries about this time. Most people feel happy living in Soviet Russia and now if the whole family reunite, there is one person that keeps saying: “It was better in the USSR…” I was always confused by this phrase. Why was it better? And is it really true?
So I have decided to find out what kind of things people admire and what they wish did not exist in Soviet Russia.
The first interviewee is Dmitri.
Date of birth: 1974
“I lived in the USSR from birth until 10th grade. I extremely liked our free education and free sports clubs, everyone could attend it, not like now… you have to pay for everything. I loved living in the USSR, people had an idea, they were kinder and more sympathetic, but actually, every period has pros and cons, we have to benefit from it not destroy it.
What I admire the most about this period is its people. How our country revived from The Second World War, how our brave parents survived in such destruction…Amazing! By the way, modern developments are based on soviet’s drawings.
However, there, in the USSR, we were faceless, we did not have enough room for creativity. Moreover, goods were in short supply. In large cities like Moscow and Saint Petersburg people had everything but in the periphery, almost nothing, even to buy sausages, cheese and condensed milk my parents and I had to go to Petersburg to buy this food. The third problem is propaganda, the government said that Europe-bad, the USSR-good.”
Date of birth: 1970
“We had student cards and could have free rides on public transport. And now? We had huge scholarships, we could live on this money, and now? There is one thing that I hated in the USSR was Lenin’s Mausoleum…”
Date of birth: 1971
“I spent my childhood and youth in the USSR. It was such a nice time. I remember what people were like kind, goal-oriented, welcoming and responsive, also I can say that the school program was different, it was gripping and, oh, teachers, they were so nice to us, as our second mum. The most pleasant fact was that young specialists had a job too (It is so rare nowadays!) and an apartment was a gift from the government, it could not upset me, of course, I remember when my mother was given a huge flat, we all had our own rooms and enormous halls!
To be honest, what I was surprised the most is the fact that the USSR consisted of 15 republics, but we live quite harmoniously. I woke up every morning knowing that everything was fine.
I really miss our nature: flowers in the garden, meadows and valleys…nostalgia.”
Date of birth: 1978
“I fondly remember these years, these people, they seemed to be kinder. Once my grandparents took me outside on the Day of the Great October Revolution and I enjoyed listening to patriotic music so much. I was impressed with the balloons and paper flowers. After the demonstration, everyone went to see each other.
I would like to say that we had better forest protection. We did not have “entrepreneur” barbarously destroying the forest for a quick buck.”
After asking some people about their life in the USSR and memories about their past, I have realized how much people loved this time. We can always find pros and cons in every period.
But let’s face up to the real facts. These were memories of people who lived in the 70’s and 80’s – the most comfortable years in the Soviet period. So what about the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s? The years of total disrespect towards the people.
The government considered itself free to threaten and manipulate people, and, of course, it led to dire consequences. The citizens did not organize riots and strikes because they knew that they would be sent to prison and their families would have problems.
Gulags were a nightmare for Soviet people too. It was a Soviet system of controlling prisons and camps. However, among dangerous criminals, ‘ordinary’ people could be found, who were sent there because they had said something against the government or had done something provocative. To learn more about gulags it is better to read “One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
Young people could not even enjoy being fashionable. After the Great Patriotic War teenagers were extremely interested in fashion but they could not look stylish. First and foremost, the government did not accept any passion about fashion and creativity. Any manifestation of individualism was not acceptable in the communist ideology. Stilyagi (the followers of western culture were called Stilyagi and can be translated as style hunters) were constantly humiliated by mass media and, sometimes, people cut the stilyagi’s hair or tore their clothes. The Post-War period was not easy – there were not a lot of clothes (especially fashionable ones) in the USSR.
In order to properly understand Russian opinions on living in the Soviet Union, we must take a look at it from today’s Russian point of view. After the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union in particular, one of the worst world dictatorships of all time, Russia didn’t become a democratic country, unlike other post-communist countries mainly located in Central Europe. Instead Vladimir Putin, accompanied by a group of Russian oligarchs, seized the absolute power and transformed the country into an autocratic regime based on the oppression of real political opposition, kleptocracy, corruption, nationalism, militarism, censorship, spreading fake-news and aggression. Why? Russians have never experienced real democracy defending fundamental human rights and freedoms. Hence, because of their lack of historical experience with democratical principles, Russia is ruled in the spirit of absolutism.
Over the years of Putin’s reign, all the Kremlin Men, as they are nicknamed by Mikhail Zygar, an independent Russian author and journalist whose private TV channel was banned by the regime, created a sophisticated system of propaganda. It was distinctive for its militarism associated with the Russian WW2 legacy, religious conservatism and defence of an undemocratic way of rule. Putin and his advisors combined the heritages of the orthodox Church, communism, tsarism and nationalism to create a modern totalitarian country. Russians are brought up militantly as followers of the WW2 soldiers. Russians rarely speak about WW2. Instead of that term, they remember it as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ which just emphasizes nationalism in the Russian Federation. It’s a fact that the Soviet people defended their homeland against the cruel Nazi invaders at that time. Nobody questions their courage. However, is it good to build your national identity on a bloodshed called WW2? Let’s say that the war meant a change for the Soviet people who must have experienced an extreme agony during this world carnage. The problem is that we can’t say that since there was no change for the people.
Soldiers who got to ‘the West’, as Central Europe is seen by Russians and other nations which lived in the Soviet Union, were sent to gulags because they might spread some information about the democratic part of Europe. That’s a fair reward for risking your life for your homeland. Stalinist terror which had begun in the 1930s continued after the war until the death of this feared leader. Being judged, persecuted, tortured and eventually murdered for having their own opinions was a part of living in the Soviet Union in all of its eras – and it’s a part of living in the Russian Federation as well.
It’s true that, as these witnesses state, the 1970s and 1980s represent the more tolerant epoch in the history of the Soviet Union. However, would people from other democratic countries enjoy living in the Soviet Union at that time? The answer is simple – No! People were still imprisoned in gulags for absolute banalities from our democratic point of view. Vadim Nikolaevich Delaunay was a Russian poet who participated in the 1968 Red Square demonstration against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. This native Muscovite was sent to a Siberian gulag for holding a banner For your freedom and ours. He spent almost three years there. If you want to know more about living in the Soviet Union in the early 1970s, read his book called ‘Portraits in a Barbed Wire Frame’.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union commenced a pointless war in Afghanistan which cost the lives of thousands of Soviet soldiers. If you seek more information about that conflict and its influence on the lives of average Soviets, take a look at the book named ‘Boys in Zinc’ by the Nobel-Prize holder Svetlana Alexievich who comes from Belarus which was a part of the Soviet Union. However, her book contains stories of people from all parts of the Soviet Union. In 1986, one of the greatest nuclear disasters took place in Ukraine. Because of the Chernobyl accident, an immense number of people died or were affected for the rest of their lives. Nevertheless, because of the Soviet leadership’s reaction to this accident, many thousands of other people died or their lives were shortened significantly. This tragedy was exquisitely captured in another Alexievich’s book called ‘Voices from Chernobyl’ (titled ‘Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future’ in the UK).
The death of one person is intolerable. The Soviet regime destroyed millions of innocent lives. Is this era really worth glorifying? In my opinion, it is particularly difficult for Russians to take the necessary step back to look at the Soviet history from some distance. Russian authorities deformate the people’s minds with propaganda based on lies. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you meet a Russian person with strange opinions. It isn’t their fault. In order to better understand the whole issue, I recommend you to read ‘The Road to Unfreedom’ by a renowned American historian Timothy Snyder or ‘All the Kremlin’s Men’ by afore-mentioned Mikhail Zygar.
Vojtěch Deliš, the WH leader