Pondering Life in the USSR

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Insider’s Viewpoint and Observation

By Denis Churilov

I don’t have the direct experience of living in the USSR (I was born literally the day before it got officially dissolved), but I grew up surrounded by people who lived and worked there — virtually all of my relatives, their friends and colleagues, parents of my close friends, etc. We often talked about it, about what the life was like back then, what kind of challenges people had to face, and so on and so forth.

With Russian being my native language, I’ve also been reading lots of historical materials on the subject, including some original documentation, systematically studying it all, so I believe I’ve been able to form a more or less balanced view on the Soviet history.

The life was just different. Of course, the Soviet Union didn’t have all the luxuries and all the great variety of consumer products enjoyed by the people in the Western world (for various reasons that I’m not going to go into today, otherwise it may take things way too far off-topic), there were lots of issues with (often meaningless) bureaucracy, and whatnot, but, taking a look from a wider perspective, the Soviet people still lived better than 80% of the global population.

One of the main positive themes that often comes up when talking about the Soviet Union is that the life was pretty stable and there was a sense of certainty in the future. For instance, a person knew that, after school, he would go to University, get a degree (education, on average, was more than decent, and mostly free!), get a job (which was pretty much guaranteed), build a family (people were marrying at a comparatively young age — early 20s, or so), and live a more or less decent life.

Ordinary citizens had access to public services that would cost thousands of US dollars nowadays — again, things like free education, sport facilities and programs (a school kid could end up becoming a world-class athlete, with the right dedication, without paying anything!), healthcare, various resorts (sanatoriums) that some workers were entitled to. Those were taken for granted.

All my relatives who were born in the post-WWII (the Great Patriotic War, as we call the specific 1941-1945 phase of it) period say that they had a pretty “normal” and happy childhood.

People from older generations say that life became pretty good under Brezhnev, in the 1960s and the 1970s.

Of course, different people would have different opinions and different things to say about the life in the Soviet Union. In my personal experience, it often happens that Russians who despise the USSR the most are those who were born in the the mid-1970s and very early 1980s, and who, thus, absorbed all the Perestroika propaganda in their childhood/youth (and it was, indeed, bad in the mid-to-late 1980s, with economy going through a major crisis, with stereotypical lines and empty shelves becoming common, and the entire government propaganda apparatus turning onto itself, brainwashing people down to psychosis with anti-Soviet narratives — those were the times of true social decay).

There are many things to talk about and there are many nuances to consider, but, I guess, the main point to take away is that the Soviet Union wasn’t this dystopian Mordor-like evil regime that the Western right-wingers often imagine.

Outsider’s Viewpoint and Observation

By Donald Harder

I appreciate Denis’s comments and observations.

I’ve spent the past 16 years living in the post USSR around people who grew up in it too. I’ve developed my own set of observations as a result.

One of the first things that really altered my perspective was the fact that back in 2004 when I first moved to Russia, there was a popular channel on television called Nostalgia. It aired old documentaries and movies and basically footage of life in the USSR.

My Russian language has never really developed far (language is my Achille’s heel), but I could sit and watch for hours, and even if I didn’t understand the words, I could understand from the images the normality of life people in the USSR had.

In many ways, it wasn’t different from the Leave it to Beaver ideal that Americans have about life in post war USA.

My brother in law is a very successful businessman today; the kind that runs companies and has his own driver. But he has deep nostalgia and considers his school boy days the best of his life when all he had to worry about were his studies, since everything, including tuition, his future, etc… were already taken care of.

I tell my wife that Perestroika and Glasnost were color revolutionary slogans and that the USSR was the first real victim of the US-led non-military regime change efforts. She responds with “But we couldn’t travel back then. Now we are free to travel.” I try and invoke China and tell her that reforms could have come from within the USSR, but I think it’s hard for many to arrive at that. It’s human nature I think, we want it all, and we want it now, even if we give up so much to get it.

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