Growing up under Totalitarian Regime
I was asked many times, since I moved to Canada “What was it like growing up under totalitarian regime in Russia?”.
The first time I’ve heard this question, I probably had a puzzled look on my face. I just never thought of my childhood in that way.
Well, what can I say? It was fine. It was more than fine. It was great!
First of all, I was a kid. I didn’t know we had a totalitarian regime in Russia. We had a Socialism. And as far as I was concerned, it was much better than Capitalism.
There was a poster in my school’s library with an image of a homeless person on the streets of New York. Each time I walked by it, I was wondering – how does it happen that people end up on the street? And why nobody was helping them? It just seemed so awful, that I was even questioning if that was true or if things were slightly exaggerated. At that time, I haven’t seen a homeless person in my life.
In addition, there were always reports on TV about people losing their jobs in US, not having a medical insurance and not getting any help from their government. We didn’t have those problems. We all thought Capitalism was evil, and felt very lucky to be living under Socialism.
In comparison, we had 100% employment in Russia at that time (early 80s). Apparently, not working was illegal‚ so we never saw homeless people (other than on those posters) on the street. Crime rate was low and every citizen had access to free education and free medical system. Life was pretty good, very stable and predictable, even boring. (which reminds me of life in Canada at the time I moved here – 1996)
Everybody knew each other in our neighbourhood. There were always ladies sitting on a bench outside of their houses, knitting something or chatting with their neighbours – a type of Neighbourhood Watch, I guess. Parents never worried about leaving kids to play all day outside. Nobody locked their doors. People trusted and helped each other a lot.
Because we didn’t have rich and poor, we didn’t have bad parts in the city (priority neighbourhoods, as they are called in Canada ). All areas of the city were good and safe.
Exchanging food and cooking for each other was pretty common in those days. I remember we never had a full set of dishes in our cupboard, because most of the times they were at our neighbour’s house. At the same time, we had many other dishes in the cupboard that were not ours. It was normal to knock on your neighbour’s door and ask for milk or sugar, or go to your friend’s kitchen and help yourself with some food.
It was very much a communal living, described by Malcolm Gladwell in the Outliers, where he talks about Roseto‚ a tiny Italian community in Pennsylvania with very low rate of heart disease in people under age of 65. After studying this community and trying to figure out what was special about them – the dietary practices, geography etc. At the end, doctors have concluded that the secret of Roseto was Roseto itself. They saw how close people were, with three generations living under the same roof, how people cooked for each other in their back yards, stopped to grit their neighbours. That’s pretty much how I remember living in Russia. It was a self-sufficient and well-connected community, protected from the outside world.
Religion in Russia was forbidden. Ironically, we were told that we should learn to think for ourselves and don’t get brainwashed by religious fanatics. Though, you’d have a hard time finding religious fanatics in my town. Only old ladies were going to the church, and even they did it quietly. Lenin called religion “A Poison for the Masses”, and that phrase was frequently used on Soviet era posters (like the one you see above) .
Sports, education, hard work and being a better citizen were also highly promoted by the state. You could see Soviet propaganda posters everywhere you went.
Another thing I remember is absence of products in stores. Maybe that’s why nobody spend as much time shopping or did it as often, as people do it here, in North America.
Looking at Soviet era advertising, you’d wonder why they even bothered creating ads for various products, when there was a shortage of so many of them, and when there was no competition – All industries were owned by the state anyway.
Well, the answer lies in the way Soviet Economy was setup. We had a Planned Economy, which means a certain amount of products was planned to be produced and sold in the next 5 years. Following consumer trends and producing on demand was not possible, thus constant shortages. However, if some products were not selling as planned, ads were created to convince citizens, that they needed to buy more of those products.
We all had to wear uniform in high school. Girls, a simple black dress and a white apron on top of the dress. Guys‚ black pants and a jacket with white shirt. It was a big deal if a girl showed up in school wearing a lipstick or a makeup. She’d be called out to go and wash her face and the whole class would have to wait for her to come back. It was pretty embarrassing.
“School is for learning and not for showing off. You are all equals here.” – I remember the teacher would say.
They were very strict in school. Despite that, I managed to skip classes here and there, was frequently arguing with teachers, and spent a lot of time doodling and daydreaming in class. After all, who can take 2 hours of “The History of the Communist Party” or “The Marxism/Leninism Ideology”?
Since you couldn’t buy nice clothes in stores, the only thing that was left, is to make them yourself. So sewing, knitting, crocheting and all kinds of crafts were very popular in Russia at that time. That probably, in part, explains my inspiration for creating a marketplace for crafters.
Growing up, me and my brother had a lot of handmade clothes. My grandma was making wool herself, and then she knitted socks and mittens for the whole family. I still have a pair of socks from grandma.
My mom was knitting sweaters and cute baby outfits all her life. She even crocheted her own wedding dress. It was made of a regular white thread, as there was no good yarn at that time. Amazing that her dress looked as good as it did. I am sure it took her forever to make that dress. I remember seeing it when I was younger, but then, with so many moves, it was lost.
I am sure my experience growing up in Russia is not the same, as someone else’s. It probably depends on the geography (Russia is a big country) and the time in history. Maybe I was just lucky to be at the right time and the right place? Maybe being a kid, you idealize everything and don’t notice things that adults notice? Maybe when you have nothing to compare things to, you don’t know any better? I don’t know.
All I know is that Russia now is not how I remember it. Things have changed. Socialism was replaced with wild Capitalism, and a happy communal living is a thing of a past now.
Back then, I often wondered what it’s like living outside of Russia. We were so removed from the outside world, that life in US or in Europe was as unimaginable, as life on Mars.
Well, I am glad I had the chance to experience both.