Episode 31: Forbidden Romance

 Audio Link

Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.

This week we will be discussing an unusual memoir by a Romanian named Teodor Flonta, in which he discusses his cross-Iron-Curtain romance with an Italian girl in the late 1960s and early 1970s.    The memoir, called “Paper Rings”, tells the story of how he met his future wife Ariella while she was visiting on a student trip, and of the many obstacles they faced as their romance developed.   As we’ll see, the pervasive effects of living under a broken and corrupt system affected every step of their courtship, though miraculously it all worked out in the end.

At the start of the book, Flonta is a student who works part-time as a propaganda radio announcer for the Romanian government.   When he spots a beautiful Italian girl named Ariella at the International Romance Linguistics and Philology conference, it is love at first sight, at least on his side.    But he is faced with a problem:  how to actually get a chance to speak to her.    Luckily, he is one of a small group of students who might have a chance: 

Contact between us and foreigners, particularly Westerners, was not allowed, unless expressly authorised. Therefore, I felt privileged and lucky and I was smiling on the inside at the thought that I was one of the dozen students with language skills lent by the Dean to the Organising Committee of the congress to help the participants find their way to lecture rooms and to answer their questions. 

Our brief was to avoid talking politics but, if we had to, we were to keep in mind the supremacy of our political system over theirs, by reminding them that there was no exploitation of man over man in our country; that we did not have unemployment as everybody was given a job; and that there was no disruption in our society due to strikes and endless bargaining between workers and factories. Our system was fair to all. We had, therefore, all the freedom we wanted to concentrate on the main task of building a luminous future for everybody, as promised by our leaders so often.

(Kindle loc 261)

Unfortunately, this assignment doesn’t leave much room for small talk or socialization, but Flonta desperately hangs around the conference for the whole week searching for her.   In an amazing stroke of luck, a colleague who has been assigned as Ariella’s personal guide has a scheduling problem, and asks him to fill in.    He finally gets to meet her for real, and they click immediately— he is more infatuated than ever.   Luckily, he has a built-in excuse for lingering at conference events to wait for her:

I was not leaving. I had to stay at my post to see if any of these capitalists left the conference rooms, where they were going, what they were up to, and to alert the authorities into timely action to prevent such foreigners plotting against us. Or… from wanting to befriend us!

(Kindle loc 341)

They get to spend more time together, as he shows her the sights, and have a long conversation about their lives.   Flonta has to be careful what he says, and even casual topics like discussing their groups of friends has strangely political connotations in this context.   Ariella is surprised, for example, to hear that he doesn’t have too many friends.

My world was so different from hers. Many things were upside down, nothing squared properly. How could it be when in our self-proclaimed materialistic society it was the material things we lacked most. It was evident to everybody that the Western world was materially richer than ours. We were all needy, poor by comparison. 

Thus friendship was often limited to an exchange of goods which created a chain of obligations towards each other. We needed each other to survive as the regime cared mostly about what we could not do and could not have. “I have an obligation to do this for him or for her” was what you heard often and that was the cement which bonded people in my world. A life full of obligations and often devoid of sentiment was no fun at all, but it kept us busy. As for exchanging ideas, well, we could take the risk to do that in private, testing the trust of family members and friends.

(Kindle loc 461)

It even occurs to him for a moment that this woman might actually be a Securitate informant, trying to draw out disloyal comments and report them to the secret police— but his feelings for her are so strong that he decides it’s worth the risk.     She asks him about some minor details of Romanian student life, whose answers are normal to him but shocking to someone living in the West:

“Are you allowed to express opinions which are not those of your lecturers, let’s say from older books?” she wondered.

“You need a special permission to consult old books published before communism took over.” “That’s unbelievable.” She barely could restrain herself. “I was aware that people could not have Bibles in Russia, but I thought it was because the regime’s professed atheism. This is news to me,” she continued…

Then she told me she had just joined an organisation created by Catholic priests that aimed to educate people about Russian orthodoxy, to inform about the lack of religious freedom and to contribute in whatever way they could to maintaining a Christian presence in Russia. They organised seminaries with exiled Russian writers and artists and printed books and articles reaching them through samizdat, copies written by hand or cyclostyled. I listened to her in awe.

(Kindle loc 513)

They agree to start writing to each other, which is permitted, though they have to be on constant alert that government censors will read their letters, and look suspiciously on any foreign contact.     He loves hearing from her, though their correspondence also serves as a constant, bitter reminder of the fundamental differences between their lives.   He is mystified why she chooses to continue visiting Communist countries, when she can spend all her time in the luxurious West:

Her freedom to go anywhere she liked made me think. It was the first time that I had talked to a person who told me about things which for us belonged to dreams; they were things that seemed unreal and it was hard for me to imagine what I would have done with all that freedom myself. And then I asked myself why a person would go to Russia, of all places, when there was Paris, Rome, Vienna, London, New York or Sydney to visit…

Although I liked her description of Novgorod, I still hated everything the Soviet Union stood for. I knew she looked at those things she had seen with the eye of a tourist while I was looking at Russia with the eye of a victim. In 1946 the communists had fixed the elections and won by a large majority… any politicians who opposed the elections were arrested and ordinary people who voiced dissent were labelled enemies of the state.   I realised I could not blame Ariella for her feelings. She could not have had the experience that I’d had, nor the experience my father had, of being arrested and tortured in the communist jails just for not agreeing with the regime.

(Kindle loc 944,1015)

She visits a few more times, and after Flonta foolishly blurts out that he’s hoping to marry her someday, it becomes clear that this has moved from a friendship to a romance.    She tries to get him to come visit her in Italy, but this is very challenging:  his father has been labeled a public enemy due to past opposition to the regime, and thus it is almost impossible for him to get an exit visa.    He is also suffers from a constant fear that his romance will be somehow labelled as a subversive foreign contact by the government, and get him arrested.   Luckily, the period of this romance largely coincides with a period of detente between Romania and the West, when the dictator Ceau┼čescu is trying to show independence from the USSR. 

Throughout the memoir, we also catch many glimpses into the day-to-day material deprivation in the life of the typical Romanian under Communism.   As we have heard in other episodes, small things we take for granted, like packaging and bags available at stores, are unheard-of luxuries to Flonta and his friends:

Like soldiers in combat with their inseparable rifle, we were an army of civilians carrying in our pocket our daily battle implement – the nylon bag – which would spring into action like a bullet whenever a food item was spotted. The dear nylon bag became our most cherished possession, and it became a symbol of our misery in our struggle for daily survival.

(Kindle loc 176)

He also comments ironically on Ariella’s concerns with helping international charities to aid the poor.   This seems like something that should be fully in line with Communist philosophy, but is unthinkable to the average Romanian:

How could we, at a personal level, help the hungry people of the world when we, city people, had to get up before dawn and queue for a ration of meat and bones to feed ourselves? Sometimes you had to queue three times. First you had to queue to get to the butcher counter. After he cut the meat, with bones and all, for you, you would have to queue at the cashier and after that, armed with the cashier’s docket, you had to queue at the collection point for your packet of meat and bones. We were kept busy procuring food every day. We could not plan a menu in advance but had to make do with what was available that day and with what we could grab from that short supply.

(Kindle loc 1081)

The vast differences between their social statuses naturally leads to many suspicious among Ariella’s family and friends that they can’t fully trust Flonta, and they urge her to break off the unorthodox romance .

On the phone, she told me that her family thought that a person like me, born in communist Romania, could not be trusted. They blamed not only our system but also us, the common people within it, without discrimination. Ariella’s friends, believing that they were born in a better social system, could not accept that my sentiments equalled theirs. So, here I was, in the unenviable position of being cornered both by my official world and by Ariella’s family and friends.

(kindle loc 2546) 

But Ariella is not deterred.  After a few years, Teodor and Ariella are ready to get married.   Unfortunately, they discover that a marriage between a Romanian and a foreigner requires direct permission from the State Council, the Communist leadership.   At best, they could hope for a possible response in 6 months after applying.  

The news about the State Council’s involvement in our marriage had opposite effects on Ariella and me. It gave her new vigour as it clarified things, but it showed me the dreary days ahead, as the State Council was headed by Ceau┼čescu himself. I wondered if anything could be more difficult than dealing with the top echelon of any institution, in our case the leader of the country…

They had the power to deny us and if that happened we would have no other legal avenues left. Aware of that, we thought of a plan B. I should apply for a passport to go to Italy and, once there, I would ask for political asylum and get married. This option looked straightforward, but it was difficult to obtain a passport even if I had an official invitation with all expenses and insurance paid. We thought that we were already under the Securitate’s scrutiny so they would not give me the passport anyway. Furthermore, my unhealthy social origin would certainly add to the difficulty.

(Kindle loc 2052, 2163) 

Eventually, they decide to have a secret religious marriage, and manage to find a priest willing to defy the Communist Party and carry out a small ceremony for their family and closest friends.    While this helps cement their true commitment to carrying out this process to the end, they still need the official government approval if Flonta wants any hope of moving to Italy to live permanently with his new wife.   So they continue with the marriage application process, battling the bureaucracy over various forms before they even have a chance at official approval.

I decided to try my luck and went with the pile of papers to the basement of the Palace Hall where the only lady at the counter behind a grate looked at them, checked them one by one and accepted them without hesitation. I was walking on clouds. For once I could maintain a promise that I had made to Ariella to be quick with the documents.

I felt like Caesar must have felt when he crossed the Rubicon. Whenever you dealt with officials there was always some paper missing, you had to go through interminable queues, lose your temper and swear under your breath and feel that everything was against you. We still had to wait for an answer to come back from the State Council, but if one didn’t come we would ask for an audience to try and speed up the process.

(Kindle loc 3023)

When the paperwork is processed, though, he has to face one final, unexpected obstacle:   government officials who want to condition his approval on agreement to act as a spy for Romania in Italy.

“There should be no obstacles for people in love,” I dared to say. “Besides, I don’t see any reason we should be denied this right. We are not harming anyone by marrying.” 

He smiled and looked me straight in the eyes. “Of course, of course, but in a society like ours the individual cannot put his personal interests above those of the State. You know this, don’t you?…

“It’s very simple. There is no big effort on your part. When you are in Italy, if everything goes well, keep an eye open and let us know what we need to know.” “You mean… spying.” “I wouldn’t put it that way.” “How would you put it?” “Observing is the better word.” “And if I don’t agree?” “Then you are on your own, and we cannot help you.”..

How could I say yes to a regime which had arrested my father, tortured him and deprived me and my mother of his presence for years on end? …  I could not forgive them for that. And I could not forget all the humiliations I was subjected to for being a son of a man labelled enemy of the people. The regime made the laws, but the way in which they behaved was as lawless criminals. I could not become an accomplice to their crimes…

“I leave you to think about it,” Comrade Captain said. “I will contact you in a week. In the meantime, please prepare a written, detailed profile of your future bride and her family: members, ages, professions, earnings, political persuasion – you know, everything. It is a formality, a simple formality.”

(Kindle loc 3111)

He refuses to help the Securitate captain, but several other inquiries and requests from various officials follow.   Meanwhile, he tries to use contacts of his friends and family to encourage the approval of his request through alternate channels.   Somehow, the approval for the marriage eventually does appear in Flonta’s mailbox, though he can never be quite sure who finally approved it or why.    

But his joy is somewhat dampened by the need to apply separately for his exit passport, another huge bureaucratic delay.   To add insult to injury, Flonta’s new father-in-law in Italy is dying, and he needs to leave quickly if he wishes to meet him.    A family friend suggests a way to speed up the process:

He advised me that I should put something on paper, promising the Securitate that I would help them in some way, and that might speed up the issue of my passport. I told him that I couldn’t do that. My father suffered at the hands of those people. 

“That’s the point,” he said. “Why should you suffer, too?”… “You just put some words together, words that sound nice to their ears. I’ll help you,” he said….  “You don’t have to follow up on any of them. Once you are in Italy, you are in Italy.”

(Kindle loc 4233)

In the end, he gives in:

I was very uncomfortable with writing something “for them”, but I thought it was better than sitting at the table with some Securitate officer to sign a contract as I had heard some people had done….

I was going to pursue cultural, artistic, economic activities favourable to Romania. I would work within the Romanian community and try to instill in its members love for Romania, … I would promote tourism, make translations of various kinds, organise art galleries, the more the better. … The more things I could promise, the less likely it was that I would pursue any of them. I gave them words, not commitment. That made me less guilty.

(Kindle loc 4273)

He finally gets his passport approved, but not in time to visit Ariella’s father, sadly.    But ultimately he leaves to join Ariella for their new life in Italy.    In the end, he reflects on the toughest obstacles that had stood  in the way of their relationship:

In my young life I’d been humiliated many times, mostly for being the son of my parents, but I’d never felt so humiliated as I was when I tried unsuccessfully to get little things done in the presence of Ariella. I longed so much to show her that I was a man she could count on. I wanted to be free to go and visit her as she had visited me, to show her that I was capable of making a sacrifice for her. I just wanted to share her burden, to show her that I was a decent man, a caring human being. I was not allowed to do that by my country, obsessed with controlling my movements, my contacts, my love. A country which forbids love cannot be loved. Countries like that should never exist. Ever, on the face of the earth.

(Kindle loc 4425)

<closing conversation with Manuel>

As always, there’s a lot more to this story than the short excerpts we’ve read today.    Be sure to check out Teodor Flonta’s memoir, titled “Paper Rings”, which you can find linked in the show notes.   

And this has been your story of Communism for today.



Episode 30: No Need For Comfort

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your host.   (My co-host Manuel was unable to make it for this episode.)

This month we have a special treat, an interview with Sergey Grechishkin, the author of “Everything is Normal”, the book we discussed in the last episode.   As you may recall, he talked about the mundane details of his life growing up in the Soviet Union of the 1970s and 1980s, when an opportunity to eat a banana was a special event, and a tacky souvenir keychain was so valuable his grandmother made him hide it away.   As you’ll hear in the interview, I thought it might be fun to share the insights of another friend, Yulia, who grew up in the USSR during that time, and have Sergey compare and contrast some of his experiences to hers.

[Listen to the audio for the full interview.   Here are some of Yulia’s quotes that I read from.   Note that I corrected some grammar in a few places, since English wasn’t Yulia’s first language.]

There were 3 major cities in USSR: Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, that were decently supplied by food and goods. Moscow was obviously the best supplied. So the life of the people from those cities was not like the rest of Soviet Union. It was like a different more developed country. 

Both my parents were engineers but we lived poorly… All the salaries would go for food and utilities.   …both of my parents had master degrees from Universities and they worked all the time... This is how middle class lived.

Potatoes and all vegetables people would preferably buy in the market because in the store vegetables were half rotten, but you could not pick; you pay for rotten too. It was very usual when the lady over counter yells at customers "If you don't like it, go to the market!”   Customer service was awful, they were ridiculously  rude and talked to customers like they own the food and do people favor selling it.     BTW I still grow my own vegetables and herbs in my backyard :-) Everybody from Ukraine I know grows vegetables in their backyard. It is way of life for us :-) 

When we emigrated to Israel (me, my daughter and my sister) we went to the store to buy vegetables. Oranges in Israel are remarkably inexpensive.   We bought about 10. My sister couldn't wait till we got home, she started to eat on the street like crazy person, almost swallowing them.

We never threw food away even if it would be infested with bugs. Mom would sift the infested flour. Grains would be slightly fried in the stove so that bugs would die. Parents would joke about it: " Here we would have a little protein..." referring to the bugs in the grain.

Clothes were expensive. We had 3 kids, so mostly eldest would get new stuff, the rest will inherit clothes from the older kid. Shoes made in USSR were awful. I remember being about 6 years old and suffering in sandals, they were too hard and I always had blisters on my feet.

It was 1 kitchen and 1 room, about 3 square meters each. No running water, to toilet. The toilet was public, about 100 meters away from the home, wooden, 2 holes...Water we would bring from a water pump about 200 meters away. Kids would do it.   In winter it would be challenging because the bucket would swing when walking and water would splash into my boots.

In 1985 it was Students and Youth festival in Moscow and it was similar events as Grechishkin describes in 1980 Olympics. They "cleaned" Moscow from people. They also cleaned skies to provide good weather during the event. They would shoot at the clouds and it would move them. As result it was excessive rains in areas 2-3 hours from Moscow and the crop died this year.  

Russian propaganda comes not only from evil people. The most effective is just soft portraying of Soviet Union. Recently my own daughter who lives now separately send a humor video with the guy cooking some meal "Stalin style" with soviet flag in his kitchen, portrait of Stalin, etc. It supposed to be a joke... I sent back to her picture of pile of the bodies of starved by Stalin Ukrainians...  And told her "Is this also funny?" 

I hope you enjoyed the interview.   As always, you can find more information and a link to Sergey’s book, “Everything is Normal”, in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .  

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


- https://www.amazon.com/Everything-Normal-Life-Times-Soviet-ebook/dp/B07B9VM44Z 

Episode 29: Empty Shelves, Full Pantries

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Today we will be discussing Sergey Grechishkin’s lighthearted but terrifying memoir “Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid”.   It describes his life growing up as a middle-class child in Leningrad in the 1970s and 1980s, in the final decades of the Soviet Union’s existence.    As you’ll see, his world can seem quite alien to those of us who grew up in the West during the same period, with many of the daily comforts we take for granted having been beyond young Sergey’s imagination.

To start with, Grechishkin talks about the apartments that Leningrad residents were forced to live in.   There was a major housing shortage in nearly every Soviet city, so hopeful residents could be on waiting lists for decades to get into a communal apartment, or “kommunakala”, meanwhile living with their parents well into adulthood.    And what were these communal apartments?

These were very large, once-opulent residences that the Soviet government had confiscated from their wealthy former owners after the 1917 Revolution and then divided between multiple families. The bigger the apartment, the more people were crammed into it, usually one household per room. 

In January 1971, one such communal flat became my first home. Grandma, Mom, and little brand-new me were pretty well off; we had two connecting rooms to ourselves. Our kommunalka was not very big: besides us, there were only seven other families in it, about twenty people altogether. Still, that meant twenty people squeezing past each other through the narrow hallways, arguing over who got to use the phone next, jostling each other in the kitchen over multiple stoves with pots on permanent boil, and fidgeting in line for the single, continuously used toilet.

Grechishkin, Sergey. Everything is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid (p. 8). Inkshares. Kindle Edition. 

After his parents divorced when he was two, Grechishkin’s grandmother decided to take him and raise him herself.   They exchanged apartments with someone in Peterhof, a suburb about a half hour’s train ride from the Leningrad center.   This further complicated the family’s situation, since his mother had to live close to work, so unofficially moved in with her new boyfriend Tolya in the city:  

Officially, Mom lived with Grandma and myself at the Peterhof apartment, meaning she was registered as a resident at that address…  to make sure places like Moscow and Leningrad didn’t get overrun by folks from the countryside, the police were empowered to stop anyone at any time, and anywhere, and demand to see their address registration papers. If the papers weren’t in perfect order, the person could be ordered to leave town or even thrown in jail.

Of course at such a young age, he wasn’t aware of anything missing in his life, but he shares an anecdote that shows the level of economic challenge they were facing:

One day when I was four years old, Grandma and I were returning from Leningrad to Peterhof with a distant relative of ours. She had married a man from Sudan and now mostly lived abroad. She got me an awesome present: a piece of chewing gum. Had I been given such a thing several years later, I would have squirreled it away to share with my friends on some meaningful occasion or to trade it to a schoolmate for some other valuable object, perhaps a toy soldier. 

But I was still naive in the ways of the world, so I opened it immediately. Inside the outer wrapper was an inner one, with a picture of some Western animated character on it. The rarity and value of this souvenir were entirely lost on me. I popped the pink gum into my mouth and began chewing with gusto. It was my first piece of gum ever, and it tasted like nothing I’d ever had before—a mixture of strawberry, banana, and vanilla! ...

Most of my memories of that time coalesce into a sense of timeless boredom. But after my first taste of bubble gum, something new began to mix with my malaise: jealousy of the kids in faraway countries who could chew such gum every day.

Eventually Grechishkin’s mother married her new boyfriend and had a second child, and she and his grandmother decided to merge their households, exchanging their & Tolya’s communal apartments for one larger one.    It seems like an odd decision after spending several years apart, but it was probably better to be crowded in with relatives than with strangers.   This was actually common at the time:

Because of a chronic real estate shortage, marriage in the USSR often meant the merging of old households rather than the formation of a new one. Everyone would move in together: the happy couple, their parents, their grandparents, their siblings, children from previous marriages, and so on. This merger of family residences after a marriage was called a s’ezd, which translates handily as “congress,” same as what the Communist Party did every five years…

By Soviet standards, [ours] was rather large, with three rooms and a kitchen. I say “rooms” rather than “bedrooms” because the idea of a dedicated living room where no one slept at night was absurd. Our living room doubled as the master bedroom.

 The memoir goes on to share numerous anecdotes and ironies about Grechishkin’s school years.   One of the most surprising comes when he describes how the Soviet government decided to clean up Leningrad for the 1980 Olympics:

In preparation for the Olympics, the authorities decided to clean up Moscow and Leningrad, both literally and metaphorically. Many known dissidents—troublesome artists and other unreliable types—were temporarily deported “beyond the 101st kilometer,” (i.e., forbidden to enter within 100 kilometers of Moscow or Leningrad). Black market dealers, prostitutes, and habitual drunkards prone to public misbehavior were also rounded up and either locked away or kicked out of town. To my utter shock, they did the same to all the children. 
About six months before the opening ceremony, Ekaterina Alexandrovna, like all homeroom teachers in Moscow and Leningrad, held a special PTA meeting. She had received “instructions from above” that no children would be allowed in either Moscow or Leningrad for the duration of the Games. All parents had to notify the authorities within two weeks as to where their children would be staying.
(p. 47)

Luckily, his grandmother was fairly well-off by Soviet standards, and was able to take Grechishkin on an extended vacation to Estonia, while his mother, brother, and Tolya left to stay with Tolya’s parents for a few weeks.    His grandmother took him to watch the boat races, but young Grechishkin’s attention was grabbed by another strange novelty.

While the adults peered through binoculars and cheered, I sat in anticipation of something truly thrilling: the souvenir shops…   There was an abundance of posters, key fobs, and T-shirts, and they weren’t just for foreigners: regular Soviet citizens could buy them, too! 

My materialistic soul was in paradise. I got a blue T-shirt and a cap with “Olympics-80” on it, and a mega-cool key chain with the Olympic bear. All in all, I spent over five rubles of my birthday present money. Grandma approved of my purchases. In fact, she rather approved too much. 

The key chain, she said, was far too nice to use every day, and if I were to take it to school, someone was sure to steal it from me. It would be best, she said, to keep it in a special drawer in her room, with other valuable toys that I was allowed to play with only on special occasions.

If that wasn’t enough, he was also introduced to the wonders of foreign soft drinks, and all that accompanied them:

But Pepsi was something else entirely. The soft drink brought with it another innovation to the USSR: kiosks that served cola in disposable plastic cups. This was a pleasant surprise, for two reasons. For one, kvass was served in actual glass mugs that got only a brief rinse between customers. Grandma would often tell me, “You should never drink from those communal glasses. Who knows what sort of germs are on them?”…

Now, we got a free gift with our soda purchase! Who would throw away a perfectly reusable plastic cup? Not any Soviet person, that’s for sure. Those cups still had long and productive lives ahead of them as drinking vessels, ashtrays, seedling pots, containers for bolts and nails, et cetera.

The excitement of this type of shopping contrasted with the dreary burden of obtaining groceries as part of day-to-day life in the cities.    When something interesting like oranges or bananas appeared in the market, people would line up for hours just to have a chance at buying a few.   On most days, access to such items was unimaginable.

Scarcity accompanied every Soviet citizen every step of the way from the cradle to the grave. The key word for Soviet shoppers was defitzit. If an item was in deficit, that meant it almost never appeared for sale in stores. So many food items were defitzit that it’s easier to say what wasn’t: potatoes, bread, pasta, salt, and canned fish. Those were the only items you could always count on finding in the stores….

Paradoxically, empty stores often meant full pantries. Since no one ever knew when any particular item might appear in stores, everything even remotely useful was bought on sight, regardless of whether it was actually needed. This went for food as well, making constant shortages a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In our house, the cupboards were always bursting with various flours, grains, and legumes. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough well-sealed containers to hold them all. Every few years, Mom and Grandma would inspect their food supply and invariably have to throw out most of it, because it was infested with little multilegged black vermin known under the generic term zhuchki, or “bugs.” Then they’d buy more fresh flour and grains. It was a vicious cycle without end. Insects infested every nook and cranny of Soviet life.

If someone said about some kid, “His parents are rich,” we wouldn’t know what to make of it. If they had said, “His mom is a director of a gastronom [market],” that would’ve been something! That kid probably ate ham and bananas every day, like the big shots in the Kremlin.

The lack of goods extended well beyond food, of course.

Our parents didn’t have the slightest clue about modern conveniences like trash bags, wet wipes, paper handkerchiefs, disposable diapers, shaving gel, and tampons (or any other types of female sanitary products). Until the mid-1970s, there wasn’t even such a thing as deodorant…

A typical Soviet apartment of those days looked like it belonged to hoarders. Nothing was ever thrown out, not even things that were hopelessly broken. After all, a broken thing might still get fixed someday, or at least used for scrap parts. So, families stockpiled rubbish—worn-out shoes, parts of broken furniture, punctured bicycle tires, et cetera—in their already cramped apartments, filling cluttered balconies, basements, and sometimes entire rooms with items left to gather dust and await the day, usually in vain, when they would be fixed or repurposed.

Because laws of supply and demand did not apply, and shortages were permanent, the only way to procure many items was through blat. Blat meant knowing a guy, or knowing a guy who knew a guy…  If you could get people a sheepskin coat or a regular supply of good cuts of meat, then you’d be able to leverage those favors for other favors: quality medical care, a spot at a Black Sea resort, university placement for an underachieving child, or even the papers necessary to avoid a military draft.

As the years went on, Grechishkin was encouraged to join the Young Pioneers, often thought of as the Soviet answer to the Boy Scouts.   There were a few differences though:

Unlike the American Boy Scouts, who overflow with sincere Old Glory patriotism, the Young Pioneers understood that they were part of a sham. Everyone knew our drums and red flags were just pageantry for the sake of pageantry. We marched because we were instructed to do so by the teachers, not because we were genuinely excited by the advent of Communism. And the teachers made sure we did it not because they wanted to mold us into good Communists but because they didn’t want a visit from the city district officials.

He also joined another group, the International Friendship Club, which came with some amazing benefits, due to their role in hosting visiting delegations from foreign leftist groups.    The small trinkets the foreigners would give him, like pencils with cartoon characters or scented erasers, were mysterious treasures to the Soviet students.   

Gifts were the most valuable aspect of heading the International Friendship Club; my childhood aspirations were mostly material. There was practically no end to my material desires, stifled as they were by Soviet austerity. 

I didn’t nurture hopes of my parents getting back together, like other children of divorce. I yearned not for academic honors or sports trophies. I didn’t dream of becoming a cosmonaut. I had no hope of any abstract freedoms, like being able to read whatever book I wanted in peace without the KGB breathing down my neck. 

I just wanted lots and lots of foreign pencils and erasers and stickers. I wanted our family to have a car. I also wanted my own room, and a color TV, and of course, lots and lots of toy soldiers—not the flat plastic ones but the awesome 3-D ones. And sweets, oh my God: cake, chocolate, Pepsi, some of that Donald chewing gum. And bananas. I would have killed for bananas.

Grechishkin continues describing his school years, and his gradually growing awareness of the pervasiveness of the propaganda constantly surrounding him.    By listening to Voice of America and similar sources, he started to realize the dramatic differences between his lifestyle and that of the prosperous West.   Further crazy-sounding anecdotes focus on other issues like the state of Soviet medical care, attitudes towards sex and dating, and the prevalence of workplace theft as a tool to supplement the pitiful salaries paid by the government.    In addition, he expands on the official corruption and anti-semitism that he repeatedly observed.    He also shares the sad story of his father, a dissident who was eventually committed to a mental hospital for daring to criticize the Soviet system.

But in the 1980s, after Brezhnev’s death and a couple of short-lived successors, the Gorbachev reforms began, totally upending many details of daily life.   Fortunately for Grechishkin, Gorbachev eliminated the military draft just before he became eligible.    As controls over the media loosened, he was able to see “Star Wars” in a movie theater, and suddenly it dawned on him that he, too, could escape the “evil empire”.    

All movies are essentially escapes from reality, and sci-fi space operas even more so, but in this case, the divide between the magic on the screen and the dead, gray routine of real life was simply too much to bear….

The Soviet Union had always excused its sad state of poverty and dilapidation with its striving for Communism; it seems unreasonable to expect things to be clean, attractive, and in good order during such a monumental transition. All Soviet citizens were born, grew up, worked, gave birth, and died under an all-encompassing implied sign: “Pardon Our Dust, Work in Progress.” 

But in the last years, it had been dawning on people more and more that there was no actual work being done—there was only dust.   The USSR was not decrepit and poor because it was putting all its effort into building a bright, shiny tomorrow for all the people, with limitless food, free toys for all children, vacations on Mars, and a room for every person to themselves, in a separate apartment without endless lines for the toilet. It was that way because construction had long stopped.

  even if the tech crew ever got people over to Mars on one of their hundreds of flying saucers that seemed to consume all resources and talent, the only thing one could imagine them doing there was sitting in on party meetings (albeit perhaps in space suits) and eating the same meatballs with the same cockroaches, which would surely survive the trip even better than the human travelers. 

And all the while, somewhere else, people really were dreaming big, and having grand visions of cosmic proportions, and inspiring each other to strive for the forces of light in the face of all adversity.

He eventually managed to get accepted into a Chinese Studies department in college, correctly figuring that becoming an expert in a foreign language would increase his chances of traveling abroad.    As a result, he succeeded in leaving the USSR, and later began a successful career as a Western banker.  

One final point we can’t finish without mentioning is the jokes.   Grechishkin opens each chapter with a short joke, and many of these are quite revealing about Soviet life.   Here are just a few of our favorite examples:

A woman is taking a bath in a communal apartment and notices a man’s face watching her from behind frosted glass.    “What’s the matter with you?!” she yells.    “Oh please, like you’ve got something I’ve not seen before,” he says. “I’m just making sure you’re not using my soap!”

A teacher in a Soviet kindergarten tells her class, “Unlike in the capitalist countries, in the USSR, children have plenty to eat and nice clothes to wear. They live in large apartments, and they have lots of wonderful toys to play with.”    In the back row, a little boy starts to cry. “I don’t want to live here anymore!” he says. “I want to live in the USSR!”

The USSR developed a new brand of boiled sausage and decided to send it to a laboratory in America for independent testing. Three weeks later, they received the reply: “There were no parasites identified in this stool sample.”

<closing conversation with Manuel>

As usual, there is plenty more to learn from Grechishkin’s memoir, besides the tiny bits we’ve excerpted here.    Be sure to follow the link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com, or look up his book “Everything Is Normal” yourself, and you can read more of the sad but ironic truths about life under Communist rule.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.