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.