Did you ever wonder what it was like growing up in the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain? With the Cold War still on, I was growing up in Kyrgyz Soviet Socialist Republic, one of 15 republics that made up a Soviet Union. It was a different reality that taught me and my peers a certain way of thinking and behaving. Today, I am going to take you on a virtual historic tour to my Soviet upbringing and share top 15 features of what it was like to grow up and live in the Soviet Union.
1. From a very young age, you are used to the fact that your country is one six of the world and therefore, it is VERY, VERY powerful. It has nuclear weapons, space station and one of the best hockey teams in the world! The world is divided into friends – Socialist allies and enemies – anything Western and Capitalist!
2. As a Soviet child, you grow up with a notion that Lenin is your grandpa. His portraits are hanging in every kindergarten and school, his life stories are studied endlessly and poems dedicated to his life and legacy memorised and recited on every holiday.*
*All holidays in the USSR, apart from New Year’s, have political roots – 1st May is International Labor Day, 23rd February is Red Army Day while 7th November is the Day of Great October Socialist Revolution!
3. The flat your family lives in is probably given to your parents by the state after 10-15 years of being on the waiting list. Same with the car, if your family is lucky and can afford it. Some families even manage to have a little plot of land outside of the city, called dacha, to grow fruit and veggies. Those are then lovingly picked and turned into preserves by your mother (see next point).
4. Most of the working population take their allotted month of holidays during summer, which often includes a trip to a local holiday spot (lake, mountains, river, etc.) and endless hours in the kitchen making conserves (e.g. jams, pickled cucumbers, tomato sauces) to have something to eat during cold winter months and deal with empty grocery shops (see point 6).
5. Cool foreign made goods, like Levi’s jeans, are only accessible through ‘connections’ and the ‘black market’ where you have to pay top prices. Just to illustrate, my Mum paid 15 roubles for a fancy Chinese-made dress out her monthly salary of 100 roubles, which was average at that time.
6. With shortages of goods and empty store shelves throughout the year, when you ever pass someone on the street carrying a fresh purchase, you stop them, ask where they got it from, get to the store and join the queue even if you don’t need the product. You do it because someone else you know may want it or you may possibly need in the future and this may be your only chance to buy it! So somehow, your Mum manages to snatch latest French perfume, wear elegant fur hat and build an amazing collection of Czech crystal ware over time.
Empty grocery shops and long queues – I don’t miss!
7. Almost every house/apartment has the same china set, carpet on the wall and a big bookcase with a collection of classical literature to show that your family is refined and intellectual and has what other people have (therefore, doing well!).
Compare these two different flats and find similarities!!!
8. Individuality is frowned up and any attempt to stand outside the crowd is reprimanded. After all, Communist society is all about the collective ego and sticking up for each other. See point 7 on why every flat looks a bit standard!
9. When you can’t buy what you want/need, you make it yourself. Which explains why your mum and grandma are experts in sewing and knitting, while dad can fix pretty much anything in the world and build a shed with his bare hands!
10. Education is free and a basic right, with 99.9% elementary school enrollment rates. You start school at the age of 7 and from the age of 10 you spend 6 days a week mastering the art of the Russian language, literature, different kinds of math, history, physics, biology, chemistry, music, drawing, foreign language, P.E., home studies (aka cooking and sewing for girls, and carpentry for boys), and even military training! By the age of 16, you know how to use a gas mask and bandage a broken bone in case of potential nuclear war, have read entire War and Peace, done some advanced maths, and can tell Tchaikovsky apart from Beethoven.
11. The society expects you to be a straight A student as B is not an acceptable grade. Good studies are rewarded by the best students being sent to the academic Olympiad (Olympics) to compete with other top student across the country, while bad grades mean daily humiliation of your teachers and family threatening you would end up a street sweeper.
12. You wear a red Pioneer scarf every day and swear allegiance to the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization. You wear a little star pin with his angelic face as a small child. At 15 the Communist Party promotes you to Komsomolets, just one step away from a full Party membership!
13. Since religion is prohibited, you only celebrate New Year’s (and not Christmas), which explains why it’s still the biggest and most loved holiday in this region. You do, however, have your own version of Santa (Father Frost) and each kindergarten/elementary school New Year’s play usually involves an actor or a male staff member dressed as one. In the meantime, each child gets a standard gift, paid for by their parents, and includes candy, couple of oranges (a luxury!) and some nuts.
14. Even though your family believes in state medicine, they trust traditional (alternative) medicine even more. So your kitchen shelves probably have a whole collection of herbal teas, a cupping set, various natural oils and mixtures just in case! And God forbid you leave home in winter without a hat or open windows at home creating draft!
15. Social etiquette tells you to be polite, modest and serious. Life is already hard enough so why smile?! Passport and official document photos are a collection of angry looking facial expressions, because if you smile than something is definitely wrong with you.
All of these are features of your social life that become ingrained in you since you are born until one day the Soviet Union falls apart and the new reality settles in. Things are forever different in the countries of the former USSR but no matter where you end up, the Soviet upbringing continues to be a part of who you are today.