I get quite a few emails from this blog’s readers and followers. The emails that contain the most insightful and curious questions invariably come from Aaron Clarey’s mega-popular blog. (I also want to reiterate my eternal gratitude to Aaron for promoting my blog every chance he gets. Aaron, you are a brilliant guy and a talented writer.)
Here is the most recent question I got:
I have devoured your posts about life in Soviet-era Ukraine. I have been interested in the realitis in Communism since many acquaintances and family members are pronounced Marxists. I live in Colombia, where pro -Marxist sentiments are high among my age -group.
I personally view Communism as an evil broken clock – pure evil except for 1 or 2 miniscule things.
What I wonder is if the standards of living varied in the Soviet Union? What I imagine is that in the strong economic centers (Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia, Moscow, St. Petersberg etc) a citizen would have more access to basic goods, food, clothing. Would a citizen in these places have more electrical appliances, or even be able to go to a grocery store with a wide selection of goods?
Unlike my correspondent, I don’t see even the 1 or 2 tiny good things in Communism, but the question is one I really want to answer.
In what concerns the Soviet-bloc countries, the greater the distance was separating them from the USSR, the better their standard of living was. I recently discovered that the Poles, the Czechs, the Eastern Germans and the Yugoslavians considered themselves poor and miserable during the Soviet era. Gosh, to us, they were all swimming in riches. Any Soviet person would dream of visiting one of these countries and experiencing, albeit for a few days, the unimaginable variety of goods and services available there. But, of course, almost nobody who wasn’t a performer or a party apparatchik ever got to travel.
In the USSR proper, everything produced in the entire country was shipped to Moscow. As a result, Muscovites enjoyed a much higher standard of living than the rest of the country. My husband (who was born in the greater Moscow area) keeps telling me how they could sometimes buy bananas or cheese, which for us “in the provinces” were the height of luxury. For Muscovites, everything that isn’t Moscow is a province. And the provinces always existed to be plundered.
I will never forget my mother’s shopping trips to Moscow. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was not possible to buy absolutely anything by way of clothes or shoes in Ukraine. Food could only be bought on the black market at exorbitant prices. Stores stood empty. And I mean, completely empty. There was nothing on the shelves. So when we needed shoes, boots or a coat, we’d have to buy a train ticket to Moscow and try to acquire these goods there. In the end, factoring in the travel expenses, a pair of boots would end up costing us my father’s five-month salary.
Electrical appliances could never be bought in stores anywhere, not even in Moscow. Just the idea of a Soviet store filled with refrigerators or TVs makes me laugh because it’s unimaginable. If you wanted a fridge (or a kitchen table, or a sofa), you needed to get on a list, get assigned a number (like, 18,934), and then wait until the 18,933 people before you on the list were allowed to buy their appliances. And the prices, of course, were ridiculously high.
Of course, there was always a shortage of small daily items whose importance you never register until you are deprived of them. Buttons, thread, shoe-laces, toilet paper, cotton wool – everything was of abysmally low quality and rarely available.
I heard a lot of myths when I was growing up that things were better in other Soviet Socialist republics, like Estonia, Latvia, Georgia, or Armenia. I only visited a couple of them and discovered the same kind of poverty that the one we had in Ukraine.
As I said before, the greatest problem isn’t the shortage of food or consumer goods per se. It is, rather, that when acquiring every single basic object turns into a complex, time and energy-consuming affair, your entire life becomes about things. Americans seem to believe that materialism is when you go to a store and buy anything you want. But that isn’t real materialism. If buying some stupid toilet seat or a table-cloth turns into an extremely complicated affair that requires every ounce of networking skills and energy that you possess, that’s when you become completely materialistic.
When life becomes solely about getting stuff, that’s no life at all. That’s walking death. And that is what Soviet reality was.