USSR: Standards of Living and Geography

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.

Who’s Afraid of Literature?

“Literature disorders the order of faith, be that quasi-unshakable belief in a religious creed or in a political-economic way of governing society. Theism, communism, free market capitalism and neoconservatism do not allow for ambiguity in everyday life. They do so precisely because awareness of the ambiguous could question the appeal of a static societal order.”

Mack, Michael. Philosophy and Literature in Times of Crisis. Challenging Our Infatuation with Numbers. New York & London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Have you noticed how all totalitarian societies try to destroy literature and literary criticism? Have you noticed that this destruction is always one of the greatest priorities of any totalitarian order?

Have you observed, as well, the enormous efforts made today in your, seemingly free, society to demolish literary studies under the guise of a fight for productivity and fiscal responsibility?

The Real Capitalism

“What is your position on the economy?” the moderator asks one of the candidates at the Ukrainian presidential debate.

“I believe in capitalism!” one candidate declares. “Capitalism is the best system! For instance, a factory owner takes 90% of the profit the factory makes for himself and only gives 10% to the workers. That’s wrong! The owner should only get 50%, at most, and the rest should be distributed among the workers.”

“That isn’t capitalism, though,” the moderator suggests.

“Yes, it is! Because this is what’s fair!”

“Capitalism doesn’t know the word ‘fair,'” the moderator persists. “It knows the word ‘profit.'”

“Laws make capitalists do whatever is good for society!” the candidate exclaims. “That’s how it works everywhere in the world!”

More on Ukrainian Elections

The “let’s battle Islamic terrorists” candidate is getting cuter by the minute. Now he’s saying,

“Let’s adopt the American political system! Let’s abolish the Congress, remove the cabinet, give all of the power – 100% of it – to the president to rule as he wishes. This works for the US! Why wouldn’t it work here?”

The guy doesn’t stand half a chance but the comic relief he offers is welcome at this tense time.

I think it’s also important to remind everybody that, unlike in the US, where only two extremely wealthy parties get to put on an elaborate show for over a year and nobody else is given a real chance to run, in Ukraine every candidate gets a limited opportunity to speak by law. And if these candidates don’t sound very brilliant, I also want to remind you that you actually elected George W. Bush. Twice.

Now that we have all remembered that enormous collective embarrassment, prepare for more funny stories.


OK, I need to share this, folks. There are many candidates in this presidential election in Ukraine (imagine the US elections where there are no primaries and everybody gets on the ballot), and some candidates are just too funny.

One candidate is answering the question of what Ukraine should do to ensure its sovereignty.

“We need to behave in a way that will not provoke anybody to attack us!” the candidate announces brightly.

“Can you elaborate?” says the moderator who is visibly disturbed by this way of framing the issue.

“Yes! We should battle Islamic terrorism!” the candidate explains. “Forget what’s happening in all those villages in the Donetsk area. Let’s combat Islamic terrorism instead!”

Of course, Ukraine’s Muslims are fiercely pro-Ukrainian and don’t engage in any acts of terrorism, but who cares about tiny things like that?

Gosh, isn’t it just insane how “Islamic terrorism” has become this catch phrase that is used globally to shut down discussion of uncomfortable subjects?

Grad Schools for Idiots or Idiotic Bureaucrats?

I will never understand bureaucracy-speak. Here is an excerpt from an email I just received:

The award provides financial support in the form of tuition waivers to academically qualified individuals underrepresented in graduate programs.

The email seems to suggest that graduate programs lack academically qualified people and that it’s so extremely rare to find one that he or she should be given an award. But that would be too bizarre of a statement, so I’m guessing the email tries to communicate something different.

For the huge sums these paper-pushers get for doing absolutely nothing, they could at least learn to write emails.