Reader Kyle asked some interesting questions:
What did you do after a typical day at work or school in the Soviet Union? For example, in America, people come home, eat dinner, watch television, read books, etc…but from what I understand, food was very limited in what was available, so dinner in the Soviet Union I am assuming was not like dinner in the U.S., and most people did not have televisions I am assuming? Were there books available, say at least from a public library, or none of those even? What did people do? Were there playgrounds outside for children?
Everybody had TVs. There weren’t many channels, though. First we had 2 channels and then 2 more were added. There is this joke about a guy turning on the TV, seeing Brezhnev and switching to a different channel. There he also saw Brezhnev, so he switched again and again saw Brezhnev who wagged his finger at him and said, “I’ll show you how to look for something better!”
It was an effort to find food but the effort was made. Paradoxically, I think we ate better than an average American because all our food was home cooked from scratch. People were very inventive and house-proud and created elaborate meals out of limited supply. We are a very meal-oriented culture and sitting down to an abundant and beautiful meal is crucial.
And since there were no restaurants or cafés, people would gather with friends and relatives for long sit-down meals all the time. These were very long, complex meals. I still don’t get American dinners where everybody is done in an hour. No, we sit down for hours, for food, conversation, singing, etc. We sing when we eat a lot, usually during dessert. Everybody would have tea and cake while somebody would just break into a song and then the entire table would join. My father always sang The Beatles songs, for instance. And we also do a lot of folk Ukrainian songs.
We still do this all the time whenever I go back to visit my parents in Montreal. When we have Canadians over, they always get up after the first course and my mother asks in a scared whisper, “Where are they going? We still have 4 more courses, plus dessert, plus singing. Can you tell them to sit back down?” So I have to inform the Canadians that Ukrainians don’t eat one-course meals and that they have to prepare to stay at the table for at least 4 more hours. Poor Canadians have to crawl away at the end of the meal because of how much food we stuff into them. And it would have been exactly the same back in 1982, for instance,
There were many playgrounds and things felt very safe. When I was a kid, we played outside all day long with no adult supervision and it was great.
Things were in short supply but people got very inventive and created everything out of nothing. You wouldn’t believe the beauty of my apartment back in the USSR where I grew up. My mother is very talented at interior design and into arranging beautifully laid tables. When I traveled to England back in 1990, I stayed with two very well-off families. They had huge houses but the interior design and the sophistication of their food was actually quite inferior compared to ours. I’ve seen such beautiful food back in the USSR, made by regular people, that I can’t say I’ve seen anything as amazing since. And I go to very expensive restaurants here. 🙂 I remember once for the World Cup, a family friend made a cake that looked like a football. And you could remove each pentagon because it was like a slice. Such a beautiful thing! And the cake my grandma made for the Olympics of 1980! I was 4 but I still remember how stunning it was visually and how tasty. A lot of time went into cooking and people competed over who’d produce the most beautiful and complex meal. And also everybody knew how to sue and knit. Even I learned when I was a kid. 🙂 And people created very beautiful clothing that way.
Precisely because things were in short supply, food, clothes and interiors of homes got so much attention and were very sophisticated.