Formative Experience from the USSR

When I was 12-13 years old, whenever I got any pocket money, I’d save it to buy chewing gum. Of course, it wasn’t sold in stores. One had to go to the underpass and but it from the “gypsies” who somehow had access to all kinds of tempting stuff: lipstick, Hungarian cigarettes, hair barrettes, sometimes even shoelaces.

I waa so desperate for the gum not because I liked it – I didn’t and still don’t – but because each hugely expensive piece (1 rouble, which would be something like $40 to me today) had a colorful insert with pictures of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. I had no idea what these characters meant and I was too old for cartoon animals anyway. The reason why I went without lunch for weeks to buy the gum was that the inserts were so colorful. I did not possess any other object that had such bright colors. 

Before seeing the gum, I had no idea such colors even existed. I was mesmerized. I could stare at those inserts for hours, trying to imagine what else could exist in the world that could be brightly colored. 

A couple of years later, we all started wearing these really horrible electric orange and electric green outfits that looked pathetic and that I wouldn’t be caught dead in today. But they were crazy popular back then for the same reason that I loved the gum inserts. They weren’t drab. 

So just imagine people who for generations experienced this kind of sensory deprivation and then suddenly saw a show like Santa Barbara. Of course, it was a huge deal. I still remember the names of all the show’s characters. And I’m normally so bad with names that I can’t remember a single one even from the mystery novel I read yesterday.


8 thoughts on “Formative Experience from the USSR”

  1. “One had to go to the underpass and but it from the “gypsies” who somehow had access to all kinds of tempting stuff”

    Assuming you’re referring to Romani/Roma people (Цыгане/gitanos)* I would bet several rubles that somehow = stole Probably in Hungary maybe Czechoslovakia (both considerably less drab than the USSR at the time).

    It would not surprise me in the slightest if it turned out that traditionally nomadic people who knew the land like the back of their hands could cross the Soviet border (or could transport goods across it) when they needed/wanted to.**



  2. As I’ve mentioned before, Eastern European communism had a strange ability to make products that seemed old and worn out when they were brand new.

    Another talent was making ingeniously designed and attractive products with some kind of fatal flaw that rendered them useless (I read once of a floor cleaner that looks and works great for a short period but broke down quickly and the broken part (despite being extremely simple, not much more than a rubber band) could not be found anywhere for love nor money.

    Yet another was to make ‘labor saving’ devices that were exhausting to use such as “washing machines” that required constant supervision for their two hour cycle.

    I expect a paen to the brilliance of communist manufacturing in the New York Times any day now…..


    1. All true. 🙂 We had a washing machine at home but we washed everything by hand in a tub. The washer just stood there like a big bulky hamper where we kept the dirty laundry before washing it by hand.

      I actually only discovered the existence of actual laundry hampers a couple of years ago. N was stunned. He had no idea they existed either.


    2. I am an amateur economist.

      I find it absolutely fascinating that something was made at all. How could you get a plumber to come on a Sunday? Even if you paid him more than his state wage, he would not be able to buy much with it. While in market economies prices capture the full price of goods, in the USSR patronage links or massive amounts of patience (waiting lists for cars of over 20 years) made up perhaps most of the price people had to pay for valued goods and services.

      There is also only so much you can get people to do by force. I just finished a fascinating book about slave labour in the US in the 19th century. Because of the keen competition, even slave owners found that they could only compete if they radically increased working conditions, wages, and freedoms – so much, in fact, that only the vague notion of the essence of being a slave separated slaves from other workers at the same skill level. This led to a 63-fold increase in agricultural labour productivity.

      But what if there were no competition that brought this about, like in the USSR? What if no one had any incentive to be more productive? How can you then get things done?


  3. Did the weather in S.B. also impress people? This is the aspect of the show that makes it seem luxurious to me now: the Mediterranean weather and light, and the sea air combined with all the plants.


    1. As you said, it was a badly made soap. All of it was filmed inside. It never showed the nature beyond some potted palms. I still have no idea what it really looks like.


      1. I am now in episode 2! They are at some beach house they got to by boat. I probably think there are more views of the countryside and city because the clips there are, I can fill in. I recognize some of the venues


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