Living in these comparatively simple surroundings [in the Soviet Union] has made my inner life more intense. Tom and I have found that our dreams have gained colour and our memories have become sharper; we are both more attentive to beauty.
(Lee, p.88; 1982)
There are two things which Russophiles seem to agree on about everyday life in Russia and even more so in the Soviet Union before that: on the one hand it is trying, difficult and very wearing; and yet at the same time it is very rewarding and brings with it a certain thrill. To the uninitiated this contradiction makes no sense at all. But to those who have been there this extraordinary state of affairs is not only perfectly natural in Russia but it can often lead us firstly to shake the dust from our feet when we leave Russia; yet then yearn for the place when we have been away for a while. I make no apology in this chapter, therefore, for stirring in Russophiles a sense of, “wasn’t that awful” (queues, shortages, dirt) along with nostalgia (“but they were good times, nonetheless”).
At the start of this section, Andrea Lee, who with her husband spent a year as an American student in the USSR, sums up neatly why these two opposites can be reconciled: life became “more intense”. And yet that sensation is just as familiar as Peter Pomerantsev’s description of how gloomy the stairwells usually are in Russian blocks of flats (and he doesn’t even refer to the smell).
The dark-green stairwell is full of cigarette ends and small brown puddles of melted snow knocked from boots. The flat doors are padded for security, which makes them resemble asylum cells.
(Pomerantsev, p.137; 2015)
And this comment made to Hedrick Smith by “the lover of electronic music” makes perfect sense to those who have been privileged enough to join discussions around the kitchen table in a cramped Russian apartment.
“The most interesting things are going on in private where you can’t see them. Not only you as a foreigner but other people, Russians, as well. To you that sounds crazy, I know, but to us it is normal.” [Electronic music lover]
(Smith, The Russians, p.25; 1977)
The Dacha and the Great Outdoors:
Russian urban dwellers are great lovers of the outdoors (or, more specifically, of getting out of the city whenever they can). This may mean spending time at the dacha; in principle, a type of country cottage to which the city folk can escape at weekends or during holidays. But the significance of the dacha is much greater than that:
Dacha is one of those magical elastic words in Russian that conceals more than it reveals. Above all, it signals escape from the crowded city into the calm of the Russian countryside. Rather conveniently, it blurs social differences; sometimes it sounds far grander than reality; sometimes more modest. Perhaps that is why Russians are so fond of using the word. Many will talk about “having a dacha” somewhere with a certain light in their eyes. But neither their twinkle nor their tongue reveals what kind of place it is. For a dacha can mean anything from a little, oversized toolshed or a one-room cabin on a tiny lot of ground, surrounded by a development of identical little cabins with no privacy, to a modest but pleasant four-room country cottage without plumbing in a plain Russian village, to a grand mansion taken over from the old aristocracy…
(Smith, The Russians, pp.55-56; 1977)
Dacha is an imprecise word. It can mean little more than an unheated wooden shack on a country allotment, used for a few months in the summer. Often it is a more substantial structure, one of a group of wooden bungalows or two-storey houses in a development organised by a government department or an industrial company. Top people’s dachas, provided by the Soviet state at nominal rents, were much grander. They guaranteed peace and quiet in beautiful surroundings and could be used all year round.
(Millinship, p.180; 1993)
I have stayed in a dacha which was simply an old industrial refrigerator, which had a small plot of land next to it devoted to growing vegetables; I have been in a modern, two-storey building constructed out of logs, with all mod cons and a neat garden with a lawn and flower beds, which is also a dacha. The only change since Hedrick Smith and William Millinship wrote their descriptions is that now the newly-wealthy Russian have built dachas which are the size of palaces, and which are hidden away from prying eyes by high walls and modern security devices.
Nevertheless, it is particularly when they are at their dachas (of whatever size) that Russians feel close to Mother Nature, something expressed by their love for mushroom-picking.
The Russian outdoor hobby par excellence – one that always bemuses Westerners – is mushroom-picking. In the fall it approaches a national craze. Connoisseurs treat the location of their favourite hunting grounds for premier species as top secret. Less dedicated souls creep through any old forest or glen for hours on end, clutching pails, satchels, kerchiefs and caps converted into makeshift containers and scanning the earth for hidden treasures or pausing to gossip and picnic.
(Smith, The Russians, p.149; 1977)
Doing this gives Russians the sense that they are connecting with their roots, as Michael Binyon explains.
Village life is still a real form of existence to most Russians, even if they now live in towns. Unlike Western society, which seems to have lost touch with the land, Soviet life is earthy in all senses. It is something we too easily overlook in the West.
(Binyon, p.204; 1983)
But once again, as Smith says, we see the contradiction which so appeals to the Russophile from the West: mushroom-picking and being in the Russian countryside may bring you in touch with the earth and back to nature – but unlike the English village, the Russian countryside is shabby, drab, untidy and muddy!
Much of Russian village life is shabby, drab, untidy and, above all, muddy – with a mud that immobilizes life and movement.
(Smith, The Russians, p.251; 1977)
But amongst the gloom of the countryside there can be magic times, and Vladimir Soloukhin provides a wonderful description of a moment in Russian village life which the foreigner will most likely never see.
In Karavaevo the Church Festival was held on Assumption Day, but in the little hamlet of Brod (“on Brod” as they say in our parts) they celebrated the autumn festival of Cosmas and Damian. There, in that little village of fifteen houses strung out along a knoll above the river (except for the bath-houses, which had skipped down on to a meadow right next to the river), there was neither a fair nor were there outdoor activities with masses of people; quite simply, though, every house was full of visitors and hospitality. Relations would gather for quiet meals together around the table. The table tops would be scrubbed clean and cold snacks, meat dishes and small carafes placed upon them, with a samovar at the head; and it was not twenty versts to Brod, but one single, admittedly crooked, little verst.
(Soloukhin, p.58; 1990)
The fact that two villages so close together can hold such different celebrations, too, is fascinating. When you feel the passion and warmth that such occasions can create, it is a great pity that most urban-dwelling Russians are so scathing about their compatriots who live in the countryside.
The Banya and cleanliness:
Russians’ personal hygiene, both in the countryside and in the town, has frequently left something to be desired. Comments from H M Grove, G Dobson and Hugh Stewart from their 1913 trilogy illustrate how the Russian idea of a bath was similar in both town and country; and the modern Russian bathhouse, the banya, has changed little from Dobson’s description.
What the peasant really loves in winter is taking a hot bath. Over the stove he builds a brick bath, and it is his joy to sit in this and simply boil himself. When the heat gets too much even for him, he rushes to the door, opens it, and, rushing out into very likely a temperature of 20 to 30 degrees below zero, rolls in the snow till he is cooler, when he returns and continues his bath. This would kill most people, but it apparently does him no harm. It is certainly a fact that they can stand extraordinary heat and intense cold equally well.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.258; 1913)
|(From Dobson, Grove, Stewart)
…the Russian workman…generally goes once a week to a public bath, where he scalds himself in the steaming chamber, and he may also have his body thrashed with birch twigs until his skin becomes the colour of a boiled lobster. This is a kind of massage, of very ancient origin, and peculiar to Russia in combination with the popular bath.
(Dobson in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, pp.127-128; 1913)
Clothes and hair are not free from insects, but the universal custom of taking a vapour bath every Saturday is conducive alike to bodily cleanliness and to longevity.
(Stewart in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.304; 1913)
And Grove suggests that Russians had a curious way of keeping their teeth clean:
The Russian peasant, needless to say, does not know of any such thing as a tooth-brush, and yet their teeth are usually beautifully white and apparently sound. The explanation is, I believe, that the constant gnawing of the hard crusts of the black bread takes the place of the use of the toothbrush.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.258; 1913)
Writing just a few years previously, Carl Joubert is scathing about the Russians’ poor personal hygiene:
Here I am led into a digression…to the deplorable state of uncleanliness, both bodily and locally, general throughout Russia.
(Joubert, p.120; 1904)
And Vladimir Bukovsky deplores the use of the word “culture” to try to dress up the life of the proletariat.
To us who had grown up in the communal flats and backyards of this selfsame proletariat, living among them as equals, not masters, the term “proletarian culture” sounded grotesque. For us it meant no mystical secret, but drunkenness, brawling, knife fights, squeezeboxes, obscenity and chewing sunflower seeds. No true proletarian would have called this culture, because the distinguishing feature of the proletariat was a hatred of all culture, combined with a sort of inexplicable envy.
(Bukovsky, pp.86-87; 1978)
Laurens van der Post’s comment on “the smell of a Russian crowd” draws parallels with similar remarks made by Eric Newby and Michael Binyon (see Chapter 5, Part 6: Russians en masse).
For the first time I caught a whiff of the smell of a Russian crowd which I was to encounter in all public places, waiting-rooms, planes, buses and trains in the Soviet Union, a sniff of a laundry basket on the weekly collection morning.
(van der Post, p.28; 1965)
Russia’s reputation as a place of contradictions is neatly encapsulated by the next two quotations. Grove says how wonderful Russians are as speakers –
The Russians, undoubtedly, as a race, are wonderfully good speakers; they never seem to be at a loss for a word or an idea.
(Grove in Dobson, Grove, Stewart, p.266; 1913)
– yet this is diametrically opposed to the extract which follows from Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s satirical novel, The Twelve Chairs (and much personal experience of this author besides):
Treukhov opened his mouth and, stuttering, began. “Comrades! The international position of our country…” And then he went on to burble such boring truisms that the crowd, now listening to its sixth international speech, lost interest.
It was only when he had finished that Treukhov realized that he had not said a word about the tramway. “It’s a shame,” he said to himself, “we have absolutely no idea how to make speeches.”
(Ilf and Petrov, p.96; 1928)
These two opposite observations, written only 13 years apart but separated by the Revolution, make one ask whether the Russians’ ability to speak in public was wiped out firstly by the attacks on the gentry during and as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, and secondly the climate of fear which was an essential element of Bolshevism and prevented people from speaking their views. Whatever the reason, the Ilf and Petrov version is still the more common today, especially for officials from the Russian provinces. Having heard a large number of presentations by Russian delegations over the years, I have to agree that, on the whole, they have “absolutely no idea how to make speeches.” Even if they speak in English, they go on for too long, include too many boring statistics and are seriously lacking in humour. I even attended one presentation in London by a young and energetic official from a federal ministry which had a London-based Russian official walk out in embarrassment because the presentation was so poor.
The rest of the quotations in this section refer to specific elements of Soviet life; in some cases aspects which have left their mark and still resonate with life in Russia today. The first group concerns Russians’ attitude to work. Because everyone was guaranteed a job under socialism – one of the 12 "Commandments" of the "Moral Code of the Builder of Communism” was that “He who does not work does not eat” – there was no incentive for the majority of people to work hard or do their job well (see Chapter 25: Architecture). Sergei Dovlatov and Ronald Hingley both summarise well this “couldn’t care less” attitude which plagued Soviet work practices.
As things stand, every worker knows he won’t be fired. And if he does get fired, it’s not a big problem: he just goes across the road and gets a job in the neighbouring factory. Which means that everyone feels free to take time off from work or abuse his position…
(Dovlatov, p.53; 1983)
Spectacular as Russian prestige undertakings can be, and formidable as is the concentrated energy which they can focus, no one familiar with the country could miss the antithetical and no less characteristic qualities of vagueness, laziness, casualness, and unpunctuality… To these defects many Russian will own…cheerfully attributing to themselves the quality of bezalabershchina, “sloppiness”… The word…expresses an “inability to work things through”. Hence Russian strictures on their habit of doing things “any old way”…
(Hingley, pp.38-39; 1978)
Francis Spufford shows that when the state tried to organise even a citizen’s leisure time it came up against a similar attitude.
…however much the government tried to fill up people’s leisure time with bicycle races and extension classes and boxing clubs, you couldn’t stop Russians heading out of doors in summer for a chat and a drink.
(Spufford, p.155; 2010)
More ingrained, and still felt today, is the reluctance to take risks – indeed, to try out new ideas – described by Wolfgang Leonhard.
As far as the workers are concerned, the low level of material incentives, and the lack of any possibility of having a word to say in the running of the enterprise, have led to very low working morale. The workers are above all else interested in discovering the easiest way to fulfil the norms, or at least to give the impression that they have been fulfilled. This is how the workers take their revenge for the low wages paid by the state. It also explains why productivity is far lower than in the West, for Soviet workers have lost all sense of responsibility and all incentives to take risks.
(Leonhard, p.43; 1986)
When I was running the RBCC I found it much more difficult to persuade the staff in the Russian offices to try out new ways of doing things, even though I repeated time and again that I would not criticise anyone for putting forward ideas. Indeed, one of my mottoes, which all staff knew well, was, “There’s no such thing as a bad idea”. But the Soviet fear of taking the initiative frequently proved to be too strong – even among those young enough to have grown up in post-Soviet Russia.
Anyone who had the experience of shopping in the USSR will be able to identify with the next group of quotations. In a state-run economy such as the Soviet Union, where the armed forces are given the largest slice of the cake and the consumer counts for nothing (especially as he does not travel abroad and so can make no comparison with the standard of living in the West), “shortage” (дефицит, “defitsit”) becomes an essential, everyday word. Old women (brilliantly described by Robert Kaiser) are the ones with the most time to spend shopping and they would often take on this task either to help their children who were at work or to make a small profit for themselves by re-selling scarce goods.
Shopping seems to be the principal occupation of thousands of old women. There is no more typical Russian scene than a bulky grandmother wrapped in a black coat and wool kerchief, both arms weighted down by heavy shopping bags, moving purposefully along the street like an oversized, self-propelled pear.
(Kaiser, pp.62-63; 1976)
|Even GUM - often wrongly described as the biggest shop in the world, when in reality it was a huge covered shopping arcade - was not immune from defitsit
As George Feifer points out, though, even professional people would drop everything if they learnt that a defitsit item was available.
A brilliant young professor I know works on computer design in the mathematics faculty’s research department. But when his wife asks him to bring home some meat, he slips away early to stand on an hour-long line for a ham in an outlying store where his luck has been good before; then stuffs the precious, Pravda-wrapped kilo in his battered briefcase while the counterwoman bends over an old abacus to do her sums. This is the technology we live and understand.
(Feifer, p.64; 1976)
(Incidentally, the abacus continued for many years to be the standard way of adding up the bill in a state shop. The last time I saw one in use was in a village in Nizhny Novgorod Region in 2009.)
Almost as common a word as “defitsit” when shopping in Soviet times was “queue” (очередь, “ochered”). Frequently if people saw a queue they would automatically join it, even before they knew what it was for – if there was a queue there had to be something worth buying; if not for me then for my neighbour or friend, or simply to use for trade at a later date. Dusko Doder and Vladimir Voinovich both neatly sum up the place of the queue in Soviet society.
The queue is something more than the sum of the weary and irritable people it draws together; it is an entity per se, with its own logic and rules. Sentiments expressed at this level are an important indicator of the prevailing mood, for if there is a place to exercise a modicum of free speech, to let off steam in front of a crowd, the queue is this place – an impersonal forum where a common disgust at the hardships of daily existence justifies almost any criticism, any observation one might fling in a sardonic or humourous vein.
(Doder, p.279; 1986)
Whatever’s on sale, a line always forms, because everybody needs everything. A suffocating crowd, those in back pressing on those in front. Some faces are brimming with the resolution to stick it out and triumph; others have a look of doom about them. They already know that you will stand there all day, elbowed in the ribs, and when you finally get to the counter, you’ll hear the saleswoman yell to the cashier: “Stop accepting money for school uniforms! We’re all out!” and to the customers: “Citizens, don’t waste your time crowding around here!”
(Voinovich, The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union, pp.30-31; 1986)
|Illustration to Voinovich's The Anti-Soviet Soviet Union
But Voinovich’s quotation not only highlights the endless queueing which went on for all sorts of goods and produce in the USSR, it also illustrates the absurd system whereby people queued to order what they wanted at one place in the shop, queued at the cash desk to pay, then queued back at the first counter to hand over the check to collect the goods. (Curiously, a similar system used to operate until comparatively recently in Foyle’s bookshop in London.)
David Willis and Kaiser highlight an essential principle for shopping in Soviet times: when you see a scarce item, buy it and – vital in an economy where carrier bags were also scarce – make sure you always have a bag on you in which to carry that rare item.
The iron rule is that if Russians see something good, they buy it on the spot: he who hesitates may never see the item again.
(Willis, p.20; 1985)
Russians carry string bags with them at all times, in purse or pocket. They’re known as “just in case” bags, for use in case one happens across a desirable product for sale on the daily rounds.
(Kaiser, p.62; 1976)
It was not uncommon to see a white-collar worker open his briefcase and take out a salami wrapped in newspaper. He had either forgotten his “just in case” bag, or did not want the inconvenience of carrying an extra item. The classic “just in case” bag (авоська, “avoska”) was a highly expandable string bag: easy to fold up and stuff into a handbag, pocket or briefcase, but large enough to take some unexpected goodies. I recall seeing a classic example of the usefulness of the avoska in Kiev in June 1980. Kiev had been designated “an Olympic city”, as football matches were being played there as part of the Moscow Olympic Games. In the build-up to the Games, certain consumer goods started to appear in shops and even street-side kiosks. I saw a woman on a trolleybus with a bunch of green bananas in her avoska. (This was the only occasion in a whole year in Kiev that I saw bananas.) One by one just about every passenger on the trolleybus came up to the woman and asked discreetly either “Where did you get the bananas?” or “What are they?” There were long faces when they were told she had bought them in Darnitsa, a new suburb of Kiev about an hour and a half’s bus ride away. Even if they made the journey, they knew that the bananas would have long been sold out.
If defitsit and avoska were essential words in the vocabulary of the Soviet shopper, there were other terms you had to be aware of which could complicate the process of shopping. As Smith points out, shops could be closed for “cleaning”; “lunch-break” (particularly curious when seen in restaurants in the middle of the day); or “remont”.
The Russian shopper’s gauntlet is also complicated by the unpredictable interruptions of service and store closings… Soviet stores observe “cleaning days” and “inventory days” when business comes to a halt. Or the shopper can unexpectedly come upon a shop door marked remont, which means repair but which amounts to a universal cover-up for “out to lunch indefinitely”… Other establishments arrange their own breaks with scant thought for customers, such as the buffet in the lobby of the Ukraine Hotel which is closed from noon to 2 p.m.
(Smith, The Russians, pp.91-92; 1977)
After defitsit, remont was probably the next most common word in the USSR in the 1970’s. It literally means “repair” or “refurbishment”, but could mean an establishment was closed for a few days or even months. Another knock-on effect of the Olympic football matches taking place in Kiev was that in the year leading up to the Games just about every restaurant and hotel and hundreds of shops were closed for varying periods for remont.
Another experience I had of inconvenient closing times came as late as 1989. I needed to change some money into roubles; there were very few places in Moscow where you could do this legally. One was in an office next door to the Intourist Hotel. I went there at around a quarter past two, to find that it was closed from 1400 to 1500. So I set off across Red Square for the Hotel Rossiya, where I knew there was another exchange facility. The Rossiya boasted that it was the biggest hotel in Europe; it was also one of the least comfortable and least convenient. It had four entrances – north, south, east and west – and guests staying in one would frequently find that the restaurant where they had to eat was accessible only from another entrance. I eventually found the currency exchange office in the Rossiya at five past three…to discover that that bureau was closed for lunch from 1500 to 1600!
These next two quotations illustrate that through all the inconvenience of shopping and much of everyday life in the USSR the best way to survive was to preserve your sense of humour.
“Stephen, you in the West don’t know what real joy is. When you want something, you just go to a shop and buy it. But here, we come across unexpected things every day, things that weren’t there yesterday and won’t be there tomorrow. And if we manage to buy one of these rare goods, we celebrate it! That’s real joy!”
(Dalziel – as told to me by a friend shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)
“But really, there’s nothing to worry about,” said Sociologist…” Life in Ibansk has greatly improved. Look at the facts. It’s only smoked sausage that has disappeared – there’s still plenty of boiled sausage about. The price of meat hasn’t written by 500 per cent, as was expected, but only by 350 per cent. Thirty dissidents haven’t been sent to jail, as was planned – only 29.3. And even then they didn’t get ten years as they should have done, only seven, with four extra in special regime labour camps.”
(Zinoviev, p.453; 1981)
And this extract from Pravda shows that by mid-1987 Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of openness (glasnost) was beginning to have an effect on what was reported in the media.
Do you think that Odessa today is the real Odessa? I wouldn’t know it myself. Just think about it. You can’t get tickets for the cinema – they’re always sold out. You can’t get into the scientific library – you’ll just have to be content with reading the “No Entry” sign, because the building’s in a dangerous condition. You won’t get to see the doctor, because the hospitals are overcrowded. Don’t take your daughter to the kindergarten for the same reason. Take your son to the school for the third session – even though in many towns and villages they changed to the one-session system long ago. Don’t bother going to the banya – there’s no hot water. You can’t find fruit-juice to drink, or spice-cake to eat, and everywhere there are queues, queues…
(Pravda, 3 June 1987, Ох, Одесса! [Oh, Odessa!], p.3)
Just a year or two earlier, Pravda would never have published such open criticism. For Odessa one could substitute any Soviet town or city in later Soviet times.
So how did people get by in a world of shortages and queues? It was still common to see people better dressed than the average Soviet citizen, or with fancy goods in their apartments. You needed influence – access to something other people didn’t have which gave you bargaining power. As David Shipler points out money becomes of limited value when there is little to spend it on.
The mark of success in the Soviet Union today is a pair of jeans, or a decent piece of meat on the table, or the right to live in Moscow instead of in some dreary provincial town. Money is only incidental, for cash alone will not buy goods from barren shelves.
(Shipler, p.165; 1983)
This also helps to explain that when members of the Politburo spoke about their small salaries they were probably speaking the truth. Money wasn’t what mattered in the USSR; influence and connections and blat mattered. As for the jeans, any Western visitor to the country in the 1970’s and probably ‘eighties would have been pestered to sell their jeans. Smith and Shipler both give colourful descriptions of the intricacies of blat: a word which cannot be translated adequately into English, as in a consumer society there is no need for the concept.
Blat – influence, connections, pulling strings. In an economy of chronic shortages and carefully parcelled out privileges, blat is an essential lubricant of life. The more rank and power one has, the more blat one normally has. But actually almost anyone can bestow the benefits of blat on someone else – a doorman, a railroad car porter, a cleaning lady in a food store, a sales clerk, an auto mechanic, or a professor – because each has access to things or services that are hard to get and that other people want or need. Blat begins to operate when someone asks someone else a favour with the understanding of eventually doing a favour in return.
(Smith, The Russians, p.116; 1977)
|Shipler's description of the
working's of blat is classic
(Shipler, p.256; 1983)
Proving once again the value of a sense of humour in Soviet life, the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko apparently praises the fact that in the new Soviet society – unlike in Tsarist times – there was no need to pay bribes.
Nowadays they don’t take bribes. In the old days you couldn’t take a step without either giving or getting something.
But nowadays people’s characters have improved a great deal. They really don’t take bribes.
(Zoshchenko, p.192, Weak Packaging, Слабая тара, 1933-1935)
In fact, this is the start of an excellent short story which illustrates the difference between theory and practice in Soviet times. The man receiving parcels for transportation doesn’t take a bribe, as such; but every so often he says that someone’s parcel has “weak packaging” and so has to be strengthened; and the totally superfluous extra packaging has to be paid for… Everyone involved receives his cut. Anyone who has dealt with Soviet or Russian customs officials could identify with this story.
Finally in this chapter, Laurens van der Post and Martin Cruz Smith illustrate a couple of the petty rules which often seem to have been dreamt up just to make life that little bit harder for people in Russia:
One night already late for dinner, I rushed to my table in the dining-room, hat and coat on my arm, thinking I could leave them on one of the empty chairs by my side. But a waitress marched down on me and said severely: “You ought to know that no-one is allowed to bring his coat in here,” and I had to go all the way downstairs to leave hat and coat in the cloakroom before she would let me even have a peep at the menu.
(van der Post, p.252; 1965)
Hotels were out of the question; it was illegal to take a hotel room in your own city. (What good reason could a citizen have for not being home?)
(Cruz Smith, p.287; 1981)
And Joubert ends on a sombre note from the early twentieth century which, sadly, still has resonance today.
“He is a dear soul, with a noble nature.”
“Two qualities which are out of place in this country, and which will eventually land him in a penal settlement.”
(Joubert, p.277; 1904)