The past is a different country

Maxim Agrest, 3rd Form pupil, takes a personal journey of discovery through the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) through conversation with his Ukrainian born mother.

The UK and the USSR are two very differnt places.  Or, were two very different places – after all, the USSR does not exist any more.  Everyone knows that the USSR could be a genuinely terrible place to live, and I have been fascinated to explore the full extent of the difficulties of life there and indeed some of the more positive aspects of the country.  My mother comes from Ukraine originally, so I decided to speak extensively with her to help develop my understanding from her personal recollections.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a place that was, as many know, heavily opposed to western items and influence; however it was actually really surprising to find out that jeans – just jeans – were completely illegal there, carrying with them a prison sentence. Having any other currency on you was completely illegal as well, also resulting in a sentence. Listening to non-Soviet music was the same, and the same with DJs. Everything, as I was told by my mother, had to go through the government, and the government judged entertainment harshly, meaning that most entertainment ended up being banned or remade completely. Most bands, in fact, were pretty much the same. There was a lot of school concerts, involving dancing, music, poems, and even singing – normally to celebrate a certain holiday.

Books and other forms of literature were a more interesting case. There were massive libraries often found at schools and in the state. Having a private collection was incredibly hard because there was always a deficit when it came to books, which meant you had to sign and wait to buy a book. Another part of the system was recycling, since there were so many magazines and newspapers which you got daily. There were so many that the Soviet Union decided, depending on how many kilograms of them you had, you could get a book. Obviously, the books were still censored – especially any books that said anything bad about communism, or something good about capitalism. It didn’t matter where in the world the books came from, be it Germany or Zimbabwe – they were probably censored. History books were banned entirely, and rewritten to feature the USSR in the best way possible.

TV was another form of entertainment that was complicated. There were two channels that covered the entire USSR, though only one of them was really watched, and that was the one in Russian, the other being in Ukrainian. Sometimes broadcasts on Channel Two would be in Russian, but that was rare and often times it ended up being Ukrainian. The USSR and the people who lived in it were particularly fond of Italian and French movies, though any parts that could be even slightly considered as against the USSR would be cut out or, if there were too many parts, have the movie destroyed. Movies were only really available on some big holidays.

Holidays themselves were largely limited to territories owned by the USSR unless you were able to pay large sums of money. The most popular holiday location was going to the Black Sea in the Crimea – which my mother compared to going to Spain. A few holidays were based around historic events, so museums and historical sites saw use more often than not during those times of celebration and relative joy. Going out of the country was practically unheard of.  To go to any other country you had to receive special permission, though as I said earlier, it was possible to pay amounts of money. However, paying to go to countries in the West like the UK, France, or even the USA, was… well, impossible.

Prejudice and discrimination were a mixed feature of the USSR. Though there was gender-based discrimination, a wage gap was unheard of since there could never be any money being paid to someone apart from the set amount for that job. Bonuses and other items were impossible. Racism did not seem prominent, as the USSR was actually good friends with quite a few African countries, and often had African students there to study, since the education was actually quite good. In fact, the USSR often ended up helping countries in need in Asia and Africa. The biggest problem was discrimination when it came to those who were physically disabled. They were forced to stay indoors, not receiving anything and with many restrictions, just so that the USSR could pretend that all of its people were perfect. It was horrible. In fact, sometimes when a baby was born with a disability, they would be taken by the government and placed in a ‘special’ home just for what they probably referred to as ‘people like them’. That alone condemns the USSR in my judgement.

The quality of life for others, though, was fine. In fact, quite good. Education, including universities, was free. In fact, students would be paid by the state to go to school at around 50% of the salary of a normal job. There were high levels of service both medically and educationally, and medical services – just like educational services – were completely free. Healthy lifestyles were incredibly important in the USSR, and so clubs or groups were easily accessible.

People without healthy lifestyles were severely treated, however. An example might be an alcoholic. He would be taken to a meeting, and everyone he knew would sit there, with him. Co-workers, friends, romantic friends, and family all sat around him to break him, mentally. Anything and everything could be used as long as he broke down, ready to be re-created from the ground up. Being drunk on the street was illegal and it meant that the police would come and take you to a room that never got food, heating, or outside contact – only you would be there, and all of those penalties would stay until you were completely and utterly sober. After you became sober, a massive fine would be waiting for you. Tobacco, however, was fine. It didn’t matter. Alcohol ended up being the main, yet still legal, problem – though for a period during the 1980s it was not allowed. Considerable restrictions were set nonetheless, such as the fact that only a limited amount was allowed per person, and it could only be sold or bought from midnight to 2am – a late and very restrictive slot. Recreational drugs, however, unlike either tobacco or alcohol, were completely illegal.

The armed forces were an attractive option for people.  The military had three times the salary of a normal job and a special shop they could buy from which included Western products such as perfume or makeup, which you would often have to wait hours to actually get from a normal shop. It also meant that members of the military never suffered when any shortage came along, since they always had well-stocked shelves in those special shops.

Maxim Agrest, 3rd Form pupil

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