The great boogeyman behind the Iron Curtain, the arch-nemesis, the lumbering giant that was the Soviet Union, ceased to exist in a spectacular implosion over two decades ago. However, similarly to other oversized extinct beasts, it continues to fascinate the minds of the current generation the world over.
It is an interesting feeling to know that you were born in a country that is no more, particularly when the lore surrounding the Motherland is rich with tales of inter-continental military tensions, arms races, and quests for space domination. The enigma of the Soviet Union as a super-power quite decisively overshadows the everyday reality of those of us who called it home. So, what was it like behind the Curtain? What if your goal was not to build a bigger and better ballistic missile that would certainly make the Americans pack up theirs toys and leave the sandbox? For those who saw happiness in universally human acts like raising a family and for those who did their growing up in the USSR, life in the Soviet presented a unique set of rewards and challenges. Here is a brief look at some of them.
The Birth of a Nation
Soviet babies were born in specialized birthing centres. Like every other service in the country, these were funded by the government and their performance was such that almost every woman who became a mother in one of those establishments has a horror story to share. According to many accounts, women were ignored, starved, unable to use a washroom since they were locked overnight, told to “stop screaming and just get on with it”. Visitations were not allowed, relatives and even fathers would have to wait until the new mom was discharged to comfort her and meet the newborn. One of the most iconic scenes of Soviet family life was an expecting father anxiously pacing under the windows of a birth centre. Finally, his wife or a nurse would open the window and yell out the happy news. It is quite shocking that this practice is only now becoming less common in Russia. A law supporting partnered birth was passed only five years ago! Experiences like that speak volumes about the mental and physical resilience of our mothers. However, after dealing with isolation, insults, infections, and complications, many were too traumatized to consider having more kids.
As the title of this article implies, my Soviet childhood was free from junk food. To this day I see many raised eyebrows when people find out that I have never had McDonald’s. At the time when it finally snuck into the country, my teenaged brain knew what I was dealing with and had no interest in “loving it”. We were raised on fresh home-made food. Granted, at the time we hated it… Soviet Union prohibited private business under the criminal code and, consequently, there was no stimulus to introduce new types of food or restaurant chains. As a child of the 80’s I witnessed the Curtain lift just enough to let in a whiff of exotic foreign deliciousness. We craved pizza which the Ninja Turtles enjoyed every day. They eat pizza exclusively and look ripped, it must be good for you (though we don’t know what’s going on under those shells)! I coerced my mother into making pizza at home one day and was pretty upset when it wasn’t gooey and stretchy like what I saw in the cartoons. Yes, we were obsessed with every glimpse of the West, including food. Now when the tide has turned and the general population longs for “ingredients that your grandmother can pronounce”, I consider my ignorance of junk food from day one a true blessing.
Pain and pleasure, Soviet style
Speaking of food… there wasn’t any. Well, not in the grocery stores anyway, that would have been too easy. A true communist is a fighter and a survivor. So, true to their peasant working-class roots, the majority of Soviet families simply grew their own food out of necessity. This phenomenon of Soviet (and to a large extent modern Russian) life is know as “dacha”. Technically, a dacha is a cottage with a garden; many families in many countries have summer cottages, but the Russians turned this type of holiday into a peculiar mix of recreation and labour camp. You know that it’s spring in Russia when every weekend the cities lose their inhabitants who can be found bum-up on their allotments planting stuff and tending to their future crops.
Every Soviet child has done “dacha” time. If child labour were legal, at one ruble per turnip, I would have been able to pay for my education. The opinion on these weekend getaways varies. Some feel that fresh air, work in the garden, fishing, eating crunchy veggies and succulent berries make for some of the happiest childhood memories. Others believe that sleeping in a tiny cabin, using an outhouse, being eaten alive by bugs, hauling manure, and digging in the dirt for hours on end does not add up to a cottage experience. However debatable, dacha was at one time a life-saving institution and continues to be firmly ingrained in the Russian family lifestyle, although on a more voluntary basis and with a much more hobby-like feel.
Growing your own food, wearing all-natural textiles, not using deodorant, and saving electricity and water (mainly because they would be sporadically and indefinitely shut off) were just some of the “green” efforts pioneered in the Soviet Union long before the dawn of the modern eco-warrior. However, to cement their leadership position, the Soviets often went really green… literally. From the day your baby learns to walk, you, as a parent, enter the era of scrapes and bruises. Soviet medicine found a bizarre solution to disinfect minor wounds and speed up the healing of infectious lesions like chicken pox. The miracle cure became affectionately known as “the green stuff”, more formally a 1% alcoholic solution of Brilliant Green. It is a dye used industrially to colour fibres and wood, and a useful laboratory reagent used to stain specimens for microscopic studies. It is effective against Gram positive bacteria, causes blindness if introduced into the eyes, causes severe poisoning when ingested… and is great to put on a nursing mother’s nipples when they crack! Apparently, Soviet babies were survivors from the start; if you pass the poison test, you can build a socialist paradise. It was so common to see kids sporting bright green blotches on various injured body parts. Like every other Soviet child, my sister and I went through chicken pox and, true to tradition, every blister was diligently treated with the “green stuff” to make us look like spotty alien beings. The best part is that dyes are made to stick, so the green alien phase continues until the top skin layer is replaced with a new one.
In Soviet Russia, the doctor comes to you
This was certainly a nice, personal touch of the communist health care system and it was normal practice. It was as old-fashioned as the rest of Soviet medicine, but unlike other archaic aspects, this one actually made sense. If you have a sick child at home, wouldn’t you prefer not to get them dressed and drag them to the ER? Our family doctor used to make house calls for all sorts of health-related issues. Every clinic had a certain area that was covered by the hard-working and severely under-paid doctors. They would walk from patient to patient in any weather because duty called and physicians take the same oath the world over. Our doctor carried a leather bag which contained her sparse supplies and a stethoscope that was so cold after being carried around all day in Siberian winter. Our family survived all kinds of childhood diseases “in spite of Soviet healthcare” as many Russians like to joke. Sure, every joke has a grain of truth, but I have seen many knowledgeable, compassionate clinicians who simply did their best in a failing system.
To sum it all up, growing up Soviet was an experience like no other; nowadays I call it the “twilight zone”. Everything in life is relative, so for my adult self who only deals with first-world problems, many of the scenes from the past seem like undue hardship. As a child, though, I had no concept of a different existence and the same goes for the others around me who enjoyed the simple pleasures in life. I explored my world as zealously as any other kid, and no amount of social-economic barriers or top-level political games could stop that. The people behind the Curtain fell in love, started families, never used child seats in cars, painted their boobs green, spent their weekends planting potatoes, and still managed to give us, their kids, a childhood to cherish.