Ask the Wacky American Chick Who Watched the Soviet Union Collapse

OK, the title is perhaps a slight exaggeration, but I was a student in the Russian for Foreigners department at then-Leningrad State University (photo here) during the fall semester of 1989, during which (among other things) the Berlin Wall came down and Nicolae Ceaucescu was executed.

It was definitely a wild and wacky time that changed my life immensely in all sorts of ways, large and small, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The USSR busted all sorts of preconceptions I’d been raised with (my mom’s reaction was "but why do you want to go there? I mean, our families tried forgenerations to leave, and now you want to go back?! I actually had to forge her signature on the program application, as I was under 21 when I applied, but I figured if I was old enough to enlist in the military, I was old enough to apply to an academic program.) I’ve written about it in bits and pieces around the SDMB over the years (one of my favorite stories can be found here). But by request, I’d like to give everyone the opportunity to, erm, interrogate me about the period and the experience.

(If others would like to contribute their experiences, by all means, in true socialist spirit, this is meant as a communal undertaking, so please do share. I’ll try to answer everyone to the best of my ability, sooner or later.)

Many of us have heard that, in Soviet Russia, the cars drove the people, rather than the other way around. Was this in fact true? How did the transition back to people driving cars work? Did it all happen in a day, or was it a drawn-out process? Or are the cars still driving the people today? Did many cars drive you while you were there?

Sorry, had to be done.

Sometimes, when I hear people talking about “Communist Russia” (a viewpoint they seem to have gleaned mostly from movies and urban legends) they seem to have the impression that the miserably oppressed people went around in a perpetual state of fear of being arrested.

Can you tell us something about the lives of the people living under Communism before its fall? Did they have the “yearning to breathe free” that we always imagine that people around the world have (i.e wanting to be just like Americans) and chafing at their restrictions? Or, (as I suspect), was it that most people didn’t really feel all that oppressed in their daily lives?

I was stationed in Europe during the same time period, as a Russian linguist. Later, as the Soviet Union “collapsed,” I went on to become a Russian interpreter, and got to go on various missions in the former USSR. I’ve been the first American in a few places, and learned to really respect & love your average down-home country Russian. Some of the best belly-filling gosh-darned good-ass food I’ve had in my life was prepared completely from scratch out on someone’s family’s farm in the middle of Kamchatka by a little old granny who seemingly owned nothing more than a shack, a cow, and a chicken. Good times!

Well, my experience may have been rather skewed - I was living in a dorm, and all my friends were college students, as were most of their friends. So practically nobody I knew had access to a car. I think I’ve only been a car in Russia once, in a total of about 7 months that I’ve spent there. But traffic was basically not an issue anywhere I’ve ever been in Russia except central Moscow. I imagine things are quite different now, at least in major cities - I haven’t been there in far too long.

Russia was at that time, and still is filled with cars. Little rickety cars. Your average Russian is a better car mechanic than your average American car mechanic. If your car breaks down, there’s no AAA.

But it’s the roads that are truly scary. People drive about as crazy as anywhere else. But in Russia, a pot-hole the size of a small crater forms on a main road, and no one bothers to mark it off or repair it. Just avoid it. If you hit it, well there goes your axle. Up to you to fix it. Amazingly, they’re just really good at avoiding these pot-holes, even in traffic at high speed. Makes for scary riding as a passenger sometimes though.

Well, it probably depends a lot on who you’re talking about, and as above, my sample was rather skewed toward university students. I would have loved (well, maybe “loved” isn’t quite the right word) to experience the Soviet Union in, say, the 1970s to see the difference; by 1989, your average urban intellectual was rather discontented about the material and political dislocation, and not terribly shy about expressing it.

From the mid-1980s onward, the USSR did see quite a number of ethnic conflicts; as the material situation got worse and worse while the economy collapsed, the natural human response was to blame it all on the Other Guy. The results were pretty bloody in places like the Ferghana Valley and Nagorno-Karabagh, among others. I’m sure people complained before glasnost’, but more below the surface. And there is certainly a good deal of nostalgia still, especially among older people who haven’t fared well during the transition, for the days when there was practically no street crime, and a loaf of bread cost 5 kopecks.

:o :o My “question” was supposed to be a silly little Yakov Smirnoff joke! But I guess it was too subtle and/or stupid and fell flat :o :o

Oh well. Everyone: just pretend I was asking a serious question about traffic in Russia and that Eva answered it beautifully.

On preview, it looks like my “question” has spawned a discussion on the side. I’ll just pretend that’s intentional :cool:

However brief it was, running down the highway with the wind in your face and smoke coming out your butt is a joy most of us will never know.

Since you lived in a dorm I assume you ate in a university cafeteria, right? Did you shop at all? How was the selection? Were any of your Soviet classmates critical of the Soviet government or it’s leaders? Is it true that female university students had to attend ROTCish classes? What about pop culture? Television? Was popular Soviet music very different (style-wise) than American? How much did people actually know about the USA?

No freaking kidding. In 1995, our group was supposed to go from Novosibirsk to Altai Region, on the Mongolian border. I looked at a map and couldn’t figure out why we needed to leave aside a whole day, during daylight, to get there - it was only a couple hundred kilometers.

My (Russian) semi-boyfriend was laughing hysterically - he explained that especially in southern Siberia, “road” is a relative term. And he was absolutely right - we hurtled down a semi-paved road at what felt like breakneck speed, but was probably 20 miles per hour. The road wound through the Altai mountain range with no guardrails or lights or reflectors, and once the bus came to a sudden dead halt - there was a crater probably 20 feet wide in the middle of the road, with a 500 foot dropoff on the other side. That was, erm, hair-raising.

And then there was the idiot in my group who decided to buy a kebab at what passed for a roadside rest stop, next to wandering muddy cows and an open pit latrine. He got dysentery.

The one in the dorm was terrifying - so many of us got food poisoning on a weekly basis that we eventually got back the money we’d paid upfront for the semester and tried our luck in the local supermarkets, ration coupons and all. (I still have my leftover ration coupons - sugar, tea, soap, and laundry detergent were rationed.) The cafeteria on the university campus was decent, by Soviet standards - at least I never got food poisoning there.

Most of us did buy a few things, in an attempt to stay warm and/or blend in. (The poor guy from St. Thomas, who thought a fleece-lined windbreaker and high-top basketball sneakers were sufficient winter attire, for one- he was sick all semester. At least I’m used to cold weather and brought a proper coat and boots.) Lots of people bought fur hats, in particular, though the decent ones usually needed to be bought on the black market. In Russia there is no conception that wearing fur is a Bad Thing, and I can’t say that I blame people for wearing fur hats when it’s 40 below zero.

Selection? Bwaahahhhaaa! Actually, by 1989 there were a few “cooperative” (capitalist) clothing stores, and I did buy a couple of things (a nice wool shawl with flowers painted on it, which I still have). And a purple naugahyde book bag (which, as one classmate joked, was made only from the finest naugas), because a backpack was dead certain to mark you as a foreigner ripe for pickpocketing. I did a pretty good job of blending in, and was frequently mistaken for an Armenian.

Not leaders per se, but just policies they saw as idiotic. My first roommate was studying for her doctoral comps in Arabic literature, but she also had to take a whole other set of comps in communist theory in order to continue with her studies. 1989 was the last year anyone had to do that - she had studied hard, and boy, was she pissed.

Yep. Also, at harvest time, there was the kartoshka (literally, “potato”), in which all students and military personnel had to drop everything and go out to the fields to bring in the harvest. My BF figured that as he had served in Spetsnaz and been injured in Afghanistan, though, the kartoshka could basically fuck off, and nobody ever bothered him about it.

Music videos were INCREDIBLY tacky and mostly looked like they had been made in someone’s basement. Investigative journalism was just developing; one program was 600 Seconds, which did a lot of local expose-type things.

There were a few homegrown groups which had a HUGE impact on musical thought, not to mention on democratization; my favorite was Kino, headed by Viktor Tsoi. Musically they weren’t so hugely differnt than what was going on in proto-alt-rock in the West at the time, except that the lyrics had all sorts of veiled metaphorical references to Soviet life, which was to be expected.

A hell of a lot more than most Americans knew about the USSR, except that the view of race relations in particular was really skewed. I think your average Soviet had no idea that there is a black middle class in the U.S. When my boyfriend came to Chicago the following summer, he was astonished to see black cops and made me ask if he could have his picture taken with them, because he said his friends at home would never believe that America had such a thing.

Not really a collapse question, but how gruesomely cold did it get? For how long? Were you safe inside? Forgive the silly question, but I spend most of my life avoiding cold weather.

Well, my dorm was located on the Bay of Finland, so pretty damn cold. But really it wasn’t much colder than Chicago can get in the winter; it can reach 40 below zero here on occasion, and I remember once in high school we went Christmas caroling with a wind chill of -67 Fahrenehit. So I was OK, but a lot of people were pretty screwed.

Plus in the U.S. you can pretty much count on the heat working consistently, which wasn’t the case in Russia. (Let’s not even talk about the hot water.) The lovely 18th-century building where we had classes basically had no heat; we sat in class in layers of tights, long wool coats, long johns, hats, and lined boots. Ever try taking notes with mittens on? Not fun. Many days you could see your breath in the classroom. Plus the dark was very depressing - by December it was light outside from about 10 am to 2 pm. I could definitely understand the issues with depression and alcoholism.

One interesting little tid-bit about this transitional time period. Before they became more westernized, they used the Russian word for “Negro” which was “Nyegger.” Yes, it looks & sounds like the bad word, but certainly wasn’t meant that way. Sometime in the 80’s or early 90’s, as they became a bit more hip, they switched to using the literal word for the color black, which sounds like “chyorny.” I’m sure you could find lots of older Russians who’d still use the old term though.

Sorry, much pop culture is terribly wasted on me, particularly TV. :slight_smile: And Yakov Smirnoff in particular annoys the crap out of me.

Does anybody still believe in domovois these days? Just what pagan customs, if any, still survive?

The Russian market in my neighborhood has a massive selection of honey. I’ve heard from others that Russians are excessively fond of the stuff, but no one can tell me why. Why?

Just how did people view the government?

Is vodka really that popular? I’ve read some things suggesting it’s viewed as the drink of winos and teenagers.

What were the views on nudity? I’ve got a copy of a magazine aimed at ex-Soviet yuppies with some nudity and I’m trying to decide whether METPO is trying to be edgy, or if it’s no big deal.

Am I right about survival in general being harder in the USSR? All the immigrants here have various behaviors that point to this.

What’s up with all the black currants? Is there a reason the Russian market has no grape jelly? Were there no grapes in Russia?

Have you read Monday Begins On Saturday? I get the feeling I’m missing a bunch of political satire in that book.

How do Georgians deal with the very different view the rest of the USSR had of Stalin?

Following on from the last question, I have been given to understand that a significant percentage of the Russian population would welcome the return of a Stalinesque regime. From what I have read about Stalin (mainly Robert Conquest) I am less than impressed by his leadership qualities, particularly his bad habit of sending people to the Gulag and forgetting all about them.

Can you tell me the strength of feeling about this matter?

Thank you for starting this thread.

Great thread, Eva Luna! I spent a month in Russia in the summer of 1994, and I’d love to go back.

When I was there, I noticed that men drank a lot, but that women seemed to drink less. It seemed as though obvious excessive alcohol consumption was considered unfeminine. Is that a fairly accurate perception?

What was the “dream job” for your classmates?

What did college students do for fun?