What are the biggest American misconceptions about the Soviet Union/Communism?

I’ve been to a couple of former soviet countries in the last couple of years and have lots of friends who grew up in soviet countries. I’ve always been enthralled by how different their lives must have been from mine as a kid, but also I’ve been surprised to hear how normal their lives seemed to be too. I think I had sort of 1984 view of soviet/Russian/whatever communist life.

So, for those of you who are familiar with Soviet countries or with COld War stuff, I’m wondering if there are certain big fat American misconceptions about what life was like, about things that were done, etc. Have any of them died out? Are there some that just always seem to persevere?

I was seven or eight when the wall fell. I had no idea what the big deal was. Now, I’m playing cath-up.*

*I’ll take any suggestions for good books on the subject.

In Soviet Russia, country has misconceptions about you!

First, I should note that I was eleven when the Berlin Wall fell, so I didn’t really have fully formed ideas about Communism, and I definitely didn’t know much about its ideology. BUT: I thought that most people hated it, and are glad that it’s gone (at least in E. Europe).

I’ve found that, at least here in Bulgaria, there is some amount of nostalgia and longing for Communist times. Back then, everyone had a guaranteed job and the government provided healthcare. Now, unemployment is high, the promised democracy is often inefficient, and most people over thirty are unequipped to deal with life in a free market economy. They were raised in a system that discouraged competition and encouraged working together. Additionally, the government controlled pretty much everything; now, people have to make decisions and fix things themselves and they generally have no idea where to even start.

I’m not sure how much of this is just looking at the past through rose-colored lenses, but the transition from one system to another has been really difficult. It’s not hard to see why people would long for past.

Heh heh. Well timed. You’ll make a nice addition to the community.

Robert Conquest has written numerous books about the Soviet Union.

I’ve read a couple of them. They are primarily about life under Stalin, his purges, arrests, the means used to extract confessions, executions and of course the Gulag.

If you are looking specifically for books about the daily routine of the average Soviet citizen I can’t help you.

I think as a kid I sort of assumed everyone was very dour in the soviet countries. Even the kids. Like no one laughed because nothing was that funny to them. I imagine lots of shrugs and “Ehs” being said.

Yakoff Smirnoff changed all that.

According to a friend, her father, a mathematician of no mean ability (he qualified for the IMO), held, for several years, a job entailed no work, as no tasks were ever given. He and his coworkers therefore spent the day playing computer games, even developing elaborate individual strategies.

According to a Russian friend, her father, a mathematician of no mean ability (he qualified for the IMO), held, for several years, a job entailed no work, as no tasks were ever given. He and his coworkers therefore spent the day playing computer games, even developing elaborate individual strategies. This, it would seem, would fit nicely with the conception of Soviet inefficiency.

Try to find a copy of the great CNN documentary “Cold War.” For the most part it covers the political and military aspects of the era, but there is some interesting information about the experience of the average person.

I spoke at length once with an old man from Belarus who had immigrated to Michigan. I asked him about growing up in the Soviet Union and what it was like, and he said that he was very happy going through it – he was a young man back then; he grew up, fell in love, had kids, developed a career. Until he moved to the West he didn’t know what freedoms he had been missing out on the whole time, but that at the time he was perfectly happy.

I had some Polish roommates who remembered waiting in line all day at the grocery store as kids.

I grew up during the Cold War, and there was a whole lot that we were taught about the Soviet Union. I’m still not sure whether there’s any truth to some of them. But here’s a partial list of things if “you” were a citizen of the Soviet Union. Keep in mind, when I was young I believed all of this. Later (pre-teen age and older) I tended to doubt most of it, because of all the other things we were told that were obviously lies, such as info about drugs and the Vietnam war. Now, as I read some dissident Soviet literature, I see that at least some of it may have been true (to some extent).

[li]You’re not allowed to choose your profession, the government tells you what you are allowed to do.[/li][li]You don’t know what’s going on anywhere outside of the Soviet Union.[/li][li]You aren’t allowed to travel within the Soviet Union unless you have some kind of very special permission.[/li][li]Any time you have to buy anything, including food, you have to wait on a long line, and when it’s finally your turn, the dour salespeople treat you like dirt.[/li][li]It’s almost impossible to buy anything other than basic goods which are produced by the state. Fresh fruit, gourmet food, stylish clothing, etc. don’t exist.[/li][li]Doctors are paid the same as garbagemen. (This was supposed to be a bad thing.)[/li][li]The secret police are everywhere. It’s hard to have meaningful conversations with strangers (even if you’re a Soviet citizen) because anyone could be in the secret police.[/li][li]There’s always a neighbor who’s going to inform on you for something, even if it’s innocuous like listening to Beatles records.[/li][li]The state tells you where you’re allowed to live, and forces you to live with roommates even if you don’t want to.[/li][li]If you’re Jewish you’re spied upon more than most people, and have stricter rules about where you can work and about higher education.[/li][li]If you’re athletic, you get all kinds of privileges, and you are forced to take drugs so you beat other teams in the Olympics.[/li][li]Russian Olympic judges are all corrupt and always give low marks to Americans.[/li][li]You’re dying to buy jeans, but the only place to get them is the black market.[/li][li]The only place to buy anything good is the black market.[/li][li]You’re taught that the U.S. is a terrible place, and that there are millions of poor black people (actually not too far from the truth).[/li][li]There are communist meetings at work that you are forced to attend.[/li][li]Party members get preference in everything.[/li][li]Everything manufactured in the Soviet Union (including items for the space program) are inferior to those in the U.S. – except furs.[/li][li]The housing is inexpensive and medical care is free, but the quality of medical care is terrible.[/li][li]Soviet bombers could appear at any time over the U.S. to start a nuclear war.[/li][/ol]

Oh, I forgot #21: The citizens are so miserable that they’re constantly drunk.

#22: There are no restaurants, except in tourist hotels.

#23: The Soviet Union gives guns to most of the Africans and to any rebels in South America.

Many Americans are unaware of the 1958-62 famine in China. Through that and many other purposeful disasters, Mao managed to kill about seventy million of his countrymen. Remarkable how many people don’t understand he was a monster.

In the same vein, Lenin seems to get a free ride. Stalin we know was evil, but Lenin often seems to be judged more generously for some reason.

Lenin said “Freedom is so precious it needs to be rationed.” Probably one of the most evil things anyone’s ever said.

One of many Americans’ biggest misconceptions about Communism is that it’s the intended result of Liberalism, and if the Democrats had their “big government” way, we’d be served our hamburgers by government workers just as surly as those at the DMV; and all public restrooms would be nationalized, with the toilet paper spools filled as often as the potholes are now by public works drones. (subtext: not only would they be boors like Russians, but they’d be Black, justifying it all with racial revenge!)

We were taught that communist countries were gray and dreary and you didn’t get to have cool things like food (except maybe beets) or TV (or if you had a TV all the channels just showed boring commie propaganda. Commies would have to propagandize constantly to convince their subjects that communism was loads of fun.)

We were also taught that the communists would take over the US and send those of us who knew the deep dark truth of communism to Siberia (the teacher who told us this said her son would certainly be sent to Siberia, but since he lived in Alaska and was used to cold weather he could handle it.)

And there was the belief that Russian women were 10 feet tall and had beards and that people in Eastern Block countries drank tank fuel when they ran out of Vodka.

I grew up in New Zealand, and I don’t recall any Anti-Soviet propaganda when I was at school.

We were told that people in Russia didn’t get to vote for the people running their country, and that there were massive queues involved in doing anything, and that they weren’t allowed to leave the country without special permission from the Government, and, of course, the whole KGB thing- but it was all very matter-of-fact, without any of the “Communism’s Bad, M’kay?” propaganda that seemed to be so prevalent in the US.

Oddly, Russian-made stuff wasn’t seen as being utter shit- a lot of it was seen as being tough and durable, and I knew a couple of people who owned Ladas and were very happy with them.

FWIW, I was born in 1981, so I was only 8 when the Berlin Wall came down… most of what I’ve subsequently learnt about the former Soviet Union has either come from Frederick Forsyth novels or from my own research into WWII.

I’d have to say that the biggest misconception about the Soviet Union that I’m aware of, is that they were actively interested in invading Western Europe and starting World War III.

This was the reason for the entire Cold War military buildup on our side.

As far as I can tell, the Soviet government and people were so traumatized by the German invasion in World War II, that they were somewhat paranoid about being invaded again, and therefore put a buffer zone of client states between themselves and the rest of Europe, as well as kept a large standing army stationed in those states as further deterrence.

This just made us more paranoid, so we stationed more troops there, and the cycle continued.

At some point, it occurred to me that the Soviets were probably as scared of us as we were of them, maybe more so.

I guess my biggest misconception was that the old Soviet Union was an economic powerhouse. Instead, it seems to have been constantly weak, and on the verge of banruptcy! Take the so-called "Space race’-the Soviet Union seemed to be scoring "firsts’ in space for a long time-till we learned that:
-the Russians ran some pretty reckless missions
-they were using the same hardware, over and over
-their economy was collapsing-soon after Gagarin’s space flight, the country had to buy massive quantities of grain, to prevent a famine.
Somehow, the myth of the efficiency of the communist sytem persisted for years. I think the whole rickety facde was propped up by:
-massive sales of gold, diamonds, raw materials
-the huge run-up in crude oil prices
If you read about soviet military disasters 9like “K-18” and the “KURSK”, you wonder how the soviet military ran at all!

As a child of the 80s (born in '73), I nodded sagely at every single one of these points.