What was life like under the soviet system?

What was life like in Russia in the late 1950’s till the late 1960’s?
Did the standard of living go down what was work like and everyday life and why was everybody alcoholics?

Well, first of all I think one has to forget the Western cliché that virtually everybody in the communist bloc was living in fear 24 hours a day, waiting for the day when the USSR collapses. The majority of people, while not necessarily ardent communists, more or less agreed with the system as a whole, although civil liberties were restricted and elections were predetermined.

AFAIK the standard of living heavily improved after WWII. During the Stalin era, the government invested everything into heavy industries, neglecting private consumers. When Krushchev took over, he promised Soviet citizens “gulash communism”, a time of wealth and prosperity. Although the general standard of living was significantly lower than in the Western world, it began to rise, and all in all the Soviet Union was one of the richer countries in the world (just remember what Soviet Ambassador deSadeski says in Dr Strangelove: “But in the end, we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. And at the same time, our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines.”). To many Russians, life was better under communist rule than it is now.

There have been countless books on the subject War and even though it isn’t quite as broad a subject undoubtedly there are many books written about life in the Soviet Union and what it was like.

Ignoring all the books on War General William Tecumseh Sherman took a deep breath and summed it up in these words: “War is Hell”. I think you could say the same thing about life in the Soviet Union.

Martin Cruz Smith’s books paint a rich picture of life under the Soviet system. “Gorky Park” and “The Polar Star” are two of them, and I can’t remember the names of others he wrote about the Soviet Union. Some of his books are not about the Soviet Union, in case you just go to the library and look for his name.

I don’t know much about the quality of life in the USSR, but I have heard stories that much of the general pop. was displeased with the inequitable standard of living afforded to Communist party members who had access to western goods like, washing machines, designer clothes, and luxury cars. I too, would be pissed if I lived in a society where, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” applied to everyone except a few elite big wigs.

To get a clearer picture, you’ll also want to read “The Gulag Archipelago”.

You have to remember that in even the most despotic totalitarian countries, life can be pretty good for those who are in power or who serve the state particularly well. The quality of a society is measured by the treatment of those who DON’T fit in particularly well.

I’m sure that if you were a strong communist, with good party connections, and a good education, you could have a fairly decent career, move up the social ladder, and do some interesting, exciting things in your line of work.

And while the income gap between the richest and poorest was much narrower than in the west (if you consider ‘income’ to be how many Rubles you earned), the ‘quality of life’ difference was just about as wide. If you worked your way up to local party representative or had a good job in an important industry, that might get you permission to shop in exclusive stores like the GUM department store, which would get you access to good and services that regular people didn’t have. And while the average worker might have to wait years for a crappy car or a tiny apartment, the important people could jump the queue. The real big bosses (local factory owners, party bosses, etc) would get the exlusive use of government limousines and private dachas and plenty of vacations. In the meantime, the average Russian has something like 100 sq ft of living space (i.e. a family of six in a 600 sq ft apartment), waiting years for luxury goods like TV’s or cars, and the women stood in lines for hours every day to collect staple foodstuffs, clothing, and whatever else they needed. Most of which was cheap and of poor quality.

So you wind up with something similar to what you find in capitalist countries - the people who make things work get the perks and rewards, and the average laborers get the shaft. The difference is that the overall standard of living for all of them was lower, and that the entire creaky infrastructure was kept together through repression of dissent, censorship, imprisonment or execution for political crimes, and a population which was generally fearful of the state, even though that fear may not be overt for people who are just going about their business.

Of course, these things are all relative. There’s no question that the Russian people in the big cities were better off than peasants in North Korea or Zambia. There’s poverty, and then there’s POVERTY. The ‘poverty’ line in the United States, for example, is about $5,000 over the world average income.

But it IS important to remember that the Soviet state was responsible for the brutal murders of millions of people. The Gulag Archipelago was a vast collection of prisons that contained millions of people, mostly dissenters and other political prisoners. They were used for slave labor, and the conditions in those camps were so bad that a high percentage of those prisoners died of disease, accidents, or were shot.

Uprisings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia were put down brutally. Hundreds of people were shot and killed trying to go over the Berlin wall. The invasion of Afghanistan led to the world’s largest refugee problem and sowed the seeds for many of the problems we are having now.

It was not a nice place.

kniz: As long as we’re doing epigrams, don’t forget this one: In the USSR, you have freedom of speech. In America, you have freedom after speech.

Anyway, Lenin and Stalin were both fanatics and were perfectly willing to deny their people even the most basic necessities if it mean Progressing the Worker’s Paradise. Witness the starvation of the Ukraine, the single richest farmland in all of the USSR (1930s-1940s). After Stalin, things improved mightily but still were decades behind America in general consumer goods. Never did the average Soviet citizen have access to the level of stuff America has taken for granted since the 1950s.

Of course, politics and economics consisted more or less of dogmatism until the gradual thawings and the final collapse.

If you ever hav the chance, have a boo at “A Glorious Way to Die” directed by Richard Dennison and produced by Martin Guinness. It is a documentary of a group of friends from various backgrounds who paddle homemade rafts as a hobby. It shows how people are people, regardless of their economic circumstances. As a ww paddler myself, the film had me constantly comparing what they were attempting with the resources they had available to what my friends and I in Canada had accomplished with the resources available us.

I agree with Sam’s comments. I would just mention three books that I would recommend highly:

  • Let History Judge, by Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev,

  • Breaking with Moscow, by Arkady Shevchenko,

  • Memoirs, by Andrei Sakharov.

Medvedev is one of the earlier dissenters, who took it as his mission to find out and record exactly what happened during Stalin’s era, rather than the “official” accounts. He did his best to record the truth, and to set out the names of the dissenters who died under the Stalin regime. It’s grim reading.

Then, the books by Shevchenko and Sakharov are both by people who climbed the ladder, in the way Sam describes, and came to the conclusion that the system was evil.

Shevchenko was one of the highest ranking Soviets ever to defect. At the time of his defection, he was a career Soviet diplomat and Under Secretary General of the United Nations. Sakharov was the father of the Soviet nuclear bomb.

Both of them had outstanding careers under the Soviet system, and the special status that Sam describes - and yet both broke with Moscow. I found their accounts fascinating, as examples of how even some of those who benefitted from the system eventually came to reject it.

If you want to see how the system works don’t forget to read “Atlas Strugged” by Ayn Rand.

If you want a really quick idea of what life was like, check out the biographies about Lee Harvey Oswald, who defected in the late 50s and spent a few years working in a factory outside Minsk. He was accorded a few special priviledges, but on the whole lived much closer to the workers’ level than any of the elites.

BTW: Norman Mailer’s book on the guy was interesting in that he reprinted a number of lengthy transcripts from KGB bugs planted in his and Marina’s apartment.

Well, if you were to ask your question in the Soviet Union of the 1950s/1960s, you’d submit your question, in writing, to the governing authority. You wouldn’t be certain of the exact mechanism by which your question is filtered, or why some authorities would answer you and why some would not.

Sometimes, your question would be lost, and you would receive an error notification. Other times, your question would take so long to filter through the bureaucracy that you might be tempted to resubmit your question, only to discover later that you now have two of the same question posted before the Board. Sometimes, you would receive sharply worded comments from some authorities not to submit your question twice. Other times, one of the lines of questioning would be officially cut off.

From that point, some of the answers would be seemingly random, others anecdotal and still more speculative. Some would even be ill-constructed attempts at humor. Usually someone who really knew their stuff would step in with a thoughtful answer, but even if someone didn’t you were often provided with enough information to continue your own research.

Occasionally, diametrically opposed answers would reach you, and the authorities would argue against one another, requiring your question to be shifted to an arbitrary panel or even a draconian, black-hearted panel of sadistic and insulting criminals.

Fortunately, the Internet helped change all that.

While the book that you mention is excellent, it doesn’t describe Soviet life. The Rand novel that I think you meant is "We the Living.


As Comrade Sofa King has pointed out, the Internet has effectively facilitated the establishment of the Straight Dope People’s Collective Message Board for the Glorious Struggle Against Ignorance on the principles of scientific Adamsist-Zottiist thought, which, under the guidance of the Comrade Administrator L. Bodoni and the Comrade Administrator T. Diva and of the other Comrade Administrators and Comrade Moderators of the people’s democratic collective leadership, has made great strides in organizing and mustering the Toiling Millions in fulfilling the quotas set by the current Five-Year Plan for the Elimination of Ignorance. We of the people’s democratic collective leadership of the Straight Dope People’s Collective Message Board for the Glorious Struggle Against Ignorance welcome Comrade Sofa King’s contributions to this great proletarian struggle, and his special five-year vacation to the corrective labor–ah, that is, to the resort colony in a charmingly quaint little village in the rugged, scenic beauty of north-central Siberia is truly a fitting reward!

I’m sure life under the Soviet system varied a good bit depending on what period of history you are talking about. Under Stalin, it was no doubt pretty terrifying, more so if you were a Communist Party member or a Ukrainian or a Crimean Tatar, etc., etc., but no bed of roses for anyone. The war years and the Nazi invasion just added to the horribleness.

On the other hand, life in the post-Stalin era–say, under Brezhnev–was probably more subject to drabness, boredom, and humdrum, petty repression than it was to constant terror and mass murder. (I recall P.J. O’Rourke comparing life in the Communist bloc in the 1980’s to having to live with your parents forever–which, given housing shortages in Soviet bloc states, was often the literal truth.) Even open dissidents in the post-Stalin era weren’t necessarily taken out and shot; often they were just endlessly harassed, exiled to grimy, industrial cities that were closed to foreign visitors, eavesdropped on, and forced to work in menial jobs. That’s not to say truly nasty things didn’t still happen–some dissidents were confined to psychiatric institutions and forcibly medicated.

I’ve just finished reading “Everyday Stalinism - Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930’s”, by Shiela Fitzpatrick, ISBN 0-19-505000-2. An excellent book, though a few decades prior to the OP’s question.

Similarly, I visited friends in Russia in the 1990’s, after the fall of communism and got a little (a very little, I hasten to add: it’s amazing how much easier things become when your pockets are full of American dollars) flavour of the situation - from walking around and from talking to my friends.

Basically, there were a lot of annoyances. Didn’t like your apartment? Too bad - very, very hard to find a new place. A friend of mne living in Omsk (in Siberia) wanted to buy a winter coat - she had the money, that part was no problem, but to buy it she took a train to Moscow ('planes are ridiculously expensive; to take one is much like taking the Concorde to London, rather than a 747). Omsk-Moscow by train is two days; you get a bed in a sleeping compartment for four and your roomies are determined by chance - no segregation by sex. I’m not sure how much the train was in relation to the coat, but it probably wasn’t ridiculous - East bloc train travel is fairly cheap.

All this to get a good winter coat, that was reasonably warm and reasonably attractive, but nothing special by our standards - the type of thing we would simply go to the mall for and be annoyed if we couldn’t find in a short time. Sure there were coats in Omsk … but the warm ones were all strange colours, and the reasonable looking ones wouldn’t keep a mouse warm. So that was one story that affected me deeply.

I also heard stories about the meetings after work (while the communists were still around) … once a month, twice a month there would be a long meeting after work (attendance compulsory) where you would be bored out of your skull and stick your hand up when the chairman expected you to.

It was still very common (universal for all but the “New Russian” nouveau riche) to have a “perhaps bag” with you at all times. You never knew when there might be something available in the stores that you wanted, but was rarely available - children’s clothing, toys, books by a particular author, particularly good vegetables, whatever. If you saw it, you grabbed it, because there was no way of telling when you’d see another.

So what was it like? As far as I can tell, by our standards, very, very annoying.

–Some very good books have been recommended above.

If you’re specifically looking at everyday life in the old Soviet Union you might want to check out “The Russians” (published in 1976) by then New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith.

You learned that if you saw a line you got in it. Then you’d find out what you were standing in line for. It was standard to purchase 3 times of whatever it was that was available. Then you’d sell what you got to your neighbors on either side.
They’d do the same for you.

Soviets needed permit to shop in the GUM?
Where did you get that from?

Many western people asume that everything was fine, once the communist state collapsed in Russia. The reality is different. If you talk to ordinary citizens, many say their life was better under the communist regime.

A Russian friend’s view can be summarised like this - “You say things are better, now that we are free. Under communism, we all had jobs, we all had homes, we all had enough food to eat. I know my home was tiny, and the food was not good. Today, many of us have no jobs, we have many homeless people and many of us are starving. Are we better off?”

That view is shared by many Russians. Few really want to go back to the old system. However, they are telling us that it had a good side - it guaranteed support for its weakest members.

Most western media do not go outside Moscow and Sankt Petersburg, so we rarely get a view of life in real Russia. With the death of the old state, rural Russia is a third world country. The infrastructure is collapsing, and much of the wealth is in the hands of Mafiya - gangsters. There is appalling poverty, particularly among the old, and some people are homeless and hungry.

I have seen this.

In a meat market in western Russia, An old woman was picking scraps of fat from the floor to make soup. Her pension is now useless, and she would starve otherwise. She cried when we bought her some meat. (It was unhygenic meat lying out in the open, that we would not eat.)

In a small village near our dacha, a man in rags picked scraps from a refuse bin. He used to have a job in a local factory, but now he has none.

My friend has a good job. She drives an expensive car, and has money to spend. Downstairs, a homeless man sleeps in the doorway of her apartment building, and there are many beggars on her street. Her mother is afraid to leave her home for long in case it is cleared out by the local Mafiya.

This is the new, Christian, democratic, free Russia. Unfortunately, freedom does not always put bread on the table or make life happy. It may be freedom to starve.

You cannot judge by your own standards. People’s happiness are a function of how much they achieve of their own expectations and when expectations are low then people can be happy with very little. Most of the world today would be extremely happy to achieve what in the US is considered the poverty line.

Also, different cultures have different requirements. Most housing in Western Europe is extremly small by US standards and yet people manage to be happy. It is not directly related to money. I guess a large house is not so high up in their priorities. OTOH Americans have much less vacation time…

Let me get this straight: The OP wants society to follow the Soviet system and yet doesn’t know what said system was like? Is that it?

Good grief.