25 weird and wonderful memories
With the eyes of the world on Russia, Marcel Theroux recalls 25 bittersweet memories of the former Red Empire.
In the summer of 1990, I was traveling through the Soviet Union to collect information for a guide. Although no one realized it at the time, the days of the USSR were numbered and the guidebook was never printed. The current Russian president, Vladimir Putin, has expressed his deep regret at the breakup of the Soviet Union. I don’t feel the same; but here are, in no particular order, 25 things that somehow capture the strangeness of this vanished place and time.
1. Back in the USSR
The arrival in the USSR was charged with a strange thrill as soon as we got off the plane. The smileless passport inspectors in their eerily lit booths peering through your documents reminded you that you were crossing the front lines of the Cold War, in a nuclear-weaponized country that was ostensibly devoted to the promulgation of the Gospel of Marx. and Lenin.
The arrival halls of Soviet airports gave off a peculiar smell: cigarettes tipped with strong cardboard, papirosy, which was smoked everywhere. As it turned out, no one really liked them: they were basically discontinued as soon as Western cigarettes became available.
3. The black market
The failure of the managed economy meant that Western consumer goods were coveted by many Russians. Finnish visitors to St. Petersburg covered the cost of a weekend drinking bout by selling a pair of jeans. I sold a pair of Bo Jackson crosstrainers to a man who really wanted the jacket I was wearing from an American clothing catalog that he spotted about 100 yards away. “LL Bean!” was his memorable opening salute. “I fell in love with LL Bean!”
4. Soviet cars
Ah, for the Lada, the Zil, the Volga! These clunky machines were hard to buy and inefficient, but their square shapes evoke the Soviet Union and still inspire vintage car enthusiasts in Russia.
5. The Moskva swimming pool
Steam from the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool rising into a cold sky is a lasting memory of the USSR. The pool had a strange history: it was built into the foundations of what was supposed to be the tallest building in the world, the House of Soviets. After the breakup of the USSR, it was filled in and became the site of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, where the infamous Pussy Riot demonstration took place.
Meaning “little birch,” a Beryozka was a special store, open only to foreigners and Soviet citizens who had hard currency to spend. While regular stores were empty of merchandise, the Beryozkis were an odd cornucopia of caviar, Toblerone, and VHS tapes.
7. Vladimir Vysotsky
The handsome actor and troubadour with the gravel voice died at the age of 42 in 1980. His songs, on pirated cassettes, were the ubiquitous musical accompaniment of life in the former USSR. A lazy but not totally inaccurate parallel would be Bob Dylan.
8. Socialist realistic novels
I read an entire volume of Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned before realizing it was the second in a series. I found myself strangely struck by the exploits of a heroic collective farm worker from the Don region.
9. In-house solutions
The lack of consumer products inspired Soviet citizens with extraordinary resourcefulness: television antennas made from forks, a bath plug made from a boot heel, a road sign recycled into a shovel.
10. Video games
Yes, incredibly, the USSR had its own video games: clumsy, largely war-themed or ice hockey themed, they didn’t do much to compete with Atari, but they did have their own charm. Fortunately, some are kept in the two branches of the Museum of Soviet Arcade Machines in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
11. Myopic travel companions
Until the very collapse of the USSR, you would still encounter monocular foreign defenders of the Soviet system, bypassing what they still believed, against all evidence, to be a workers’ paradise.
12. Zurab Tsereteli
Mr. Tsereteli’s ridiculous and enormous sculptures came into being in the years after the end of the USSR. I miss the empty spaces they now occupy.
13. Propaganda posters
Part of the compelling aesthetic of the USSR was the lack of advertising to consumers. Instead, huge posters celebrated the towering intellects of Marx, Engels and Lenin; the victories of the Red Army; and the accomplishments of the five-year plan we were meant to be in.
For some puzzling reason, there was quite a cult of sharing and exchanging badges in the Soviet Union. There was some predictability about it. Whatever you give someone – a Ramones badge or a Scottish flag or something you picked up from the Happy Eater – in return, you’ll almost certainly get Lenin.
15. Georgian cuisine
Food in today’s former Soviet Union is delicious and unrecognizable because of the mysterious meat chops and buckwheat that visitors used to serve. But a bright spot in the past were Georgian restaurants where wine, eggplant, fried chicken and cheese pies were like a dream of plenty.
The ubiquity of military uniforms was a constant reminder that you were in the hostile territory of a heavily armed country that saw you as the decadent bourgeois outgrowth of a corrupt and doomed economic system.
Stationed at an office on each floor of a hotel, the dezhurnaya, who was still a woman, watched over customers, kept order, and was the person you needed to talk to to get soap, toilet paper, a stopper. bath or book an international call. Somehow, she was still freezing at first, then cracked to show an unexpected warmth that made you wonder what this whole Cold War was all about, anyway.
Meaning “self-published,” it was the term for painstakingly copied works of dissenting literature that circulated among the warm circle of people who cared about books. Paradoxically, the Soviet Union’s great respect for writers was expressed in its efforts to crush them.
The incomprehensibility of the political arrangements of the USSR to Westerners was characterized by the practice of trying to determine who was in power or not by seeing where the main party members [see below] stood for the May Day parade in Red Square.
20. Young pioneers
With their white shirts and little red scarves, the Young Pioneers were the youth movement of the USSR. It was here that young citizens got their first glimpse of Soviet ideology and were introduced to exemplary children like Pavlik Morozov – murdered by his own family because he told the secret police about it.
21. Party members
The elite of the Soviet Union were all members of the Communist Party. Driving the best Soviet cars, vacationing in the most popular Black Sea resorts, they enjoyed privileges that seem modest compared to those of today’s Russian elite.
22. Seat belts
“Ne nado” would be the first thing a taxi driver would say to you when you are seated and have reached the seat belt. “You don’t need it.” It was seen as some sort of derogatory statement about your driver’s competence to wear one. Fortunately, this attitude has disappeared.
23. Lectures on the iniquities of capitalism
Every now and then, you might run into a party member (see above) who felt the need to impose the superiority of the Soviet way of life on you. Unemployment, racism, apartheid, the plight of the coal miners have all been used to predict the impending collapse of capitalism and the triumph of Marxism. You still hear similar rhetoric, but not in the former Soviet Union.
24. Cultural centers
There was a gallant and idealistic desire that everyone in the former Soviet Union could share in the pleasures of high culture. Even small provincial towns had a subsidized Dom Kultury to spread an improved culture among the citizens and – presumably – to discourage alcohol consumption.
25. Night trains
The impenetrability of Soviet life was temporarily suspended on long rail journeys. As a result, you had access to the privacy of ordinary Soviets, snoring, drinking tea, pacing train corridors and sometimes lecturing you on the superiority of their country (see above).