T Nation

In Soviet Russia....


As per request, I am starting this thread about growing up in Soviet Russia and post-Soviet Russia. The majority of my childhood was in Soviet Russia since I moved to America in the mid 90's for grad school and decided to stay. Anyone else who would like to share their experiences with moving to America, or growing up in another country I would love to hear your tales. Also, any questions anybody may have, feel free to ask. This is a large topic, so I will do so in several posts starting with growing up in the Soviet Union, going to university (I started university before the fall of the Soviet Union and finished after.), and life in Russia post-Soviet Union.

I come from a family of 5: Mom, Dad, older brother, me, younger sister. My parents are both highly educated, or "Intelligentsia" Dad is an engineer and Mom is a mathematician and chess grandmaster. This does not hold the same significance that it does in America. Intelligence and education were not highly valued in the Soviet Union, the emphasis was on the workers. In America, my parents would have been in the top tier of income and social status. In the CCCP, the combined monthly income for our family was about 350 rubles a month (the average was between 400-450 and the highest earners got about 600-650). We lived in a 2 bedroom apartment that was no more than 50 square meters (appx. 540 sq ft) if that. My parents had their own bedroom and bed and me, my brother and sister slept in the other room. Before my sister was born, my brother and I shared the bed. After my sister was born, she slept in the bed and my brother and I slept on the floor.

Now, housing in the Soviet Union didn't work the same as it does in America. Even if my parents had the money to buy a bigger place, the waiting list for an apartment (unless you were a high ranking party member or friend of one, you could forget about a house) was usually decades. Since we were intelligentsia, it would have been decades. Most people lived with their parents until their 30's or 40's just because of the waiting list for apartments. In many cases, it actually was faster to wait for a parent to die and inherit their apartment. It was also not uncommon for parents to "trade down," which is where, say, a couple has a 3 bedroom apartment. They could trade that for two one bedroom apartments and gift one to their child. This usually happened when children of "wealthy" parents got married.

My next post will deal with food.


So what career examples were top tier?


Food in Soviet Russia was very hard to come by. One did not go to a supermarket like here and find walls filled with milk, meat, vegetables, candy, and all kinds of wonderful and tasty things. There were massive shortages of almost everything. Just about the only thing that was consistently in stock was bread. I remember a particularly rough year, 1986, where we ate nothing but bread and water for 5 months. Meat was extremely rare, we were lucky to have meat once or maybe twice a month. When it was available, it was usually very low grade sausage (the sort of stuff that would lead to massive lawsuits and meat packing plants being closed here in America, but to us it was delicious) that was 2.2 rubles per kilo. The good sausage, when it was available was 4.7 rubles per kilo and we could rarely afford it. Chicken was the next most common meat, which we had about once or twice a year and cost about 7 rubles for a small whole chicken. I never had beef until I moved to America, it was too expensive.

Once every few months, Mom or Dad would bring home a chocolate bar for us kids. Soviet chocolate bars were 200g and cost about 2 rubles, but were almost impossible to get. Compared to the Hershey bars they sell here in America they tasted like chalk, but to us it was heaven. We had to split one bar between the three of us so my sister got half and me and my brother split the other half. My brother and I spoiled our sister. She was seriously treated like a princess.

I had cake once when I was a kid, it was amazing. My Mom made it for me when I was allowed to go to university early. I asked her a few years ago and she told me that she had to buy most of the ingredients from the black market and neighbors. Buying things on the black marked in the Soviet Union was a fact of life, but they were VERY expensive. It turns out that that one cake cost half a months wages.


Cool story, brad


In theory, it was the unskilled workers who were at the top of Soviet society. In reality it was the party members and their friends that ran things who were at the top. It was a very corrupt system where those few people were first in line for everything and the rest of us had to go without. I got new shoes twice when I was growing up.


Good stuff, Matt.

Post more.




Most commodities were also very hard to come by. We didn't buy clothes the same way people in America do. There weren't stores filled with different clothes of different sizes. The stores (all state run of course) would get shipments of clothes and shoes in maybe once a month, and there was never enough for everyone who was in line. We didn't get to try on clothes and see if they fit or looked good. Whatever they had available is what we bought. People ran ads in the newspaper saying what they had and what they needed and trades were made if it was possible. When this didn't work (more often then not), the black market was the last option. Televisions were impossible to come by, as were video games and most forms of entertainment. We had a radio, everyone did. The party actually mad sure of that so they could spread their propaganda, but there was more propaganda then music and entertainment. In 1988, my dad brought home a computer from work that had been thrown out because it didn't work. We managed to fix it and get it working again which was awesome. We had it for about 7 months, but there was another massive food shortage and we had to sell it on the black market in order to buy food.


What did you do to keep your sanity, Doc?


Before leaving USSR to attend grad school, what was your exposure to Western culture growing up? When you arrived in the US, what was your initial impression?


I was lucky enough to be very close with my brother and sister. We would play tag, play catch with rocks and stuff like that. Our parents were also very big on education, despite the society we lived in. Our mom would give us math problems to solve and our dad taught us science and mechanical and engineering skills. All three of us were very good students, even though it was not highly valued, and spent a lot of time studying. It has paid off for all three of us: I am a physicist, my brother is an aerospace engineer, and my sister is a computer scientist.


My exposure was limited mostly to Soviet propaganda, i.e. capitalism is evil and Americans are all greedy savages and such. After the fall of the Soviet Union and we had increasingly greater access to Western ideas, my opinions changed. It was actually my parent's idea for me to go to grad school here, since CMU has one of the best physics programs in the world.

And it was a complete culture shock. I did not speak much English and had a student majoring in Russian Literature go almost everywhere with me. The concept of restaurants was completely foreign to me. They had them in the Soviet Union, but only a very few could afford to eat there. I almost cried the first time I went to a supermarket and saw all the food there and how cheap it was. I also fell in love with beef. Stuff like television and the prevalence of the entertainment industry was amazing.


A former co-worker and friend of mine is Ukrainian. He came to the U.S. about 16 years ago, but spent the majority of his life (he's 60 now) there.

The family that sponsored him to come here took him from the airport directly to a grocery store, where he broke down in tears of amazement.


After the fall of the Soviet Union, things got very bad for a lot of people. Yeltsin and Gaidar came up with a plan, with the help of the IMF and the US to radically change the Russian economy into a market based economy almost immediately. It led to massive unemployment (unemployment didn't exist in the Soviet Union since it was illegal to be unemployed) and inflation and a depression. Many military factories were shut down and, even though the stores were fairly well stocked, not very many people could afford to buy much. Luckily for my family, though, my parents were among those who became better off. When the military factories began shutting down and the new Russian companies could not afford to retool the factories to other uses, foreign companies began trying to buy the factories and start manufacturing goods very cheap. The problem here was that there was not too many people in Russia with the education and knowledge of how to do this and the foreigners did not have the experience with Russian technology to do a good job of it. Plus, the language barrier was a problem. My father did have the education and experience with the technology to do the job, plus he made a point when the Soviet Union fell and this started happening to begin learning foreign languages (english and german), which made him perfect for the job. After a lifetime of earning about as much as a burger flipper for doing a job that usually pays 6 figures in America, he was making halfway decent money. It was not great at first, but definitely more then we had in the Soviet Union. We could afford things like milk, eggs, cheese, and decent clothes. Meat was still pretty rare, but when it was available, we could afford it. He eventually saved enough to start his own engineering firm with my mom, which my brother now runs, that has been very successful. This was after I moved to America.


It is an amazing experience. I saw more different kinds of food and more meat and dairy products period then I knew even existed. The first beef I ever tasted was a bacon cheeseburger from a local restaurant that has since closed named Brick's. It was so delicious I cannot even describe it. It was only a half pound burger, but it took me all day to finish it.

EDIT: And I really feel for your friend. Ukraine was one of the worst off of all the Soviet states. Even compared to the rest of us, they had it rough.


Good thread. Living in a former Soviet republic I get to hear all kind of nasty things although the worst is "Life was better during those times" from some people.

"There was no crime or drunken people around". Yeah, sure, because Soviet troops would put them in a van and send them to the south of the country...to never be seen again.

EDIT : Dr.Matt581, where are you from exactly? I've got the feeling that you are not Russian, but, from an occupied republic. Am I correct?


OMG!!! EDEVUS???!! Welcome back!



The soviet propaganda machine was very good at it's job. More then a few people actually believe that life was better then. It didn't help that for more than a couple of years after the fall of the Soviet Union, life actually was worse for a lot of people. The Russian Mob grew and became extremely powerful, corruption was actually worse for a while, we had unemployed for the first time in the better part of a century, inflation was in the double digits for months on end, and our military, which was a major source of work in factories and such, crumbled. And there were not too many drunks in the Soviet Union because vodka was 10 rubles per liter, more than a day's wages for most people. I consider myself lucky that no one in my family "disappeared." It was not all that uncommon occurrence. What former republic are you in? I actually am Russian, from Volgograd originally.


This is fascinating. Thanks for sharing, and I'm glad to hear that your family has prospered despite the shit ya'll went through.


Thanks, I am glad that people have enjoyed hearing about life in the Soviet Union. I know many textbooks don't go far beyond "It sucked." I would also like to point out that the experiences I have described about me and my family were not out of the ordinary. Hundreds of millions of people in all of the Soviet Republics lived like this.