‘T’, a native Muscovite, had found an idyllic childhood existence in her Soviet utopia. Growing into early adulthood, she found her curiosity piqued by the treasures of other cultures as tales, sounds and images drifted in from the world outside.
Even a utopia has its limits and it could neither contain nor satisfy her curiosity at what lay beyond. Unfortunately, leaving this utopia was a privilege reserved for only the most ‘reliable’, ie: the ones who were deemed loyal enough to the Soviet system to return.
A little side-research turns up disturbing claims. That travel outside of a person’s normal sphere within Russia was an ordeal of bureaucracy before permission was (perhaps) granted. That direct communication with foreigners was not permitted, and to openly request permission to leave the USSR was an unthinkable course of action that would bring serious consequences; investigation, persecution, even imprisonment within a psychiatric institution. You must be literally mad to want to leave a utopian society, after all.
So ‘T’ found herself in the seemingly eternal ‘now’ of communist Russia’s heyday. The outside world would have to wait, seemingly forever. In the meantime she worked at her studies with grit and determination, landing – on merit – a place at the prestigious Moscow University; the equivalent to our “Oxbridge”. An impressive coup in a system that favoured “knowing someone” to get on in life. Truth be told, of course: that was (and is) part of our system too.
‘T’ also married young: at 18; to an older man with the prestigious rarity of a car (there was a waiting list) and a ‘party-member’ father who ran a local aircraft factory. Did planting such roots signify an overt acceptance of the situation in which she found herself? Indicative of the times, she did this at the expense of her wanderlust.
Every marital collapse starts with the words: “till death do us part”. What seems solid and everlasting can through history’s lens appear fleeting and transitory. Both union’s would ultimately succumb, but there must have been moments when it seemed they would last forever. There, in the daily unfolding ‘certainty’; life was to be lived and made the most of – communist system or not.
‘T’ was on course to be a member of the Intelligentsia, the ultimate economic/social niche in which the academically gifted would reside. Perhaps she would be a school teacher, a politician or writer – contributing to the intellectual navigation of the State? Perhaps a scientist, carving the future out of mathematics and invention? The pressure was on to ‘succeed’ academically, “but then what?” she asks rhetorically, admitting that she “didn’t think of the future” at the time. She worked hard but towards no specific end.
Indeed, the advantages of ascending to the Intelligentsia were mixed. Whilst bestowing membership of the ‘elite’, it would not necessarily bring the kind of remuneration that we would expect today. “I knew that I would not have money” she reveals; “money was in sales and deals” – and in the opportunities that they brought, not in sterile labs and classrooms. Still, she accepted the path that was forming before her, created largely by her own efforts, after all.
Acceptance seems to feature heavily in her Soviet years. What other choice did she have if she valued her freedom? It was often a case of paying lip-service to the communist dogma, whilst wryly noting the absurdities it upheld. It’s how she fostered her scepticism, which often surfaces during the course of our conversation.
In spite of our Western view of brainwashed communists marching in stony-faced union, ‘T’ reveals that: “socialism was seen as one big joke; people just got on with normal life. We’ll ‘agree’ because we have no choice, and that’s what they want to hear!”. She, and others knew at the time however that: “all this propaganda is a complete lie”. Indeed, it was something to exchange wry glances over when the subject of “rotting capitalism” came up in state-sanctioned literature, or the faux-impressive triumphs of Soviet productivity were extolled in the state media.
There was even a phrase, cynically thrown around when such trumpet-blowing arose: “The yield of fish goes in the homeland granary”. That’s a close English translation, but the references are lost on us without the original context. In Russian: “yield” would have solely referred to a daily amount of milk from a cow, and the “homeland granary” is of course an issue of Soviet pride. The whole phrase is also couched in the language of proud media-speak by way of parody.
So, picture the Pythonesque scene of a proud state media broadcaster exclaiming nonsensically that “the daily yield of fish-milk is now in the Soviet granary!”, and you’ll have some idea of the contempt in which the whole system was held. Who said Russians don’t have a sense of humour?
More next time.
Next time: Doomed utopias #3
[Photo by denna]