25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Anna from Moscow finds herself caught in the middle of a heated debate in her family: the life during the Soviet Union – lack of personal freedom or a system of security and solidarity? Why is it perceived so differently? And what can her generation learn from the past?
When my family starts discussing the life in the Soviet Union, I always get to hear two contradicting positions. «Those days, we never had to think about how to get a job after graduation, the system provided us with stability and security», my grandma Lidia always says. «But you didn’t have a choice» my mother would usually reply. Indeed, my grandparents never had to look for work by themselves, because once they had graduated from university, they already knew, in which city and in which place they were going to be settled. Why is that?
The reason for that is the so-called distribution system and its consequences, which determined the young life of many citizens of the Soviet Union. A manifestation of this system was the duty of every person enjoying free education to work for about two years for the state in order «to pay back for the education». Accordingly, my grandparents were sent to Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, almost 3 000 km from their hometown in the Rostov region. «Your grandfather and I had to marry before our gradation so that we could be sent to the same city» my grandmother mentions. She worked as a teacher in Ashgabat, while my grandfather did research in physics.
The 80s and the change of atmosphere
While in the 60-s this system was associated with a stable and bright future, at the end of the 80-s it was mostly seen as a limitation of choice and freedom. That is why my parents remember things differently. They graduated after the collapse of the Soviet Union and very much appreciated the greater freedom of choice. After the collapse of the Soviet Union everyone could decide on their own where to work or whether to start working even before graduation, as my mother did. And after she got her diploma, no one could send her thousand kilometers away from home against her will. «That is the freedom of choice which lacked during the time of communism», my mother usually mentions while discussing the life before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As I see the case, there were lots of adverse conditions in the USSR, which modern society has grown out of. What Russian people remember as negative is the terrible lack of available products and services and a lack of comfort. Living in communal apartments with a lot of neighbors was daily routine, while wearing jeans was not. «When I was ten and saw a package with 36 felt-tip pens from Germany, I was totally shocked», my mother once told me.
And here I am today. Studying in Moscow in today’s Russia, enjoying the privileges of modern society, but constantly reminded of the Soviet heritage and my grandparents’ life. For me it is almost impossible to understand what it was like to live in the previous system. Who can today imagine to have to get food in exchange for food stamps, though always the same «set» of products? Or having enough money for traveling, but having no opportunity to visit a certain group of countries due to some conditions of international relations? Or being afraid to get expelled from the pioneer organization, which was the mass youth organization in the USSR for children between the age of ten to fifteen, for wrong behavior or bad marks? And if so, what a shame it was.
The sentiment of friendship and solidarity
On the other hand, it is the pioneer organization and the pioneer summer camps, which today many Russian adults tend to recall with warmth. Even my parents and grandparents agree on that point. Why is that?
I simply believe it is because identifying yourself with a group which is seen as absolutely positive, was very important for the Soviet people, adults as well as children. The atmosphere of friendship, the feeling that you participated in «building a happy and bright future» definitely made people more united. It was quite clear what was expected from you, how to behave to be praised, which skills you have to posses to be respected. Today it is not. It almost seems like a vacuum of values, which has to be filled, for which my generation will be crucial.
At the same time the Russian society has become much more open, as we have overcome economic problems after the breakup of the USSR. Life feels better, even though living in a capitalistic society means that you have to risk and make decisions by yourself, being responsible for the sort of life you have. And that is certainly the most challenging change for the Russian people.
Russia and Europe
In general, we have much more in common with European countries and seem to identify ourselves with Europe more than Asia. Our country can be hardly called democratic still, but it did change dramatically, comparing it with the Soviet Union. It is again my generation which has to play the crucial part in paving the way to unconditional democracy. At the same I remember the stories of my grandparents and parents, talking about times when an iron curtain divided Europe. Times I do not want to see again. At the same time, Russia and Europe must both realize how much they need each other.