Just before its dissolution, the USSR was home to nearly 300 million people, making it the third largest country by population at the time. Yet very little is documented about the daily life of its many citizens. What articles there are on the topic often portray a rather biased picture. We attempted to present a more accurate picture ordinary life in the Soviet Union based on answers we got from former citizens through Quora.
After the Russian Civil War, many apartments in the Union were left empty as the original owner either died, was repressed or took flight. These apartments were taken up by the state and turned into communal homes – with each bedroom reserved for a single family. On special occasions such as celebrations, all the members of the compound would gather in one room and have a big feast. Likely, most citizens lived in communal apartments till the 60s, with two or more families sharing the same kitchen and bathroom. From thereon, personal homes became common.
In direct contrast, the party nomenklatura was granted better and bigger personal flats by the State from the get-go. For some higher-ups, even a state granted Dacha could be expected, which was a seasonal second home. Education and position also played a huge factor in what type of house you were granted. The more educated you were and the more important your job was, the bigger the house the State gave you. You couldn’t buy houses yourself, however.
Employment was compulsory, jobs plenty and always salaried. Incomes were low by western standards but enough for a modest living. Being a planned economy, factories and offices were run under the directions of the government. Since work performance had no impact on a person’s salary, there were few incentives to work hard. Most of the time in offices was passed chatting and having tea. At factories and stores, workers always eyed an opportunity to steal things so they could sell them later. Most employees received one month of vacation plus unlimited medical leave. Holidays to the Black sea resorts were sponsored by the employee’s trade union. Work life was quite satisfactory if you were fine with being lazy. Some racial discrimination was present but was considerably less compared to the other countries.
However, if you wanted to seek out an independent living, you were in tough luck. Starting one’s own business was illegal. Any independent activity was likely to draw the attention of the KGB and possibly get you in trouble.
Queuing was an everyday aspect of Soviet life. If you wanted to visit McDonald’s, see the statue of old comrade Lenin or even wanted to buy groceries, you got in a queue. Of course, there were also “special queues” that got you through faster if you were important. In case you hated queued, you had to become well acquitted with the salesperson, who then would set a certain amount aside for you daily.
In the USSR, not having enough money to buy things was never a problem but rather the problem was not having enough things to buy with money! Prices were low but shortages of even essential goods were high, especially away from large cities. Of course, if you were a member of the party, you had access to “special shops”, where you could usually buy stuff available nowhere else. To buy a car, you first had to get a buying permit for which you had to –surprise – get in a queue. After some ground checks, you could expect your car to be delivered in a very short time of some 5- 8 years only. Cars were not as common in the Union as in the wealthier West.
Since money was of little worth, people used “hard currencies” as well, the most common being a good ole bottle of Vodka. There was informal service for service trades frequently made as well; you could arrange for a dress for your neighbor’s wife and in return, he could give your spare parts for your old Lada.
If all else failed and you could not get your product, there was also a thriving black market where you were sure to find it but for a far more inflated price.
On television, there weren’t many channels. The news was more propaganda than actual news and not much else. Loans and credits were non-existent; if you wanted some money, you either borrowed it from your friends or family.Water, heating, electricity, rubbish collection, transport were either subsidized by the state or were granted for free.
While the standard communist indoctrination was present, in general, both the teachers and curriculum were fantastic. Textbooks were given free and school uniforms were subsidized. A student in the city could expect many eminent facilities at his local school such as large swimming pools, gymnasiums, concert halls and stadiums. There was also a range of afterschool activities and modules such as archery, ballet and advanced mathematics all given for free. Students who received good marks also received minimal paychecks.
Following Khrushchev’s reign and afterwards, social security was extensively covered for every citizen, from the most elite to the lowest of the low. Most of the basic necessities were also free. This meant that upward social mobility was immense and even people from poor backgrounds could place themselves in highly coveted positions. However, by the end of the Soviet Union, the system became corrupt as the elite tried to put their own numerous offspring to sweeter spots and protect their privileges.
Living in the Union, certain things were always frowned upon, be it fencing, newer sciences such as cybernetics. However, exactly what was considered “unsuitable” evolved over time. For instance, in the field of music, jazz was termed as “decadent capitalist music” and discouraged. When early Rock appeared then jazz became accepted but Rock was seen as “senseless noise made by long-haired monkeys!”. When Heavy and Punk Rock appeared, then all of a sudden Beatles and even Rolling Stones were grumblingly accepted and even some Melodija-pirated vinyl began appearing in shops.