Thursday, May 24, 2012

Memories about growing up in the Soviet Union

I would like to start writing down stories of what it was like to grow up in the Soviet Union. Latvia was occupied by Russia until I was almost 11. That time and the few years after were something that seem like a book or a movie instead of something that I lived through. As a child I was more cushioned from it all but still, there were a lot of things that I remember about that time that now seem very surreal.

Here are a few of my memories:
My first grade class in soviet school children's uniforms.
(I am in the middle row on the right, clearly not interested in this gig, looking away)
Because almost everything was state-owned, there was little entrepreneurship and therefore little choice in things you could buy. Even if there would have been choice in things to buy, people didn't have money as everyone was so be communist and equal and therefore doctors and scientists made almost just as much money as a shop assistant.

I remember getting things like a coat or boots or clothes a struggle. I was lucky because my grandmother was a great seamstress and made clothes for me. In fact, now that I think back I was spoiled rotten by her as I showed up at her place and told her what I have seen somewhere and asked her if she could make it for me... She loved me so much that she obliged happily. On the flip side, the vacuum in the shops encouraged a lot of creative expressions for knitting, sewing, woodwork, etc.

I don't know why but I remember these particular kind of Soviet-made sandals for children. About 50% of my peers had them (the same style, just different colours), I hated them as the soles were hard as rock and they were ugly. There are also some funny stories. There are photos of me in a red and black coat. It was obviously bought larger with the idea that I will grow into it. There are photos of me little with the sleeves sewn back and the coat obviously too big on me. Next year the same coat but the sleeves let out and the coat fitting me right. The year after the sleeves... tad short... :)

To get anything different (nice) one had to 'have connections'. Now when I think about it, it's hilarious. Then it was a reality. I remember my dad getting a phone call from one of his 'connections' who informed him that the liquor shop on such and such street will be selling champagne in 2 hours. Him dropping everything he is doing and racing to stand in line with another hundred people and waiting until they start selling. Everyone could get only two bottles. So often he would wait in line one time, get his two bottles and then get at the end of the line for the second lot of the prized two bottles. The same was for clothes, food, furniture. You name it.

I remember my mom loved this particular brand of Italian footwear (I think it was called Salamander, I might be wrong). Through one of their 'connections' they knew that on such and such day this one particular shop will be selling them. Mom and dad would set their alarms for 4 am and go wait in the long line of people (in the middle of Latvian winter!)  before the shop opened to make sure they get a pair.

Getting a car or an apartment was a whole different level of having to have 'connections' and knowing who to bribe where and when and how much. People would be put on a waiting list for cars and apartments. That was very difficult to get. I know that to get an apartment (I don't remember anyone being lucky enough to get a house, not sure what the deal was there) the waiting list was sometimes 5-10 years. In the mean time families would live together in one place. For example, my grandmother and grandad with 2 children shared a one bedroom apartment with her brother and his wife. When I say one bedroom, it means there was no living room. It was one room and a kitchen. Later on my great grandma stayed with them, she slept on a cot in the kitchen. This was very usual among the working class.


Sarah said...

Your stories are so interesting to me, like they are from another time. I agree that it seems crazy that you, a young person, lived through all of this.

melissa said...

So I'm reading your stories backwards (last one first, first one last)... I love them! I hope that you keep writing them. This is so fascinating to read about your experiences growing up in the U.S.S.R.