By Patricia H Kushlis
It wasn't long after I began to work as an Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Moscow during Brezhnev's later years, that I learned the realities of Soviet life. As it turned out, only one Soviet who I met during my two year stint in that workers' paradise was a true believer. Most everyone else in the official bureaucracy mouthed the Communist rhetoric but in reality had long given up hope of life in a functional – let alone humane - system. Many Soviets sought an exit, or at least a chance to see the non-Soviet world firsthand, or even just talk with someone from the West. Very few of those people who come to mind now were dissidents.
The Kremlin’s three legged stool
Television propaganda and fear of the omnipresent security services kept the population in check. An economy of scarcity fueling massive bribery was the third leg of the stool that propped up the fractured system. Ruble millionaires frequented night clubs. A copy of Amerika Magazine secured an excellent table at a top restaurant – a terrific way to jump to the front of the line. Four years at Tashkent University cost about the same as Harvard. A new car was the entry price to its equivalent in Yerevan. Even Communist Party hospitals for the elite had scarcities of basic antibiotics and even lacked sheets.
Yet the nightly news was filled with lengthy reports of Soviet achievements followed by shots of sad homeless American blacks sprawled seated on freezing or sweltering Harlem curbsides. That depended upon the time of year.
But nobody - including the woman who cleaned the bathrooms at the Hotel Rossiya on Red Square - believed the newscasts: many Soviets had short wave sets and tuned in regularly to foreign broadcasts from VOA, BBC, Deutche Welle often late at night - turning their dials to escape the buzz of Soviet jammers. Estonians who lived along the republic’s north coast – and in signal distance of Finland – aimed their television antennas northward giving them access to Finnish Broadcasting even if they were forbidden from visiting the country.
That Russian cleaning lady knew that Russians were poor and Americans rich: she told me so - I still remember her exact words. She also knew that Soviet young men were being killed in Afghanistan, just as Russian soldiers are dying in Eastern Ukraine today, but that part of the story, like today’s, never appeared in the Soviet media. Soldiers’ graves and burials were then, as now, kept secret. Everyone, it seems, knew anyway.
Mothers tried to protect their sons from the draft. Bribes helped keep young men from the perils of hazing by their own counterparts or bullets from Afghan rifles. Yet, somehow everyone knew. And this was well before the Internet Age or even access to copying machines which in those days were kept under lock and key: the person-to-person rumor mill was amazingly effective.
Only good stories about the Soviet Union were deemed fit for Soviet eyes and ears. The world outside those borders was painted as a dangerous place filled with the horrors of rapacious capitalism designed to tear the Soviet Union apart. Racism was rampant: little blond boys were especially prized by Russian grandmothers.
Corruption was ubiquitous because everyone had to engage in it to live. Even trading in the most innocent of goods - from bananas to jeans - was illegal. They would have had to been grown or produced in the Soviet Union. Bananas don’t grow well in northern climates and jeans – I suppose – were either beyond the country’s manufacturing capabilities or seen as a symbol of hated capitalism. Anyway the latter cost about $150 on the black market. Yet, jeans suits were the in-clothes at the Bolshoi Theater whose tickets were only available to the elite - or the well connected.