Tuesday, November 11, 2014

What was everyday life like in the USSR?

Originally posted here http://mltoday.com/what-was-everyday-life-like-in-the-ussr

Last Thursday the Young Communist League (15th Arrondissement, Paris) organized its first movie night since September. "Living in Rostov" is a documentary made by the French Communist Party in the 1970s. Neither a caricature nor Manichaeism, it is a remarkable record of the conditions of Soviet life.
The YCL was surprised and honored to host the historian Roger Keeran to dissect it.

To spend time on a documentary on the USSR from the Brezhnev era -- here, in France, in 2014? Is it nostalgia, or folklore? Not at all! In this capitalist society here in Paris people have seen exorbitant rents the debts that crush us, the education sacrificed, women's rights violated, layoffs.

What a surprise for the twenty young people present - a third of whom came for the first time - to see that these issues did not arise in the USSR, that the Soviets, not without contradictions, had access to another freedom than that which we know here.

in 1974, "To Live in Rostov" was to live in an industrial city of 800,000 inhabitants, structured around the machine tools factory Rostselmash which then employed 22,000 workers (nowadays barely half of that!).

It was a Soviet city like any other, in what was in 1974 the second largest economy in the world, with a GDP of $ 1500 billion, higher than in Japan, France, the United Kingdom, 10% of global GDP, and half of the GDP of the United States.

What did it mean to live in a non-capitalist society, the USSR?

1. - It meant  democracy at the factory. The workers decided about the organization of work.  This goes against the dominant ideology, but actually, the workers in the USSR worked at their own pace but conscientuously. Nothing was imposed on them concerning the pace of work without their prior agreement, without debate, without the help of mechanization. As many of them recall it, they ended the day with "little or no fatigue." This was heresy at the time of triumphant Taylorism-Fordism in France, which was criticized in the May 1968 events!

2 - It meant retirement at age 60, and a day of rest on Sunday.  It meant  two historical conquests now breaking down in France. Workers retiring at age 60 for men, 55 for women, or even earlier, for strenuous jobs. The workweek of 41 hours (it was 40 hours in France in 1974) was also the rule, to guarantee rest on Sunday as well as the famous 8-hour day, a historic attainment of the labor movement.

3 - It meant culture for all, the democratization of knowledge:  Imagine our surprise to find that the workers at the plant read, read a lot: from the verse of Heinrich Heine, and Balzac's novels, and verse and prose of Victor Hugo. How many French workers in France today read literary works of this quality? Libraries, cultural centers, study centers were present in every neighborhood, every factory. On Sunday, they were filled with workers relaxing, like young children, thirsty for reading more than for television.

4 - It meant lower rents, rents which did not impede life.  In 1974 housing was no longer a problem in the USSR. As in France in the 1950s, 1960s, housing  had been an urgent question. It was decided to build large complexes of apartment buildings which addressed, as best they could, this emergency.  Result: The relative weight of rent in the salary of a worker in the USSR amounted to, on average, 5%. In Paris now, for us, it is between 20% and 50% in general!

5 - They were loans at zero percent interest. In the 1970s, the Soviets had wide access to household appliances, their color TV, their cars, their houses. The difference here is the financing. No greedy banks, the state as guarantor whose loans were at a zero percent rate of interest, a payment schedule.

6 – Instruction was available to all, with priority to all-round education. This was not only high-quality education from kindergarten to college level, which produced illustrious scientists. It was a people’s education, reflecting the social welfare.

For example, the early childhood /motherhood bond was ensured in the same structures ("educational combines") without the breaks of framework that people know today (this is a very recent thinking in France!) which can be traumatic for the child.  Another example, evening classes set up for workers who want to learn, to get skills training. They were widespread in every factory, with a credential of national value. What a surprise for us here, when they have destroyed our occupational training!

7 - It meant real gender equality, defending women's activity in society. Even today, gender equality is a battle in France. In the USSR, gender equality was a reality , first in the salary. And in specific rights, we often forget that the Soviet Union was the first country to give the right to abortion! This genuine equality, was lived, not only in the laws, but in reality. Men actually helped women in their household tasks, as women were also involved in the production process.

8 - It meant the care for small children, and the possibility of being both a mother and a working woman. For a woman to be active, there must be time and energy for her to devote to activity. The Soviet state guaranteed it especially for young women who got maternity leave longer  than what was in force in France at the time, and access to affordable nurseries open 24 hours, 7 days a week, with no waiting list.  Still, what a contrast with France, where waiting lists are becoming an urgent problem (especially in Paris), where privatization has become synonymous with outrageous costs, where maternity leave as a fundamental right is questioned.

9 - It meant the complete satisfaction of material goods. Still another piece of the dominant ideology: in 1974 people said that the USSR was the second largest economy in the world. Like any country, it had its contradictions. However, stakeholders lived in assured material comfort, at least in the satisfaction of all basic needs: food, clothing, appliances, shelter. From the 1960s there starts the great turning to meeting cultural aspirations, centered on culture, art, education, and recreation in the broad sense. In Rostov, workers had access to courses in classical dance, to theater performances, to chess clubs, scientific conferences national and even international level. Not only would they go to them in huge numbers but they participated as amateurs and fans.

10 - It meant an "economic miracle" after the destruction of 1945. People have spoken of the Japanese economic miracle, the German economic miracle, but what about the Soviet economic miracle? In a country one third of which was destroyed, which had lost 25 million human beings, in 15 years became the second power in the world and met all the needs of its population.  In the documentary, the memory of war is traumatic: the buildings razed, relatives dead, the city sacked by Nazi barbarism. The cry of "Never again!" and "No to war" was not abstract, but a reality lived in the flesh of each person.

11 - Unemployment in the USSR did not exist, there was no fear of the future. You can finish with this, but unemployment did not exist in the USSR …since 1927. Each enterprise restructuring forced the state to reclassify workers to find employment in another enterprise, or in another sector related to their skills, or even to offer them re-training.

A debate was kindled by a young Russian Communist, a young expert on the Russian world and our friend the American historian Roger Keeran, noted author of the book "Socialism Betrayed", explaining the causes of the collapse of socialism in 1991. The exchange offered a wealth of information.  Roger Keeran won over everyone with his first sentence: "I am not here to teach but to learn" (Je ne suis pas ici pour professer, mais pour apprendre). Such humility is that of an honest researcher, a true communist.

Relevant questions emerged from the new faces present, who were visibly challenged by the film.

Why did the Soviets did not resist in 1991, if they were so well off?
Few people know this but in March 1991, 65 percent of the Soviet people voted for the USSR in a referendum when Communist Party leaders already thinking of liquidating the Party and the State. Six months later, Gorbachev and Yeltsin scorned the popular will and dissolved the USSR!

But this brings us to a critical reflection. The party was identified with the state; it did not effectively play its role as organizer of the masses (including resistance), nor did it nourish the ideological debate, nor serve as an antidote to the underlying pro-capitalist ideologies. This shortcoming had cruel consequences in 1991. Faced with Communist leaders who were turncoats, who despised the popular will, the Soviet workers found themselves helpless against counter-revolution.

This does not address the question of democracy in the USSR. All the same, wasn't there was a kind of comfortable inaction, an illusion of safety without action, in the USSR?
Absolutely, but not in terms of "bourgeois democracy". There was a democratic deficit in the organization of the party and the state. It was a policy for the people, but without the people. Certainly, mass education, culture for all, the right to decide in the workplace, social laws, these are fundamental democratic elements. But the lack of democratic debate in the party and the state was evident. That encouraged passivity, even among the leaders, and the kinds of duplicity and manipulation that can be found in a Gorbachev.

What comparison can be made with life in the United States at the same time?
Roger Keeran comes from the birthplace of the American auto industry - Flint, Michigan, also known as home of Michael Moore - from a working class family, he tells us.
It's simple, an American worker had an undeniable material comfort. But he did not read, did not go to the museum, the theater, ballet. Access to culture, education was a stark poverty, especially among workers, among minorities.  Roger recalled that UNESCO had classified the USSR as #1 by far for two things: (1) the Soviets were those who read the most, and they were subscribers on average to 4 newspapers; (2) they were the ones who were most went to museums, the theater, to cultural venues.

What enabled the Soviet regime after 1917 to produce such a society?
Huge question. It should first be noted that Lenin - unlike all other politicians - kept his promises: land to the peasants, peace for workers. This, despite the opposition of Trotsky or Bukharin. Afterwards, the Soviet Union gave a high priority to education, to culture for all. In an era when Russia was economically battered, it turned Tsarist Russia, with its 80% illiteracy, into a country free of illiteracy by 1930. It  also met the basic demands of the most humble: the workers, peasants, women, national minorities. This is the social base which allowed the USSR to hold on for 70 years, to fall only by the action of leaders who had switched sides.

What happened after 1991? What do the Russians think of the Soviet era?
It was a disaster for the Russians, Ukrainians and others. Production fell by 50%, prices jumped, sometimes by a factor of 10 or 100 (such as transit fares!). We went from a Russia with zero poor to Russia counting 70 million poor! The Russians have discovered many things they did not know before: insecurity, unemployment, lack of medical coverage, commodified human relations.  Between 1991 and 2014, Russia lost several million people. The mortality rate has climbed, life expectancy has fallen. According to the British medical journal Lancet, at least 2 million Russians died as a direct result of the privatization of the Russian healthcare system. Not surprisingly, the Russians are now nostalgic for the Soviet era. Two-thirds of them regret the loss of the USSR and its socialist model based on collective ownership and central planning. In 2014 as in 1991, Russian leaders do not care about the will of the people!

The twenty youth present were delighted by this meeting of rare quality. They thanked our friend Roger for his accurate analysis, humility and availability. We promised to lead the fight here and now, for a different non-capitalist society, but not opposed to the one experienced in the USSR!


  1. It's posts like this that kind of scare me. It's horrifying to see young people buy into revisionist history. Where I live, it tends to be a far-right re-imagining of history through a religious or atheistic but still far right propaganda. Because we lack any historical basis for knowledge, we're susceptible to stories of history that are wide from the mark.

    You watched a propaganda film with an American professor who has spent his entire career (in America) being a Soviet apologist. Even long after most socialist were forced be history to disavow the Soviets as real communism.

    Decades of famine, instability, brutal and paranoid purges, the NKVD, forced labor/gulags. Oh and workers so happy, one of the prime jobs of the NKVD was to hunt down and execute saboteurs.

    There's a difference between yearning for an alternative to capitalism and re-inventing the past. This is the first place I've ever seen communist so naive to actually want to pretend there was anything truly communist about the USSR or that was any kind of ideal and that's honestly frightening to me.

    It's as frightening as Americans who think the American Civil War flags represent anything but hate and slavery or any far-right historical re-imagining.

    It's understandable to want to believe something, but you've chosen the easy way out which will make you doomed to fail. Instead of recognizing some ugly realities and leaning from history, you've chosen to simply invent a fairy-tale that wishes away inconvenient truths. .

  2. Man you hit that nail on the head!