Growing Up In The World of the Iron Curtain

I think it’s safe to say that people in the US, overall, have absolutely no clue what it was like to grow up in the Soviet Union.

If you’re from the West, take a minute to think about what you thought Soviet life was like. You probably imagined people huddled under blankets, drinking vodka for warmth with no light and no heat in an eternally bleak landscape where the sun never shines. You probably thought life in the USSR was one long joyless Soviet winter stretching from World War II until the fall of the Berlin Wall. You probably thought that if the Soviets were willing to risk complete annihilation in a global thermo-nuclear war, then life in the Soviet Union must be pretty cheap. And you’ve probably been fed enough lines about godless communists and their disastrous centralized economy and their gulags and their James Bond villains to believe that the Soviet political economy was a dystopian hellscape where anyone, anywhere, could be whisked off the street by the KGB on mere suspicion of opposing the State apparatus which systematically starved and bankrupted the common man in the name of the Communist Party.

Now, obviously, the USSR no longer exists. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics disunited two decades ago. Georgia and the US now celebrate 20 years of diplomatic relations with Georgia as a fully autonomous state, not the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. And you can point out that the USSR failed for a reason, that Georgia left the Union for a reason, that Communism has lost all credibility as an economic system for a reason. But saying that the USSR was an unstable alliance built on questionable political and economic institutions is a far cry from painting the bleak, Mordor-esque picture that most Americans seem to have of Mother Russia and its former satellite republics.

I used to wonder what life would actually be like in the USSR. I used to read a lot of Tom Clancy novels and I literally used to think that if I actually were to visit the USSR – if I had a time machine and could go back to the 80’s as an adult – that I would feel something different in the air. That the “Iron Curtain” must have been palpable, that the people would know I was from outside it, and that they would stare at me.

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When I was in grade school, we had air-raid drills. They were like fire drills, except there was a specific siren that went off and instead of heading for the nearest emergency exit, we were instructed to crouch under our desks in the fetal position. This was largely pointless – if, in the unbelievably unlikely event that the Soviet air force successfully crossed the Atlantic ocean and mounted a bombing campaign against New York City, it’s hard to believe that this event would take place without enough warning for parents not to send their kids to school.

No, the reason for the air-raid drills was not to protect us in the event of an air raid. It was to instill in us, as children, an irrational fear of the Soviet Union. Most TLG Volunteers grew up in the 90’s – a brief period when America struggled to find a credible enemy – and if it was hard to swallow the idea that the Russian air force would bomb New York, imagine trying to convince someone that the Iraqi air force would do so. After 9/11, America had an enemy again, and the powers that be have wasted no time in making up for the relative security America felt in the booming 90’s, and now American security theater is far, far worse than it ever was in the Cold War. Children of the 2000’s will grow up with grossly distorted ideas of what life is like in the Muslim world, unlike children of the 80s, like myself, who grew up with grossly distorted ideas of what life was like in the Soviet world.

The only way America can really have enemies is to grossly distort them. To strip away the humanity, to vilify the government by presenting a ridiculous caricature of the people. To play up their suffering, to present their lives as bleak and joyless. Our view of life in the USSR was not something we invented because of ignorance or malice – it was something thrust onto us by our leaders to keep us compliant. Our ignorance was done to us, when we were too young to defend ourselves, when we were nine years old and huddled under our desks in the fetal position.

Not that this climate of fear defined my life in any way that I can really put my finger on. When I think of my childhood, I think more of the culture I consumed, in the form of books, songs, and TV shows, than I do of the nonsense that the adults in my life were constantly worrying about.

Still, I can’t help but wonder what would have been different if we’d had YouTube. Would we have fallen for the same propaganda if we’d had the ability to actually experience cultural exchange with the USSR? I guess we’ll see – the growing movement against war with Iran offers a suggestion of how the information age might bring two peoples together despite their governments being at odds.

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I’ve had inklings about life in the GSSR before – the fact that, for example, there do exist a sizable number of Georgians who preferred Soviet times, or at least claim they did. The fact that the wars with Abkhazia started because many Abkhazians didn’t want to break away from the USSR. The fact that in the period of instability following the collapse of the USSR, Georgia went through political and economic upheaval including several coups and the loss of regular public services, such as water, power, and gas. There’s a joke I’ve heard Georgians tell: “What did Georgians use for light before candles? Electricity.” Yes, Soviet times may have been tough, but, at least in Georgia, Soviet times meant a certain amount of stability and a certain basic level of services provided by the state. It meant knowing your career path was basically taken care of (even if this was done in an inefficient way in terms of the overall economy, and has left Georgia with an army of doctors and lawyers who drive cabs for a living).

But the first real idea I got about what my life might have been like if I had been born in Tbilisi, rather than New York, in 1981, was an incredibly catchy little tune.

I first heard Ничего на свете лучше нету – “Nothing on Earth Could Be Better” – when some kids at Buckswood were playing it on the piano. Thus began a months-long obsession with the song, which, as I said, I find incredibly catchy. It’s the opening song from the animation “The Musicians from Bremen”:

Google Translate can give you the full lyrics, but the gist is that this song is about the freedom of the open road. About how wonderful it is to travel with friends, with the trees as your walls and the green grass as your carpet. Everyone I’ve asked about this song, in Georgia, knows it from their childhood.

Yes, that’s right – children in the Soviet Union grew up singing songs about freedom, about nature, and about wandering on the open road. If you’re American, you probably think of that as a particularly American sort of ideal, but apparently it has a global appeal.

If “The Musicians from Bremen” first pushed me in the direction of thinking about a Soviet childhood (well, actually, I’d have to credit Billy Joel’s “Leningrad” with that, but Leningrad is more of a superficial “They’re just like us! They have circus clowns and children!” piece, while “Musicians” is more concrete) then the real clincher had to be Winnie the Pooh. Or should I say “Винни-Пух”.

Винни-Пух is like a weird, awesome alternate-universe version of Disney’s “Winnie The Pooh.” At this point I have to confess that I’ve never actually read the A.A. Milne books or stories, only seen various Disney movie versions. As a kid I saw “Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree” and “Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day” so many times I practically had them memorized. Well, to be honest, both the blustery day and the Heffalumps and Woozles song were terrifying to me, so I had a distinct preference for the Honey Tree.

This, on the other hand – wonderful:

You can find some with English subtitles, but I saw the sub-less version first, and, by virtue of overall familiarity with the story, could follow the action reasonably well. The balloon, the mud-puddle, the umbrella. The bees.

I’ve noticed that a lot of the stuff they let us watch as children – Looney Tunes is a great example, and Popeye – were actually really racist and sexist and violent and just weird all around. Winnie The Pooh – on both sides of the Iron Curtain – seems to be a lovely counterexample.

I’d love to close with some kind of platitude about how what unites us as humans is more powerful than what divides us, but that just feels hollow, especially knowing that so far, it isn’t. The USA and the USSR still managed to be enemies despite, deep down, having similar values and similar goals and similar daily concerns. American pundits and politicians still demonize the Other and the American people still fall for it. I write this knowing that right now, in this moment, there are millions of kids in the world for whom America is the evil empire, which any day now could cross the Atlantic ocean and rain down death from the sky.

When does a child go from innocent to complicit? Every time I watch Винни-Пух, I think, just for a moment, that we could go back.

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4 Responses to Growing Up In The World of the Iron Curtain

  1. Katie says:

    My basis for imagining life in the USSR comes from Slavenka Drakulic’s books which I read early on at Vassar – they’re very good. Prior to that, I never had this idea of a hellscape indoctrinated into me, nor did we upstate have to do air raid drills. Maybe that’s just what happened at your school?

    Not going to lie, my basis for exposure to the Soviet Union at a younger age largely came from the Soviet girl character on “Captain Planet”- there were Soviet kids and American kids, they were probably each pretty strong-willed, and that they’d bicker a lot for comic effect, but they were both pretty good. (Though my favorite was the Asian.) I think that’s the strongest association I had.

    I don’t believe the Muslim world is being cast as the new USSR so much as China is. The same sublimated tensions and stereotyping you describe above fit very closely with media descriptions of China these days: enormous state-controlled bureaucracy, abuses of human rights, growing threat, etc etc. I think some may be true of course, but that many Chinese citizens lead what would be considered pretty normal lives.

    • panoptical says:

      It might be an age thing – I know I’m only a couple of years older than you, but the collapse of the USSR was very sudden and had very immediate effects in American policy and attitudes.

      Also I think NYC might have been considered a more likely target than upstate NY.

  2. Billy Bob says:

    “The USA and the USSR still managed to be enemies despite, deep down, having similar values and similar goals and similar daily concerns.”

    Only New York City liberals believed that sentiment in the 1950s, and now, 20 years after the destruction of the evil Soviet Empire, a New York City liberal still believes that in 2012.

    • Billy Bob says:

      I guess I should probably also add that I grew up directly underneath the flight routes for B-52 bombers, that flew out of a Strategic Air Command base on the West Coast of the U.S.

      As a teacher of mine used to tell me, “we could could bother with air raid drills, but there’s much point”. Everyone at my school knew that if war started, we’d be dead within minutes of hostilities breaking out between the US and the USSR.

      I also grew up with tens of thousands of refugees from the Cambodian boat lift. I didn’t know that much about the USSR, but I did know that if my classmates were to return to Cambodia, there were to most likely face a bullet in the head from a USSR recognized “agrarian communist utopia”.

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