Art & Culture
Summers in Soviet Russia
This is the last of three articles by Anna Malyukova about her memories of the Soviet Union, where she grew up and lived. Anna’s account is not a detached political analysis of the situation in the former Soviet Union but rather a story of her personal experiences, which illustrate the deep contradictions that marked the society and the everyday lives of the people.
March 05, 2017
This is the last of three articles by Anna Malyukova about her memories of the Soviet Union, where she grew up and lived before its collapse in 1989. Anna’s account is not a detached political analysis of the situation in the former Soviet Union but rather a story of her personal experiences, which illustrate the deep contradictions that marked the society and the everyday lives of the people.
The Russian Revolution has been subject to multiple misrepresentations, particularly in the United States. The anti-communist policies of successive U.S. administrations during the second half of the twentieth century made it possible for socialism to be identified with totalitarianism, oppression, and lack of freedoms. American capitalism, by contrast, has presented itself as the best possible social system. However, after eight years of economic recession and after the election of Donald Trump, things seem to be changing.
People across the world, including in the United States, know that capitalism is a system that deserves to die. The most sinister face of the "American way of life" is the exploitation and precarization of millions of workers, the rampant police violence, systemic racism, the mass incarceration of America’s Black population, and the persecution of immigrant workers. Globalization has enabled American transnationals to enrich themselves by exploiting millions of workers, while oppressed people everywhere, especially in the Global South, suffer under the yoke that is the criminal economic and political hegemony of the US — the superpower that is sometimes commanded by Democrats and sometimes by Republicans.
In this context, it is useful to shed some light on what was the most impressive working-class revolution in history. It is true that the Communist Party was the main agent of capitalist restoration in Russia; however, some of the achievements of the Revolution endured into the 1980s, such as access to education and culture, healthcare, and recreation. These important public goods and services, which are effectively withheld from millions of workers in the US, in particular from people of color and Latinx, were a lasting feature of Soviet society, and this was possible only because the revolution had expropriated the capitalist class. The laboring masses had taken their destiny into their own hands by taking political power and
making the means of production the property of the state.
While the Russian Revolution of 1917 remains a most impressive testament to the profound changes that the working class is capable of bringing about, the subsequent developments in the Soviet Union are evidence of the nefarious role of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which used the theory of "Socialism in one country" in order to isolate the country in the world. As a result of the Stalinist counter-revolution, revolutionary movements all around the world were stopped in their tracks, as socialism was supposed to exist in "peaceful coexistence" with imperialism.
There are profound lessons to learn from the Bolshevik revolution. First and foremost among these lessons is the fact that a society without capitalist exploitation is possible. This is of immense importance especially for new generations of workers and young people who begin to embrace the idea of socialism and are looking to study the history of the Russian Revolution and of the Soviet Union in order to understand better how to build revolutionary movements that are prepared to take up the fight against global capitalism today.
When I was three years old, my parents bought a little summer house on the bank of Klyazma river in a small provincial town, 250 kilometers east of Moscow. It was 1982, and we were living in the Soviet Union. The summer house was more like a cabin with two stories, one room on each floor. My father later built a summer kitchen.The cabin came with an additional piece of land, about 5000 square feet, where my parents grew a variety of fruits and vegetables. The season usually began in May and ended in September, and for those five months our lives centered around our summer house - our dacha.
The school year generally ended in the last week of May and started again in the first week of September which left us kids with three months of summer vacation. My parents each were entitled to a month of vacation, and they usually arranged it in such a way that they would have two weeks overlapping so that we could take a trip to the Black Sea together sometime in August. We would spend two weeks with one parent on our dacha, then two more weeks on dacha with our aunt, uncle and cousins, and then we would all go to Sochi, a resort town on the Black Sea, for two weeks, and as we returned we would spend the last two weeks of summer with our second parent on dacha. And then there were the weekends. Our whole summer was spent there. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
Some people were able to afford cars and drove to their dachas, but the majority would bike or take a local train. My parents biked there; later my brother and I did, too. We would ride our bikes in a line. Dad was always first, then my brother, and then my Mom. My parents took turns riding me on their bikes. Since there were no fancy bike seats for children available in stores, my dad made one for me so I could sit with my parents. I clearly remember the amazing feeling of air softly hitting my face while I steered the bike with them.
These summer houses were all located on the outskirts of the town and part of a community of dachas. Each major organization would oversee a large piece of land and allow its workers to purchase small pieces for gardening. My father worked in an electro-mechanical factory as a hydraulics engineer, and when all the restrictions for land purchases were lifted in 1980, we became one of the families who owned a summer house.
These dachas were community-run, and each season, members of each dacha would choose leaders. There were rules to be followed, and each member was responsible to contribute or volunteer a certain number of hours to oversee the dachas and make sure the community was safe and ran smoothly. Each evening, several members of the dacha community would walk through the territory and check to be sure there were no intruders. I imagine that this was a nuisance for my parents, but as kids, we loved it. We would walk with the adults, flashlights in our hands, while our parents sang songs as they walked slowly through the gardens, checking for intruders and admiring each other’s gardens and dachas. We would run through elaborate paths in the dark, flashing lights flickering in our hands, and imagine ourselves as spies. It was an adventure every time.
The dacha itself was peaceful and comfortable. The second floor of the cabin was the kids’ area. My mother made it very cozy up there. There were two simple beds with lace curtains over them to protect us from the from mosquitoes and flies while we slept. Our second-floor room opened onto a large balcony where we would play, sunbathe, and have tea parties. From up there, we could see the river and a railroad bridge with trains going to and from Moscow as well as other locations in our vast country. I would lay in bed and listen to the sound of trains going over the bridge, imagining myself on one of those trains going to faraway places. The breeze from the balcony would move the lace curtains over my bed, and the sun beams would stream through them, creating elaborate patterns. It was the perfect environment for daydreaming.
On the floor was a huge rug made out of old fur coats. It was like a patched-up blanket, Russian style. There were pieces of rabbit fur and sheep wool, with patches of old foxtail hats. I remember laying on that warm carpet, the hairs tickling my skin. As I ran my fingers through the different textures, my mind wondered about everything and nothing at the same time. What were these animals like when they were alive? What kind of clothing had these pieces been made into before they ended up as a rug? I could feel my mother’s careful stitches putting these old pieces together into a single rug as I traced them with my hands. I imagined snow falling on fur hats and coats, sticking to the hairs, and could almost see my mother’s face with a foxtail hat wrapping her head, snowflakes dancing around, music from Doctor Zhivago playing in my head.
My mother collected old magazines and soviet posters. I must have looked through them a thousand times. I would study the images and try to copy them. Images of evil capitalism are still imprinted in my brain from those propaganda posters and caricatures. But there were others which encouraged citizens to have good work ethics and strong moral character.
Translation: He earned according to how hard he worked!
Left flag: "Cheer for the worker-peasant soviet reign!" Right flag: "All power to the capitalists! Death to the workers and peasants!" Bottom: "Death to capital, or death under the foot of capital."
Meals were simple but delicious and straight from the garden. Most men spent early mornings and evenings fishing, and their catch would become a source of protein in many of our meals. Boiled baby potatoes, salads with tomatoes, cucumbers and lots of other greens, and fish from the river was often our dinner. We had tea made out of mint, cherry, and currant leaves with fresh jam for dessert.
We didn’t really like having to help in the garden, but the rest of the time, we were free to do anything else we liked. We owned a row boat and took little boat trips on the river when parents had time. It was thrilling every time as we traveled up and down the river, going around small islands, building fires on their banks, and exploring. We learned how to swim and fish in the same river. The kids became friends over the summer and played together. Occasionally we would go back to our apartments in the town to get groceries, do laundry, or take a bath.
For weeks at a time, evenings were devoted to reading, playing cards and games, singing, and eating. There were no TVs or phones in the dacha on the community of dachas, so we were stuck entertaining each other. To me it was glorious. To my parents, I imagine, it was a lot of work, but they seemed happy as well. A few years later, when the Soviet Union collapsed, the dacha became our primary source of provision for the whole year and not just a place to be and grow food during the summer. But until then, I could look at the sun streaming through the lace curtains on my bed on the second floor of our dacha, eat strawberries straight from the patch, enjoy boat trips to the different parts of the river, collect water lilies while playing pirates, and flip through magazines of Soviet propaganda, happily and content. Growing up on dachas was such a vividly remembered part of my childhood that I still see our dacha in my dreams.