Fond memories of Soviet era linger

Upheavals since 1991 may tint perception of life in USSR

January 07, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Theirs was the best life the old Soviet Union had to offer.

The newspaper Soviet Weekly published a story about them in September 1979 called "Meet the Family, Moscow Style." Vasily Vasilyonok, 36, was building an electric car to escort marathoners in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. His wife, Irina, 31, was designing traditional costumes for her nation's Olympic athletes. Their 6-year-old twins -- Yulia and Vasily Jr. -- were studying music at their day-care center, and dreaming of becoming artists and sports stars.

Soviet Weekly described their life in a brand-new apartment in southern Moscow. "So you see, the Vasilyonoks have a lot going for them -- a typical Moscow family with confidence in the future and a lively interest in their careers and family," the English-language newspaper gushed.

The Soviet Union and its citizens seemed to have a glorious future.

Gathered around a kitchen table a few days ago, Irina, Vasily Jr. and Yulia saw the Soviet Weekly article for the first time. Listening to it translated into Russian, Irina closed her eyes and nodded dreamily at the description of the subsidized day care, cheap public transportation and good public schools. "In those days, it was easier to live," sighed the blonde, blue-eyed woman, now 52. "It was a warm and cloudless life."

Ten years after the fall of communism, opinion polls show that most Russians -- especially those middle-aged or older -- are nostalgic about Soviet times. That might baffle many Westerners, who think only of the Soviet Union's brutal repression of its citizens. But the story of the Vasilyonok family might help explain why so many here look back fondly on the days of totalitarian rule.

Yulia, now 28 and a pediatrician at one of Moscow's most prestigious hospitals, pored over the article's photos of the family. "I would like to go back to that life, if only for a short period," said the intense young physician, who is married and has a 2 1/2 -year-old son. Then she considered it, and added: "If I could, I would have stayed in that life."

Vasily Jr., who is a few minutes younger than his sister, listened to his mother and sister praise the Soviet days. His first response was sarcastic. "Oh yes, if we had not been interfered with by the Americans, we would have long ago built communism in the whole of the world," he said.

Shaking his head, he picked up the yellowed newspaper clipping. Communism was regimented, he said, and imposed a gray, dreary uniformity on everyone and everything. "After the Soviet Union fell," he said, "life became much more joyful and energetic."

"On the contrary," Yulia said, correcting her little brother. "Previously, it was much better."

In a poll taken in November, more than half of Russians surveyed agreed with this statement: "Things would be better today if there had been no perestroika" -- the last efforts to reform the communist system that preceded its collapse.

Why the stubborn fondness for the Soviet state? Sociologists and political scientists say the economic failures of the new, more democratic Russia are chiefly to blame.

Life seemed better in Soviet times, Vasily Jr. suggested, because people did not realize how poor they were. "Why it was so good and people were so happy?" he said. "Because there was an iron curtain and we didn't know what consumer goods there were on the other side of the curtain."

In Soviet times, there was officially no unemployment, but work was compulsory. Housing was cheap, but apartments were small, shoddy and hard to find. Western newspapers, magazines and books were banned or restricted. Soviet families didn't know that their counterparts in the West lived much better -- that many owned homes and shopped at well-stocked supermarkets and sprawling malls.

Soviet citizens were fed a steady diet of propaganda, and Soviet Weekly's article on the Vasilyonoks was part of that fare. It cast everything in an implausibly rosy glow. ("Winter snow is a joy to the Vasilyonoks -- especially when there's a cozy flat to return to!")

Yet, even considering the advantage of two decades of hindsight, Irina insists that it was all true. By many measures, the family had a comfortable life. The Vasilyonoks lived south of the center of Moscow, surrounded by gardens and a stroll from a state-supported day care center. They paid the equivalent of $76 a month for rent and utilities for their two-bedroom apartment. They took state-subsidized vacations at Black Sea resorts and occasionally went skiing in the Caucasus mountains. "Even the little ones like skiing and walking and the mountain air does wonders for them all," the newspaper declared. They were saving for the ultimate luxury for an ordinary Soviet family: a boxy Zhiguli car.

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