Quora: What was it like living in the Soviet Union?


Few details

It was public service – everything. Practically everyone was a salaried employee, even plumbers and waiters.

Soviet propaganda was praising USSR for distributing most of the wealth in non-monetary form. It was the access to that non-monetary things that were valued often ahead of salary – ability to receive housing (most was Government housing) in reasonable timeframe, ability to buy a car at official price, holidays, you name it.

In addition to the official distribution of wealth, there was unofficial – “taking from work” aka stealing. The scale you cannot imagine – at the official Moscow white-water slalom championship, not a single craft was made from materials that could be legally bought. Some parts I believe meant to fly into space.

Every organisation had a First Department, handling security, censorship and spying over employees – usually headed by an ex-KGB.

Bathrooms were shocking, and there was no such thing as kitchens at work. You want to make yourself tea or coffee, you go fill the kettle from the toilet sink. Occasionally nauseating.

Following up on sickening, Communist Party activists were doing their things with “political information” aka propaganda etc

Workplace was highly diversified up to the certain level. Nearly all adult women were working.

Women could even be seen doing heavy physical work, like road or railway maintenance. The Soviet system would pay them the same money for lesser productivity – say less volume dug.

Comes Autumn, every white-collar employee would remember where their gum boots, gloves and rain gear are – they were about to be sent to harvest potato and other vegetables, and no gear was provided. Once again, no discrimination on gender basis – a Ph.D.-qualified mother of three would go just as well, leaving the kid for her husband who would do the next 2-week shift.

As soon as security clearance (“dopusk”) comes into play, things gets immensely complicated. Like say how important was to keep as a state secret what Research Institute for Automatics was doing, considering it was described in details in In the First Circle widely sold in the West, and it doesn’t take a genius to make a connection considering the location is specified? Yet employees would get their individual entry and exit times, so American spies won’t guess how many people work there. I was lucky to avoid all that stuff.

There was a universally understood term “to work in a box”, as been employed by an organisation that is to be referred by its PO Box number.

Getting anything done in the “planned economy” was a major problem, as money didn’t really mean much on B2B level. Most things were done through exchange of favors and products.

One particular product, which was supplied to organisations that needed it, stood aside – ethanol aka “liquid currency”. If you have it, a lot of small problems could be easily solved.

Salaries were rather ridiculous – a basic Lada cost 3-year salary of an engineer. However even for that much, they still were distributed via employers – a new car on the black market would cost double that.

More on salaries. Artificially set prices were creating some bizarre effects. A pair of US-made jeans would cost over 6 week salary. A 100% wool suit would cost half that.

Anything to do with travelling abroad was creating immediate stream of income eclipsing salary, through buying stuff abroad, then selling it. However to have money to stock up on stuff, lucky travelers had to save on food, bringing everything with them and saving daily allowance. The urban legends about classic musicians cooking soup in washbasins using waterboilers [1] were abound.

The cases of sexual harassment etc could not go to court, however could be dealt with by the local Party committee if the offender was a Party member.

The need to be a Communist to have a management career was creating some bizarre situations. As I understand, because it was a Party of Proletariat, there was a quota for white collar workers. So in organisations with little blue-collar employees like design bureaus, career-minded educated young men would chase drunk plumbers and handymen (those would be salaried employees of the same organisations) begging them to join the Party thus creating an extra spot for a white-collar member.

For the same reason, some people including some [ex-]Presidents of post-Soviet states started their careers as factory floor workers after getting their degrees – to join the Party as Proletarians, not to learn the industry bottom-up.

There were no concepts like resume, there were no employment agents. In a bus you would see an ad inviting you to become a bus driver – and that about it. Practically any job, except for a graduate position after a college, was found through your network.

After receiving free education (with an extra serve of mandatory indoctrination, and military training if male), one was supposed to work for three years where told.

The behavior of recruiters talking to fresh graduates makes Western used car dealers look honest. Me and my mate were promised to be sent to the space station, in addition to medals and housing, if we just sign on the dotted line that we agree to work in the particular “Box”

The need for our agreement was due to rather unique circumstances. In general it would be quite close to a slave market – graduates would go where told.