Children of the Soviet Union

This fascinating documentary, made by Disney in 1987, gives its putative US television audience a glimpse into the daily life of a Leningrad schoolboy, Alyosha Trusov. Alyosha attends Leningrad School No. 185, an English-language magnet school that my boon companion had graduated only a few years before this film was made.

Thanks to Yelena Yoffe for the heads-up.

 

Everything Is Normal: The Life and Times of a Soviet Kid, a recent memoir by the narrator and protagonist’s older half-brother Sergey Grechishkin, also gets my seal of approval. I would especially recommend it to university lecturers teaching courses about everyday life in the late-Soviet period and anyone else who wants to know what childhood was really like for what anthropologist Alexei Yurchak has rightly called “the last Soviet generation.”

Don’t be scared off by Grechiskin’s explicitly pro-capitalist, pro-western stance: he is too good a writer to let that get in the way of the story he has to tell, which he tells much more honestly than most of his compatriots and, certainly, nearly all westerners who have written about the period.

Thanks (again) to Yelena Yoffe for the heads-up. Grechishkin’s book turned several long bus trips in December into supremely pleasant journeys.

grechishkin

This book is both a memoir and a social history. On one hand, it is a light-hearted worm’s-eye-view of the USSR through one middle-class Soviet childhood in the 1970s–1980s. On the other hand, it is a reflection on the mundane deprivations and existential terrors of day-to-day life in Leningrad in the decades preceding the collapse of the USSR.

The author occupies a peculiar place in the Soviet world. He is the son of a dissident father and also the stepson of a politically favored Leningrad University professor and Party member. He also occupies a peculiar place in the literal geographic sense — both his home and school are only a few blocks away from the city’s KGB headquarters, where a yet-unknown officer called Vladimir Putin is learning his trade.

His world is a world without flavor. Food is unseasoned. Bananas are a once a year treat. A pack of instant coffee is precious enough to be more useful as a bribe to a Party official than a consumable. Parents on business trips thousands of miles away from home schlep precious and scarce bottles of soda across the Soviet empire for their kids. Everything is bland: TV, radio, books, music, politics — life itself. The author staves away boredom the best he can, with a little help from his friends. They play in the streets of their beautiful city, still resplendent with pre-Revolutionary glory; make their own toys and gadgets; and, when they get older, pass around forbidden novels and books of poetry.

But occasionally, an infinitely more exciting world makes itself briefly known. A piece of foreign bubble gum with a Disney wrapper. A short Yugoslavian cartoon. A smuggled cassette tape with mind-blowing music by someone named Michael Jackson. And these hints of a completely different life introduce small cracks into the author’s all-pervading late-Soviet boredom — cracks that widen and widen, until reality itself shatters, and a brand new world rushes in.

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