The ‘Bright Tomorrow’: Growing Up in the Brezhnev Era

I am a grandchild of the revolution. My grandfather, Anatoly Alexandrov, was a Communist who spent his life building the Soviet Union. He traveled a path from working as an unskilled laborer at a locomotive assembly plant in Rostov-on-Don, a large industrial city in southern Russia, to becoming the head of military transportations for the strategic North Caucasian Railroad.

When war with Germany came, he found himself responsible for the evacuation of plants and factories from the rapidly collapsing front lines. Saving Soviet industrial capacity turned out to be one of the few success stories in the otherwise disastrous first months of the war. By the time of his demobilization in 1945, my grandfather had earned the rank of lieutenant colonel and a watch inscribed by the commissar for transport.

Years later, I sometimes wore that watch to school. It covered my entire wrist, was an inch thick and ticked loudly in the silence of history class, annoying my teacher.

My mother and I lived in an apartment that was less than 500 square feet in one of the many five-story khrushchyovkas, or Khrushchev-era housing projects, on the outskirts of the Lenin district, in another southern city, Krasnodar. My mother, Lyudmila, had received the apartment as a “young specialist” in the Institute of Culture, after a five-year wait. It was in one of the better, brick buildings and on the coveted third floor (my grandfather, who by then was in charge of the timber trade in the south, had put in a call to an assistant to the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev). The two adjacent rooms ran tram-style toward a balcony, from where I could see an identical five-story building, a communal lot for drying laundry and a small sandbox.

In our apartment, we had a TV, a fridge and a washing machine. All worked poorly. The images were fuzzy, the fridge self-defrosted when it felt like it, and the washing machine leaked onto the floor. But my school, in the same Lenin district, was free, and we were assigned a medical clinic. In summer, I went to a monthlong Pioneer camp for a nominal fee. There, I participated in all sorts of marches and competitions, and pledge allegiance to “Lenin’s cause” every morning before running to the sea.

My mother’s job as a senior piano teacher paid 180 rubles a month; the alimony from my father, also a teacher, added 30 rubles. Almost all of that went toward food. The money for clothes and basic necessities came from the dresses that she sewed at night — secretly, because it was incompatible with her job in the “ideological institute.” To earn more by teaching music elsewhere was prohibited by a labor law banning additional employment.

Nor could my mother join the Communist Party, the most reliable route toward financial security. Local party organizations were required to maintain a ratio of four real workers to every one “service employee,” as my mother’s work made her, and the Institute of Culture was afflicted by a severe shortage of proletarians. Of the 220 people on the institute’s staff, about 40 were Communists, most of them men.

The party members included the provost, appointed to lead on the “ideological front” after a long career in the agricultural department of the regional party committee. During subbotniks, “voluntarily mandatory” days of unpaid labor, he would arrive in a white Volga limousine with a scythe in the trunk and lead his army of ideological workers — pianists, lutists, accordionists, choreographers, choir conductors, librarians and theatrical organizers — into cutting back the ragweed on the wasteland behind the institute.

Even with my mother’s nightly sewing, everything beyond basic necessities was out of reach. Imported boots cost 150 rubles; a color TV, 750; a car, 5,000. Shortages — of butter, sugar, toilet paper — were a fact of life. In the summer of 1980, the year of the Moscow Olympic Games, rice disappeared. The local authorities couldn’t meet their production quota of a million tons — and pressured the surrounding collective farms to turn in every grain they could, disrupting supply to the stores.

“The party’s task has been fulfilled,” the newspapers proclaimed the next month. “Now, 100,000 tons more!” My mother privately wondered what we would go short of next.

When I was in fourth grade, my grandfather had a heart attack. Although he was rushed to hospital, the doctors had run out of the adrenaline that might have been able to restart his heart, and he died, at age 71. As I copied out my lessons from the works of Lenin that year — “first, you take the telegraph,” “the teaching of Marx is omnipotent because it is true” — I kept trying to understand how a country that lived according to Lenin’s covenants could not find one injection for a man who had built it. Or why his surviving daughter had to creep before her dressmaking clients, with pins clasped between her lips as she adjusted a hem, to be able to buy a piece of meat for our dinner. And why, given all that, we still had to show enthusiasm during the compulsory demonstrations, where plainclothes K.G.B. agents ordered us to look cheerful and march in time.

Lying seemed to be the only staple we would never run out of. Every other night, our neighbor from the next floor came down to gossip about the “idiots” whose party history he taught during the day at another institute. Behind closed doors, he’d lecture my mother on what he called alternative history, drawing material from Radio Freedom and Voice of America. She knew this because she, too, listened to the same banned radio stations on a crackling shortwave radio. It was similar to one that Grandfather had brought back from Berlin in 1945, most likely thanks to which she was the only girl in her third-grade class who was not shocked and didn’t cry at the announcement of Stalin’s death in 1953.

TV presenters kept talking about the Soviet system’s “intrinsic virtues” and the equality the revolution had given us. But in my school, the kids of party officials always had better clothes and nicer apartments, access to hard-to-get consumer goods and hard currency. The same pattern radiated through the rest of our lives. One thing you learn in a socialist experiment is that equality is not a natural state of the world.

The revolution had been won, I’d been told over and over, for our “bright future.” Yet in our country of the victorious proletariat, the only people who seemed happy were the drunkards I passed on my way to school who hung out by a beer keg beneath a faded banner that bore the legend “Let Us Implement the Decisions of the Party Congress!” Everyone else had to elbow and shove their way through life, cursing under their breath. Was this what Lenin had in mind when he roused the masses from an armored car at Finland Station in April 1917?

The full scale of our collective misfortune we, the grandchildren of the revolution, understood only during the brief period of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, or openness, in the late 1980s. Every day exploded with a new revelation: about the acid poured by Lenin’s Chekists to dissolve the faces of the murdered Romanovs; about the peasants who’d eaten their dead children during the famine caused by collectivization; about the bones of the gulag inmates that paved the great construction projects of Communism. In those last days of the Soviet Union, we were drunk with truth, freedom and horror.

In our families, also, things started coming out. I found out that what had turned grandfather’s hair prematurely gray was the six months he’d spent in prison in 1945, two months after victory in the Great Patriotic War, after he’d been denounced. And I learned that the two golden coins my mother kept inside the toy stove of the dollhouse she’d built for me was all that remained of her great-grandfather’s haberdashery business, expropriated by the Bolsheviks.

Almost every family in Russia had its own history of repression, dispossession, forced resettlement and worse. Small wonder that when “the dictatorship of the proletariat” finally collapsed in 1991, two years before my graduation from college, it was to a near-universal cheer of its inhabitants.

Of the 13 people in my university group, seven left the country. Many are successful; some are happy; none stopped identifying as Russian. Behind our perpetual displacement towers the man who promised our grandfathers to “illuminate the path for all mankind,” then broke them, broke their children and would have broken us, had chance, that twin cousin of history, not interfered, this time in our favor.

From a distance, revolutions always look heroic. They seem to epitomize mankind’s yearning for justice. But in the revolutionary fire, purification and destruction become indistinguishable. Yesterday’s dreamers turn into executioners; their followers, into victims. It doesn’t matter to the dead whether they were sacrificed for mankind’s happiness or shot for their wallets.

“The worst thing they had done to us,” my mother told me recently, as she sat in our American kitchen, “was turning us into cowards.” Her words echoed oddly those of Yeshua in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel “The Master and Margarita,” my generation’s bible: “There’s no graver vice than cowardice.”
Anastasia Edel is the author of Russia: Putin’s Playground, a historical and cultural guide to contemporary Russia.

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