Interview with Vlada Zhmuro – perceptions of the communist era in Ukraine

1.       To you, what is communism?

I think the idea of communism (all people equal, share everything blah blah) is not a bad one but its utopian because it goes against human nature. In communism all people are supposed to have access to the same goods/ services, have similar living conditions no matter how educated you are or what position you hold in society.  In reality this did not work because higher educated people and people with power still wanted to be richer, have better things such as food, education and medical care and not mix with factory workers and bus drivers.  Soviet Union Ukraine was still a society with class divisions because certain people especially those in the government lived like kings of soviet luxury life, while everyone else lived in despicable conditions were food and a lot of products were unavailable.  This relates and has been seen in China, Cuba and North Korea…So I think communism always fails.

 

2.       Do you think your country has improved since the communist era?

I think yes… Because it has become more European, making certain important services available for all. Such as you can travel abroad, you can buy property/ cars, have your own businesses and make money, we have a higher degree of freedom of speech. No ridiculous censorship for TV, films and books. Unlike when under the USSR’s control all films/books had to be approved by a special committees which banned a lot of films/books because they saw them as immoral or anti soviet/written by enemies of the state, same people who would be sent to the Gulags.

Also there is less importance put on race, in the Soviet Union they used to write your “race/nationality” in your passport (Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish, Armenian, Georgian etc.). Jewish is not a nationality, but somehow they did write Jewish in passports!  This meant it was more difficult to get into a good university or get a good job if you were Jewish or Georgian.

Other improvements include being able to criticise the government openly, people don’t spy on each other, a sexual revolution attitudes towards sex are far more liberal and foreign products are freely available. Basically Ukraine became almost like Europe in terms of culture, economics etc. Of course it is far from Europe if you really compare standards of living and wealth but comparing to the USSR it is like Europe now. So in generally it has definitely improved but obviously there are things that have got worse.

The quality of education and public healthcare has significantly worsened; there is a higher crime and unemployment rate. Different from during the communist era since you could actually go to prison for not working.

3.       What do you think were the most obvious advantages and disadvantages of communism?

Advantages – As I previously mentioned no unemployment you were guaranteed a job after university or some other training, good education and healthcare, free kindergartens, very cheap basic food (bread, milk, baby food). There was also free housing, you had to wait sometimes for like 6-10 years and the quality wasn’t great, also you couldn’t choose the location but all flats were given for free. A disadvantage of this was you couldn’t sell it if you didn’t like the flat of it was too big you could only change it with someone else if you wanted their flat and they yours. Sometimes people changed one big flat for to smaller ones (e.g. after divorce) or vice-versa.

People had long compulsory vacations you had to take each year, could be up to a month. There were free trips to the sea, or other resorts, your children got free trips to summer camps. The public transport was cheap even flying and on fixed prices, that were cheaper than today.

Disadvantages – All houses, flats, factories, businesses and land was owned by the government so a normal citizen couldn’t sell or privately own them.

After university you had to work for 3 years in a designated company/factory / hospital depending on what your profession was. It was compulsory and you could get sent to any corner of the country. Only After that you could come back and choose where you want to work.

A lot of goods were really hard to get even if you had money. Like cars, house electronics, foreign clothes, furniture etc. You had to have connections. There was even a saying “It’s better to have 100 friends than 100 Rubels.”  There were serious laws against bribing so people usually bartered instead of bribing with money (also a lot of people had no money but had access to some goods they could use bartering). Even products from countries that were seen as allies such as the Czech Republic, Poland and East Germany were hard to come by.

The government had unlimited power and often abused it. Example not valuing human life and just sending masses of soldiers to death in WW2 or when Chernobyl blew up instead of telling people the truth and protecting them from radiation by imposing rules that everyone should stay inside they made everyone including children go out and celebrate 1st of May! Because they wanted to conceal the incident, sending people unprotected to extinguish the fire in a radioactive reactor.

People were not allowed to travel abroad, there was no freedom of speech, and all information on television / films/books was heavily censored. There was no adequate knowledge of the west other than what the government wanted people to know. Which was the west was evil, and that the rest of the world was dying and life in the USSR was the best in the world.

You had to be a member of a party to get a good job or get a promotion to a high position, young people aged 14- 28 had to join the Pioneers and later on the Komsomolec. These were strict groups were if you got expelled for some wrongdoings it caused bad consequences for the rest of your life. Also if your parent/ parents were sent to prison for something especially something that was considered anti USSR and especially if they were proclaimed an enemy of the state you had to publicly disown them in front of everyone in your school/ university. If you didn’t you could get expelled from Komsomol or Pioneers . And even if you did it was a really negative influence on your life. If you were a child of the enemy of the state it was almost impossible to get into university or get a good job.

 

4.       Are the opinions of your parents/ grandparents different to yours?

The opinions and perceptions I have expressed are mine and those of my parents. But my grandparents have completely different opinions as they lived most of their working lives within the communist regime. Especially when it was at its strongest and most idealistic stage.

My grandparents miss the USSR because they miss low prices on food and transport, pensions on which you could live on. I forgot to mention pensions in the advantages and disadvantages; it is a very important advantage of the communist regime. Elders could live normally now elders can’t, if they don’t have a family to support them they can’t afford anything and die in poverty.

Also moral factors such as no sex before marriage was highly advocated back then unlike now. No one is responsible for anything e.g before if for example a director of a sausage factory was caught making sausages of a bad quality he would go to prison for 25 years. Also morally questionable things such as paedophiles, drugs and other things were not reported on so they believe they didn’t exist in those days.

They also say (especially from my dad’s side because they were educators) that people were more cultured read classics, loved poets , were interested in meaningful debates about science and literature now everyone is only interested in music, sex and money. Also they believe western influences have brought negative consequences to Ukrainian society. Both my grandparents say that in the Soviet Union people were more friendly and helpful and there was a very strong sense of community. People didn’t care so much about material things and money. Also both of my parents love their childhoods and university years in USSR and they say it was very good and they loved it even though they didn’t have all the stuff kids have today.

They do still acknowledge though that its good now we have freedom of press, information, travel, can make good money if we can, buy everything we want and have choice in everything.

5.       Do you know of any specific experiences your parents/ grandparents/ family encountered during the communist era?

Experience N1:  My Granddad from dad’s side got his first flat for his family by basically doing this barter thing with one of his students. The student happened to be a boss and my granddad made a deal with him. The student needed to get this education to get promoted/keep his high position and my granddad got him good grades in exchange for a flat. Then the second better flat he got using a similar method.

Experience N2:  Same Granddad was a lecturer at university and he was really good but he couldn’t become a professor because he wasn’t a member of the communist party.

Experience N3:  No adequate sex education under communist rule, my grandma’s friend was shocked when after her wedding her husband tried to have sex with her. She was so scared she ran away to my grandma’s house. She didn’t know sex existed!

Experience N4:  Though this was after the fall of communism in Ukraine, things still took a while to change. After I was born my parents wanted to get a flat but even through it was in 1993 it was still very hard to buy a flat just with money. So my dad found this 50 year old Jewish woman who was emigrating to Israel, and he arranged it so that he gives her money and in exchange she marries him and leaves the flat as sort of inheritance to him when she leaves . So he divorced my mom, married that woman and then she emigrated and left the flat to him. That’s how we got our first flat. He then divorced her somehow.

 Mwen Fikirini

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