I'll be here shortly to answer any questions you might have on living an ordinary citizens life in the Soviet Union: raising a family under communist rule, experiencing the fall of the Iron Curtain, accidentally toppling a government, Baltic States declaring independence and what to expect if Russia gets a chance to restore its grip on Europe again.

Daily struggles (Plenty of money to spend! But nothing available in the shops. Very eco-friendly toilet paper. But not by choice.) to big politics (the "free" world saying "shut up" when they should support us) - I'll do my best to share how it was! Ask on!

I have just published a book about living in soviet union and how it was when it crumbled too!


Edit: Thanks for all your questions and amazing responses so far. I need to take a coffee break, will be back in 30 minutes to continue replying to questions! Back now, continuing! Keep the fantastic questions coming in!

Edit 2: Huge thanks for all your questions and your time. I will be back tomorrow to follow up. I really truly appreciate depth and insight shared in the questions here today! In the meantime - my book is available, consider checking out the book preview and supporting my next one.

Comments: 3168 • Responses: 56  • Date: 

-myBIGD2608 karma

Is it true that if you saw a line of people that you would just jump in line, not knowing what the line was for?

zenta_brice3540 karma

YES! Of course! There must be something worth standing for.

And even if you didn't need whatever was on the sale you got it just in case to have an item for barter. At one moment we had 8 coffee grinders at home just in case.

(I also touch on small details like these in the book - consider checking it out)

_SxG_1228 karma

Did the government try to cover up what it was really like in the US, and if so, how?

zenta_brice1695 karma

Of course, nothing good was ever in USA. Life there was horrible struggle!

I answered this in another question though - it was difficult to accept that and we kept our idealistic view of what was there behind the curtain.

Snakeoilsage991 karma

I'm curious how things like food were packaged; in the West everything is brand names and marketing (appealing colors, designs, etc.). If the Soviet Union had no interest in such things, was food simply packaged in cans and bags marked "bread" or "soup" or the like?

zenta_brice1559 karma

Surprisingly, there were a lot of very good designs and packaging. The designs were often borderline art and it was clear a lot of pride went into them.

They usually were let down by outdated or misbehaving printing equipment, so on the shelves it might have looked pretty drab though.

Chungaleia677 karma

Did you like living in the USSR?

zenta_brice1613 karma

No, I def didn't like it.

  • firstly because grass is always greener on the other side of the fence

  • secondly - we had a lot illusions about Western life

  • thirdly - as a Latvian I saw Soviet Union as a political oppressor, an occupant.

HansChuzzman563 karma

How do you feel about Canadian soldiers being placed in Latvia ?

zenta_brice1277 karma

Very happy and very thankful.

We need as much NATO presence as possible. It is the only realistic way to keep situation at bay.

Thanks to all the corps that agree to stay here.

noSoRandomGuy113 karma

we had a lot illusions about Western life

What are your thoughts now, are there parts of Soviet system you are nostalgic about, or would have liked to continue.

zenta_brice405 karma

I definitely miss the lack of anxiety over future and daily life (as it was all provided for and planned for you by the state).

However - I certainly would not choose to keep going that way - the personal freedom is a thing that matters and whilst we might not have realised it at a time, it was like suffocating in a happy prison cell.

lappet631 karma

I have met a number of engineers from Russian and Eastern European countries in the software industry in California. I have heard that Math and Engineering is given a lot of importance there. How true is that and do you have any thoughts on that?

zenta_brice775 karma

Yes, STEM subjects were valued highly in Soviet Union and that has carried over to ex USSR states.

I understand that this culture is slowly fading away.

Jackdaws7592 karma

Hello! I am a Peace Corps Volunteer living in Georgia at the moment. It's been interesting to see all the various holdovers from the Soviet Union and how it has impacted life today. From the work ethic to the building materials to the "eco-friendly" toilet paper (which is still a staple in most village houses).

My question is; what are your thoughts on the current border issues between Russia, Georgia and South Ossetia? What are some of the Soviet Union era influences on current politics in the area?

Thanks for your answer!

zenta_brice644 karma

If I recall correctly a few weeks ago Russia annexed a piece of Georgia again - just a part of their ploy to claw back the empire.

As for influences - both there's still a part of population that would very much like to return into fold of Soviet Union (oh, sorry - Putins Russia) - a result of long and professional propaganda. And it doesn't matter for the West so Putins Russia can safely keep doing that. Same as Ukraine.

triddicent534 karma

Hi Zenta,

I always have been curious how night life was like behind the iron curtain, were there clubs and bars? What kind of alcohol did they supply and were prices all the same? Did the government own and regulate these bars?

Finally, was the scene fun? What was the music like?


zenta_brice991 karma

All establishments were run by government. No private ownership. Choices of drinks were usually good. Prices - regulated, but higher than in common shops.

Officialy scene was for "grownups" heading out for (lots of) drinks. Semi-officially there was a constant game of hide and seek trying to get a western song in between the prescribed official Soviet Pop Artists. The "DJ" usually got told off for trying such shenanigans, but everyone was treating it as good sports game.

In some aspects Soviets were pretty ok with relaxing the rules as long as it was not officially relaxing the rules. Kept the population more content and feeling that they are rebelling successfully.

therealquiz474 karma

What is your perspective on the USSR's competition with the USA via the Space Race and the Olympics medal talleys?

zenta_brice706 karma

Olympic medals are a great PR stunt and all countries try to do the same, all the difference is in how far they are ready to go. Not as if much has changed since. I think both USA and USSR had their fair share of pushing boundaries on this.

The space race (which peaked before my teens) was good as it pushed the funding for science (at least in certain areas). Cold War in general was better than the alternatives as it kept post war boundaries stable. Not so good for individuals behind the curtain, but at least we didn't end up with WW III and razed Europe - which was a real risk (more so than attacking USA).

Now the world is messing with all these proxy wars trying to push the borders and people die.

zenta_brice673 karma

On future of Russia - I see Russia suffering from identity crisis since collapse of the Soviet Union. At the beginning of 90's there was a move towards democracy, but Putin soon put a cap on it, and now there are dreams of restoring empire but it's not working either.

Until Russia finds a place in the current world, its a dangerous and unpredictable monster.

thatguy2366198 karma

So what kind place does Russia want? Does it want a more "America" type role in the UN?

zenta_brice496 karma

Oh yes, definitely. It's looking to restore its former glory. And the interpretation of what that glory was varies wildly.

While Soviet Union had to somewhat keep face as Communist Utopia, Putin's Russia is a wild wild west free market with no real boundaries at all. What makes it worse Putin (and the government) has to keep up a strong illusion of being in power to keep the masses somewhat happy.

Half the trouble is not what Putin might want to do, but what he might be forced into corner to do. Due to domestic pressures.

waynearick2352 karma

What would you do for a hot date? Movies and Dinner or what?

zenta_brice731 karma

Dining out wasn't so popular. Instead of movies it might be theater or Opera. Soviets had huge camping tradition so it was a guitar, a tent and terrible Georgian tea in the pot on bonfire.

mostbasic236 karma

I want to learn about history of Russia, politics and economy, which books do I read (that are not as heavy as Tolstoy, if possible)?

zenta_brice265 karma

Could you PM me or send me an e-mail via my website. It's a big topic and almost all literature out there has its own agenda.

MadKingBryce130 karma

Is this offer extended to the rest of us?

zenta_brice192 karma

Yes, of course. Trying to reply to questions now so can't dig in the lists.

Haener21222 karma

It terms of political tricks and propaganda, how does Putin compare to past Soviet leaders?

zenta_brice447 karma

Soviet leaders were less of a chess players and more like a marionettes for show (to keep up with the bright communism appearances). And they did not have the tools of information war available - just plain old propaganda.

Putin has no ideological restraints while being pretty much backed up against the wall to keep up some appearance of Russian strength alive. Mad dogs bite indiscriminately.

Braxo212 karma

How were stores and markets like with food? Would you have butchers, fish mongers, produce sellers, etc?

Growing up in the US in the 80's, I remember having large supermarkets with basically everything and fresh. Produce from around the country and world, fresh meats, deli, and daily caught fish.

zenta_brice320 karma

Soviet economy had fixed prices, so there were no market forces (ish). Shops were mostly empty and best commodities were spread among "friends of influence" - natural exchange of goods and services.

Towards the end markets had butchers, fishmongers and private sellers with semi-free economy thus prices on average were 5-10x dearer.

Badly_Timed_Thoughts204 karma

What were some of the illusions about the western world? How did they compare to your reality?

zenta_brice725 karma

On a basic level - our shops were empty, theirs were full! So it must have been a paradise.

That said we were (mostly) not aware that there is a possibility of no money in the wallet to spend in these shops and it was unimaginable that somebody could go without a job or healthcare or education - we took it as granted and assumed it would be so much much better over there.

And they could speak their minds! And change and influence things!

Of course I did eventually realise that full shops doesn't mean I can afford to buy things on display and having a free speech is not all that influential when nobody is listening to it.

Ha_omer164 karma

Why was there such a shortage in food back then? Was there some sort of embargo placed on the Soviet Union?

zenta_brice588 karma

Farming (and general economy) efficiency. Since there was no real incentive to deliver or hit particular targets - failing had no serious consequences a lot of goods and food were ether never produced despite materials being available or literally rotted on the fields (since nobody could be bothered to take the harvest in).

In general Soviet Union should have been perfectly able to feed itself. There was no external cause.

Strella10m154 karma

how did you get a job? do you apply as you do now? do you get to negotiate terms? etc, how do you change jobs if you want to?

zenta_brice351 karma

There were plenty of jobs available published in newspapers or even by signs on boards in official buildings. Salaries were dictated by state so there was no negotiation it was only a matter of accepting something you felt would work for you.

Changing jobs was not a problem ether as you had the security of there always being another one to try.

TurtlesWillFly151 karma

Two things I have to ask;how was the atmosphere of your life at the time of this era?And how do you view the future for Europe (especially Russia)?

zenta_brice357 karma

Your first question - it was complicated. You had two options - to accept the Soviet reality (ideology and the way of thinking) or to develop a split personality - the required Soviet mask during the day, and returning to being yourself behind the closed doors at home during the night.

Second question about future of Europe is harder to answer. I believe we are rapidly moving toward big social changes, in our lifetime, so Europe will look very different. Future doesn't look too bright, too much history repeating.

ashsooi88 karma

Would you mind elaborating on exactly what you meant by "too much history repeating?"

Thanks in advance!

zenta_brice329 karma

The western world is currently in disarray - the little people are at loss on how to live and what to do and they are naturally aligning with any strong leader they see regardless of whether it is a smart choice or not.

Trump, Brexit, LePen... Whole of western world seems unhappy.

It is very similar to what was happening after WWI in both in Germany and (what not that many remember) - whole of Europe. And we remember how that particular story ended.

TheTobleronly114 karma

What did you like about the soviet union and what do you think the west could have learned from it ?

zenta_brice370 karma

Social Security net. Soviet Union did an excellent job of making healthcare and social care available to children, elderly and disabled - no questions asked. In general whatever pickle you were in state would take care of you - even if sending you somewhere you might not like, but take care of you.

As to what to learn from - education opportunities regardless of background or finances.

KubrickIsMyCopilot106 karma

Briefly, how did life differ during different periods of the Soviet Union, as far as you know - by either personal experience or second-hand knowledge you learned from family?

zenta_brice165 karma

Before Khrushchev realised that wheat could be bought on international markets there was shortage of white bread.

Brezhnev realised he could buy some meat abroad too. So that was less of a luxury afterwards.

After WWII commodities supply was very scarce (and rationed) but since mid 70s almost everything became available on the black market. For a price.

Perestroika started in 1986 and by 1987 even political scene started to look somewhat semi-open. By then it was clear that Soviet Union was going to dogs though.

kobaco283 karma

Would you say that education level was higher than it is now?

Do you miss something from that era?

zenta_brice496 karma

I can't comment on current education level there, but in general education level was excellent because of equality: If you were good at something, you had a real chance to go all the way up and the social and financial background had no impact. Farmer or politicians family had the same chances.

I miss time. Abundance of time. You were limited at work so people had abundance of free time to read and think (or just drink) There was no rat race at all.

We had an expression "Government pretends that it's paying us and we pretend that we are working" 😀

Salvatio71 karma

Hello! Thank you for doing the AMA :)

After reading the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, I was baffled by just how easily people could be arrested and sent to the Gulags--often without reason, and with no resistance whatsoever. It is said that people would lie about others they were jealous of, so that you could have what they had. (boyfriend of a girl you like, for example)

Did this happen often? What was the degree of trust people had towards one another in the Soviet Union?

zenta_brice112 karma

Yes, it was a real thing. It was not at all uncommon to denounce or report your neighbours (or flat-mates as it was also common at the time) to earn some brownie points or just plain get rid of them and be able to take over their space.

There was zero trust - everyone was well aware that even their best friend could be reporting to KGB next day.

It could not extend to full population all the time, but KGB did an ok job of maintaining the myth as inevitability - which was good enough for their purposes.

deaddonkey67 karma

What was the level of awareness regarding forced labour camps/gulags, what horrors went on in them, and the scale of imprisonment?Did you know of anyone who was arrested for this purpose? Did people talk about it? I know that this happened less by the final decades of the regime but it seems like it may have been widespread enough to be noticeable.

zenta_brice158 karma

In majority of Soviet Union, in particular central parts, there was very little - about as same as ordinary germans being aware of death camps.

In Baltic States, in turn, almost every family had somebody that was sent off to gulags during 1940, 1949 and there on during Stalins purges.

My father was a survivor of gulag and two of my uncles were shot (accused of anti Soviet activities).

It's a complex topic - I hope I have captured some of it in the book (despite trying to keep it light hearted).

Kardinal65 karma

I did a student exchange in the summer of 1989 to the Soviet Union under a religious program. We stayed with host families in Leningrad and Moscow. For my particular host family, in Leningrad, the entire apartment was a kitchen, living room, parents' bedroom, and son's bedroom. Most of the others on the trip said this was huge compared to their families' accomodations. In Moscow, it was kitchen, entryway, and bedroom.

We figured that, even that far into perestroyka and glasnost, the Soviet government would want to show us citizens living in especially good conditions. To those of us coming from average, middle class American backgrounds around the country were slightly surprised at the small apartments were. How typical was this of Soviet life in those cities?

zenta_brice56 karma

Yes, newly built apartments were small - to fit average statistic family. Soviets never managed to catch up with new builds, and as private housing was also very restricted people mainly lived in very cramped conditions.

rezanow58 karma

My paternal grandfather is from Kiev. I asked him if that meant we were Ukrainian or Russian. His response: "You no understand. Back then, only Soviet."

So, it didn't really answer my question. We've always identified as Russian. What are the important differences? How important are they from the perspective of someone living in Russia?

zenta_brice39 karma

Your grandfather was right. Soviets tried really hard to create one, united, Soviet nation despite all the different nations who lived in USSR with Russians as a ruling class. Differences were huge. Nationality is more of a self-identification - you are who you believe you are. Which language do you speak at home, which traditions do you keep.

XtremeLv55 karma

Wow, nice to see a Latvian doing a AmA, I am also from Latvia and I think all the answers / stories about Soviet Union are similar that my parents have told me.

But here’s a question for you: Did you ever think about escaping Latvia to a non-Soviet Union country?

zenta_brice78 karma

I had a chance in 1989 when I was offered job in Radio Free Europe along with nice package of benefits etc, etc, etc. I actually devote a chapter to that in my book.

I declined.

mssaberhagen54 karma

My friend is from one of the Baltic states and she told me the major upside was that there were no issues with drug addiction. I find it very hard to believe given that my own country had issues with drugs even when it was under a dictatorship.

Is there any true to this? I don't know if it's relevant but she grew up in a small town, not a city.

zenta_brice112 karma

Somewhat true. There were some drugs (some weed or opiates), but they were fairly rare and more of a treat for artistic types. Kids were sniffing glue.

There were addicts, of course, but nowhere to the levels seen today.

StephenHunterUK44 karma

What was public transport like?

zenta_brice121 karma

Public transport was extremely cheap, fully subsidised and widely available. Trains were on schedule, trams were on schedule - the only complaint could be drunks and sunflower seeds on the floors.

Mailcars40 karma

What was the crime situation like? Was there much of an organized crime problem?

zenta_brice78 karma

Economic crime was a prime necessity and driver of everything from daily life to state manufacture - and it was quietly accepted as part of the official economy to some extent.

On a street level drunks were the main problem - Soviets love their vodka and it led to brawls, fights and outright "I think you don't respect me" murders.

There were no official crime statistics available and no major crimes were ever reported by the news. Unless you were involved personally you would not know.

papapyro33 karma

How were people with mental and physical disabilities treated?

zenta_brice66 karma

As Soviet Union were supposed to be one happy family, people with disabilities were tucked away from the sight. They were cared for (ish) but not welcomed in the daily life.

AnalAboutAnal30 karma

I have heard stories from people who lived in East Germany, mostly people in their 50-60s now, and they paint a very different portrait of Soviet occupation than I had previously heard. It seems to be not so uncommon for people of at least East Germany of the aforementioned generation to actually think life in the USSR was better than after reunification. While they state that their wants were often unmet, there needs were often fulfilled and the biggest thing they talk about was how "everyone had jobs". They see a lot of the reunification process with West Germany as a time of rampant unemployment and as a result they hold ill-will towards capitalism and reunification. Am I getting a poor sample or is this feeling not uncommon? Is this sentiment common in other countries that have recently experienced capitalism after the breaking up of the USSR?

zenta_brice66 karma

The key here is childhood - when grass was greener and sun was a plenty.

I completely relate to this view - the shock of transitioning from planned soviet economy where you were guaranteed a minimum job and you were somehow looked after regardless to open market was a major one.

If you have lived into your 30s/40s and suddenly the rules on how the whole world operates change completely - it's not a welcome experience.

DuckieBasileus22 karma

Was there ever much immigration from or to Soviet friendly regimes for general life or students? Also were citizens allowed to move within the Republics in the USSR as easily as EU member states are today?

zenta_brice39 karma

Yes, as we all had the same passports, used the same rouble, and were united by Russian language. There were no major differences in each Soviet republic regarding healthcare or social security (there are in EU). So it was way more united than current EU. Inside borders were on paper only.

VegatronX18 karma

Did you know that people in the rest of USSR, except for major cities and specific region, had much worse conditions compared to Baltic countries ? Did you know that for many people getting to Latvia for example was like a trip to a completely another world ?

zenta_brice22 karma

yes, we were aware. I already mentioned, Baltic states were considered the "West" of the Soviet Union.

roboconcept16 karma

I'd always heard about higher-quality Western products being smuggled in, but were there any Soviet-made products you remember as being superior?

zenta_brice33 karma

Good quality old fashioned rye bread. My fav chocolate... Roasted lamprey in jelly... There were some.

fohnjoster0712 karma

Were there a select few people who were allowed to have a camera/video recorder? If so, what would be the "guidelines" for, let's say, a video to be published to public viewership?

(Sorry if anything about my question doesn't line up with how communism works, or how it was, for I am not the most educated person on the Soviet Union.)

zenta_brice25 karma

It's less of a matter of propaganda but rather technology - Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 when even in western world there was no youtube or camera phones.

The state media and newspapers censorship was fully sufficient to avoid any embarrassments. Anyone who wanted was free to own a camera or 10.

Jaws768 karma

Are you surprised about some American options on communism ? I have always found it interesting how we evoke Hitlers name when referencing a dictator but rarely Stalin.

zenta_brice13 karma

In my view this has a lot to do with embarrassed guilt. After WWII - during which we all were best friends forever and allies - West simply gave up on half of Europe and did nothing.

Encouraging analysis of scope of Stalins crimes and where he fits in 20th century history inevitably raises questions about Yalta treaty and the token "support" annexed states received.

dnGT7 karma

How was history portrayed, both in terms of the Country's and the World's? Do you believe any differences between what was taught and the truth have any lasting impacts today? Or, was this not really an issue?

zenta_brice21 karma

Oh, I was well aware of the reality and the "corrected" history, taught at school.

Everything was portrayed through the Soviet ideological prism so even when the truth was told, I/we simply refused to process it - things like miner strikes under Thatcher or caravan parks in US must have been Soviet Propaganda.

This is still ongoing. Lots of people in Russia and ex-Soviet countries still treat history as it was taught then as true. It's much easier to control population that believes lies on their "own" choice, not even noticing propaganda.

Friedhelm_W3 karma

What kind of propaganda was there against western life? Also did your imagination run wild on what life may be like out of the USSR?

zenta_brice6 karma

Propaganda was heavy, yes. Sadly, some of it was true.

Fuck_mass_ufilth3 karma

Favorite midnight snack?

zenta_brice9 karma

Moscow Straws (there's no english name for them) - thin and crispy potato chips.

heWhoMostlyOnlyLurks2 karma

What a wonderful AmA.

Do you ever fear that this might happen again [wherever you might be living now]?

zenta_brice2 karma

Yes. I don't think it will be quite the same scenario as after WW II, but seeing what is happening in the world right now it would take little for western world to split in two again - from Russia or from within western world itself.

kev7172 karma

Do you think that the political ideologies behind the CCCP could "work" in the modern world to bring about a standard of living similar to most developed countries? If not, what would need to change to do so?

zenta_brice2 karma

Definitely not. No ideology can change the basic human nature and Soviet system would never work without full cooperation from everyone.