Olga’s perspective as an ordinary citizen of the Soviet Union demolishes impressions held by some that despite the dark side of communist rule, the lot of the masses was improved.
Certainly literacy was vastly improved but, as with every aspect of communism, there was a political motive. From the outset, school children were indoctrinated with Marxism-Leninism. Atheism was official policy. Strict compliance at every step of a child’s schooling determined further education opportunities, future employment and accommodation prospects
Surveillance and monitoring of people’s lives was constant. Indoctrinated children wittingly or unwittingly betrayed their parents for uttering criticism of the soviet system. Fear of arrest by the security police was a constant reality. Dogmatic adherence to everything that the communist party published or required was the way of life. As Olga noted, they lived behind an information iron curtain.
What is particularly striking is what Olga reveals about living conditions of the masses. Towns and cities became crowded as a result of the migration of people from rural areas as a result of the destruction of private farms and the forced imposition of collectives –kolkhozes. She writes: “Accommodation was very difficult to find. People occupied every available space. They lived in cellars, lofts, in rooms divided by sheets of fabric” (p 62). The massive infrastructure destruction caused by WW 2 added to the woes of accommodation.
Until she was nine in 1964, Olga’s home was a 14 m² flat in which she, her parents, two brothers and grandmother lived. Her parents slept on a fold-up divan, her two brothers slept head-to-toe on a sofa and Olga shared a fold-up bed with her grandmother. They shared a kitchen with another couple. It was 6m² and housed a stove fired by coal or wood (“when available”) and a sink with a cold water tap which was the sole source of water to the flat. One toilet served the whole floor of the building.
The dilemma every adult Soviet citizen faced was finding accommodation. If one had a criminal record or had been labelled an “enemy of the state,” no accommodation could be obtained. One of the most callous denials of accommodation and war pensions applied to wives whose husbands were either “missing in action” or had been captured by the Germans during the war. They were treated as pariahs because their husbands had failed to serve the “Motherland” patriotically.
The inescapable fact is that there was no equality in the USSR. The masses were treated as mere work units condemned to fulfilling work quotas. Only the small elite of members of the Communist Party enjoyed exclusive lifestyles in terms of accommodation, use and ownership of cars, access to exclusive shops, holiday resorts, hospitals and entrance to Moscow University for their children.
The daily life of the average Soviet citizen was one of dependence on the state for everything. Queuing was also the way of life. It applied to every need from calls of nature, to transport, applications for anything from housing, medical to marriage licences, obtaining food ration vouchers, purchasing food and clothing. Nutrition was never adequate for the masses, despite the propaganda about the tremendous harvests of the kolkhozes. “For most of the twentieth century the Russian people faced serious shortages of basic foods” (p106).
The great strength of Olga’s book is her objectivity. She adheres to and tolerates the communist system until the advent of glasnost and perestroika. Hope springs eternally in her account that something better would evolve. The hardship, fraudulence, hypocrisy and sheer evil of communism is conveyed though Olga’s comprehensive, candid focus aptly titled Living a Delusion.
----------------------------------------------Dr Duncan Du Bois, Durban, South Africa, May 2020