Today I was having lunch with a friend, and we somehow got to talking about Communism. She knows I grew up in communism, but didn’t really know what that meant. Speaking with her I realized that most people in school are introduced to the philosophy of communism, most likely to Marx, and the ideology of the movement, but hardly, if ever, are they given the fine nuances of what it entailed, the minutia of everyday life.
It was common for small children to live with their grandparents. People retired much earlier than they do now, with set pensions, but the ones who remained working did so for long hours six days a week. It had little to do with income (as that too was set), but rather with the mandatory weekly amount of service. It was easier for families who had small children to have them live with their parents, especially in winter time. There was no reason to trek small children around at all hours in the middle of blizzards, sleet, and all other inclement weather. The child would live with relatives who did not work, often come home on Sundays, and the parents would visit occasionally during the week. That was considered perfectly normal, so the nuclear family, in the way we see it today, was not the same.
Rations had nothing to do with shortages. When I was growing up there was no war, but we lived as if there was. Shortages were purposely generated by the government to assert control. Further, they had little to do with monetary welfare. Everyone had rations. The main difference between social strata was whether you were at the front or the back of the line. Yet those at the front still had the same hardships. Those at the back often didn’t receive any rations. I was lucky and came from a “well off” family, meaning they were at the front of the line. But that in itself did not make things easier, because there were a lot of people with front of the line tickets, so if you wanted the better parts of whatever was being rationed that week (more evidence that the entire “shortage” was fabricated, as the following week these same things would become plentiful in lieu of the next item shortage), then you made sure to get there extremely early. I remember my grandfather would wake up in the middle of the night, and he would go stand in line at four in the morning for something or other. One week it would be bread. The next it would be milk. The week after that it would be meat. And so on. Sometimes the rations were for completely unnecessary things, like coffee, but then again, that was hardly unnecessary, so people went and stood in line anyway. I can hardly blame them, I would probably be the first one there if coffee was at stake.
Of course you would assume that people would learn to hoard certain items to avoid the rolling rations. But it wasn’t that simple. Non perishables were stored, and often made at home (I remember “helping” my grandmother make jarred goods for storage), but other things, even when plentiful, were not easily obtained, and buying too much of any one thing might get you reported. The government wanted to use these rations to exert control, so overbuying on groceries was extremely subversive, and could cause far more trouble than it was worth. And with perishables (which were the items most rationed), it was futile anyway. How much milk and cheese could you store, and for how long, before you had to get in line again?
It might be interesting to note that there was no rationing of vodka, ever. Eastern Europeans like their vodka, and even the communist government knew not to meddle with it. That is how you get revolts.
Then there were the gas rations. Most people didn’t drive anywhere. It made no sense, and everything was within feasible walking distance anyway. But there were still things you needed to have gas for, such as emergencies, and light driving for random business. However, because driving didn’t happen on a regular basis, these rations weren’t as effective, or annoying. So the government decided to do something about this. The gas lines would take days. People would park their cars in queues and one car would be serviced every few hours, at irregular intervals, making it so you could not actually leave your car there as you never knew when you would have to move forward. Every few months, when it was time to get gas, it was a family affair as everyone would take shifts sitting in the car for five to six hours at a time. Needless to say most families only had one car, or only used one car at a time. Trying to gas up two or more cars simultaneously would be cause for insanity.
Religion wasn’t free, or actually allowed. Catholic churches were completely closed down. Greek Orthodox churches were open for extremely important holidays (Christmas and Easter). People could walk in to pray on their own, light candles at the alters, kneel before different icons, but mass was not held, except on aforementioned very important holidays (at which point it turned into an unbearably lengthy ordeal as if people were attempting to make up for all the church they missed year long). They had a station holy water and wafers (no wine strangely enough). My grandfather would occasionally bring home these wafers and we would all fast, take a sip of wine we had around the house, eat the little wafers. These wafers weren’t like what you see in church now. They looked like croutons, and were actually made in the church. A loaf of bread would be cut up into these tiny cubes, dipped in holy water, and left to dry until it was hard. To this day I nostalgically crave stale bread whenever I have a certain kind of wine.
But not everything about communism was bad. There were upsides as well. Education was free, and very good. All medical care was also free. If you wanted better service you just bribed whoever you needed to. Oddly, cigarettes were the most common items to barter, even if you and/or the person you were bribing were non smokers. You had six weeks of paid vacation every year, regardless of what industry you worked in. The food you did get, even the rationed food, was of the best quality. Of course I was shielded from most unpleasantness, so there may very well have been other hardships I don’t remember, or didn’t understand, especially considering I was rather young when we left. But I suppose that if you didn’t know any better, then it wasn’t so bad. And by the time I was born communism had been around so long, even my grandparents no longer remembered what it had been like before.
This is not to say that no one knew what it was like in other places. Travel was not prohibited. It was extremely difficult to obtain visas, but it was possible. So people knew what the rest of Europe lived like. Yet it wasn’t until after the Berlin wall fell in 1989, that anyone else thought to revolt. Which makes me believe that either the government was that good at keeping people in line, or that perhaps it just wasn’t that bad. Maybe I think it is worse than it actually was simply because I am looking at it from my current perspective. I asked my parents, and got mixed reviews. My mother detested everything, even things unrelated to communism. My father was quite content and would have been perfectly fine continuing as he was. As for myself, I can’t really say I am able to make an informed judgment.