What It Was Like to Grow Up in the Soviet Union

In the United States, most people imagine the Soviet Union as a version of 1984, with Big Brother watching from grey cement walls. This perspective is probably a result of the Cold War, which created political ideologies on both sides. 

If you’ve ever been curious to hear what life was like—really like—on the other side of the wall, you’ve come to the right place. In my interview with Natalia Siyanova, a Russian-born immigrant, I got a first-hand look at her life as a young female in the Soviet Union. 

Three young women including Natalia Siyanova in Soviet Union Photo by Natalia Siyanova

From 1922 to its collapse in 1991, the Soviet Union governed the lives of the 286.7 million people within the 15 republics of the USSR (Union of Socialist Soviet Republics).

According to Natalia, however, living there wasn’t the nightmare that many people imagine. Here’s what she had to say about it: 

Do you think Americans have an accurate depiction of what the USSR was like? 

Americans have no idea what the USSR was like. We had concerts, ballets, and the first people that went to space. There was a lot to be proud of. People weren’t money-oriented; they just wanted to be good people that worked hard.

What was society like? 

Firstly, everyone had a job, and it was a requirement to be hardworking. There was a “working” book that monitored your work and your place of employment, which was always government-sponsored. As a result, there was no poverty, hunger, or homelessness. There was also no litter anywhere because kids would volunteer to pick up any papers or metals. There was no waste of resources, ever. 

In terms of things like social acceptance that we see in the states, no one even knew about homosexuality. There was also no knowledge of things like depression or anxiety. If you had a disability, life was tough. 

Also, like most people back then, we got married young. I had a son by the time I was 21 years old. 

What was the educational and healthcare system like? 

Everyone had free education and healthcare for their entire life. There was a feeling of life security because you knew that whatever happened to you, it was going to be OK. For example, if you had a kid, you could collect free milk and foods for them while they were growing up. Also, for the first nine months of the child’s life, a doctor would stop by the house for regular check-ups. They would hand-deliver any medicine you needed. If a pregnancy was ever at-risk, you could go to a special “birthing house” that took care of you to make sure the baby was born healthy. Throughout school, all the children wore clean white uniforms. You could be part of a program that resembled boy/girl scouts and they would teach you how to be a good, moral person. 

I studied economics and finished my masters. University was free, but after graduating you had to spend two years working where the government sent you. Usually, it would be to a place where there was a deficit of workers. 

Also, you could get as many sick days as you wanted to as long as you had a doctor’s note.

There was even a system where people could go to a sanitorium (rehab) or 24 days to relax from work. It was especially encouraged for those that excelled at work.  

Did anyone own land or houses? 

No one owned land, but farmers lived in houses and worked communal fields. Interestingly, when I was in college, there was a tradition where everyone in the city would go to the countryside a few times a year and help out the farmers that needed extra hands. 

What were people like? 

I remember that people had a lot of happiness and everyone laughed a lot. There were governmental demonstrations on May 1st and Sept. 7th where everyone went out and celebrated how happy they were. We drank and played guitar. Like I said, no one was money hungry. We looked out for one another. 

What was law enforcement like? 

There were communist representatives that monitored the whole country. They acted not only as law enforcement, but also upheld moral standards. If a man was cheating on his wife, the wife could report him to the representatives, and he would get in trouble. They would force him to go back to his wife and be a good husband. If someone drank too much, they would get threatened with a lower-paying job. 

There was a feeling of safety. We had no robbers or murders. People that committed crimes spent their entire lives in prison.

Also, the heads of government lived the same way as regular people with modest apartments. There was no potential for corruption. 

What were some of the downfalls of communism? 

Everyone lived very humbly. We didn’t have nice clothes and we could only afford nice meat once a month. It took people 15 years to save up for a car. I remember in my class of 30 people, only three of them had a car. For housing, most people lived in apartments, sometimes communal ones. There was a standard of 8-square-meters per person, so if your apartment was too small for your family, you could get a bigger one for free, although you had to wait for a decade. 

I had a single mom, so we never had enough money. We had to borrow 10 rubles each month from the neighbor. There were no banks to borrow from and no credit cards, so everyone lived paycheck to paycheck. 

Could you leave the Soviet Union? 

If you were a political dissident, you could. You would be deported for life.  

No one could go outside the border unless they had special permission, which was very hard to get. You had to go through special committees. When I was in college, there was a travel company called Sputnik that would let you take a trip if you were a good student. Some went to Japan, Bulgaria, Romania. Music artists could travel to the states. 

When I was 18, I traveled to Yugoslavia. When I tried a kiwi for the first time, I cried because it was the best thing I had ever tasted. It was during that trip that I decided I would one day leave the USSR. 

What was it like when the USSR collapsed? 

It was the worst thing that had happened to us. Gorbachev (former General Secretary) announced in the ‘90s that we were transitioning to capitalism. No one knew how to live in this new world, and the first 10 years were really difficult. A lot of people lost jobs, money, and families. There was none of the governmental support that we had relied on when we were kids. Everyone back then had wanted more, but when they got it, all of them wished to go back to the way it was. 

To give you an idea of how different it all was, when the first McDonalds opened up in Moscow in 1990, there were four-hour lines.

Do you think communism functioned better than capitalism? 

With communism, the government took care of everyone. I was a happy college student. Capitalism, on the other hand, is a harsh system of survival of the fittest. If you are the fittest and lucky, you live well. 

However, the Soviet Union was not the best example. It was not the best system for people. Now, we can see countries like Sweden where people can have everything, and the government takes care of them.

Natalia finally emigrated from Russia in 2002. She’s now in her 50s and lives in Florida with her kids. She often cooks for them the same traditional Russian recipes from her childhood (caviar’s her favorite). Every time she walks into a grocery store to collect her ingredients, she’s still amazed by how many things crowd the shelves, however. The memories of her modest, young life in the Soviet Union haven't faded.