Soviet Story: happiness in times of Terror


Today I had one of those terrible moments, when you realise, in retrospect, how trivial the things you get upset over really are. Y’know, like when you feel like that kid in the supermarket, the one that’s writhing and screaming on the ground over brussels sprouts? Only I am bawling over a cold apartment, creative crisis and my non-existent career.

I was visiting my grandma and she lapsed, yet again, into biographical stories about our long-dead relatives and I just let her. Why? Because I love whacky stories about the Soviet Union and how it was to live there. Seriously, most of that stuff is almost unimaginable now when we don’t have to queue for hours to get bananas or work for collective farms. But this is not my story, instead, it’s the one of Alma, my great-grandmother.

Setting: A scrawny communal apartment in Riga, Soviet Union 1950’s – 1960’s

The three-room apartment is occupied by two large families and an old crazy lady. Alma and her family are the only Latvians there.
The only bathroom has a stained schedule glued on its door (for busy mornings) and everyone keeps an eye on everyone. The biggest agent of the NeighbourWatch is the old lady, who wrote an anonymous denunciation of Alma’s husband (my great-grandfather) to the NKVD. At the time this counts as legit info, so a few days later he is sent to a labour camp in Siberia where he slaves for five years. Alma is left to meet the woman who split her family apart every day in the hallway/bathroom/kitchen. When asked why she tattled on Alma’s husband, the lady says they had suspicious Latvian books in their bookshelf. She can’t read any Latvian, but she’s pretty sure it’s anti-communist literature. Nope, they were collections of poems. Lame.
Reason to be upset: anyone can anonymously denounce you for entirely invented reasons and you might end up being tortured/deported. George Orwell would be proud.

Though he returned from Siberia, Alma’s husband was left with serious health problems for the rest of his life. They had two sons and they all lived in one room. Personal space was a glorious myth. They never got to eat as much as they wanted. But it turns out, Alma was probably the funniest, happiest person in the whole lineage of our family, right down to our first narrow-browed, mammoth-hunting ancestor.
She sang and hummed all the time. She cracked jokes like she was goddamn Jim Jeffries meets Jimmy Carr and she told pretty much everyone she met just how lucky she was to have two handsome sons and a wonderful husband.
Reason to be upset: HOW?! Hoooooow?!?!?!

And here I am, genetically programmed to have sweaty palms every time I order pizza.

Over the years I have heard tons of Soviet Stories from my parents and grandparents and they are usually saturated with disgust and sneers. I guess life was really not so rosy for a Latvian family then. My one-room, cold-as-hell, no-crazy-lady-except-me apartment might not be so bad after all.

Photo credit: SlideShare


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