Suffolk: Why life in Cold War Soviet Union wasn’t so bad

Many Westerners viewed the old Soviet Union as a place where life was controlled, shortages were rife and dissent was ruthlessly snuffed out. But it really wasn’t that bad, Steven Russell is assured by a Muscovite who now calls Suffolk home

LORA Gridneva was born in Moscow not long after the war – during the final years of Stalin’s rule and at a time of famine during which people made soup from potato peelings. The years since have brought both happiness and struggle, but standing her in good stead has been a steely Russian trait: the capacity to survive. Lora’s book tells her story and seeks to explain what life was like in the Soviet Union before the Iron Curtain was pulled aside.

Winston Churchill, she points out, defined the character of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Perhaps, having read the book, “foreigners will be better able to understand where lies the Russian soul and spirit”, she hopes.

Two Lands, Two Languages, Two Lives is written under a pseudonym. Behind “Lora” is a Russian lady familiar to many folk because she’s worked in Ipswich, taught Russian at evening classes and lives here. The book is “not my biography; it’s based on some events of my life. The book has been written first of all to help the students to read and find out more about the cold war period of the life in Russia”. (Left-hand pages are in Russian, with the right giving the English translation.

The author prefers to keep her true identity in the background, though. To avoid complication we’ll press on and talk simply of “Lora”, then – a lady whose story is about 98% the same as her alter ego’s – and not worry too much about which parts are fact and which are fantasy!

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Home for young Lora, her mother, sister and grandmother was one room of an apartment block at Kolomna, outside Moscow. Lyubov, the girls’ exhausted mother, worked 14-hour days. The 20th Century had been one of turmoil, with millions of people killed in conflicts, shot, exiled in camps or dying of hunger and disease. In Lora’s family, 90% of the men were either sent to Siberia or Kazakhstan, or killed in the second war. Her grandfather had died of a broken hear after the Bolsheviks – Lenin’s organisation, consisting mainly of workers, that came to power in 1917 – took over the large family house and left his wife and seven children without a roof over their heads.

Stalin died in 1953. Ordinary folk knew little of what had gone on, Lora says. “We did not know then why the chyorny voron arrived at night and took people away to who knew where, but whence people did not return. The ‘black crow’ was what people called this large, black, covered vehicle.”

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Such terrors aside, childhood was “hungry but jolly”. The neighbourhood youngsters played energetic games and learned they had to stick up for themselves. “Unwittingly we trained our consciousness and will to win,” Lora writes. “We were guided by primeval and powerful instinct: it is the strongest who survives in this life and the one who takes charge. That’s why I think my generation is mentally and psychologically a strong one.”

On the Oka, a tributary of the Volga, the ice could be two metres thick. In spring, when the ice began breaking up with night-time cracks loud enough to wake locals, reckless kids would run the 600 or so metres across the ice floes. School was fun, with teachers who made the subjects come alive. The youngster also had her mother’s words ringing in her ears: “Be good at school if you want to live better.”

Lora became a physicist. She went to university for six years, living initially with 10 other students in one room of a hostel. The room next door housed a goat!

Having been only to Moscow and Leningrad, her horizons widened when she and friends enjoyed a holiday camping by the Black Sea. They met some artists from Moscow and one – the mysterious, modest and noble Dima – fell for her. Their relationship would shape her life. More of that later.

After graduation, Lora went to “a very serious research institute” where some of the best physicists in the country worked.

Her first major solo project centred on the effect of laser beams on physical objects under different conditions. The key test at the end of a year’s work took place on a snowy night. Her boss told her the test was costing a million rubles! Luckily, it went well.

Lora adored the work, and the kind team, and stayed for almost a decade.

She and Dima had seven years together – he working on his art and she at the physics institute – but the 40-year-old died, Lora explains, in an incident on the railway that was never fully explained. Afterwards, she felt she wanted to be close to his memory – to try to get into “the familiar and attractive world of art”.

Her bosses thought she was off her trolley and believed it was simply a passing fancy. But for two years they kept her position open – retained her desk and even paid a wage – while she found her new direction.

After a spell in a theatre costume department she joined an art restoration centre in Moscow, thus beginning a new professional life at the age of 33.

Next milestone: marriage! It was to a handsome composer (with an appealing look of hopelessness about him). They were hitched about 12 months later – the start of a 14-year union of emotional highs and lows.

Lora had daughter Ducy at 40, despite the warnings of doctors that pregnancy would threaten the lives of both mother and baby because of a rare blood condition.

Determined to go ahead, she prayed regularly, signed an indemnity... and experienced a birth at the start of the winter of 1988 that was two months early and traumatic. Lora had to stay in hospital for a month, while her daughter was transferred to a different specialist hospital, losing weight dramatically. Happily, she pulled through.

Ducy was born during turbulent times: “The most famished years were 1988-89, after perestroika (structural reform) in Russia.”

Folk survived the upheaval as best they could, as the old ways disappeared. “My husband, apparently, couldn’t find his place in the incipient chaos and somehow gradually stepped away from family responsibilities – he went off on prolonged business trips of some sort and then completely vanished...” she claims.

Lora had to be up and out before 6am – in temperatures of -20C or -30C – to collect the 50g of curd cheese and 100g of milk issued each day to infants.

Perestroika – Gorbachev’s restructuring of the political and economic system, with ministries given some independence and market reforms initiated – had kicked in from about 1986. The institute Lora had worked for was split into small companies and the good times appeared to be over.

“Theoretical physics was of no use to anybody and there was no subsidy from the state. It was as if the earth had gone from under our very feet...”

Before perestroika, everybody had a job and a reasonably comfortable existence, she explains. “But all of a sudden we faced a harsh reality: in the shops the shelves were completely empty and wages weren’t paid for several months at a time.

“The country fell on its knees and one now had to think about how to feed the family. Many had to change profession and fell painfully, converting from physicist to, for example, television repair technician. The whole nation turned into a continuous bazaar. Everybody traded what they had – babushkas (grandmotherly types) sold cigarettes on the streets, composers sold tangerines and I for example started teaching English to small children in a club, even though I had never taught before.”

That period gives rise to one of the most heart-rending episodes of the book. With no-one to take care of her daughter, Lora says she sometimes had to leave Ducy at home on her own for three hours so she could go off to teach.

She’d tie the two-and-a-half-year-old’s foot to a radiator, with a metre of play. “My heart pounded from fear for my daughter; anything could happen... I remember how after classes I used to run home as fast as possible. Often on my return I found my daughter crying inconsolably or that she had fallen asleep on the floor with tears on her cheeks. I felt terribly guilty but there was just no way out; no other solution. Times were hard.”

Then came some good fortune. She was invited to England to lecture on the restoration of fine art in Russia, having met a couple of conservators during their visit to Moscow. Lora was even invited to a ball organised by the Conservative Party at the Savoy late in 1990. Margaret Thatcher and husband were in the receiving line. “I don’t remember exactly what I was asked or what I answered. I was too flustered. I remember only that I compared myself to Cinderella at the ball, to which Denis smiled and said he hoped I’d meet a prince at this ball.”

The Russian was actually being wooed by an English lord who had bought her soft Italian shoes for the dance. Although he was a dear, and became a great friend, this impeccably-mannered gentleman didn’t make her head spin as Bohemian men had previously done with their “feverish glint of the eyes and emaciated complexion”.

Six months or so later came another invitation to Britain, to stay with friends she‘d made. Ducy, just over three, also came.

The lord, dying of cancer, contacted Lora and offered marriage – she’d inherit his name and some status over here. “For me this was like a deal and I was not going to sell myself, regardless of position in society and estate. How would I live with this thought for the rest of my life, feeling myself to be marketable goods? No, and no! An upbringing in Soviet school and society at that time guaranteed a baggage of moral values and I simply could not overstep this.” She did, though, enjoy a month at his ancestral seat in Scotland as he bore his illness with courage, dignity and stoicism. He died three months after they said goodbye.

Some years later, Lora decided to leave the chaos of her homeland for England, finding a job with Ipswich museum service.

Her book talks frankly about marrying a man whose passionate letters turned her head. She saw a broken soul in need of assistance, but on reflection realises she had “clearly overestimated my powers”.

There were many problems – too complex to detail here – that culminated in mother and daughter leaving and finding accommodation in a hostel. After her more pleasant experiences in England, “to end up in a room with pasteboard partitions and to listen the whole night through to neighbours’ drunken revelry was intolerable and inexpressibly difficult”.

Lora often felt close to exhaustion, but the thought of her daughter drove her on and she remembered her mother’s stories about difficult times overcome in Russia.

She found work as a restorer with the museum service in Ipswich and colleagues proved kind-hearted.

The work “gave me a feeling of satisfaction that was incomparable”. It brought financial independence “and restored my balance of mind”.

Lora also started working at Suffolk College, teaching Russian to adults at evening classes. She was determined to save up for a house.

“I believed that only having moved to our own house could we claw our way out of the problem-ridden social surroundings.”

Eventually Lora did manage to buy a house: spacious, though a bit of a tip. There was no bath, but plenty of electrical wires hanging like cobwebs. But the place had good vibes. Friends took care of Ducy for two weeks while Lara got rid of the rank carpets and mildewed wallpaper; the house was rewired and plumbers installed a bath and central heating. Further renovation took a year – which meant time for her daughter was limited. “All this was undoubtedly reflected in the moulding of a girl’s character: the lack of time for conversations, doing things together, trips to different children’s centres, Ducy perceived as less love for her.

“Perhaps for a child, home means, first and foremost, spiritual and mental contact, never mind the state of the walls and floors! Unfortunately I understood this considerably later.

“I only hope that my girl in the course of time will feel that nothing and no-one in the entire world is as precious as her, and that my love for her is everlasting.” Life settled into a routine.

The local restoration work and language classes are things of the past and today Lora has “a tiny pension now – just to survive...” She reflects that life in Britain has been good for her. “I like the English: there’s a definite charm in their polite smile, their desire to be useful, their limitless liberalism and tolerance.” Ducy, she says, “hardly remembers Russia and actually doesn’t know the country at all, but she would like to discover it . . .” Intriguingly, Lora has looked at our respective tongues and concludes that “language defines consciousness”. Russian, she says, is more definite – more “intention – action”. More pushy. English often uses the conditional form – “I would like to do something, but...”

This brings softness and uncertainty – “therefore intention in English does not necessarily indicate a subsequent action. This softness had an effect on me: the polite ruse of thinking so as to avoid stress and hundred per cent exactness. Now, when I arrive in Russia, in contact with people I feel the hectic nature of the Russian language and the straightforwardness of thinking. With Russians, you always know if someone is ‘friend or foe’. With the English, however, your intrinsic question always remains a question.” She’s also noticed that adjectives are used less – perhaps explaining why some consider the English to be reserved. Lora reckons it left its mark. “My mischievousness disappeared and my imagination was as though shrunk. My bubbling fountain ran dry. I began to change into a gray mouse with a flat, smooth, polite manner. If we then add to this the use of ‘thank you’ a hundred times a day when you need if or even if you don’t – simply saying it automatically – then out of me emerged a super-polite ‘aunty mouse’.” She has, she acknowledges, absorbed two cultures. “I can say that I became richer, having the passion of the Russian language and balance and diplomacy of English.

“However, when I’m bored to be in a state of permanent balance then I leave for Russia to spread my wings and fly, to scoop up from the rich Russian language bitter, salty, peppery and tasty Russian words, and also to be amazed and enjoy for the millionth time the wit of Russian jokes. Variety is the spice of life. Long live free movement in the world.”

The Soviet Union: many positives

SO, what was life really like behind the Iron Curtain?

Lora Gridneva accepts the Soviet Union had queues and shortages, but most people managed. The arts was valued and funded, and there were national achievements, such as major railway projects.

One became inured to communist placards. “We simply got on with living our lives and the state lived its life,” she explains in her book. “People were very literate... The cinema was enormously popular, with highly imaginative and inventive Russian movies – later killed off by American imports.”

She concludes: “Say what you like but life in the Soviet Union had redeeming features. Education, social support, leisure activities, Pioneers and childcare were excellent. Crime was almost non-existent and one felt quite safe everywhere – the threat of time in a Soviet prison was deterrent enough.

“We felt somehow that communism was a gallant experiment and only realised gradually that it was doomed to failure by its inability to compete in the modern world.”

The system grew more cumbersome and leaders aged. Then the more active Gorbachev threw himself at the problems.

“He started to dismantle communism but since we know from recent experience that capitalism requires strict regulation to function properly, Gorbachev – the darling of the west – left his people with no system, no jobs, no pay, and no food...”

The gen

• Two Lands, Two Languages, Two Lives is available from Amazon for about �9 (ISBN 978 0755 206 384) or e-book download for �3.95 via

• It’s a dual-language book, with the story in Russian on left-hand pages and in English on the right!

• Lora Gridneva lives in east Ipswich

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