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Still Life. USSR Revisited

Varvara Lozenko

Published on 19/10/11

© Var­vara Lozenko

When you are grown up, your child­hood seems dis­tant. If the coun­try you were born in does not exist any more, your child­hood appears to be so far away as to loose all effect of real­ity, it becomes a life apart, a life of someone else, almost.
The only thing that’s still there to prove that it was my life, after all, is my memory. The memory is a con­tainer hold­ing a van­ished world. When you live in a coun­try where you have the same bakery at the corner of the street, and it has been there for 150 years or so, it is quite a dif­fer­ent exper­i­ence from hav­ing to start your life from scratch. My child­hood ended with the coun­try: its troubled his­tory allowed for no such thing as tra­di­tion, that’s why look­ing for the past is harder than in Proust’s case: he, at least, still had his mad­laines…
I see it vaguely, but i still see it: my dad com­ing from ‘Produkty’ gro­cery shop with a shop­ping net half-full of par­tially rot­ten pota­toes and a can or two of con­densed milk. It was a good thing to call this thing a net: in the Soviet Union there were peri­ods when you had to ‘fish’ for food, just like wild game, it had to be pro­cured, fought for, with effort. Noth­ing was to be taken for gran­ted. Not in the 1980s.
Every Soviet kid enjoyed shop­ping for diary products: it was fun, even if on a mod­er­ate scale: milk was in blue-and-white car­tons with a wheat ear pat­tern (who knows why), kefir in glass bottles sealed with a green foil, and ryazhenka (fer­men­ted baked milk) was in the same kind of bottle, but with a purple foil. Those bottles you then had to take back and get an odd num­ber of сopeсks as a refund. Kefir bottle refund was my first real income. There was more recyc­ling going on back in the USSR than there is now.
 (Varvara Lozenko)

© Var­vara Lozenko

There were no plastic bags: when they appeared in the late 1980s they were almost regarded as objects of lux­ury. After use they would be washed and hung out to dry along with the laun­dry. In Moscow, you can still come across people car­ry­ing washed out plastic bags, with or without prints, in a man­ner sim­ilar to hand­bags. Even if they’ve never heard of Andy War­hol and pop-art.
The radio was always in the kit­chen. I don’t remem­ber that place without a con­stant flow from ‘Mayak’ (russ. for beacon) , the main radio sta­tion. The one-station device was always on, radi­at­ing, for fear of miss­ing the news of another con­gress of the Com­mun­ist party. There was a lot of music, also, eternal clas­sics, of course, as well as children’s pro­grams, with the Pion­eers’ dawn the main hit.
You had to start being a mem­ber of Soviet soci­ety at age 3. You went to a kinder­garden to become one. You had to exper­i­ence it in order to become a cold-blooded res­ol­ute cit­izen, ready for labor and defense. I don’t know why but the most com­mon toy there was a plastic doll con­sist­ing of four spheres, one for the head, one for the body and two for hands. It was a model of sta­bil­ity: it never fell without rising again. The reason being a metal thing in the bot­tom. And chil­dren had to learn from it: to face the Soviet real­ity you needed a metal bot­tom.
Fruit was very rare: apples in autumn, tan­ger­ines for New Year’s eve, car­rots and pota­toes all the year round. Veget­able mar­row came in the form of ‘caviar’, a legendary inven­tion of Soviet-time gast­ro­nomy, a bit repug­nant to see but tast­ing decently.
Break­fast was always fried eggs, plain, often eaten off the pan, accom­pan­ied by a news­pa­per: “Pravda” (Truth), “Sov­et­skaya Rossiya” (Soviet Rus­sia), “Trood” (Labour) to name a few. Glasses with glass-holders were a real treas­ure: you had to do some­thing with the gov­ern­ment or to have rel­at­ives work­ing for the rail­way to own one: on long-distance trains they always served tea in such glasses.

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