DAILY LIFE IN THE CITIES
THE BURGEONING ELITE
As in the past, those benefiting most from the rising standard of living in the 1960s and 1970s were the highest‑ranking people in the party, government, and professions and their families. The regime prided itself on its egalitarianism, so its leaders did not parade their wealth, as did the capitalist barons of the West. They received modest salaries, which were supplemented by access to the best housing, transportation, consumer goods, and medical care. Their children went to the best schools. Beneath the leadership in the hierarchy of privilege was an expanding group of professionals and middle managers, and below them the working class. This class structure was very similar to that prevailing elsewhere in the European world, particularly in those countries where ancient ruling classes had been destroyed (the Eastern Bloc) or had never existed (the United States). The economic growth and expanding opportunities of the 1950s and 1960s meant that many Soviet people could hope to climb the social ladder themselves, or provide for their children to do so. Statistics on women’s education and their movement into the white‑collar labor force document this mobility.
The rising standard of living also meant that increasing numbers of people could afford more than the bare necessities. By the late 1960s, the privileged young in the big cities were wearing jeans and listening to Jimi Hendrix. Women who could sew (many could) copied the dresses they saw in foreign fashion magazines. They and their menfolk scoured the shops for housewares and furniture and cosmetics. And of course they measured themselves against one another according to how much they and those others could afford to buy.
“Consumerism” is a modern word for an ancient human practice, the amassing of goods for the delight and comfort of having them and also to show off one’s status. The rich had played this game for millennia; by the second half of the twentieth century, a hugely expanded middle class was at the table as well. Everywhere, wives were central players, for they chose many of the things with which their families were clothed and their homes decorated. The ideals of twentieth‑century consumerism–that women should be the builders of tastefully adorned homes, that by so doing they would demonstrate their own competence and impart kulturnost to their children and husbands–had been around in Russia since the nineteenth century, as we have seen. What changed in the second half of the twentieth century, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, was the number of women who could aspire to realize those ideals.
Expanding incomes meant more money to spend on the mass media, and the providers of those media responded accordingly. Soviet movie companies produced hundreds of films, shown in a huge network of theaters. Radio flourished, as did short‑wave broadcasts from abroad. Newsstands offered newspapers and glossy magazines; bookstores sprang up in the first floors of new apartment blocks. People reading on the subways, their books protected by homemade covers, became a common sight. Theaters were full, as were the sports stadiums and ice hockey rinks. Dozens of circuses toured the country.
Women figured prominently in the arts, as they had done for a century. There were celebrated film and stage actors, singers of popular songs and opera, and ballerinas. Among the last, perhaps the most famous was Natalia Marakova of Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet, who became an international star in the 1960s. Now people also followed the exploits of female athletes. Among these was Liudmila Belousova, who, with her partner Oleg Protopopov, dominated pairs figure skating for several Olympics.
Less well known were the thousands of female poets and writers, many of whom explored women’s family lives. One of the most famous of these was Natalia Baranskaia, who published an insightful portrait of a woman coping with the double shift in 1967. In the same decade, the banned works of Evgenia Ginzburg and poet Anna Akhmatova were becoming important in the re‑emergence of the critical intelligentsia in the Soviet Union. More will be said of these writers later in this chapter.
Elite Soviet women of the 1960s and 1970s could afford the furniture, appliances, and clothes for sale at the nicer shops and available through backchannel deals at black‑market prices. The great majority of urban women contented themselves with a standard of living that was comparable to that of poor people elsewhere in Europe. They bought the cheap goods sold in state stores and ate cheap foods, such as macaroni and canned fish.
Perhaps the most vivid indicator of status differences in the post‑war era was urban housing. The government alleviated the chronic shortages by rehabbing older buildings and constructing new concrete‑block apartment towers. By the late 1960s, battleship‑grey high‑rises surrounded the bigger cities across the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. Compared to the single‑family homes then filling up British and American suburbs, the two‑or three‑room Soviet apartments were small and spartan. For Soviet city folk, many of whom lived in much tighter quarters, the new housing was a huge improvement. The waiting lists to get a flat in the towers were long. It helped to have connections to people who could influence the selection process.
A large majority of people lived in communal flats, the kommunalki (the singular is kommunalka), which were one of the most reviled institutions of post‑war Soviet life. Many of these were in buildings that had been constructed for the prosperous before the Revolution. After 1917 the government took ownership and carved the formerly luxurious spaces into small (100–200 square feet) one‑room flats, with one communal kitchen, bathroom, and toilet to serve the residents of each floor. (In keeping with the custom across Eastern Europe, toilets were in separate rooms from baths.) By the 1960s these buildings were run like public housing projects elsewhere in the European world. The rules for the occupants were set by the administration and policed by a resident supervisor. Disputes were taken to a court, made up of neighbors and representatives of the housing authority, and decisions of that body could be appealed to the district court. The housing authority also organized inexpensive excursions for the residents, maintained clubs with activities for children and adults, and employed repairmen to do routine maintenance. Residents were required to clean their own flats and share in cleaning the indoor and outdoor common areas.
The social center of the kommunalka was the kitchen. Ilia Kabakov, a veteran of the kommunalki, later wrote of the kitchen, “Everything finds its place in it–the base and the great, the everyday and the romantic, love and battles over a broken glass, unconditional generosity and petty arguments over the payment for light, the treating to a just‑baked pie and the problem of taking out the garbage.”15 Ranging in size from two to four hundred square feet, the kitchens contained two or three stoves and a couple of sinks. Food was prepared on tables, one per household, lined up against the walls, with shelves mounted on the wall above them and clotheslines hung from the ceiling. The tables and cooking utensils belonged to individual families. Women cooked in the kitchens; families ate meals in their rooms.
Because women ran the kitchens and because the kitchens were the places where neighbors had the most contact with one another, women played a central role in the social life of the kommunalka. Kabakov observed that “men feel like outsiders and almost never go into the kitchen, and they don’t look out into the corridor often either. All contact is carried out by women, and the atmosphere here depends primarily on them.” Women shared food and recipes, looked after one another’s children, and offered support in times of trouble. They also celebrated together. V. D. Baranov, a Muscovite who kept a diary of his life in a kommunalka in the 1960s, recorded one such party: “Finally, for Nikitichna, the oldest one in the kitchen, there’s a big holiday. She had a birthday and all of the residents chipped in and bought her a new coffeepot, white with red flowers. She was very happy. And she threw the old one in the garbage.”16 Consumerism for Nikitichna was receiving a flowered coffeepot from her neighbors.
The kitchens were also sites of epic enmities. Anyone who has lived in a college dorm will recognize the causes: people refused to clean up after themselves, they stole other people’s things, they spread nasty stories about their neighbors, they bossed one another, or they encroached on other people’s space. Sometimes these feuds came to blows. More often an offended party complained to the offender, and if she did not stop her annoying behavior, the complainant took her case to a gathering of the residents in the kitchen. As the animosity grew, some women found inventive ways to get their point across. “This morning,” Baranov reports, “Stepanova hung her pants [to dry] over Valya Prokofieva’s table and [Valya] took them down and intentionally put them in front of the door to the apartment so that people could wipe their feet on them. And she said that water was dripping from them onto her table.”17 He does not record Stepanova’s response. She had broken the rules by hanging her wet laundry on someone else’s line.
Sharing bathrooms and toilets also required patience and cooperation. Residents made up schedules for washing themselves and their clothes in the bathroom. They were asked to leave the baths clean and to share the work of giving them a weekly cleaning. The same was true of the toilets. In many kommunalki, residents had their own toilet seats, which they hung on the wall of the toilet room or carried with them to the room, along with toilet paper. When light bulbs were in short supply, they brought them along as well. Kabakov remembered that in his apartment people lined up in the mornings outside the bathroom, but not outside the toilet. “The tenants simply stand inside their rooms, by the door,” he wrote, “waiting to tell by the sound and footsteps that the toilet is free so that they can dash into it.” It is little wonder that the bulletin boards of communal apartments featured long lists of rules for using the toilet, including the admonition not to stand on it.18
THE DOUBLE SHIFT
The kommunalki became a woman’s domain because women did most of the housework. They cooked, washed, and cleaned; men repaired things. This division of labor, an adaptation of ancient ways to city life, prevailed throughout the European world. Soviet studies in the 1960s and ’70s found that husbands spent fifteen to twenty hours a week on domestic chores, wives twice that. Single women–of whom there were many in the postwar decades, because of the huge losses of men in the war and also because women were living longer than men–spent less time on housework than married women did; they did not have husbands to care for.
It should be noted that in the 1950s and ’60s, Soviet men were doing more housework than their counterparts in Western Europe and North America, who averaged ten hours a week. Perhaps this was because far more of the Western wives were homemakers. As increasing numbers of these women joined the paid‑labor force (the numbers of working wives jumped in Britain from 32 percent of all married women in 1960 to 59 percent in 1990; in France the increase was from 31 to 53 percent), they too began working the double shift, even though their husbands increased their contribution to housework. By the 1980s, women in the industrialized countries of Western Europe, like their Soviet counterparts, were devoting thirty to forty hours a week to housework, and men ten to twenty.19
One important difference between housework in West and East was the amount of physical labor required. In prosperous countries such as France, for example, there were affordable, nearby public laundries and reliable hot water in the flats, so most urban dwellers did not have to heat water in huge pots in the kitchen and then lug the pots down the hall to the bathtub in order to wash their clothes, as Soviet women did. Western women also more often spent part of their lives as housewives, rather than working the double shift throughout their childbearing years. It should be noted that not all the women of Western Europe were so fortunate. There were many in poorer countries, such as Spain and Greece, or in poorer parts of prosperous countries, such as southern Italy, who led lives as demanding as those lived by most Soviet women. There were also differences within the Soviet Union itself. Life was easier in the big cities of the European republics, harder in urban areas of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Siberia, and harder in rural areas everywhere.
The Soviet government did not produce enough housing, plumbing, and consumer goods to make everyone’s life easier, because it spent so much on the military, because it failed to overcome inefficiencies in the centralized system, and because it deliberately kept the prices of necessities low and thereby kept low as well the revenue from consumer purchases that could have been used to develop the consumer sector. Exacerbating the difficulties was the grinding poverty inherited from Russia’s past and exacerbated by Stalinist excesses and the war. That the economy grew as well as it did in the 1950s and 1960s was a tribute to the society’s ability to overcome enormous obstacles.
Shortages of services and consumer goods remained, even as people’s wages and aspirations rose, and so few women left for work without stuffing their shopping bags into their purses. Many bought bread and other perishables every day or so. And they might see something scarce–toilet paper, children’s clothes, light bulbs–in the shops. Soviet people shared their finds with one another; if someone spotted newly arrived canned fish, she or he (husbands shared shopping with their wives) would buy more than the family needed and trade the extras with friends, co‑workers, and neighbors for scarce goods they had stocked up on. People who worked in the shops, most of whom were women, were important players in these networks, and so being a retail clerk was a far more lucrative position in the Soviet Union than it was in the West.20
Shopping also took a lot of time because Soviet retailing was antiquated. Women went to groceries for canned goods and staples, butcher shops for meat or fish, bakeries for bread, and milk stores for dairy products. (This was true across Europe, but elsewhere the time‑saving supermarket was beginning to appear.) Once in a shop, people endured a ridiculously time‑consuming sales process. Merchandise was kept behind counters rather than on open shelves, so customers had to find a salesperson to bring out things for them to examine. Salespeople also measured and packaged bulk foods such as flour. When a customer made her choice, she got a hand‑written note from the salesperson, identifying the item and its price. She took the note to a cashier, whom she paid and from whom she received a receipt. She then took the receipt back to the salesperson and picked up her purchase. At each stage of this old‑fashioned ritual, which dated back to the nineteenth century, women stood in line. If they found that a shop had sold out of what they wanted, they walked to another. They carried their purchases from store to store and then home on crowded trams, buses, or metros, along concrete sidewalks to their apartments, and then up flights of stairs. Very few Soviet people owned cars, and few apartment buildings had elevators.
Bosses helped by looking the other way when their employees nipped out in mid‑afternoon to shop. This eased the burden, as did the sharing of goods through informal networks. People also relied on their parents and in‑laws, particularly the female ones, to help with shopping and childcare. But none of the coping strategies made the daily grind of the double shift go away. Like the housewives of 1917, Soviet women let their frustrations show on the streets. They grumbled to one another while standing in line and yelled at surly clerks. They pushed and shoved to get into stores. To friends and family they complained about the shortages and the lines. They complained about always being tired, and they complained about their husbands. Lida, a thirty‑one‑year‑old chambermaid and single mother from Moscow interviewed in the 1970s, was typical: “At home a woman usually does everything. When the husband comes home he reads his paper and watches t.v., contrary to what the newspapers say. They show men on March 8 [Women’s Day] cooking and cleaning and shopping and scrubbing floors. But it’s really the women who do everything.”21
By the end of the 1960s, many women in Soviet cities were feeling overworked and angry. It did not mollify them when the government pointed out that they were better off than their grandmothers had been, for they were no longer content to measure their lives by that miserable standard. For decades the government had asked women to work hard and promised to provide the social services and consumer goods that would make their lives easier. They had worked, they were working, and still the shops were often empty, still there were not enough laundries, and still women were ending the day exhausted. In 1969, a museum worker brought all these frustrations to life in a short story that became a sensation.
NATALIA BARANSKAIA (1908–2004)
Natalia Baranskaia was sixty‑one years old when she published “A Week like Any Other Week” in the literary magazine Novyi mir (New World). Her heroine was Olga, a research scientist, wife, and mother. Olga loves her children, her husband, and her job, but the stress of coping with the double shift drives her to despair. Asked how she spends her leisure time, Olga thinks, “Personally, my sport is running. Running here, running there. A shopping bag in each hand and… up, down: trolleybus, autobus; into the metro, out of the metro.”22 Her husband Dima helps with their two young children, while Olga does the cooking, washing, and shopping. Sometimes she just wants to be alone. “Suddenly I am overwhelmed by the longing to walk unencumbered, without a load, without a goal,” she muses one night on her way home (679). When her husband proposes that she quit her job, Olga fires back, “What you are suggesting would just… destroy me. And my five years of study? My degree? My professional standing? My dissertation subject? How easy it is for you to throw it all out–whisk! And it’s finished! And what would I be like, staying home? Angry as the devil: I’d growl at you all the time” (701).
Olga cannot figure out how to lighten her load. “Did I choose this?” she asks herself as she rushes off to work. “No, of course I didn’t. Do I regret it? No, never” (674). It does not occur to her to ask her husband to do more of the housework or to explain to her boss that she is sometimes late because the trams were running behind schedule. Feeling helpless, she blames herself. “Am I really such a good mother, is it right to praise me as a worker, and what exactly does the concept of ‘a Soviet woman’ entail?!” she asks herself (666). The “week like any other” ends with Olga lying in bed, sleepless, wondering, “Then, what is disturbing me?” (703).
Baranskaia herself had lived Olga’s story, even though she was a generation older than her heroine. She had graduated from Moscow University in 1929 and spent most of her career working in museums. Her husband died in World War II, so she reared her two children on her own. Baranskaia started writing in her fifties and produced a considerable body of fiction, including a well‑regarded novel about women caught up in World War II, Remembrance Day (1989). “A Week like Any Other Week” remains her most widely read work because it speaks to and for women everywhere who are working the double shift.
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