Archive for March 6, 2008

Humor and Irony in the Soviet Union

We, as westerners, have no concept what living in the former Soviet Union was like.  However, with the writing samples submitted by almost 300 Kazakhstani students in an economics class, we are able to discover what their elders told them about life in the 1950s to the early 1990s.  Overwhelmingly the students wrote about their parents waiting in long lines for the bare essentials or necessities of life. One of the strategies their parents and grandparents used to get through this difficult period of the communist regime was to use humor or see the amusing irony in their everyday routines. From a planned economy that failed to present day market economy that seems to be booming in Kazakhstan, the students are the hope for Kazakhstan’s future.  The following are direct quotes from the question posed:  “What did your parents tell you about consumer/seller relationships in the former Soviet Union?”  Dauren wrote what was observed as an irony of the past compared to now:  “If we comparing Soviet Union and our days we can say that in Soviet Union there was money, but they don’t have products.  Nowadays we have everything, but we don’t have money.”  He admitted it was a joke.  Another classmate of his, Elnara, wrote a lengthy response and this is how her parents used humor about the deficit of soap and sugar.  “When my parents invited guests, they were telling a restriction (rule): “If you washed your hands with soap, you will drink tea without sugar and vice versa!” 

A comical scene was created by Nataliya as she re-told her mother’s funny story from the early 1980s after she had stood in a long line for shoes.  “And when there was her turn to receive it, she found only one shoe.  Second shoe was in the hand of a man.  They were struggled for shoes 10 minutes, and in the end my mother has won this battle.”  Altynai admitted her parents told her there were “…shortages on everything.  So much so that everyone had money but not always the opportunity to buy something.”  She gave an example when thieves robbed someone’s house of the things, but they didn’t take the money. Two students related about what it was like to stand in line for hours for the things, in some cases, according to Alen, “people would stand into a line without knowing what was being sold.” Alua wrote there were two questions asked of the crowded line: “Who is the last [person]? and then their second question was “what is given [being sold]?”  Alen’s parents were a little more cynical in asking what was at the end of the line, “What did they throw out this time?” He added that “people used to buy anything so later on they could exchange these goods to another ones.”          

Botagoz continues his parents’ scorn of the Soviet days by seeing the humor in their everyday life.  He wrote:  “Extra” or “Special” people were providing “simple” citizens ore people by these necessary goods with using “underground ways.”  Everybody were waiting for something from heaven or when “special” person come and “reward” them.  All producers were getting by “special” and distinguished connections with helpful relationship. It was terrible, now it is funny.” Alua wrote what she thought was the most amazing thing about the Soviet economy where it “had the potential to provide the whole country with everything necessary, but leaders preferred to develop heavy industry instead of public good.  We had rockets, huge plants but ordinary consumers didn’t have the ability to buy T.V., cosmetics (soap), washing machines.”  Timur wrote something similar to Alua about the irony of military buildup at the expense of the Soviet people’s felt needs.  Timur wrote:  “In USSR was a great surplus of meat.  Also, there were a very big amount of military assets like tanks, automat machine [guns], etc.  Of course, these products (meat and military) had a great opportunity cost, that led to deficit in other products.”              

Ferhat’s parents were a bit more charitable in their estimation of what their former life was like in the Soviet Union.  They had said: “People’s life was controlled by the government.  Government was deciding, what people should and should not do…what to eat and what to not eat…” Yerik was more emphatic when he wrote: “My parents said that in Soviet time was deficit of meat, sugar, cigarettes…we are KAZAKH, and can you imagine a Kazakh without meat??? It’s like Russian without vodka, I mean “suhoi zakon.””

In conclusion, Yelena wrote the following, almost as incredulous as Yerik but more familiar with the economic terms and the irony that existed from her mother’s point of view.  “…even if she had money she didn’t have an opportunity to buy.  So the Demand was very strange and silly because people wanted to possess some products, can afford it to buy and have a plan to buy, BUT! There was no such goods that can satisfy the Soviet people Demand.  It was very bad and silly command economy especially in the trade market.”

Leave a comment »