Posts tagged perestroika

“Why We Teach Overseas” series

What’s all this flap about a Russian spy ring caught in the U.S.?  I know some Kazakh teachers/administrators thought I was a “spy” when I was teaching in Almaty, perhaps some of my American friends think I am too.  I can attest that Cold War sentiments may die hard or take a long time to go away. I’ve witnessed or heard of some things up close and personal that makes one wonder how long this Cold War will go on. Okay, I admit it, I’m a “neo-con” as opposed to a “revisionist” for those of you historians out there who read this blog. But you knew that already if you have consistently read my daily writing rants for the past few years.

The next several days I will try to explain why my husband and I live overseas in a country, such as “Kazakhstan,” that seems difficult to pronounce.  Kazakhstan IS a land of mystery and undeniably creates more questions than answers. But I have a few answers for my dear blog readers as to WHY we are in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. A much earlier film series directed by Frank Capra titled “Why We Fight” was about WWII and might help explain MY blog title above.  Sometimes living in a foreign venue while trying to teach in English feels like we are “fighting” for a just cause.

When I first arrived in the Almaty airport on May 1, 1993, I quickly learned what a challenge it would be to train 32 American Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) to eventually be English teachers scattered throughout the huge country of Kazakhstan. At that time, I could only tell these young, impressionable PCVs to expect teaching to be “different” based solely on my two years teaching in China (1986-88). What did I know about Kazakhstan back in 1993 beyond reading Martha Brill Olcott’s classic titled “The Kazakhs” and various other exotic, travel articles?  Kazakhstan was a vast, unknown land back in those early days after the fall of the Soviet Union, (regrettably it still is unknown by many westerners.)

In 1993, we were the first Peace Corps group to enter Central Asia, an area that had been closed off for over 70 years to anything western except for the Russian and German influence that was still noticeably prevalent in those early days beyond perestroika. Ironically, our Peace Corps training site was the former Communist Party School for all of Kazakhstan.  Also, strangely enough this very same campus became a well-known western university in Almaty with a current student population of over 4,000 graduate and undergraduate students. Little did I know then that I would return to this same campus 15 years later in 2007, with my husband, to teach academic English courses in the Language Center.

After two years of teaching, I am now living and working in Astana, the ten year old capital of Kazakhstan, which had formerly been in Almaty.  Bottom-line, my years spent in Central Asia, I have learned to be flexible. The Kazakhs have necessarily made major changes economically from a planned economy, according to the dictates of Moscow, to that of a market economy ready to compete against the top players in the rest of the world. Kazakhstan has a real chance to succeed with their rich oil and mineral resources and do just that with the inauguration of the New University in Astana.

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Maiya’s paper: Soviet Living Conditions

The echo of the past:

Destruction of Soviet memories.

I.  Introduction

Soviet Union. This country doesn’t exist anymore, and even though our generation was born while it still was one nation, we don’t know how it was like to live there. Only through the books, movies and the stories of our relatives we can draw a picture of those days. And, of course, now, when we finally do have freedom of speech, people started to find out all the bad sides of Soviet leaders, all the evil things they did and now try to wipe out everything that was left from those times. But I believe that despite all the bad moments we know in Soviet history, we should not try to erase it and not to destroy the monuments that remind of it.

II.  Our history – Memories of WWII

          Today, our teachers at school tell us all the truth about the policies of Soviet leaders, about all the problems people had in USSR – famine, injustice, repressions, the Great Patriotic war, “perestroika”, etc. Sometimes when you hear all of that, it seems that it was impossible to survive in those kinds of living conditions. Despite all of that, the generation of our grand parents somehow managed not only to survive and overcome all those tribulations with pride, but also to bring through the memories that are full of joy, happiness, love and passion. When we had a personal interview with Lydia Timofeevna, who was only 2 years old when the World War II has started, what was very surprising for many of us was that she is reminiscing that some of the fascists were nice to them and gave her candies, if they met her on the forests while she was looking for her dad there (2008). I mean, after all the fascists did to our nation, to remember moments like that is very rare and significant. And there are plenty of examples like that! However, the younger generations now tries to amend all the history like it never happened – they rewrite books, change the facts, and destroy the monuments of Soviet era that as Forest and Johnson (2002) noticed were “among the most potent sites for the construction of a Soviet national identity”(p. 524).


III.           Possible causes – living conditions of our parents. 

Along with all the difficulties that our parents had in their childhood there were many problems they had to overcome when the Soviet Union collapsed. Changing from one system to another was definitely not an easy task. As Klugman and Braithwaite (1998­) noticed in their research paper, “for many that transition has been marked by a dramatic increase in the scale of poverty and deprivation.” (p. 37).  The period of 90s was a hard time for them – no job, economic problems within the country… And they had to raise and feed us – their children – in those conditions. Men usually worked on two jobs or even more, and women had to work even when their children were very small. It was even estimated that over the last two generations, women in Soviet Russia reached the highest labor force participation role in the world (Ofer and Vinokur, 1985). As one lady told her life story:

“I started working at the factory in 1975 and I’ve given it, or to be more precise, I’ve given the foundry shop, my whole life and my health. I fell in love there and got married. No matter how we tried, we couldn’t get our own place to live. We had a tough time and he left. We were left alone. We’ve been living in a dormitory since 1984. There are ten families on our floor, and each of them has two kids. Imagine the hell we have in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in the laundry room? Lord, how tired I am of living! I earn 250 rubles and the child support payments are paltry. Believe me, I don’t want to live anymore. But I feel sorry for my children-who needs them?! Our life is humiliating, poor and hungry.”


IV. Possible causes – stereotypes from Soviet times.

Also, because of the fact the Soviet Union was such a closed country – all the information coming in and out of it was controlled by the Kremlin – during the Cold War period many stereotypes were born and we still have to live with many of them nowadays. So, many people try to ruin everything that reminds them of Soviet Union because they do not want to live with those stereotypes. For many nations all over the world states like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and other CIS countries are still associated with USSR. And the youth of these countries doesn’t want to have anything in common with Soviets. But as Merridale (2003) noticed “recreating history was never likely to be a simple matter. It may be easy to agree on the destruction of a unitary past, but after that the contests start again, often in an atmosphere of anxious economic and political transition.” (p.13)


V. Conclusion

In conclusion, probably no one would not want to change our lifestyle to the one that Soviet nation had during the last century, because they had to go through so many difficulties and problems. We should appreciate all of that and treat them better than we do sometimes, we should listen to what they have to say, their personal stories and try to learn from them, because it is remarkable how they managed to stay kind and caring people after all they went through. More than that, we should not try to erase and wipe out all the evil from our history, because it will not help. If there are no monuments that remind us of that, it does not mean that nothing happened. Instead, we should remember of all the mistakes done and try not to repeat them all over again.



Forest, B. & Johnson, J. (2002). Unraveling the Threads of History: Soviet-era monuments and post-Soviet national identity in Moscow. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 92(3), 524-547.

Klugman, J. & Braithwaite, J. (1998). Poverty in Russia during the transition: An overview. The World Bank Research Observer, 13(1), 37-58.

Merridale, C. (2003). Redesigning history in contemporary Russia. Journal of Contemporary History, 38(1), 13-28.

Ofer, G. & Vinokur, A. (1985). Work and family roles of Soviet women: Historical trends and cross-section analysis. Journal of Labor Economics, 3(1), S328-S354.

Racioppi, L. & O’Sullivan, K. S. (1995). Organizing women before and after the fall: Women’s politics in the Soviet Union and Post- Soviet Russia. Signs, 20(4), 818-850.

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Danna’s Grandparents and Soviet Living Conditions

 Speaking about early times I’d like to say that my parents and grandparents always tell me their stories about that time. They teach us to be confident, support each other in any situation and always give us their useful advices. My parents always compare nowadays and Soviet living conditions, they try to show us life conditions which they live in and evaluate it. I had heard that the Soviet Union was dissolved in December 1991. My parents told me especially about that period a lot. They said that there was a lot of hardship at that time. Instead of helping each other, people thought only about their own fate. It was very hard not only for my parents, but also for all people.  Also, I know about communism through what I heard from my parents and grandparents. In the Brezhnev era life was easier because it was a calm time. But if you consider the period before Brezhnev, for example the Stalin and Lenin eras, it was harder for people due to mass repression.

In Soviet Union getting higher education was easier but living conditions were harder than now. I think when my parents were in my age, they had more privileges than I do. Living now is a struggle, you have to work hard to succeed. In their school years, my parents had no problem entering a university and gaining a profession with the base knowledge they acquired in school. But now, you must study hard at school and have private classes to get prepared for entrance exams to university.

They’ve told me that the situation in 1991 was very difficult. In order to buy food, they needed to stand in very long lines. At that time people had money, but there was nothing to buy. And now it’s the other way around. You can buy almost everything but you don’t have the money to do it. Everyday life has perhaps become better when we compare it to the perestroika years. At that time it was so difficult to get food and clothes for babies; you could only get them with coupons. But morally, it was better at the beginning.

It was the months the Soviet Union collapsed, the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.) was formed, and life as many people knew it was changed forever. I’d like to say that I’m proud of my parents and grandparents, so I want to make their lives much better than now.  

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