The West didn’t spend decades fighting Communism because they’re against social equality and glorious mustaches. Communism might sound good on paper (even if you have to stand in line for 3 hours for the paper and use beat juice instead of ink) but there’s a big difference between theory and practice. And for regular, non-theoretical people, living under Soviet rule was practically hell. Especially if they were Jewish.
5. Anti-Semitism Permeated Everyday Life In The USSR
Just before the start of WW2, the Soviets and Germany were on such good terms that Hitler and Stalin were probably exchanging mustache grooming tips through the mail. But, hold on, how did that work? Isn’t Nazism a far-right ideology, and Communism a far-left one? What did they have in common, aside from both having an increasingly-worrying presence on college campuses?
According to Rita, whose parents escaped from the USSR in the ‘70s (more on that later), the thing that probably brought Stalin and Hitler together was their hatred of Jews.
“My mom’s family were Jewish and my mom was refused entry into a prestigious university. They told her, and I quote from her lips, ‘Well, with a name like Greenburg you can’t really expect to get into any good school.’ My mom’s grandfather was also beaten to death in an alley while he was drunk, apparently due to ‘Jew haters.’” Well, it’s not like they were mad at him for being drunk in Russia…
Despite Rita’s family being nonobservant, the fact that her mother hadn’t changed her name out of shame was seen by the officially atheist government as basically the same thing as trying to circumcise Stalin with a stale hamantash. The USSR wanted Jews and their culture to be like the Loch Ness monster: unseen and only spoken of by crazy people. But while assimilated Jews were theoretically off the Soviet shit list, theory’s arch-nemesis practice was always there to pick up the anti-Semitic slack. Dr. Steve Miner, director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University, explains:
“Although Jews did not suffer discrimination by law, they faced numerous barriers to advancement in education and professions. All of them unstated in any formal rules but widely understood.”
Especially after 1967 when Jewish radio engineer Boris Kochubievsky was sent to a mental hospital for openly supporting Israel.
“I had a number of Jewish acquaintances in the USSR,” Dr. Miner adds, “and to a person they felt as though they were treated as second-class citizens,” which probably earned them an alley beating for suggesting classes still existed. In the Soviets’ defense, it’s not like Communism invented anti-Semitism as organized violence against Russian Jews (known as “pogroms”) can be traced all the way back to at least the 19th century. Hey, it’s not discrimination if it’s tradition!
4. There Were Spies Everywhere
In the 1970s and ‘80s, most Jewish people living in the Soviet Union have changed their names and passed themselves off as ethnic Russians or Ukrainians. This made anti-Semitism difficult for the Soviets, but like the plucky nation that they were, they still gave it that old Eastern European try. They started by having spies infiltrate the lives of ordinary, everyday people, to make sure they weren’t secretly enjoying kreplach or just not thinking that Communism was the bee’s kneesm. Rita explains:
“My mom’s friend Rita, a woman I am named after, started dating a very ‘suspicious’ man. He used to make inappropriate jokes about the government and tried to get my parents to join in on the ‘joke’. My parents always refused. They were so nervous about anything getting in the way of their escape plans they were ridiculously careful and they had suspicions of their own about this loud-mouthed jerk.”
“One night, in the middle of the night, my mom’s friend came to where they were staying bawling her eyes out. She confessed to my mom that this ‘boyfriend’ actually worked for the KBG and was tasked with trying to get my parents to slip up by saying something bad about the government. Because they did not and he was frustrated, he would beat her up” probably to check if Rita’s parents’ social circle at least bled red.
Rita’s dad would also routinely spot undercover KGB agents at the restaurant he played drums at. This happened because the restaurant was a popular gathering place for foreigners and their crazy ideas about not killing people in alleys for their religious beliefs. However, most Russian citizens did not get such a hands-on approach from the KGB. Most simply had their phones tapped. Dr. Miner elaborates:
“I have been in more than one apartment where people covered the phone with a pillow, or talked in the kitchen, rather than the family room.”
“Of course, nobody knew if their own phone was tapped, but the chance was there; so people generally avoided discussion of politics or society on the phone.”
You know, say what you want about the USSR, but if we too punished people for discussing politics with friends and family, Facebook wouldn’t be the anal wart of humanity that it is now so… something to think about, maybe?
3. Providing For Your Family Was Bizarrely Difficult (And Could Get You Arrested)
Capitalism isn’t “the best” economic system out there (or even “a not-totally-shitty” one) but it’s amazing how humans tend to naturally fall into it when left to their own devices. It’s happened in the supposedly-Communist China and even in the USSR where, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, more and more stuff became available for sale to the population. Well, the part of the population that had disposable income, which unfortunately tended to piss off those who didn’t.
“My dad had a car,” Rita says, “but apparently owning a car meant you had to be doing something wrong because they were far too expensive to own. My dad’s neighbor called the police and filed a complaint. My dad was arrested and they basically lead with ‘where did you steal the money to buy this car?’ He had to convince them that his parents leant him the money, that they had saved up, and that he had fixed it up. He was in jail for a while before they cleared it up!”
If there is a better indication of just how crazy the USSR was, I haven’t heard of it. I mean… a DRUMMER being able to afford a working car? Madness.
2. Abortions Were Frequent, Easily Available, And Often Lethal To Women
The Soviets basically gave away abortions like candy on Halloween (because both practices are bad for children’s health and at least one person involved wears a mask.) They didn’t do it solely because it pissed off religious people but because not forcing women to have children they didn’t want kept the population… well, not HAPPY as they still lived in the USSR but definitely less miserable than they would have been otherwise.
“My grandmother had 19 abortions,” Rita says.
“Without the overall morality of religion to interfere it was very common practice … My grandma and her ‘husband’ didn’t actually get married for 7 years after they shacked up, and so, my grandma would get abortion after abortion every time she was pregnant because the family would never accept kids out of wedlock and she was so desperately trying to win over [her in-laws].”
Apparently, her strategy was to win them over by proving that she was an Immortal because old Soviet abortion clinics had a survival rate on par with a dog-fighting ring, and involved about as much blood.
We’re talking about “Stone Age” equipment, lack of anesthetic, and sanitary conditions that would require two coats of manure to be merely considered “appalling.” That’s why those who could afford it got abortions at sort-of-illegal but understandably very popular private clinics. But if things really were that bad in the USSR, why didn’t more people pack up their borscht pots and emigrated to a country where they could have all the abortions they ever wanted?
1. Leaving The USSR Was… Complicated
The creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was a conundrum for the Soviet government. On the one hand, allowing their Jewish citizens to move there would be quicker than slowly killing them through decades of quasi-institutionalized prejudice and/or alley beatings. But on the other hand, why would anyone want to leave the USSR? That would suggest that there was something wrong with it, which should earn you a lethal beating in an alley.
Eventually, this really started to mess with the Soviets’ minds.
“Israel was routinely likened to Nazi Germany,” Dr. Miner said, which I insisted I misheard at least three times.
“The overwhelmingly anti-Jewish purpose of Nazi death camps was recast as the murder of what were called ‘peaceful Soviet citizens.’ Those Jews wishing to emigrate were treated very badly, as though they were betraying their country, and their friends and families were pressured to disown them, or at least to shun them.”
The reason for it was simple: Israel was a pro-Western country and everything Western was perceived as bad, which is totally unfair as only like… 80% of all Western things are bad. But, after a few decades, the Soviet government came to a begrudging decision that it’d be nice to de-Jew their population without taking a cue from Hitler, so they allowed some immigration to Israel. But not the U.S., where Rita’s family was planning to go.
“You had to have an invitation from whatever country you wanted to immigrate to,” Rita explains.
“My dad’s plan was to apply to go to Israel and switch his appeal to move to America as soon as we left Russia.”
Unfortunately, due to a clerical fuck up, the Soviets ended up finding out about the family’s plan to move to the U.S. “So the Government decided to punish my parents. They took away their government issued apartment. Both of my parents lost their jobs and the government proceeded to harass them constantly about their ‘plans to move to America’ although my parents always denied it.” And that didn’t make them want to stay in the USSR? Weird.
“My parents lived with friends and relatives for the next year waiting for the final arrangements to be made to move to Israel.” The family finally got permission to leave after making a double pinkie promise that they weren’t going to the United States. But of course, the second they left the USSR, Rita’s dad applied to move to the U.S., got accepted, and the family’s been living there ever since. Now, they are free to live their lives how they want, which I assume includes flipping off the USSR flag every single morning.