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Unpacking Romanticized Myths about the Soviet Union

Despite various historical events, the world still romanticizes the USSR and communism. In particular, those with no idea what life was really like in those days or older people whose "best" years of youth were during the Soviet period. In addition, some foreigners are nostalgic not for the real Soviet past but for the image that the USSR was supposed to embody, including equality and justice.

But was there all that good stuff some people are nostalgic about? And how did the Soviet authorities manage to deceive the masses? Find out by reading this article, compilated together with Filter, Ukraine's national media literacy project.
A comment under the YouTube video "Reacting to Gen Z Communists and Socialists on TikTok"

The utopia of equality

Did equality and justice exist in the Soviet Union?

In short, no, even though equality and justice were the main promises of the Red Army and the Bolsheviks, who seized power in Eastern Europe and the Middle East in the 1920s not only with the help of the army but also with active propaganda. Later, during its reign, the Soviet government used all means to support various myths related to equality and justice, and we debunk some of them further.

The tale of the Soviet paradise

How did the authorities manage to deceive the masses?

First of all, by propaganda, tight restrictions, control, and intimidation.

Propaganda poster on the "decaying West" theme, arguing that there was freedom, equality, and prosperity in the USSR, while in the United States, there was disenfranchisement, unemployment, and poverty.

For example, within the country, the Soviet government maintained the myth of the "golden age of the USSR" by isolating citizens from information and interaction with the world outside the Soviet republics. Behind the Iron Curtain, Soviet people were generally unable to compare their living standards to the ones in other countries. Those who learned the truth and tried to convey it to others were often persecuted, arrested, or even executed. In addition, propaganda, censorship, and restrictions on freedom of speech and the media reigned supreme, and criticism of the Soviet regime was banned at the state level.

Under Leonid Brezhnev, a narrative about the greatness of the USSR, the Soviet way of life, and its values was created to counter the "decaying West." And this myth was supported by all methods of propaganda — disinformation, distortion of reality, and lies.

Interestingly, the propaganda about the "decaying West" was conducted simultaneously with the opposite state goal of catching up and overtaking America. Back then, during the so-called Cold War, the Soviet Union competed with the United States, particularly in space exploration and the nuclear industry. At the same time, the Soviet regime often failed to win, including because a significant part of the budget was spent on the military-industrial complex, support for dictatorial regimes and communist parties in the Third World or so-called "brotherly countries.”

The allure of secrecy

Did people know what was really going on in the USSR?

First of all, the truth was known by most high-ranking officials, who, however, worked to prevent the facts and the real state of affairs from becoming known to the population and abroad. Moreover, in cases where this failed and someone dared to tell the truth or rebel, the Soviet regime resorted to the harshest methods, including persecution, repression, arrests, intimidation, deportations, forced relocations, famines, dekulakization of wealthy peasants, and other large-scale crimes.

However, the regime, built on lies and crimes, was showing cracks — economic crises exacerbated the ideological crisis, more and more rumors about the real state of affairs became known, and eventually people rose up.

One example of the collapse of the myth of "equality in the USSR" was the so-called sausage revolution in early 1990. Back then, in the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, a private Zhyhuli and a black Volga, owned by the regional communist party committee, with a party official inside, collided in an accident. The impact caused the trunk of the latter to open, and foodstuffs that were scarce at the time fell out: smoked sausage, ham, cognac, etc. Chernihiv residents, who had to stand in line for hours to get the most basic necessities, were outraged and began to smash the Volga, which was later used as a tribune for a rally.

The activists then turned this spontaneous rebellion into an organized movement and wrote a resolution with demands to the authorities. Their local protests resonated throughout the USSR, were covered by the media, and became a matter of concern at the highest level. As a result, the regional and city party leadership in Chernihiv was changed, and the authority of the opposition forces grew.

The glamour of abundance

Is it true that everyone in the Soviet Union lived comfortably?

It is not true. Only high-ranking officials and those actively serving the regime lived in abundance or luxury. There was also a high level of unemployment; most goods were scarce for ordinary citizens, not to mention the organised by the Soviet regime famines of 1921-1923, 1932-1933, and 1946-1947 in Ukraine.

Housing, land, a garage, and a car could be obtained through workplace distribution, but most often, this happened through illegal schemes involving corruption. As a result, people waited in line to get a car or apartment for years.

Chronic shortages also led to the emergence of specific relationships between people and even businesses. For example, speculators appeared who resold scarce goods at a premium and businesses that exchanged certain goods and services for scarce ones.

The myth of free stuff

Did the USSR provide everyone with free housing?

One of the central myths about the "golden age" of the USSR is free housing. In fact, the cost of "free housing" in the USSR was reimbursed by the citizens themselves, but indirectly.

In order to get a free apartment, an average citizen had to stand in line for it, usually for 15-20 years and sometimes even longer. Also, a person could not decide in which neighborhood, on which floor, or even how many rooms their apartment would have, and this gave rise to a special kind of corruption when one could "negotiate" with the responsible authorities to get housing earlier or with better features. At the same time, the ownership right belonged to the factory or institution that issued it. Thus, the state could take away the housing at any time.

The tale about international friendship

Is it true that internationalism prevailed in the USSR?

The USSR consisted of 15 republics, as well as various autonomous regions and districts, representing more than 130 ethnic groups and languages, so one of the central narratives of Soviet propaganda was the principle of internationalism. With its help, the Soviet government tried to create the impression that everyone could coexist within the union without interethnic conflicts.

In reality, the situation was radically different. It was the leadership of the Soviet Union that pursued a xenophobic policy with a narrative that the Russian was the most important and wise "big brother" among the "fraternal" peoples and languages of the USSR. Moreover, some ethnic groups were subjected to forced deportations and genocides, including Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians.

In general, people who tried to popularize authentic culture were often persecuted and even killed.

On April 24, 1979, Volodymyr Ivasyuk, an iconic personality for Ukrainians, a famous composer and author of the popular Ukrainian song "Chervona Ruta," was scheduled to meet with someone at the Lviv Conservatory but didn't make it there. A month later, his body was found hanging in the forest. The authorities tried to make Ivasyuk's death look like a suicide. Under this pretext, the party bosses did not allow the composer's burial at the Lychakiv Cemetery for a while. Newspapers were forbidden to publish obituaries and condolences to Ivasyuk's family. On the day of the funeral, Komsomol and party meetings were scheduled everywhere with mandatory attendance, threatening expulsion from the party and dismissal from work for absence.

The story of the best in the world education

How was it in reality?

Schools in the USSR

At the beginning of its existence, the Soviet Union did indeed conduct a massive illiteracy campaign, which ensured a higher level of literacy among the population. However, education in the USSR was subordinated entirely to party decrees and standards.

Students' education in technical disciplines and natural sciences was strictly focused on the military and defense needs and the planned economy of the USSR. At the same time, the humanities, such as philosophy, journalism, and history, were utterly dependent on ideology and party policy and therefore served as propaganda tools rather than full-fledged sciences. From the very beginning of the USSR, universities taught only such history as was previously approved by the party apparatus. In addition, a strict hierarchy prevailed in educational institutions, resulting in students being humiliated or intimidated by teachers and professors.

During application, universities preferred students who had written recommendations from party or Komsomol organizations. Any graduate had to work for at least two years in the location the university sent them to under the so-called "assignment." For example, graduates of Kyiv universities were often sent to Central Asia or the Far East, where the Soviet regime needed a workforce.

Also, no other language was used in educational institutions except Russian. Thus, few people were able to communicate or read in English or other foreign languages after graduation. Furthermore, education in the USSR did not encourage the learning or use of a mother tongue if it was not Russian.

In general, the USSR education system sought to eliminate intellectual diversity and minimize students' pursuit of true knowledge or developing natural talents.

The miracle of free medical care

What was wrong with the health care system in the Soviet Union?

Medical institutions usually had outdated equipment, a lack of medicines, and shabby premises.

The Soviet healthcare system was notorious for its depravity. Psychiatric hospitals in the USSR not only kept patients who actually needed to be treated but also detained those who allegedly undermined Soviet ideology, such as Ukrainian dissidents. Doctors used the so-called "punitive (repressive) psychiatry" against people who had committed a crime of opinion. People who did not have mental health problems were forcibly placed in psychiatric hospitals and pumped with drugs that rendered them incapacitated.

A medical facility in the USSR

In addition, there was a significant imbalance between the number of hospitals in the western and eastern regions of the USSR. The Soviet Union planned to fight the collective West, so it built more hospitals in the likely frontline zone.

The myth of non-existent crime

Is it true that there was no crime in the USSR?

The USSR police

There is a myth that the USSR had the most honest police and the lowest crime rate. Indeed, in those years, the crime rate was lower than in the United States but higher than in most European countries. At the same time, the USSR had problems with public safety; had its serial killers, such as Andrei Chekatilo, Anatoly Slyvko, Gennady Mikhasevich, and others.

There were also cases of terrorism in Soviet times. For example, in 1988, in Ordzhonikidze (now Vladikavkaz), five attackers hijacked a bus with children, demanding they be allowed to flee the USSR to Israel.

USSR poster reads: "Police are the servants of the people"

The longtime head of the police department, Mykola Shcholokov, spared no expense in funding films about honest and fair professionals of the Soviet police. That is why the image of an honest and unbiased Soviet policeman exists in the memory of many, as it was also the image of Soviet propaganda in TV series, films, and even cartoons, for example, “Uncle Stepan Militsioner.” So, the positive image of the Soviet police resulted from the meticulous propaganda of the Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs.

What are the consequences of romanticizing the Soviet period?

Poster reads: “Nations of the peace don’t want wars”

The glamorization of the Soviet period leads to a distorted perception of historical events. Within the historical context, mass repressions, deportations, and famines far outweigh everything else in scope and significance.

In addition, idealizing the USSR strengthens the modern propaganda of the Russian Federation and its influence not only within the Russian-Ukrainian war but also in other countries. For example, the contemporary pro-Russian narratives "Russia only wants peace" and "Russia did not attack anyone" are drawn from the USSR propaganda, which spoke of "insidious capitalist states" that allegedly dreamed of destroying the country of "workers and peasants."

An excerpt from a 1938 Soviet song “If Tomorrow War Comes”

At the same time, in 1939, the Red Army attacked Poland and Finland, and the following year it invaded Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

People who are exposed to Russia's propaganda tend to support its crimes and aggressions. And romanticizing the USSR is part of Russia's propaganda.

Material is compilated by Mariia Okseniuk (WithUkraine) and Filter, Ukraine's national media literacy project.

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