Firsthand Accounts Of What Life Was Like During The Cold War
The Cold War lasted for decades. From the end of WWII through the early 1990s, this bipolarization of the world ebbed and flowed, but was a constant of daily life. Events like the Cuban missile crisis caused widespread alarm, the space race made for a friendly-ish competition between the USSR and the US, and institutions like NATO and the Warsaw Pact took shape. Detente, "mutually assured destruction," and glasnost became policies - and buzzwords - during the 1970s and '80s.
Individuals who grew up in that time period reflect the complexities and differences of the tension-filled era and demonstrate that there was no universal experience. What people were taught about the era varied, as well. Firsthand accounts of what it was like to live during the Cold War reveal that children viewed the period differently from adults, while residents of the United States and the USSR had wildly different experiences within their own borders.
- Photo: CIA / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain1324 VOTES
In The USA, 'It Was Obvious... That Soviet Russia Was An Enemy'
In 2016, former lawyer John Davis wrote that when he started school in 1949, "It was obvious to me that Soviet Russia was an enemy."
Davis recalled seeing headlines about "Russians exploding a hydrogen bomb," watching "duck-and-cover" films in class, and hearing politicians call for a greater focus on national defense:
I remember also some films demonstrating what to do in the event of a nuclear attack; essentially, the advice was to get under your desk. Even as a small boy, however, I didn’t think that would do much good if an atom bomb was dropped nearby.
When Davis got to college, it became clear to him how dangerous the era was, especially as he watched President John F. Kennedy "address the [Cuban] crisis... and it scared the heck out of me."
What really shocked him, however, was what he saw while driving to Cheyenne in his native Wyoming:
A... silo about a half mile south of the freeway had suddenly shown activity. The missile in that silo was part of the nuclear deterrent force of the United States and I’m sure carried a big hydrogen bomb... And what I saw that October was one of the most chilling sights of my life. The missile had been pulled up out of the silo and was issuing steam, or some such effluent, showing that it was being readied for launch. And toward the top of the silo a big red light I’d never seen before was ominously blinking.
That image has haunted me through the years, frequently popping into my mind. What I’d seen made me realize how close we came to a nuclear Armageddon in 1962, one that would have wiped out tens of millions of people both in the United States and in Russia.
- Photo: Chris Mitchell / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.02200 VOTES
Leaving The Soviet Union For The West Was Like Being 'Transported Into The Future'
After living in what is now Eastern Ukraine until 1989, one Redditor described how they reacted to arriving in Vienna for the first time:
I felt, as a 9-year-old, that I've been transported into the future. Automatic doors in the sh*tty train station magazine store were the coolest thing I've ever seen. Twenty-three years on, having lived in the US for most of my life and [having] traveled the world, I don't think I've ever had a similar moment of awe as I had with the magical doors opening for me. So, as far as consumer goods and amenities, the West was leaps and bounds ahead of the 1980s USSR in every conceivable metric.
Questions about travel in general and the difficulty of leaving the USSR led to this explanation:
Travel outside the USSR was very restricted. It was possible to get exit visas to friendly bloc countries, but travel to the West was almost impossible.
- Photo: RIA Novosti archive, image #633872 / U. Ivanov / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.03187 VOTES
In Belarus, They Were Taught That Capitalists Ruled America And They 'Hated Us'
In an "Ask Me Anything," Redditor u/born_in_ussr offered insight into what it was like to live in the Soviet republic of Belarus during the 1970s and '80s, and how people there viewed the US:
American people were presented as two main classes. Class of capitalists who were ruling the country and hated us. The other class was of workers and peasants who were just like us. Capitalists were war-thirsty evils who were so afraid of the spread of communism awareness that they were prepared to wage wars to stop it.
In answer to questions about their thoughts on communism, the Redditor responded:
We were so brainwashed and were not taught to think. We were blindly [accepting] and repeating the opinions already put in front of us by our teachers. [The] Iron Curtain was doing its toll as well as I did not know any different and had no reason to doubt the official point of view. I was very patriotic when I was growing up... I was 100% supportive of everything our leaders did.
- Photo: Thomas Taylor Hammond / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.04238 VOTES
In The USSR, The Underground Market Was Everywhere - And Essential
Because consumer goods were in limited (or no) supply behind the Iron Curtain, a widespread and lucrative underground market, or "shadow economy," developed. According to Darren Kowalski, "Those who managed to find jeans like... FU's, Lee’s... and... [Levi] Strauss were f*cking lucky b*stards."
Russian economic journalist Anatoli Golovkov acknowledged there was no other option in 1990:
There is nothing to buy through ordinary channels, but you can get anything you need if you are willing to play the game and pay big money. The whole process makes all of us cynical about the law and ourselves. It degrades us. But what's the choice?
With a fistful of money, you go to one of the city markets. The state-run stalls are nearly empty. But you explain what you need to someone. He nods, and never saying a word, he writes down a price on a slip of paper and says, "Come back in an hour." When you come back, the package is all wrapped up... and off you go.
Fifteen years earlier, another economist from a communist country told The New York Times that the underground market was "immoral, but... [t]hey let people get things that wouldn't otherwise be available, and they soak up the excess cash that's always floating around the consumers of the socialist world. That's not a bad thing."
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Around The World, A Nuclear Threat Was 'Always' Present In Some Form
The threat of nuclear disaster, according to Brit Paul Marks, was "always" present. Marks qualified that by saying, "there is the danger of being struck by a car when one crosses the road," but fear during the era was a global constant.
Canadian Mike Webster recalled that the era "didn't have a very profound effect on the way people live their lives in Canada." Webster, a former army reservist, said his "training was centered around preparing to fight the Russians in Europe. I remember being taught to identify Soviet vehicles from silhouette flashcards."
Another Canadian, Suzanne Forth, viewed the era differently. She remembered worrying about nuclear conflict - in large part because she heard about it on the news and saw cultural interpretations of what it might look like. She explained:
Popular culture had movies that were based very much in the Cold War, like Rocky IV. In sports, there were a number of events that pitted communists against capitalists, like the Olympics, or the Canada-Russia series in hockey. You cheered for the capitalist countries because the communists were bad, and everyone knew they cheated, either through doping, political pressure, or crooked judges.
Belgian Michel Verheughe, who was 14 during the Cuban missile crisis, recalled how scared he was during the event:
My father, a Belgian military pilot, was not allowed to go home. The army was standing by, as a part of the NATO force that would react... My mother, having survived [WWII], started already to store dry foods like rice and sugar. I was scared!... I read that white was reflecting the energy of a nuclear blast so, when I was in bed and heard an aircraft flying over Brussels, I covered my head with the bed sheet.
- Photo: Central Intelligence Agency / Flickr / Public domain6139 VOTES
An American Student In Prague Had To Fill Out Forms About His Daily Activities
Thomas Johnson, a student in Germany during the early 1970s, experienced a mix of Eastern and Western influences. He described how many of his friends were "Czech and Polish refugees" in Germany after the Prague Spring of 1968.
Johnson and his friends once visited Prague on what he called a "strange trip." One friend gave Johnson a package that contained:
a whole bunch of developed photographs including of a Radio Free America building. [Taking] a Western camera into Czechoslovakia at that time would have led to imprisonment. We played really dumb (easy for an American) when visited by the border police and finished our trip well.
He also recalled being "required to report to the police station every day... to fill in a form on our activities" and "being asked to leave the country before May 1" - a national day of celebration.