What It's Like

13 Things You Didn't Know About Daily Life In The Soviet Union 

Kellen Perry
Updated January 7, 2020 35.5k views 13 items

Here's the standard high school history class summary of the Soviet Union: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was a communist state from 1922 to 1991 and was a big rival of the US from WWII to the end of the '80s. But what was the Soviet Union really like? What was it like living in the Soviet Union? That same history class probably told you that it was awful, but it's a lot more complicated than that.

Daily life in the Soviet Union, it turns out, was in many ways, just like you've heard, especially in the early days of famines and forced labor camps. But like any large, modern country/union - and the USSR was literally the largest - the quality of life in Soviet Russia varied wildly over the years, depending on many complicated factors. Read on for some fascinating facts you may not know about Soviet daily life.

Beer Wasn't Considered Alcohol
Beer Wasn't Considered A... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 13 Things You Didn't Know About Daily Life In The Soviet Union
Photo:  Bernt Rostad/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

It sounds wild, but it took until 2011 for beer to be defined as an alcoholic beverage in Russia. Prior to that, legislation classified it as a "foodstuff," meaning it could be sold like a soft drink. This meant it could be sold in street kiosks and could be imbibed openly in just about any public place in the country.

During the Soviet era, Mikhail Gorbachev learned the hard way not to mess with alcohol sales: historians think his attempt to ban liquor "hastened his downfall."

There Were Soviet Hipsters Making Bootleg Records
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From the late '40s to the early '60s, the Soviet Union had a counterculture group that aped Western beatnik and hipster culture and even made bootlegs LPs. This being the USSR, the so-called stilyagi ("style hunters") were forced to make the bootlegs out of recycled x-ray films, so the records had ghostly "bones" all over them. 

The stilyagi were, in the words of one style blogger, "a group of dandy youngsters dressed up in colorful American-inspired get-ups" that were "unafraid to make a bold fashion statement." Those critical of the stilyagi claimed, "Today he dances jazz, but tomorrow he will sell his homeland." 

Pepsi Came To The USSR Before Coke Or McDonald's
Pepsi Came To The USSR B... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 13 Things You Didn't Know About Daily Life In The Soviet Union
Photo:  frankieleon/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

McDonald's and Coca-Cola are often cited as being the two American companies with the most worldwide influence and reach, but did you know that Pepsi-Cola made it into the USSR first? It's true: Pepsi was available in the Soviet Union 21 years before McDonald's and 16 years before Coca-Cola.

It had a lot to do with Pepsi's appearance at an exhibit at Moscow's Sokolniki Park in 1959, where the soda was given out for free in disposable paper cups. The Soviets struck a deal with Pepsi a decade later that also included the distribution rights for Stoli vodka.

Cars Were Meant To Last A Lifetime
Cars Were Meant To Last ... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 13 Things You Didn't Know About Daily Life In The Soviet Union
Photo:  Andrew Bone/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

According to Russian author Alexander Kabakov, from the 1930s to the 1950s especially, car owners in the Soviet Union took great pride in making their vehicles last as long as possible - and in some cases, they lasted a lifetime.

Quality control was a huge part of it, and so was build quality. Kabakov says the metal frames were so thick coming off the line, they were basically "resistant to corrosion."