Here's the standard high school history class summary of the Soviet Union: The Soviet Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was a socialist state from 1917 to 1991, and was big rival of the US from WWII to the end of the '80s. But what was the Soviet Union like, really? 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 with any large, modern country/union - and the USSR was literally the largest - 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.
It sounds nuts, 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."
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."
Former engineer Gendrik Vartanyan says Soviet newspapers wouldn't report on anything that wasn't directly "in favor of the Soviet Union." Bad news was hidden because "the belief was that under Communist rule, nothing goes wrong because they are always right." In a stunning interview from 2006, Vartanyan said he "was not aware of trains derailing, or airplanes crashing" before coming to the United States in 1990 to retire. He said this concealment extended to murders and major robberies. It's hard to believe someone could live until retirement before knowing that plane crashes were even a thing, but as Vartanyan says, concealing these events was part of the "Soviet code."
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 at deal with Pepsi a decade later that also included the distribution rights for Stoli vodka.