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

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.

Photo: German Federal Archives / WikiMedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

  • Beer Wasn't Considered Alcohol

    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

    There Were Soviet Hipsters Making Bootleg Records
    Video: YouTube

    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

    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

    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." 

  • Buying Groceries Took Forever

    Buying Groceries Took Forever
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Everyone's heard of long Soviet bread lines, but that's not even the half of it. Even a self-proclaimed "well off" American student living in Moscow in the mid-'60s says that getting any food at all was a tremendous chore. Dr. Naomi F. Collins says that "exhaustion" followed her in the "efforts of daily living." Even buying staples like cheese and rice "took forever" because you had to stand in long lines for nearly every item you wanted.

    Even after waiting, you didn't get the item directly; you had to get vouchers at each "station" and pay a cashier before going back to the stations and picking up your items.

  • Stalin Wanted Everyone To Eat In Communal Cafeterias

    Stalin Wanted Everyone To Eat In Communal Cafeterias
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Soviet authorities in Stalin's time considered private kitchens, dining rooms, and even apartments to be dangerous to the regime, so an idea was tossed around in the early days to force people to eat in communal cafeterias. So-called "kitchen politics," as a fascinating NPR feature explains, were such a threat that Soviet leaders wanted houses without kitchens at all. It wasn't just about preventing people from having privacy: the idea was also meant to "relieve a housewife from her daily chores so that she could develop as a personality" and "free the country from the czarism" and "bring happiness to poorer classes." 

    The idea didn't pan out, and soon, widespread industrialization led to "120 different ethnic groups" being served "exactly the same stuff" such as canned soup, meat, and fish.