A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union

While I am in no way an anthropologist nor an anthropology student (even if I did take a couple of intro classes in grad school), I am fascinated by the concept of culture. I don’t know where it comes from and this is not the moment I am going to explore it, but I enjoy looking through the windows of others’ societies to see how they live their lives in ways that are both unique to them and common to so many of us. As I have been reading about America and exploring our history and culture on my podcast, I have come to appreciate our differences and similarities even more. Due to to our vastness, the nuance that you can find in our people is amazing.

Vladivostok, 7:30 a.m.: Sunrise over Golden Horn Bay. Photo by Lev Sherstennikov.

Why, then, I often wonder, do we assign a monoculture to a group that’s not like us?

I know the answers to this question involve one’s ignorance, prejudices, or hate. It’s even to think of, say, Black Americans as acting or living a certain way when you’re a racist; it’s simple to assign characteristics or behaviors to Latinx people when you’re xenophobic; and when you don’t know much about another country, it’s easy to make assumptions based on what you see in the media. Thankfully, there is travel as a way to erase that ignorance, and if you don’t have the privilege or luxury to travel to France or Morocco or India or Japan or anywhere else, there are plenty of travelogues to read or shows to watch.

Sometimes, though, the monoculture is the result of politics, a way of seeing a supposed “enemy” in only one way so the government or a particular political party can gain or maintain power. That can be easily wrapped together with racism and xenophobia, as we have seen throughout our history when it comes to countries with predominantly non-white populations. In fact, we wrap entire continents into said views–I have lost count of the number people who act like Africa is a country or anyone who comes from a country south of the United States is a “Mexican.” But then there’s the Soviet Union.

I spent the better part of two years taking a look at how Americans viewed the Soviet Union during my Fallen Walls Open Curtains miniseries, and came across so much media that basically described the average Soviet citizen as a bloodthirsty commie zombie ready to destroy America on command. At least, that is, until Rocky Balboa defeated Ivan Drago … I mean, until the mid-1980s when Gorbachev came to power and enacted Perestroika and Glasnost. Then, the media turned toward building a bridge with the USSR. The Russians (never mind that there were multiple Soviet republics, they were all Russians) liked blue jeans and Coca-Cola and rock and roll just like us!

Of course, looking at the people of the Soviet Union through that lens is just as ignorant because you’re grafting your own cultural identity onto them and therefore dressing them up in your own monoculture. To truly remedy the ignorance we all had about the people of the Soviet Union, we would have had to actually go there and meet people from all over the place. But that wasn’t possible for the average American in the 1980s (and is still well out of reach these days). Thankfully, we got A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union, a project conducted by 100 photojournalists on May 15, 1987.

Now, if you have listened to my latest episode, you have heard all about A Day in the Life of America, the book coordinated and edited by Rick Smolan and David Cohen, and they worked with their same publisher and editorial team as well as with corporate sponsors (Kodak, Nikon, Pan Am) to give us what Harrison Salisbury says in the intro: “Russia without tears, Russia without the cloak of censorship–well almost without that cloak … the life of Soviet Citizens in this uninhibited fashion. Almost all of Russia is here, the bad along with the good.”

Just like in A Day in the Life of America, A Day in the Life of The Soviet Union had a two-page spread that included the letter from Rick Smolan that pitched the project to photographers surrounded by artifacts and ephemera.

And really, part of the reason we had that monoculture of the USSR through much of the Cold War was because of the Kremlin’s barriers that kept information at a well-regulated trickel. Now, though, we have a way to see all of this in a much brighter light. The results are striking and astounding.

Summarizing A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union like this without giving you a simple laundry list of what or what is on which page is tedious, so I decided to pick some photos that represented subjects seen in both America and the Soviet Union, mainly because of the way we see a compare and contrast between the two.

Moscow, 8:30 p.m.: The domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral provide the backdrop for a balmy Friday night on Red Square. Photographer: Larry C. Price

The cover, which features Red Square at 11:30 p.m. is a little on the nose for the Soviet Union, although the America book’s cover was a shot of a cowboy at twilight, so I can’t fault them too much. Plus, the cover hast o sell the book and if I were browsing in a B. Dalton in 1987, it might make me look twice. The onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral are iconic in part because they are beautiful, and the building (completed in 1555) stands out against the very stark architecture of the Soviet era. It’s also an enduring symbol for the Russian people, especially Moscow, and there’s a special irony to a cathedral being so important amidst an atheist nation.

And that takes me to the topic of religion, which gets a solid amount of space in both A Day in the Life of America and America 24/7. In those books, Smolan and Cohen are not making any statement on religion or declaring America to be a “Christian Nation” in any way, but they do rightfully acknowledge the way so many Americans hold religions at the core of their identity. But when it comes to the Soviet Union, the word “godless” was often used as part of the description, even though a number of the photographs in the book show religious practice as a part of everyday Soviet life, and an accompanying essay explains how the Communist Party does own all of the churches in the country with the ultimate goal of doing away with religious worship, even if they understand the difficulty of said task. Instead, they have strict regulations over all of the churches. Furthermore, the society is diverse in its worship, ranging from Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Christianity to Islam and Judaism.

11:45 a.m. Chewing the fat: Inside a small fabric-covered balok, or mobile cabin, Gennadi Porotov and Ignat Uksusnikov share a frozen fish and some private humor. The mask-like tans of the two Ngansan hunters come from long hours in the sun, wind and glaring snow. Photograph by Aleksandr Polyakov.

I honestly don’t know why I didn’t expect diversity across the Soviet Union; the country is geographically enormous and borders myriad countries and cultures. But I guess years of movies featuring “Ivan” and “Boris” as hardened white villains puts an idea in your head that is hard to let go. I get the feeling that when the editors of A Day in the Life of the Soviet Union ultimately compiled the book, they knew that’s how most Americans viewed the country’s people. So throughout, there are small maps in the corner of spreads with colored dots corresponding to pictures (same as A Day in the Life of America) to show you where the pictures were taken. This particular shot stood out, not just because it was a double-page spread, but because of the scene and its subjects. It’s incredibly naïve of me to think, “Wow, there’s people like that in Russia!”, especially at the age of 45, but I did.

10:30 a.m.: The morning sun illuminates birch trees in the Altai foothills, less than 300 miles from the Chinese border. Over 50 varieties of birch are indigenous to the Soviet Union, so the Russians have made it a national symbol, incorporating the tree into many of their legends and folktales.

Similarly, I was amazed that Russia had trees and rolling hills. Yes, I know I come off as a complete ignoramus, but I was so used to drab buildings and images of brutal winters that this picture of birch trees and green mountains stopped me. Its beauty belied those Cold War images and really made this book a valuable piece.

9:15 a.m.: At Moscow’s Survorov Military Academy, this cadet is getting by with a little help from his friend. Photograph by Rick Smolan.

Because really, my study of the Cold War, as I said toward the top of this post, was always from an American perspective and that perspective was clouded by the popular culture of the era. No matter how cynical I was toward that pop culture, it still narrowed my lens and I never really considered what else I could know about the Soviet Union beyond what I was taught or picked up. Seeing it through the eyes of these photographers has been humbling and enlightening, even when the images are what you’d expect to see from that country. Take, for instance, this shot from a military academy. It mirrors the number of shots we saw from The Citadel in A Day in the Life of America but also softens the Soviet military a little. I mean, how basically human is a picture of one kid cheating off another kid’s test? That amuses me to no end.

And then there are pictures of everyday life and the young and the old. I was not surprised to see the way Soviet teenagers looked at a rock concert–I’d seen plenty of “Rock Behind the Iron Curtain” segments on documentaries and stuff. Other pictures reminded me of the “standing in line for McDonald’s in Moscow” shots from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Still, I was interested to learn that not only di the USSR have very few World War II vets alive, but those soldiers of the Great Patriotic War had special status in the country, essentially receiving lifetime benefits.

A sunset closes the book. Photographer unknown.

In coming to a conclusion, I am having a hard time finding a phrase that isn’t “Soviets! They’re just like us!” But the commonalities and differences were intriguing and kept me turning pages. There is so much in each picture that draws you in and makes you wonder, especially because this era is so long past and the Soviet Union is long gone.

Note: Where possible, I have tried to use the captions from the original book and have given credit to the photographers. While the book is out of print, it can be found in secondhand shops. My copy was purchased through ThriftBooks.

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