Who could ever forget everyday life in the old Soviet Union? The sheer oddness of the way the place functioned, the incongruity between functioning and pretension. The discomfort and inconvenience, the drabness, the constant shortages and roundabout ways of getting things, the ubiquity of pull and patronage, the insignificance of money, the awfulness of officials, the splendid company of friends talking philosophy around kitchen tables, the sense of being caught in a time warp that was supposed to be the future but felt like the past. When I first went to the Soviet Union as a British Council exchange student in 1966, I thought it was only foreigners who noticed the oddness of Soviet life. But it turned out that the locals, or at least the local intelligentsia, felt it too. 'If only we could have a normal life!' they would sigh, not just in Moscow but in Budapest and Prague as well. 'Normal' had once referred to the way things were before the Revolution, or in Eastern Europe before Sovietisation. By the 1970s, however, most people didn't know what that 'normal' was like and redefined it in terms of a Western lifestyle and culture that was not only unattainable but also hazily understood. Normality itself became a utopian concept.
LRB 9 October 2003 | PDF Download