Back in the USSR: What life was like in the Soviet Union

A hundred years ago, the October Revolution brought about the biggest social experiment ever: The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Since its demise two decades ago, much has been written about its origin, and its politics, economics, and history more broadly. The field of Sovietology, once highly relevant to interpreting the USSR from the West, is now slowly dying, as its great scholars retire.

Almost everything that can be said about the USSR has already been said. Since the opening of the Soviet archives and the enactment of Glasnost, it has been known that the statistics now available to the world were the same statistics used by the Soviet leadership themselves to plan their economy. Long gone are the days of statistical trickery, common in Stalin’s times.

But there remain some historical questions that are of great interest to a curious reader. This book attempts to highlight some key aspects of the USSR to answer those questions. Some of those questions are probably familiar: How good was life there? Were there queues to buy food? How good were Soviet appliances? How advanced and powerful was their military? How did the USSR industrialise so fast? Was there poverty, unemployment, or inequality?

As mentioned, this book is explicitly not a general survey of the state of the art of Soviet history. While the content itself is state of the art, it is deliberately not general in scope. Each chapter addresses one question and one question only, drawing on every source available to answer it.

This book is accessible without prior knowledge, but it will be better enjoyed if the reader has previously read some introductory material. I recommend Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. While not academic, it does a good job in conveying the bigger picture. Broader in its scope, and extremely detailed, I recommend The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism, by János Kornai to understand how a socialist regime, in generic terms, has worked historically.

For textbooks about the history of the Soviet Union in general, I suggest The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Economy (Hanson), and Economic History of the USSR (Nove).

This book is divided into two sections. Section One is dedicated to the (in Marxist parlance) “base” of the USSR: its productive apparatus. Section Two explores some topics about its “superstructure”, such as food consumption or healthcare.

Due to the breadth of the topics covered, it is only possible to provide a relatively brief overview of them, and so some chapters may feel too dense for some readers. At the end of the book is a bibliography, so the interested reader can expand upon the themes explored in the book, and find some claims in their proper context.

The paper also reveals that...

  • In 1976 only two thirds of Soviet families had a refrigerator—the USA hit two thirds in the early 1930s. Soviet families had to wait years to get one, and when they finally got a postcard giving notice they could buy one, they had a fixed one hour slot during which they could pick it up. They lost their chance if they did not arrive in time.
  • In the same period, the USA had nearly 100m passenger cars. The USSR? Five million. People typically had to wait four to six years, and often as long as ten, to get one.
  • There was 30x as much typhoid, 20x as much measles, and cancer detection rates were half as good as in the United States.
  • Life expectancy actually fell in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s.
  • The USSR had the highest physician-patient ratio in the world, triple the UK rate, but many medical school graduates could not perform basic tasks like reading an electrocardiogram.
  • 15% of the population lived in areas with pollution 10x normal levels.
  • By the US poverty measure, well over half of the Soviet population were poor.
  • Around a quarter could not afford a winter hat or coat, which cost an entire month’s wages on average (the equivalent of £1700 in UK terms).

Read the book here.