by Yale Richmond
Everything comes to Russia late. With its self-imposed isolation, and its command economy and over-centralization, the Soviet Union was often decades behind developments in other countries. Ideas from the capitalist West were often regarded as dangerous, and although Russia has produced many great scientists and scholars, the tried and traditional was often preferred over the new and innovative. Moreover, suspicion of the West can be seen as a continuation of the anti-modernism tradition in Russian history. That seemed to be how the Soviet leadership, many of whom were of peasant origin, wanted it.
When Western steel mills were producing modern and lighter steel alloys, the Soviet Union’s Lenin Steel Works at Magnitogorsk–seven miles long, and the largest steel plant in the world–was still producing sixteen million tons of steel every year, using the old open-hearth method, and subjecting all inhabitants of the town to its noxious gases and particulates.
On a much smaller subject, the ancient abacus was still being used in stores to add up purchases when I arrived in Moscow in 1967. Two years later, electronic calculators began to appear in stores but cautious cashiers, suspicious of innovation, were checking them with an abacus. Twenty-two years later, at a meeting of the Congress of People’s Deputies, the Soviet parliament, in May 1989, complaints were made about the shortage of computers, and some Soviet scientists were still using the abacus.
When making purchases in stores, Russians had to stand in line three times. One was to tell a clerk what you wanted and receive a chit with the purchase written on it. The second line was to present the chit to a cashier and make payment. The third line was to present your receipt of payment and pick up your purchase. What Russian, I often wondered, had thought up such a time-consuming and labor-intensive system? It did help to maintain full employment, but I later observed the same system being used in a Paris department store, and learned that it had been brought to tsarist Russia from France.
In a country that claimed to have given full equality to women, and had enshrined that equality in its constitution, traditional attitudes toward women continued. One day my wife, who was driving our Plymouth station wagon, was stopped by a Moscow traffic cop who asked to see her papers. She produced her Soviet driver’s license and vehicle registration but the officer then told her she needed her husband’s written permission to drive the car, and he asked to see it.
Gasoline for cars had to be pumped laboriously by hand, as it had been in Germany in the late 1940s. So it was a pleasant surprise when the first electric pumps appeared in Moscow. But when I stopped for gas once on the main road from Moscow to Leningrad, the new electric pumps were controlled from the gas station’s office, and you had to tell the clerk on duty how many liters you wanted, and pay in advance. If you misjudged the amount of gas your tank could take and it overflowed, there was no way for the customer to stop the pump. Consequently, there were big puddles of gasoline on the ground around the pumps, presenting a severe fire hazard in a country full of cigarette smokers. And when I asked the clerk where I could get some water for my car radiator, she directed me to a well behind the station where I could fetch water in a bucket at the end of a long rope. I did not have to pump my gas, but I did have to haul my water.
When my wife Pamela and another embassy wife, Bonnie Anderson, both of them very good amateur tennis players, signed up to play at a public tennis court, they attracted attention from a Soviet Union that was preparing to enter international tennis competition. One day, as they prepared to play, they found that a crew from Moscow Television, impressed by their court skills, was on site to film them.
I was a lousy tennis player but I can boast of being the second jogger in Moscow. (The first was another embassy officer, Peter Bridges, who preceded me in Moscow). But when I jogged the Moscow streets in mid-winter, with my eyeglasses frozen over, Russian women would shout “Are you out of your mind?
In those years, some Soviet government agencies could not write checks. So when the Soviet Union had to pay the American Embassy for box-office receipts for American artists performing in the Soviet Union under the US-Soviet cultural agreement, our embassy officers had to go to Goskontsert, the state concert agency, with empty suitcases which they had to fill with piles of hand-counted rubles.
Despite its advanced planning and strict governmental control on almost everything, things often went wrong in the Soviet Union. As Victor Chernomyrdin, a Soviet Prime Minister, once put it, “We hoped for the best but it turned out as usual.”
Yale Richmond is a writer and former Foreign Service Officer who lives in Washington, D.C. His latest books are Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (Hippocrene Books, 2009), and From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia 4th edition (Intercultural Press, 2009). He served in Moscow as Counselor for Press and Culture, 1967-69.