An American Babuska In Moscow:  Reflections On The Myth of the Failure of the Soviet Union, and On Happiness, Housing and Stability  


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Dacha Gardens

I read with some interest a piece on CNN today, which compared the “happiness” of people living in Russia and America in regards to factors such as wages, housing, the status of women, etc.  While I would like to address all the factors, I cannot do so without writing a small book.  However, I would like to address the issue of housing in Russia from two perspectives.  First, from the perspective of the “failure” of the Soviet Union, and second, from the perspective of the way in which as a result of Soviet policies, housing ownership in Moscow has given rise to a solid middle class.  In fact Soviet housing policies can be said to be the core of economic stability for individuals and families, as well as for the nation as a whole.  I am not going to present you with research or statistics to make my point, only with a story, a true story, about a Babuska friend of mine.

I first met Natalia several months after I came to Moscow ten years ago.  When she invited me to her apartment, I, being a New Yorker, was struck by the fact that her apartment, were it in New York City, would be worth millions.  It was quite large with a huge living room, two bedrooms, kitchen, parquet floors, and two long balconies on either side overlooking the dense forest of a huge park.

I commented on how beautiful her apartment was and she was proud, telling me that it was given to her father, who had been a high ranking officer in the Soviet Army during WWII.  “You own this apartment,” I questioned?  “Yes, I inherited it from my father when he died.”  I lived in Moscow for several months before I understood, that that apartment was her retirement fund; it was worth millions and millions of roubles.

But she was not happy, because as she told me, her pension was 10,000 roubles a month and the “maintenance” on the apartment was almost two thousand roubles.  And now, they were going to put in water meters, and she would have to pay for water.  I want to make it clear to you that when I came to Moscow in 2008, no one paid for heating, nor water, nor gas.  Only a small amount for electricity.  This was because the Soviets had put in central heating in the city

But she complained.  Ok…ten thousand roubles even without rent is not a lot of money.  It was about $400.   Hard to live on that.  Her complaints shifted from her poverty to her son, who neither worked nor went to university.  Ok.  “Well, how does he live,” I asked her?  “Well, he lives in my other apartment and rents out a room there to a friend.”  Other apartment?  Well that would be the one the Soviets gave to her grandparents;  a small apartment on Svetnoy Boulevard.  Svetnoy Blvd is the equivalent of Fifth Avenue.  She also owned, she informed me,  two “dachas”.

Anyone who does not know what a “dacha” is cannot understand anything about life in Russia.  The word dacha derives from the Russian word for to give; they are pieces of property, in the countryside, given to the people by the Soviets to do what they wanted with.   For the average Russian, the year cycles around their dachas, which provide them with food, enjoyment, and fresh air.  Dacha season begins in May, when the crops are put into the earth, and runs through mushroom season, and ends sometimes after the fall berries have been picked and jarred and the apples and vegetables pickled.

Natalia is a middle class woman, who could easily sell her father’s apartment, her dachas and her father’s garage, and move into her smaller apartment and live out the rest of her years in frugal comfort.  She chooses not to do this, because she is “protecting it” for her only son, who will inherit not only her properties, but also his father’s apartment in Moscow,  his paternal grandmother’s home and dacha in St. Petersburg.  He really doesn’t have to work, and can live comfortably off his rentals.

So, imagine life where you do not really pay for rent or heating, where every summer and holiday, you can go for a vacation, in the country where, thanks to the policies of the Soviet Union, the vacation days and holidays are many; where you can only be so hungry because your closets are filled with preserved food.  When they are in need of money, my Russian babushka neighbors will go and stand in the streets and lay out their jars of pickles and jam which people are only too happy to buy.  Imagine being out of work and knowing that you will not be evicted because you can’t pay the rent.  Imagine then that health care is free and dental care is cheap. Imagine you need never worry about being homeless because somewhere in Russia is your family home in which you are entitled to live.  All this thanks to the policies of the Soviet Union .  Are people happier in America?  Well, if I were poor or unemployed or ill, I would be much happier right here in the former Soviet Union.

Mary Metzger is a New Yorker living in Russia

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