Life in the Soviet Union – Gendrik Vartanyan
Gendrik Vartanyan, 68, currently resides in Sherman Oaks. Having lived most of his life under the rule of the Communist Party, he remembers well of the times. Gendrik graduated from Yerevan State University in 1958. He immediately went to work as an engineer and became the manager of his section. He was later promoted to the supervisor of the factory. Gendrik lived a good life since he had a good job and was well paid. The picture on the left shows Gendrik's daughter playing with the dog in front of their house. After the fall of Communism, conditions forced Gendrik and his family to move to the United States. He retired after arriving in California in 1990 and has since been enjoying his retirement. Wile sitting in his bedroom, he recalls of the times of the Soviet Union:
Life in the Soviet Union was an interesting one. People lived quietly and were not as, how do you say it, free as people are here. Everyone had jobs and there were no homeless people. People got paid salaries and took care of their families. Salaries for some were not as high as other, but they learned to live with it and besides the salaries, some took home things from the factory and would trade with their neighbors for whatever they needed.
I have worked many jobs; most of them were high ranking jobs. I have worked as an engineer, supervisor, and head supervisor. I worked two jobs because I was trusted by the companies. I pay I received was more than enough. If you compared to US dollars, it was not a lot, but the things needed for everyday was not high so the pay was perfect. We also received tickets for food and sometimes clothing. These tickets were provided to good employees and others as well. However, because of there benefits, the workers were not allowed to strike. During the Soviet Union, workers did not strike because no one had any reason to. Everyone had work, which also came with benefits. Those not happy with their work, were not a lot, but they found ways to take care of their families. People worked two jobs, or extra shifts to make more money. Some, for example, working in candy factories, would take home candy and exchange it for something useful to them with their neighbors. People did this with bread, cloth, even construction nails. That gave them the extra help they needed. There was a lot of everything and there was not a lot of strictness toward factory workers.
Men and women were considered equals in the workplace. There was no sexism, only good and bad workers. Women might have been warned if their skirts were short or if their clothing was not appropriate. However, there was no law or rule that did not let them wear whatever they wanted.
The schools in the Soviet Union were excellent. Education was mandatory and there was no way to get out from going to school. Education was free and Soviet schools were among the top schools in the world. Along with free education, good students also received government money to help with their everyday lives.
Nearly five leaders changed during the time I lived in the Soviet Union. After Stalin there were so many. Some of them were Brejnev, Khrushchev, Kosygin, and Berea. The strongest leader was Stalin and his times were the strictest. Stalin was the strongest because he led Russia through a World War and he was strict. Whatever he said was followed because the punishments were harsh. The following leaders were not as strong as the ones before them and the country weakened with each leader. In the end Gorbachev became the leader and the Soviet Union fell apart.
During every show, parade, and carnival, a picture of the leader had to be present to show that the leader is present. Every person with an office had a picture of the leader on the wall to remind them that the most important person is the leader. In town squares, statues of the leader would be built.
During the Soviet times, there were a lot of newspapers. To name a few, Communist, the most widely known, Social Armenia, Avanguard, Armenia Nightly, then we had Call of Pioneers, added to that, each factory printed their own newsletters for their workers every month. Plus, we also received Russian newspapers that were available every week. All these newspapers went by the Soviet code. Whatever that was written in the newspaper had to be in favor of the Soviet Union or have nothing to do with the government at all. They could not write about anything bad that was going on at the times because the belief was that under Communist rule, nothing goes wrong because they are always right. Whenever a murder would take place, or a major robbery, the newspapers were not allowed to report on the story. It would just pass unnoticed. It’s not like here where when something happens, the media immediately reports on it and the people become aware of it. No, no such thing existed back then. I am 69 years old and I was not aware of trains derailing, or airplanes crashing before I came to the United States... (Laughs…).
The police back then was not that different from the police we have here, now. The only difference was that the police back then were stricter and physical punishment, beating up the suspect, was not a rare thing. The police would use the physical punishments a mean to get the person talking or tell the police about the details of the crime.
Bribes were taken. However, during Stalin’s times, people were afraid to have anything to do with bribes because the punishment for bribes was very cruel. When Stalin was in power, you could have applied for a job in a store and could have gotten it without a bribe, but after he passed away, the new leader did not concentrate on the bribe punishment as much. People sometimes had to bribe other to get something as simple as a job at a grocery store. But, while Stalin was in power, bribery was a very rare case. People were very scared of the police and that scare caused a lot of the crimes to stop. Even though the police had a lot of power, they did not arrest people for no reason. There were petty thieves, but the police never arrested an innocent person. The police were the same as the ones here, the only difference was when they caught a criminal, they could punish the criminal very harshly, and sometimes before the trial. It wasn’t like here when a police officer hits a person the whole story is shown on every new channel, newspaper, and radio. There was nothing like that back then. People knew that if they got caught, they were facing harsh punishment.
The elections were supposedly democratic, but there was already a person that was supposed to take the job after the elections. The people were told who to vote for. They did not even see who it was they were voting for. The person with the higher authority would say to elect this person, and the person would be elected, but they were called Democratic elections. There was no campaigning because the person was already elected.
The economy at the time was weak because of the reason that it was a new country and a new economy. However, everything was accounted for. The economists of the country were very good at the time. The country would set goals every five years. The factory directors needed to achieve those goals because after 5 years, new goals were set. In case the goals were not met, the directors would be released from their jobs. Every year economists would think of better ways to spend the government money and cheaper ways to produce some necessary things for the country.
Private businesses did not exist in the Soviet Union. Everything was either government owned or government taxed. Even a shoe repair person could not work for himself, he had to go and work at the factory. A tailor working from home paid taxes for the work. It was not like here, where you could open your private business and work. Nothing like that existed. Everything was government owned.
Everyday items were cheaper than the rest of the world. However, items that were not essential were very expensive. Bread, sugar, vegetables were sold for cents, whereas TV’s were sold for twice as much as it would have been sold here. Things that could be used for years were very expensive, because one was enough, but everyday items were very cheap. People, in order to buy cars signed up to get cars in two years or so. Furniture was also very expensive. If you wanted it to be delivered fast, you needed to bribe someone to move you on the list. This cost even more. There, an everyday essential was cheaper compared to here. The government understood that the people needed these things to live normal lives.
The fifty something years I lived in the Soviet Union, every year the government would decrease the price of goods and keep it low for a month. The reason for that would be because that month, the business would introduce more things and newer products and people would buy them for that year. It was not a big decrease, like in hundreds of dollars, but in regular, ten or twenty dollars. This helped the many people that could not afford a couple of things.
During its time, the Soviet Union would give aid, both financial and other, to near 43 countries around the world. It was in 1963 or so that a friend of mine said that Cuba opened a new university under Lenin’s name. Because of that, the Soviet Union would send millions every month to help the students with the studies. Near fifty million dollars in aid would go to African countries every month. They would make sure that the other countries thought good of them in case of anything. They would treat the people outside of the country better than the people inside. The bad side was that they did not let us have any connection with the west, America. If you had any affiliations with the country you could not get a job. We were curious about America though. We saw the movies and wanted to see what it was really about.
Interviewed by Nelli Ohanjanyan