An Interview with Irina Malenko, Author of Sovietica
[This interview was sourced from Ideological Fightback. Re-posting is for educational purposes and does not imply endorsement of affiliation.
Generally speaking, the USSR during the authors lifetime was not socialist. This is because it was no longer part of the movement for proletarian revolution. Instead it was led by a ruling class which eventually dismantled against the will of the masses the last socialistic elements of the country.]
Irina Malenko, the author of Sovietica, is interviewed by SYU, the Sinhala-language magazine of the Socialist Youth Union of Sri Lanka. The interview will be published in SYU soon.
Comrade Irina, we welcome you. At SYU, the magazine of the Socialist Youth Union of Sri Lanka, we thought of having a special kind of conversation with you.
All our education was completely free and of very good quality. We also had various after-school clubs, could play sports or learn to play musical instruments absolutely free of charge. There were special things for children, like children’s summer camps, children’s cafes, children’s railroads, children’s stations for nature lovers (where kids could practice gardening) etc. etc. Too many things to name in a short interview!
My parents got divorced when I was only two years old, and my mother moved back to her parents. Until I was seventeen, I was living in the same house with my mother, my grandparents and my uncle (my mother’s youngest brother). My grandparents were retired factory workers. My uncle who was (and still is!) my best friend – is an economist.
Our life was very secure, safe, in a quiet, non-stressful environment, absolutely free of drugs, with virtually no crime. There was quite a lot of social control: if somebody was doing something wrong, his colleagues or neighbors would set him right. Every adult was in employment, except for disabled people, family care providers — if they wished to stay at home — and retired people. Retirement age was fifty-five for women and sixty for men.
Soviet people were also the most literate people in the world. All art was very easy to access. Libraries were free of charge. Books, theater plays, concerts, museums, and exhibitions were extremely cheap.
We had a guaranteed right to housing, the right to have a job, and the right to have a paid holiday. Housing costs were extremely low. People paid only for water and electricity, just three or four percent of their wages in total. The state would give people apartments free of charge, for life, and their children could stay to live there, but you were not allowed to sell it. Public transport was extremely cheap too, as well as food. Children’ clothes and shoes were subsidized by the state. Schoolbooks were supplied free of charge.
I can go on and on about our life…I tried to describe it in as much details as possible in my book, Sovietica, because today’s young generation already doesn’t know many of these things. They find it hard to believe.
The main thing about our upbringing was that we were taught from an early age before doing anything to think how our actions will affect the others around us, to take others into consideration. This is what I am still doing today, despite the fact that I now live in a capitalist society. This is just the way I am, as a Soviet person.
Q – In our country, Sri Lanka, it is very common that, besides parent and children, the grandparents of the children also live together in the same house. Even though the relations among neighbors are declining greatly in urban areas, that is not the case in village areas. They still maintain a close relation with neighbors and the community. How was your family in this regard? What was the nature of relations among peoples in your home area when you were a child? We think that there must have been a grandmother or a grandfather who taught you many stories, who encouraged your writing ability so much!
Yes, it was very much the same way in the Soviet Union! Most people lived together in an extended family, several generations in the same house, and it was great, especially for the kids! My grandparents played a vital role in my upbringing, both of them.
My grandmother spent the most time with me because she was a housewife already at that stage (after her factory work). She was a quiet woman with a strong personality whom we all listened to, even though she never raised her voice to us. She was patient, intelligent, with a strong set of moral values, and we all tried to live up to the standards that she brought us up with. She would read me stories and sing songs from my early age.
My grandfather stopped working when I was three. He would look after the house, do all repairs, work in the vegetable plot that we had. He would also make up stories for me and take me to pick mushrooms in the forest and to fish. He and my uncle were a good replacement for my father, so that I did not miss a male role model in my environment.
Neighbors were also very important. There was a family in our street with six children (the family of my best friend). Their mother worked full time, and they did not have grandparents, their father was doing his own things. The kids were often in the street by themselves. But the whole street looked after them. In the West, where I live now, neighbors would just call social workers, and the social workers would come and try to take these children away from their parents, thereby destroying their lives. This is what happens under capitalism, and this is what they call “care”! But it was in the Soviet Union that people really did care. They would give those kids food, sometimes clothes and would keep an eye on them.
And today all these six kids are doing fine. They all have their own families. They all work. I often wonder what would have happened to them if they had grown up under capitalism. I think they were very lucky that they didn’t! We all were lucky, extremely lucky!
As for writing, I decided to become a writer at the age of five, when I was already able to read and wrote my first “book” (about adventures of a little girl called Vika – a compilation of the stories told to me by the sister of my grandmother who spent all her weekends with us and was also a very important person in my life). The very first book that I read was Uncle Tom’s Cabin - and it is since then I have a burning feeling of the need to fight for justice.
Q – Did you attend a pre-school? What kind of a place it was for kids? What were the attitudes of the teachers to the kids?
Yes, I did, for a while, when I was three or four years old, and my mother started her first job. The pre-school place belonged to her factory. She paid a certain percentage of her wages for my full time stay there (from 8 AM till 6 PM, including three hot meals per day). It was a very warm and cozy place; the teachers were trying to teach us how to be part of the group and also the main political things about our country. Also we had music lessons, a lot of toys and a lot of outings to the park. My only problem was that I was a very shy child and found it difficult to make friends. This eventually led to the offer of my grandparents to look after me full-time rather than me going to the pre-school, when I was five.
Q – In your childhood days what things were available to children in Soviet Union? Talk about storybooks, cartoons, kid’s movies and sports available to you? How were kids protected? Here, in Sri Lanka, we experience horrible level of child abuse, and it’s growing at alarming rate.
Everything was available! We had whole publishing houses working specially on children’s books; there was an enormous amount of cartoons and feature films produced especially for children; there were daily radio and TV programs for kids, also weekly programs that we were all waiting for, such as “Visiting the Fairy-Tale” with a new fairy tale feature film every week.
All sports clubs were fully free of charge. Kids were encouraged to attend them, and the best ones were selected to go to sports schools, that is why the USSR was so strong at sports at the Olympics, because of the wide base for sports for everybody. I was shocked to see in a film that the father of the US figure skater Tai Babilonia was forced to have three jobs in order to pay for her skating lessons! In the cinema there were special kids mornings, with kids films shown and tickets with discounts; often the whole classes attended them.
We also had Pioneer’s Palaces for various after school activities, in accordance with your own interests. All kids got swimming lessons as part of the school program. The state would heavily subsidize all things for children, including clothes, books, toys, childcare, you name it. And that is why for most people – having children was a joy and not a burden. The only thing that limited family size was the sizes of the apartment.
As for protection of kids, child abuse was virtually unheard of, and not because “it was not reported,” but because the vast majority of the adults were mentally healthy people and would not even get an idea to harm a child. We were told by our parents not to take sweets from strangers and not to go anywhere with strangers, but no one ever approached us with anything like that; and I would play with my friends the whole day outside, without much supervision. There was only one case of a child murder in my city (500,000 inhabitants!) in twenty years, and it was done by the child’s mentally disturbed mother. There were no homeless kids. Every child went to school, and if a child was wandering streets alone, the first adult would ask him where his parents were and what was he doing there and then bring him home.
Q – How was your school life? What kind of a school was it? In our country there is a big competition for getting a child into a ‘popular’ or a ‘leading’ (which means schools better facilitated and privileged) school. In the Soviet era, was there a big competition among children? How was the after-school private-tutoring classes system?
In the USSR there was only one school system, the same school for everybody, so there was no competition for entering different types of schools. At first, only eight years’ schooling was compulsory, and then ten years became compulsory. Some children could leave school after eight years, if they wished, but then they would go to a college where they would learn a trade and they would still complete the very same ten years school program within their college.
It was a system where really and truly all children, regardless of their background and their abilities, received the same opportunities. The only different type of schools was special schools for disabled children with special needs. There were also schools where one subject was studied more in depth than the rest – math schools or foreign language schools, for children who wished to go there.
The only competition that we had as children, was to get the best marks – between the groups within the class . We were usually divided into three or four “links,” groups of four or five kids, each with its own elected leader. Usually the best pupils would help the weakest ones after lessons with their homework. That worked fine, instead of any private tutoring. The best pupils saw it as their duty to help the weakest ones.
Only in the last school years some children would get private tutoring in order to pass entrance exams to the university – if they felt they were not good enough in the subject. I took private tutoring in French in my last school year for a couple of months. But, unlike in the capitalist West, private tutoring was not encouraged.
Q – Merely passing exams is not enough to educate a person. How did your school support you in creating a Soviet personality? How did righteous attitudes about life, about mankind, about nature, and about other people become rooted in you by your school and your society?
In Soviet schools, from an early age, we got many lessons in patriotism. War veterans and even one lady who met Lenin in her youth would come to our school to talk to us and to tell us their stories. We also had Great Patriotic War games and singing and marching competitions. Children in Soviet schools would look after elderly lonely people and help them after school with their housekeeping, shopping, cleaning and other tasks. This movement was called “Timurovtsy, ” followers of Timur, after the famous children’s book Timur and His Team by Arkady Gaidar.
Older children within the school would look after younger ones, visiting them weekly and doing various tasks with them (they were called leaders or guides). Once a week we had a class hour – an hour after lessons where we had discussions on various topics of human life and attitude to it. Working together as a class and helping on the collective farms during the harvest time also helped to shape our spirit. The school would bring us up with respect for other people’s work. For example, we were taught to never throw a piece of bread on the ground, because bread is the fruit of other people’s hard work. Also, all the schoolbooks on literature were full of positive examples of behavior for us.
As for nature, we had Young Naturalists groups that would lookafter local forests and parks. Some schools had “a living corner” where animals lived and children were taught to look after them. If any young Pioneer or Komsomol member did something wrong, the typical way to deal with it was to discuss his or her behavior by the whole class, and the whole class would decided on what measures to take to amend his ways, and voted for those measures democratically.
Q – The capitalist system not only destroys children physically by diseases and wars, but also it makes the children miserable by invading their minds. It trains them to judge everything according to market theory and practice. Give us a few examples used by the Soviet system to create righteous attitudes in youth?
Attitudes such as “making money,” “making a profit,” “everything has its price” etc. were considered to be deeply disgusting. Not only in Soviet films and books were those with such attitudes to life ridiculed, in real life too, we were taught to help others around us without expecting anything in return.
Moreover, there was no pornography. It was illegal to bring it from abroad, and nothing of pornographic nature was ever shown on TV and in the films. When I was confronted with it for the first time in the Netherlands where I moved to live after my graduation, I was crying for many years. I felt personally humiliated when I saw that such things were available for sale and I could not (and I still cannot, even after twenty-three years) understand how Western women who are supposed to be free and liberated, tolerate this enormous, overall, non-stop humiliation of us all in capitalist society and do not even protest against it.
Humiliation of women, along with attacks on them, started in the last years of the USSR, under Gorbachev, around 1988-1989. It was directed from above, by allowing “erotic” scenes in the films and “erotic” magazines. Our girls were bombarded by messages about how “cool” the life of a prostitute was – and that too, came from the Gorbachev-led traitors group of party leaders. And it was deeply shocking to us.
Here is a small extract from my book on the subject of the safety of the Soviet streets in comparison with Russia today:
.. When I was six, mum brought me to Moscow; she managed to get tickets for the American ice show «Holiday on Ice». We returned home after that show with the night stop train. The carriages were empty; I slept in my mum’s lap almost the whole way. Then we walked home across the whole city at 4 A.M.! The summer night was marvelous – warm and quiet. It was so fantastic, and nobody was afraid of anything or anyone.Sometimes we came across occasional passers-by, courting couples or workers returning from the night shift, and no one had the idea of attacking someone for some infamous purpose. It is only now, under capitalism, that those «liberated» democratic apes really do not understand: how could one miss such a chance and not rape or rob a woman with a child, if they happened to be in your way alone in the evening? As one film critic said recently, completely seriously, «a transition took place in our society, from the Soviet mentality to the norm»!” – that is, the capitalist norm!Recently, I came across this little story on Internet: “1983, a student party in Moscow. One of the foreign students who is from a rich family, is drunk and begins to berate our country and its traditions. The complaints of this person were of such nature: ‘Here I am, already drunk and enjoying myself and now I want a woman. I have a lot of money (he gets it out of his pocket and shows to others). In any normal country, it would be enough just to flick my fingers, and I would get what I want, but in the Soviet Union, if I offer money to a woman on the street or here in the student house, I can only get a slap in the face – in fact, you all are crazy!’
Nobody wanted to argue with him, everybody just laughed at this clown. That was when I felt an enormous pride for my country and for our women. And I was proud that, of all the countries in Europe and the Americas, our country is the most normal one.
I remember being on a train with a child of such a mixed marriage. I asked him: “Who is your father?” “An Uzbek” “And your mother?” “Ukrainian”. “And you?” “And I am Russian!” I was brought up in the environment where it was perfectly natural and normal to date somebody who was of a different ethnic and even racial background. The only thing difficult to accept for people was somebody dating a foreigner, because that was seen by some as a betrayal of the country as it implied that you wanted to emigrate to the capitalist world.
My first boyfriend was Ethiopian fellow student, so sometimes I had a hard time because of that. But I never even for a moment thought about his religion (he was a Muslim), it was completely unimportant to me. My ideal was to meet a revolutionary from another country and together with him to build a better world.
As I already mentioned, all places where you could practice a sport, were completely free of charge for everybody. Also, training up to the highest, Olympic level was free of charge. At school all kids were expected to pass certain sport targets in running, swimming, skiing etc., the so-called “Norms of Readiness for Labor and Defense.”
Fashion wasn’t that important for me. I preferred books and music records, but for other girls fashion was important. The only thing you were not allowed to do, was to use makeup when you were still in secondary school, because you were still a child and school was not the place to show off your outfits, except for when we had a school disco. For a disco you could wear make-up and any fashionable dress. Most of our girls could sew their own dresses, and we were getting proper sewing lessons at school too.
And I already mentioned the school disco. It wasn’t just Soviet music we were listening too, we were also listening the best of pop-music from different countries in different languages. It was available through radio and TV.
Q – Explain the Soviet education system and your university life, based on your experiences? What facilities were given you? How were your university teachers?
The Soviet education system was very straightforward. Ten years of the same state school for everybody. Three years of primary and seven years of secondary, with no exams in between them and all children remaining in the same class until at least the eighth grade. After the eighth grade we had four exams, but they would not determine who would go further and who would leave the school. It was up to the child and his parents to decide this.
Some children were not academically inclined and were keen to learn a trade after the eighth grade. But even they had to complete the full ten-year secondary school program within their chosen professional school.
Some weaker pupils just stayed at school until the end of the tenth grade, despite their exam results. No problem. After the tenth grade we all had final exams. The average grade point on them was important for your entrance exam to university, if you chose to go to university. Seven in total, all the same for everybody.
There was usually “The Last School Bell” party before the exams and the final farewell party after the exams. In my case we went to the local amusement park, which was open the whole night for the occasion, and we all – school leavers from all the schools in the city – could use all the amusement rides for free on that night. Nobody was drunk, there was no disorder, and it was the most memorable and enjoyable night. After that you had a month’s break. Then some of us went straight to work and some continued to study.
The universities had entrance exams system (four in total), based on the school program. University studies were five years for everybody (no such thing as “Bachelor” and “Master”), six years for future doctors. All university studies were fully free of charge and we would even get a stipend (grant) from the state: around forty rubles, more in some universities and more for excellent students who passed their exams with A marks, for the whole following term after that.
To give you an idea how much it was, a place in a room in student housing (usually two or three people in a room) cost twenty-four rubles for the whole year, including all electricity and water and other utility bills and even the use of furniture, tea kettle and bedding, which was laundered and changed free of charge for us every two weeks! The study books you could just borrow in the university library totally free of charge for the whole term. What else would you need to study properly without worries – in such conditions?
But I wanted to do post-graduate studies. I worked for three months and then asked my employer to give me a leave for the entrance exams to the post-graduate course, which he did. I passed these exams and had a choice of two different postgraduate places One of them was the dream of my life! But, by then, the country started disintegrating, and I left…
Q – How do you compare the qualities and behavior of Soviet youth then and today’s Russian youth and the social environment that they live in?
To put it plainly, the difference is shocking. I think you know yourself what youth is like under the evil spell of capitalism, so that I don’t have to describe to you the damaged nature of far too many of them. I have tried to describe in this interview what Soviet youth was like. Young Russians of today and the Soviet young people – it even feels like two completely different nations.
The sad thing is that the majority of today’s Russian youth, brainwashed by today’s poor-quality education and the capitalist media, virtually knows nothing about life in the USSR or Soviet values anymore. The good thing, though, is that more and more young people are starting to think about our tragic reality of today. Sooner or later most of them find their way to our Soviet roots and start looking for answers.
The interest in socialism and the USSR today is incomparably higher than it was ten or even five years ago, and it is growing rapidly. I can honestly say that I met some young Communists in Russia and other former Soviet republics in the last few years who made me believe in a bright future for our country again!
Q – In your young age did you enjoy your life? Did you and your generation get opportunities to study, travel, music, parting, playing etc. without any discrimination?
I most certainly did, and how! Really, all roads in life were open for us. I already spoke of education, sport and leisure. The same applies to travel. Ours was the biggest country in the world; it would take a lifetime to visit all its places, with all their rich cultural variety. The train and plane tickets were very affordable, and students and school children paid half-price as well. The public transport net system was wide and well-developed.
Usually when you mention USSR and travel, the first response you get: “But you could not travel abroad!” This is not entirely true either. You could travel abroad, but the process was long, you would have to go through a few interviews, to make sure that you would represent our country abroad in a proper manner and behave with dignity.
And, after all, if I was given the choice: to travel abroad (only for a few people because at present less than ten percent of Russians in the capitalist Russia can afford it!) or to enjoy free education, healthcare, no unemployment, safety for women and many more other advantages of socialism, it is clear what choice I would make!
And the longer I live and compare my youth with the reality of today, both in Russia and in the West, the more I realize how enormously lucky we were that we had the opportunity to experience Soviet socialist life! As I say in my book, “If I were asked to describe capitalism in one word, I would probably choose the word “bestiality.” This fully applies to post-Soviet Russia and its spiritual mentor – the so-called “developed” countries. If I were asked to describe socialism in one word, I would choose the word “inspired.” That is what we experienced during the Soviet era: if not every day, then at least very often.”
Q – How did Soviet society treat and mold girls? What kind of moral and social ethics and behavior were used to shape you?
Soviet girls were brought up with self-respect and dignity. These were the two qualities most valued in us by society. The vast majority of girls did not smoke or drink alcohol – not because somebody forced them not to, but because it was considered to be disgusting in itself.