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Blog: Life in the Soviet Union

By CNN's Debra Kocher
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(CNN) -- We landed in Leningrad in early September. The sun was golden. When you're that far north it has a funny way of slanting and casting everything in a glow that is hard to capture in photos or paintings.

I don't remember much about the first few weeks other than that we had to adjust to speaking, thinking, dreaming in Russian.

We all had at least one Russian roommate, lived in Leningrad State University dormitory housing, and ate at the student cafeteria. My roommate's name was Sveta. She came from the countryside, and we assumed she was there to spy on us. She was a heavy set farm girl, with a round face and pointy nose.

Our room furnishings were sparse. We each had a single bed, a stand up closet, and a desk. I particularly remember the radio on top of one of the closets next to the door. It was hard wired into the wall, and you could not turn it off, only down. There was something surreal about being woken up each morning with the Soviet national anthem. But we got used to it, just like we got used to all the other things we hadn't read about in the text books.

The cafeteria was always depressing. There was little or no fresh fruit or vegetables. The meat was inedible and usually unidentifiable. And the soup often had rotting potatoes and peels in it.

It didn't take us long to learn how to shop for ourselves in the government run stores, buying bread, cheese, onions and bringing them back to the dorm kitchen to make melted cheese sandwiches.

It became a running joke as we saw all the men in our group slowly disappearing into their baggy jeans and shirts, while the women struggled to button their trousers. We girls -- almost to the last -- gained ten pounds each or more. I was easily in the 20 pound category.

Buying anything in the store was always an adventure. First was the line to tell the salesgirl what you wanted to buy. She would sneer out at you, in her uniform and kerchief on her head, then grudgingly give you a chit of paper. You took that for payment in a new line.

At the head of that line, you would get the once over as the shop girl pondered why an obvious foreigner was buying Russia goods at a government store if they didn't have to. Then it was back into the original line with receipt in hand, to pick up your stuff, more often than not wrapped in old newspaper. All this while being jostled by angry, hefty, frazzled Russian women in a hurry.

We learned to bring our own shopping bags; the store did not provide them. I can't remember if they cost extra, or just weren't available. In any case, they were hard to come by.

The other option for shopping was going to a government owned so-called foreign currency store -- it was just for foreigners with hard -- read western -- currency. This was one of several ways Moscow cobbled together hard to come by western currency. The ruble was 1.5 to the dollar as I recall at that time, even though there was little to buy.

What we soon discovered, was that our dollars went a lot further on the black market. You could get 8, 10, sometimes even 15 rubles to the dollar. Better yet, you could trade or sell your jeans. With a pair of genuine Levis, you could name your price.

One of the most coveted items for trade was a Russian sailor shirt. The real thing -- a government issued blue and white striped, thick, boat neck jersey -- had invariably come off the back of a young conscript. By the time I left in January, I had bought three. I planned to give them out as gifts when I got home. All I had to do was figure out how I would smuggle them out undetected.

While we saw more than we wanted of our Komsomoli roommates, we sought out other, less approved of, friends. They were almost always the black marketeers we met on the street near the museums or any other locations frequented by foreigners.

You could tell who they were because they invariably spent their days lurking around places haunted by westerners, smoking cigarettes and waiting to whisper to you in their broken English. Dollars? they would ask; Jeans? They were fun, and felt more like us, and yet because they were identified by the police as being undesirables, we knew when we were with them that we were under constant scrutiny.

I celebrated my 21st birthday in Leningrad in late September with a lot of vodka and a few new friends. Later in November our group spent two weeks traveling and seeing other parts of this giant country.

We were at the infamous show of force that took place in Moscow every November 7 to mark the anniversary of the 1917 Revolution. The military might of the Soviet Union on parade. The civilian crowds were there with genuine pride.

It was, for me, one of the highlights of the four months. Three days in Yalta with the warmth and sun and the first fruit we had seen in weeks almost had us remembering what it was to be westerners again. But when we got back to Leningrad, the winter had set in, the short, gray days, and the long cold nights.

I was not unhappy to head home in January, after one of the oddest Christmases of my life. A Christian holiday celebrated Soviet style with gifts, and a tree, and a very concerted effort not to give any nod to religion.

We packed our bags days before it was time to go, in some pointless effort to make the time pass more quickly. They were bulging with matryoshka nesting dolls, Stolichnaya vodka, and what was, even then, very good Russian chocolate.

What I remember most was getting off the plane in Paris, 20 pounds heavier then when I had arrived, and looking even fatter than that. I was wearing all three of my thick Russian sailor shirts, under a turtle neck, and another sweater to hide them all. I'm not quite sure how there was even room to sit in the narrow Aeroflot seat I was assigned, but what I did know without any doubt was that I was bringing home one of the coolest Christmas presents ever.

First reflections on Moscow 2007 next.

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Read the first installment of Debra's blog: The road to Russia.

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Your comments

I think what Debra is saying is fair and honest. However, I would like to clarify some details and also ask a few questions, like when exactly she was in Leningrad. Life in a totally different country can be confusing sometimes.

I entered Leningrad's university in 1986, graduated, then immigrated to Canada in 1999, traveled a lot, now live in California since 2006.

Thanks

Mikhail, California
Monday June 25

Hi,

I am Russian, but I left Russia 17 years ago. The article about Soviet life by Debra Kocher brought me back to my student life in the late 80s and I was amazed by how well she captured the life in Russia of that period.

I was a student in the Institute of Geodesy and Cartography and I was laughing while reading the article, because I experienced the same things as Debra. However, at that time I didn't know about other life styles; so, bad service, not very fresh food, lack of fruits and veggies, and big lines everywhere were part of our lives. The media was set up by Russian communist government, in the way that we had a very little access to the information about western countries and it was basically all negative: hunger, wars, and strikes. That was all we knew about western life.

Thanks Debra,

I am looking forward to read other articles about Russia.

Natalia Grustilina, Ottawa, Canada
Friday June 22

Debra,

I look forward to reading your blog about the four months in the Soviet Union. I was in Moscow for five weeks in March, teaching a group of my students from Clemson, 1 from Penn State and 10 English-Speaking Russians at Moscow State Agro-Engineering University and really enjoyed my time there. Our students were there for the entire semester and often traveled home with their Russian classmates to experience their culture and see their homes (flats). Their schedules allowed them to stay for the May 11 celebrations.

This was my third straight year going to Russia and each year things seem to be changing greatly. My wife is from Russia, (an oblast named Smolensk -- we met at Penn State when she came to get her Masters) so my interests in this culture-rich country grow daily.

Dale Layfield, Clemson, South Carolina
Wednesday June 20


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"I don't remember much about the first few weeks other than that we had to adjust to speaking, thinking, dreaming in Russian."

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