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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Choice? To Eat What's on Your Plate

During my first trip to America, I was struck by a certain television commercial that showed a baby sitting in his high chair, indifferent to the jars of baby food before him, while his cinematically irresistible mother -- patience and tenderness itself -- insisted that he choose one jar. Having come from Moscow, in 1992 -- where and when any food, let alone baby food, was hard to come by -- these advertisements seemed to me almost like blasphemy.


"In America, the biggest problem is making choices," my first American friend told me. At the time, her remark surprised me. But it no longer does. Now it makes me wonder about Russia.


Indeed, the absence of the "problem" of choice was one of the cruelest restrictions that existed in the former Soviet Union. It not only impoverished our lives -- it robbed us of ourselves.


We can begin by recalling some of the choices we Russians could not make.


Our world view: Each of us was forcibly baptized into the anti-faith. If a child showed signs of religious feeling, this was attributed to mental illness: The parents were called in and intimidated; the student was exposed to agitation by the school authorities and mocked by his classmates. To stand one's ground was no small task.


The social system: We were condemned to live and work in the name of building a mythical communism, about which we and our leaders had but the vaguest notion.


The government: Participation in sham "elections" with a single candidate on the ballot passed for our "civic duty."


Our place of residence: The institution of the propiska, or residence permit, bound us to the place where we were born or grew up. For decades, those who were born in rural areas had no internal passports and therefore no chance of moving to even the smallest town. Those born in provincial cities did not dream of moving to the capital: A Moscow propiska was virtually impossible to obtain. Needless to say, there were excellent reasons for wanting to move from the country to the nearest town, or from a small city to the capital: If life was bearable in Moscow and Leningrad, and hand-to-mouth in the provinces, people in the country went hungry. Yet even those lucky enough to have been born in Moscow or Leningrad could not just pick up and move. The fear of losing the precious propiska hypnotized them and rooted them to the spot.


Similar restraints applied within the city limits. We lived wherever the authorities put us. Marital status, personal tastes and income were not a consideration. To do something about one's living space, or zhilploshchad -- this official term took the place of more human terms such as "house" and "apartment" -- was far more difficult. Young people married, had children and continued to crowd into the same small room in which the husband or wife had grown up, with their parents on the other side of the wall. If the marriage broke up, there was no place to go: A divorced couple I knew continued to live in the same room, converting the bookcases into a partition. To what circle of hell would Dante have assigned this room? Certainly not to the first.


The impossibility of freely choosing where one lived led to the distortion of other important choices. How many marriages ended unhappily for the sake of moving to the city? How many skilled professionals turned down promising jobs in their field for fear of losing their propiska in Moscow or Leningrad? Conversely, how many enterprises and research institutes in these cities were unable to hire the best people because the best people did not have the requisite propiska ?


We were not free to choose our profession. Prestigious institutes accepted or rejected students on the basis of questionnaires, not academic performance. It did not matter if you were valedictorian of your class. If you were, heaven forbid, Jewish or related to a dissident, you were doomed to fail the entrance exams.


We could not choose where to go on vacation. Only top Soviet officials were permitted coveted trips abroad, while ordinary people knew better than to dream of such a thing: "The moon is closer than Paris. At least you can see the moon." Not that the Soviet Union lacked idyllic spots. But no matter how many resorts they built in the mountains or by the sea, there was somehow never enough room for ordinary people, such as my co-worker in a Moscow publishing house. I remember her pleading on the phone with an official for a pass to take a trip to the resort reserved for her work place. It was her turn to go and she was ready to pay the hefty sum involved. She desperately wanted to take her son to the sea. She flattered the official, groveled, humiliated herself. But her efforts were in vain.


We could not choose what we ate for dinner: "You go to the store, as if to the hunt, and what you catch is what is served" was the common lament.


We could not choose what to wear: You grabbed whatever you were lucky enough to find, whether it looked good or not.


An American Slavist friend of mine complained recently about guests from Russia: "They ask me to help them do their shopping but then cannot make up their minds and leave with nothing. They don't want to spend the money, I suppose."


But the money is not the problem. It is the endless choice. We Russians do not know how to choose. When the first Western stores appeared in Moscow, I set out to buy myself a decent pair of shoes. Hours later, I returned empty-handed. I was used to taking whatever I could get that fit: Style and color never mattered. But here was row upon row of size 33 shoes, flats and high heels, dark and light, open-toed and closed. To choose just one pair and thereby reject all the others was more than I could bear.


The ability to choose must be learned, just like any other.


But have Russians ever been able to choose? Have we ever really wanted to choose? Perhaps we should not blame all on the Soviet regime? Isn't there something in our thinking and our traditions that encourages indolence, resignation, a desire to be left in peace?


The baby in the commercial fussing over which jar of food to eat would gall most Russian viewers, even today: "Why all the fuss? That baby should eat what it's given." Certainly, there is no fussing -- and no right to choose.


The Soviet regime is not at fault here. It is we who, like walls, surround our children with endless attention. We deprive them of the ability to make their own decisions or take responsibility for themselves. We teach them that to choose is "to be hard to please," and that this is shameful. We instill the same submissiveness in our children that was instilled in us: "Eat what you are given."


Wasn't this the principle by which all of our lives were led? It is hard to know which came first: Did totalitarianism deprive us of the ability to choose, or did our inability to choose doom us to live under cruel, criminal and, in general, decrepit authorities?





Sophia Bogatyreva is a journalist and writer. She contributed this article to The Moscow Times.