The Economic Machine
One of the characters in the book lives in the same apartment block as Alyosha. He saves up a lot of money over the years to move somewhere else and announces it to our protagonist — but due to family connections Alyosha has arranged for their apartment block to be demolished and for all the residents to be given free replacements. He hints at this to his neighbour but he still says he is moving. His reason struck me as very apt for a regime that uses material possessions to control people: “[Paraphrased an expanded] All our lives are controlled. They don’t actually sell us any of the food we eat and the clothes we wear, they give them to us. And there’s a huge difference. I want to own something that’s mine.”
The system essentially worked like pocket money: you worked and you were given these play tokens. Of course the Soviet promise was that everything was provided and money would become redundant. Unfortunately, only the second part of this double promise came true. For instance: yesterday, my boss who is also from Russia told me that financially, him and his wife were better off in their first month in Australia on unemployment benefits than in the USSR as a fairly senior engineer before they left.
Some examples from the novel: Ula’s thesis about an obscure Jewish poet is rejected because of anti-Semitism. So she sells it to a rich academic from another town who will rewrite it changing some of the specifics for the poet HE’s writing about and it will pass with flying colours. He gives her something like a thousand roubles, more money that she’s ever seen. I believe she earned less than a hundred a month. She spends it on a decent restaurant meal, more out of spite for the system than prudence. But that’s basically the arrangement: it was very common for say a winter coat (a necessity in say Moscow) to cost your entire monthly salary or more. Part of this was the country’s economic circumstance but a huge part was deliberate planning and [non]allotment.
Even for the elites it wasn’t much different. In his prime, Alyosha’s father was a top ranking Party elite involved in secret ops. He had access to anything he wanted, all at the state’s expense. He threw dinner parties with imported foods, caviars, ox tongues (a delicacy in the Soviet Union). He could holiday anywhere and would be allocated the most lavish quarters. Once, he had someone charter a plane to a southern Soviet city just to bring him some delicacy from a warmer climate. I forget which, it could have been almonds for all we know. In the novel however, he’s retired. On a high-ranking pension, this man must survive on about 7 roubles a day. True, he did benefit from the Soviet system in that he probably paid no rent. But that was about it: a restaurant meal would still cost hundreds of roubles and a winter coat would still be over 100.
What Can They Do?
The answer is best exemplified by Alyosha’s brother who, like Alyosha’s dad in his prime, has access to the best the Party can offer. He tells Alyosha that he can have anything he wants in terms of goods and services with absolutely no accountability. But they do not give him an extra rouble even though he’s a member of the elite. Why? Because this makes his current lifestyle his only security. And if they chose to Take his job away, he’d have absolutely nothing to fall back on. “And that’s why,” as Alyosha ponders, “there is absolutely nothing he won’t do to keep his position, even if his superior ordered him to choke me to death then and there.”
Of course they could do a lot more than that. They can almost entirely blacklist you from working. For of course, the notion of privacy especially in terms of your career is nonexistent (see a previous post). So if you get fired because of a Transgression against Party Lines, every future employer will know about it and pretty much no way of surviving. Ula’s auntie Pearl — a stereotypical Yiddish grandmother — experienced this predicament when her husband was imprisoned. When he returned from the Gulag, they could do nothing except illegal “bourgeois” activities like baking pirozhki and selling them at the markets like the worst capitalist speculators. Eventually Pearl saved up a fortune to buy a sewing machine and fix dresses for private individuals in her apartment. For cold, hard roubles. This was quite common throughout the Soviet period and was generally not a problem. But because they were blacklisted, when a local inspector found out, he fined them for anti-Soviet activity and confiscated the Instrument of Sedition, namely the sewing machine. At least this was post-Stalinist. They were in no danger of being killed.
The place where you lived was also obviously state-run. Just like in non-dictatorships, you might be enrolled in an electorate for voting, in the USSR you could only live in the apartment you were “enrolled” in. The introduction to the book mentions casually that the special ops god-men could thereby turn you out onto the street at any time by “unenrolling” you from your own apartment and not enrolling you elsewhere. This never happens in the book, but it’s a constant threat, the fact that they could do these things and even worse things because in their filing cabinet is a document with prescriptions for your whole existence.
Of course, this is all done amidst a tone of strict external civility. A key theme in the book is this mask of politeness that everyone is forced to wear. Everyone is in agreement. Ula’s manager calls her in and asks about the death of her mother — was she executed as a traitor? No, she was imprisoned by Stalin and survived the camps, and was posthumously rehabilitated after her death from a heart-attack. Good, says the manager, because there have been some rumours flying around. So of course, you’ll bring in her Certificate of Rehabilitation, agreed? Agreed.
As the authors themselves say — woe to the country where everyone agrees.