Back in the USSR

I never got the meaning of that song.

“You don’t know how lucky you are?” Whose luck was it? The Brits’ and the Americans’ because they weren’t born there?

I was born in the USSR. Trust me when I tell you this: luck did not come into it.

Have you ever been hungry? Really hungry? Hungry because all you had for breakfast that morning was a stale piece of bread smeared with margarine? You needed the margarine, even if you did not want it. You had to get some fat content into your system to resist the temptation to eat the other piece of stale bread that your parent had packed in your schoolbag for later. Margarine in the USSR smelt like soap. A far cry from the ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ margarine of today. It smelt like soap, and it tasted like it too.

We did feel lucky. We had parents who went without so that we wouldn’t.

Last year an English friend of mine did a ‘survive on one pound a day’ challenge for charity. I made my contribution and left it at that. What I did not tell him was this. At the age of fifteen I got a thirty dollar-a-month scholarship to go to boarding school. One dollar a month. It smelt of independence (and maybe a little of margarine). I had never been so rich! My mother’s salary as a teacher was half that at the time.

I did not ‘survive’ on a dollar a month: it was more money than I had ever seen in my life.

Remember the old cliché writers are warned about: do not write ‘More than I have ever seen, ever had, ever – anything?’ Well… It fits the bill here (he-he, here’s another one).

When Latin American telenovelas flooded our three-channel-USSR screens, we watched amazed life in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the slums of Sao Paulo. Obrigado Brazil! It was not shock at their living conditions that kept us glued to the screens. It was envy. The favelas of Rio were a few clouds up from our respectable Soviet homes. What the rich had in those dream-peddling machines was exactly that to us: a dream, an illusion. But we could aspire to favela-chique.

I suppose we were lucky. Luckier than some. We had a roof over out heads. And we had enough stale bread in our belies to dream.

Then came the trucks. The truckfuls of second-hand clothes from the West. They were supposed to be handed out for free, but it became a thriving black market trade in no time. And we felt lucky. Sometimes you found a bargain. It still cost an arm and a leg, but at least you got some clothes on your back. And that was something. Sometimes they allowed you to keep the limb: ‘Buy one get the other half price’-style.

How we showed off with our new oldies! Now I get it. Vintage. We were lucky after all.

The West won the Cold War. The USSR fell. We had to pay for a loaf of bread the sum that would have bought a studio apartment a few days before – if buying apartments had been an option in our glorious USSR. Mind you. We got our bread. Fresh this time. At least the first slice was. We couldn’t go buying studio-apartment-loafs every day. That’s the reality of recession. “You don’t know how lucky you are.”

But that’s not the worse of it. It was raining men. And women. Old men and women to be precise. People who had broken their backs to save a little money, live out with a little dignity the last years of their lives. They lost everything. They jumped in their hundreds off the rooftops: Soviet legacies splattered on the broken-up asphalt.

Were they the lucky ones?

At least they didn’t get to see their granddaughters ripped from their villages and prostituted in Yugoslavia’s warzones. Yes. They were lucky not to live through that.

Capitalism – the type of capitalism that at least begins to resolve the problem of scarcity – is yet to arrive ‘back in the USSR’. What we have now, defies description. I can at least label it: Raging Wild-East Capitalism.

“Back in the USSR.

You don’t know how lucky you are.”

Cheers, Macca. You are a legend. But next time, please stick to what you know. Writers are forever told this. Songwriters should try it sometimes.

Confessions of a disgruntled Ape-wo-Man