Personal Profile/Opinion: Looking Back at Life in the USSR, 1966

credit: Don Ritter
Don Ritter (far left) visiting the USSR in 1966, with his wife Edie and a local acquaintance. Note the “red” poster of Lenin.

Tessa Loverro ('22)

STANWICH ROAD/REMOTE- OPINION- Gray colors.  People watching your every move.  Fear in everyday life.  It isn’t just a conspiracy theorist’s life, a bad movie, or some paranoid person’s reality.

This was life in Soviet Russia.

As the second generation comes of age which was born after the Cold War, a 45-year ideological, scientific, military, and lifestyle rivalry between the United States and her Western allies and the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc nations, there seems to be a lot of forgetting – or perhaps never knowing?- about what communism meant for human rights and dignity.

Don Ritter, 80, is my grandfather and he was in Russia in 1966, when the Berlin Wall was new and nuclear missiles were primed.  

But maybe it wasn’t that bad under communism.  Even first generation children of immigrants from Romania, Hungary, Poland and the former Yugoslavia can get swept up by the cliches.  Everyone had health care, after all.

“Reality was that in Russia people were living with thousand pound weights on their shoulders, the air was thick with fear, and people were afraid to look at you in the eye,” Dr. Ritter, who also served in the House of Representatives, said in an interview originally intended to be an honors project in history class.  He was in Congress for 14 years representing Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional district.

Dr. Ritter says that we tend to romanticize the life millions had to lead by force: no freedom to worship, speak, assemble or protest.  Voting?  Sure.  There was one party.

“So many political correspondents in the U.S. liked the idea of communism but did not actually experience it for themselves like I did,” he told me.

Most striking, perhaps, were the bare shelves obscured by photos in the windows of fresh vegetables and produce.

“The shelves were actually empty. If there was a shipment of fresh produce/meat, there would be a gigantic line.  This was an outcome of government planning which did not take actual economic, agricultural or scientific concepts into account.  The government had all the answers even if math said no.

“Everyone would just jump in the queue because whatever was inside had to be valuable and rare.”

The old adage is that communism makes everyone equal: equally poor. 

Yet the government officials and those who swore an oath and could benefit “the party’ (ie the Communist party which was typically the only legal one) would live very well: estates and plenty of foreign currency and products.  Levi’s blue jeans were a particular treasure.

Central planning would decide supply and demand, even if reality interfered. 

“[They] ended up making millions of shoes (and other goods) of such poor quality. Government planning destroyed the market – there was no competition; what the government made, you could possibly get.”

Most stark was the idea that achievement was not rewarded.  The cab driver and the teacher were paid the same, not because of market value, but because a political person said so.  This leads to corruption and backroom dealings.  Doctors were bribed – under the table capitalism – which meant that in fact, health wasn’t equitable, and maybe worse, of really poor quality.

“They treated people as if they were all the same.” Not equal.  The same.  There is a big difference.

And then there was the spying: not of one government of another, but of the Soviet government of its own people.  This was meant to keep order, but ended up, as it always does, taking people’s rights to protest, demand change, or even pray for it.

“The secret police (KGB) would buy off leadership of churches and destroy tens of thousands of churches. The new religion was communism. Moses, Buddha, Christ, Mohammad– they all conflicted with/demanded loyalty to something that was not the Soviet state and so were considered subversive.”

This reality was seen by relatively few Americans and fewer still among the young even know.  This is a good reason to keep our memories sharp and our senses attuned to governmental overreach, a worry that crosses political lines in the U.S.

Tessa Loverro is a rising junior who enjoys politics, history, learning about psychology, and spending time outdoors with friends. This story was based on an interview with her grandfather which was originally an Honors project for history class.