10 Things That Were Part of Everyday Life in the Soviet Union

On the example of a small country in Nothern Europe

The line for coffee beans, 1988 (Photo/Henn Soodla, Estonian Film Archive)

Estonia, a small country in northern Europe, was under Soviet rule in 1940–1991. During that time and especially immediately before the Union's dissolution, money earned for one’s work was not the only prerequisite needed to obtain consumer goods or luxury items. The personal car was considered to be one of the most luxurious items a citizen could possess.

To obtain one, ordinary people had to wait on special lists kept by the trade unions for decades before they could finally make their purchases. Of course, one also had to have the required amount of money. State enterprises also organised lotteries to pick out the employees who would be awarded the right to buy a car within the quota allocated to that particular enterprise.

The same policies applied as far as the right to buy furniture and other consumer goods was concerned. Naturally, rules were different for those in power: they had cars, special shops, etc.

1. Planned economy

…an economy in which production, allocation of goods, prices, and incomes are determined centrally by the government

As the state decided how much goods were produced, things were usually either over (e.g. fruit puree) or missing (e.g. wieners).

2. Food stamps

In 1989–1991, shops in Estonia were as good as empty, and for the items in the shop to be more or less evenly distributed, people were given shopping vouchers.

There were vouchers for laundry, vodka, soap, washing powder, pasta, flour and all sorts of other goods, which citizens exchanged for food in the stores or with neighbours, colleagues or strangers on the streets.

Different food stamps; source: Jüri Kaljundi, Wikipedia

3. Finnish block

Like set-up box nowadays, the people of Tallinn and the North Estonians had it installed on the television to get an additional channel, making it possible to watch Finnish television programs. As a result, many also acquired the Finnish language.

Local shows were heavily controlled and filled with propaganda. There were also so-called Finnish antennas, which in the meantime were not allowed to be placed on the roofs of apartment buildings.

4. 101 kilometres

The unofficial expression used in the Soviet Union countries for women with loose lifestyles, thugs, alcoholics, and those whose political views or lifestyle did not suit the Soviet Union views were prohibited from living within 100 kilometres from the capitals or closed cities of the Soviet Union countries.

The closed city is a settlement in the former Soviet Union, to which access is possible only with special permits. In Estonia, one of these cities was Paldiski; at the time, it had a USSR Nuclear Submarine Training Center located in the city.

Unfortunately, the deportees did not intend to give up their current customs in their new place of residence and gladly introduced them to the locals.

5. Fish day

The fish day was a consequence of the planned economy. The fishermen caught more fish than was being eaten. But the Soviet Union' didn`t tolerate waste. Therefore a fish Thursday was set up.

Health scientists explained to the nation why it was useful to eat fish, and the whole Soviet Union smelled of fish on Thursdays. Even the catering companies were only allowed to offer fish dishes.

Fish day market; source: Georgi Tsvetkov, 1988 (Estonian National Archives)

6. Brezhnev package

The name comes from the Soviet-era leader Leonid Brezhnev (led Soviet union in 1964–1982). Food parcels distributed via their place of employment about once a week. In the morning, you could choose from three or four sets. In the evening, the packages were delivered by the authorities to the employees' workplace.

In most cases, they contained one of the goods, which were not usually available in shops, such as wieners, smoked sausages or green peas. But it also contained something that stood on store shelves, such as canned horseradish, canned sea cabbage or fish.

7. Currency store

Currency store sold what was in short supply in a regular store. Those who did not have a currency (possession of it was criminally punishable) could only dream of bananas. Usually, a regular citizen got into the shop when a foreign relative took him there and bought him something.

8. Tourist tickets

The workplace trade union committees distributed those tickets. Depending on the ticket, you could go to a holiday home, sanatorium or tourist base in a neighbouring country. Or to Poland, the German Democratic Republic or other social countries by tourist train.

Yugoslavia was a higher class travel destination. Being the semi-capitalist state, Sweden or Britain were even more sought-after destinations. Members of creative unions (writers, composers, etc.) had bigger opportunities to ensure travel prospects. A group leader supervised the travel company, and it was generally known, there was always a “group spy”.

Before going abroad, the traveller had to undergo a briefing. It was reminded not to be deceived by the shop windows because it is pure propaganda, and it was emphasized to eat properly with a knife and fork.

9. Vodka taxi

The Soviet Union struggled to fight against over-drinking by reducing vodka shops and limiting the store opening times. Taxi drivers benefitted from the situation (but also snowplough drivers), who stocked a car full of drinks and then sold it for twice the price.

10. Carbonated water dispenser

Widespread in the cities at that time. Carbonated water cost cents. Drink with a bit of syrup was slightly more expensive. Drinking machine users shared the glasses.

Carbonated water machine; source: Oskar Juhani, 1968 (Estonia National Archives)

Life in Estonia after the Soviet Union

After Estonia regained independence, the country fought its way out of soviet stained reputation. Being now one of the tech-savvy countries in Europe, maybe even the world. For example, a group of Estonians were fundamental in the invention of Skype, the online video call service, and 44 per cent of its employees are based in Estonia.

Tallinn is sometimes dubbed the Silicon Valley of Europe and has the continent’s highest number of startups per head of population.

Also, Estonia was the first country in the world to adopt online voting — back in 2005. Estonia has been a pioneer in converting public services into flexible e-solutions for its citizens and e-residents, even stating in some records that 99% of public services are available online 24/7.

The countries students scores in the top 10 in the PISA test. Estonia is the only country in the world that women currently lead: both the elected president, Kersti Kaljulaid, and the elected prime minister, Kaja Kallas, are female. Elected being the keyword here.

So even though Estonia is small and relatively unknown. The country has come out of the shadow of the Soviet era and stands in its own light, and has even become the trailblazer with its e-governance.

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