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My Life As a Soviet Citizen: Vladimir Samarin

Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin
Me, Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin.

My name is Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin, and this is a little bit of my story, which in my early years was a story about life in the Soviet Union.

I was born in Moscow in 1970. As proud as I am to be from the capital city though, there was a chance for me to get have had another “Place of birth” on my birth certificate. This was so because my father worked as an interpreter at the construction site of the Aswan Dam and other joint Soviet-Egyptian ventures, from Cairo. But for reasons I only knew of much later on, my parents decided I had to be born at home—and as an obedient child, I had no vote then.

My Dad Vladimir and Mom Elena with me in Cairo, in 1971.
My Dad Vladimir and Mom Elena with me in Cairo, in 1971.

My Mom presented me to Dad on station in Cairo, some months after my birth. So it was, that my first trip outside the USSR began in 1971. Though I was too young to remember anything, it I can trust to believe witnesses, my parents and their friends, as to the things that transpired then.  Of this I am absolutely sure, Cairo was quite a different city back then, in comparison with what it is now. As chance always seems to have its way in life, early on some exercises at a playground in Cairo christened me with a case of amoebiasis to my then thin medical record back then, the affliction tasking doctors and my parents for some time, in order to relieve me from that unpleasant disease.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin
Me in 1975, please forgive the fact the photo appears grainy. It is in fact the textured paper that caused this effect.

By way of an interlude here, as far as I know, people remember themselves usually from the age of 4 to 5 years, and I am apparently no exception to this rule. So in 1975, I started my journey of detailed recollections. What a happy year it was—in many regards.

I can vividly remember the very atmosphere then, as bright, transparent and joyful. I recall my loving and caring parents, both young and active, and my grandma (mother’s mom, a widow herself: my mom’s father died 10 years before my birth) we lived with, as well as frequent visits from my granddad. As for other people around me, they all seemed to be happy as well. But it is only now I understand why there was such an atmosphere surrounding those days.

First of all, this time was 30 years after the Great Patriotic War (a part of WW2 with the USSR participation in the European theater) finished, and most of its wounds and scars somehow (miraculously) healed or repaired. I have to mention here, that a war was then, and is now, the only real fear of the Soviet people. All of us back then, we remembered quote well, the losses and devastation of WW II.  So it was, that when Valentina Tolkunova (a popular singer, 1946—2010) sang “Were There Not War”, all Soviet citizens identified, and wept. I noticed for the first time, tears from the eyes of adult people, both men and women, surrounding me. And so I also learned, that there are cases when tears are not shameful even for a man.

Departing from this idea of sadness for the moment, the reader will want to know, that in 1975 Soviet people enjoyed a peaceful life, and that life itself was steadily and constantly improving under the wise guidance of the Communist Party (CPSU), and under the personal oversight of its General Secretary comrade Brezhnev.

For the second part, the Cold War had almost lost its intensity by this time. The policies of détente produced visible fruits such as the Helsinki Accords, the Soyuz-Apollo joint spaceflight, and the fears of WW3 seemed to be far, far away. So we found it true, that where there is less fear, there is more happiness. Although, at about 5 I was unable to understand all these things. Still, I was able to feel and remember the atmosphere back then. I am sure you will recall your own childhood similarly. 

T. V. Samarin and Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev
My father V.T. (Vladimir Timofeyevich) interpreting Brezhnev, October 1980.

Then there was a common feeling of "tomorrow", and how it would be surely better than today; this was at the peak of Soviet Socialism. The people were assured of their future. And it was in this time my parents bought a “cooperative” flat — with a kind of Soviet dwelling credit — people had to pay half the price of a flat, which was pretty high. The other part was paid by the state, and owing to my father earning enough abroad (other people could afford it, working for way greater wages and salaries in the North, or Siberia), we got it, and then had to pay its price monthly for 15 years, until it was paid. Another way was to wait for a new flat in a queue — but it could take a long time, years, because your place in this queue depended on many variables, including quantity of children, existing dwelling, etc. Anyhow, when I speak about being sure, it is something quite difficult to understand for foreigners. This Soviet version of security invoved; job, dwelling, education (all kinds) and medical services (all kinds) as constitutional rights. Furthermore, having no job for more than three months was actually a crime. So this aspect of "security" bore a special value. 

You might also like to know about "school days" in the USSR. I remember in 1977 I went to school, and soon became an “Oktyabryonok” — “Octoberite” (in the name of the Great October Socialist revolution), kind of mass political organization for the youngest members of society. The rules were simple (and universal): “An Octoberite studies well, helps seniors, behaves good”, and etc. Later on at age 10, in the 4th form (grade) I became a young pioneer, which meant (among other things), that I got the right to wear a pioneer scarf of red silk around my neck. This was the second grade of political involvement, and our slogan was “Be ready to fight for the Communist Party business!”, to which we should respond “Always ready!”. Yet the general idea of the movement was quite simple, close to that of Octoberites.

 

Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin
After taking the military oath of service in the armed forces, on the same day, with Mom, Dad, my sister and I.
As collectivists, we were taught that communal, social interests had higher meaning than personal, private ones. So it was, as the years passed, up until age 35, I understood (and do understand) one simple thing: "if all people of a state undertake their personal, private interests as something more valuable that the general good — this will soon spell the end of the state as a body.

4th grade brought a new subject into my world, when I began to learn the English language. Back then I couldn’t know this knowledge would bring me money in life, and I cannot say I was among the best pupils then either. You see all Soviet schoolchildren learned a foreign language, which was usually either English or German. But there were special schools for French, Spanish, and Chinese too. Unfortunately (for me), the approach to teaching languages was too scholarly in my opinion. We were so afraid to make a mistake in orthography of grammar, that it often prevented us from delivering the intended message. I was happy when I succeeded to break down this wall, and in later years I understood that native speakers sometimes make mistakes themselves — but no one seems bothered in English, as long as thoughts are properly communicated.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin
Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin (me) in 1990 while I was in the military.

Turning 14, and like most people of my age, I entered the Comsomol, which was a  kind of Soviet Young Communists League (literally, the Communist Union of Youth). One could keep membership in this organization till age 28, and it was kind of serious adult political force and a tool of education. Comsomol bosses later took a great deal of criticism and heat after the USSR came down. Such persons, like the infamous oligarch Khodorkovsky (Russia) or Turchinov (Ukraine) are children of the Comsomol bureaucracy.

At my final formal grade, which at that time was the 10th (now — 11th), I decided to get a higher education in the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies at Moscow State University. Unfortunately I failed the entrance exams in 1987, and had to go straight to work (being jobless was a crime in the USSR, remember). It was an old friend of my Mom, who helped me then, and I got a pretty useful experience working at the Moscow City Committee for State Statistics. It was here that my math abilities got considerably stronger. Then, on my second attempt to enter the MSU, I failed yet again. 

Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin
Diploma burning a hole in my pocket, I head out into the professional world

So, being age 18, I was obliged to get to military service, which was obligatory for all men then. Not as favorable a profession as in past times, in those days many young men preferred to escape from this “honorable duty” (one of the ways was to get a certificate of… mental disability). Not predisposed to be labeled a lunatic, the following two years brought me a wonderful experience of exercises with AKM (people abroad usually call it AK-47, but in fact Soviet Army since 1950-s used a modified version AKM or smaller caliber AK-74 and their variants), to obeying orders, and to coexisting with many ethnicities of our huge country. In our small barracks alone were housed Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Tadjiks, Byelorussians, Georgians, Azerbaijanis, Liethuvans, Latvians, Estonians, and even Soviet Germans and Koreans. And they call America a land of diversity. 

It was here I was trained as an aircraft serviceman in Novograd-Volynsky (Ukrainian SSR, Zhitomir region), and later was sent to a regiment placed close to Daugavpils (Latvian SSR). Our regiment had MiG-27 fighter-bombers — a fact that had a special meaning for me. Interestingly, my grandfather was an academy-mate and friend of Artyom Mikoyan, the man behind the legend of the MiGs. Since there is no more training unit, nor regiment, nor even fighter-bomber forces existing in Russia, I do not disclose any state secret here.

So it was, that in November 1990,  I came back home with decent recommendation letters of my commander and Comsomol unit, and entered the preparation faculty of my chosen Institute.The only thing that spoiled this unveiling promise, was that the USSR I came back to had altered greatly from the country I had left in 1988. This was about the time of my grandmother's death (in the image below). You see the people at the top of the big houses, they'd apparently made the decision to kill off the USSR! We had had accidental deficits of various products before, but I had never come across a systematic lack of basic food stuff for sale, nor a lack of clothes, or shoes, or even cigarettes, beer, and vodka! For me, the upheaval of this time was not only shocking, but mysterious. This was especially exacerbated on the grounds there was a considerable increase of wages and salaries. This "imbalance" of logic, it could only lead to disturbances and mistrust etc.

Soviet times
The only color photo of my father with the family in London (summer 1949). To the left is Valentina Samarina (1944—2009), sitting on her left is Tatiana Samarina (1943—1953), and the heart and mother of the family Anna Samarina is at center (nee Neklutina, 1912—1988), Standing behind is my future father Vladimir (1945—2009), on the right sits his father Lieut.-Col. Timofey Samarin (1910—1980).

Even so, March 17, 1991 there was the crescendo of Soviet democracy: the referendum on the future of the USSR. I can only hope you still remember my statistic experience; I like exact figures. Out of the entire Union electorate of 185.6 million people, some 80% took part in the referendum, or almost 148.6 million. Even though some republics tried to sabotage it (Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldova), still some 113.5 million voted for the preservation of the USSR; and 32,3 million voted against. So much for majority ruling. And what is the price of the meaning expressed in the most democratic way possible? Null. Because the USSR was in fact destroyed less than half a year later.

Regardless of fallen empires and real rules of unions, in October 1991 I started my University classes. My subjects were economics, more precisely, international economic relations, and languages. So, on I went on with my English and German — which I had to start at the Prep faculty — and was happy to be able to go beyond the general knowledge of the German by the Soviet people, mostly restricted with sentences like “Hände hoch!”, “Hitler kaput”, “Nicht schiessen”, “Waffen niederlegen”, etc. Due to specialization of the Institute of the Afro-Asian Countries, I was offered a choice of a main language of either Arabic, or Afrikaans.

Vladimir Vladimirovich Samarin
One of my first business trips abroad, Cologne, 1996.

Here I remembered Louis Boussenard’s novel “Le Capitaine Casse-Cou” — “Captain Breakneck” — which was widely popular among Soviet children, almost like Jules Verne’s novels, my studies of English and German, took into account rapidly improving relations between the USSR ant the Republic of South Africa led by De Klerk… and so I chose Afrikaans. I can tell you here, it’s not that easy to learn three languages daily, and I was deeply engaged with my studies, while the life galloped along at quite a quick pace.

When on December 25, 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as the President of the USSR and finally let the country irrevocably fall apart, I was still too young at 21 to realize what we lost. For me, the death of the Soviet Union was an act of the greatest treachery in the history of mankind — and I felt the epoch was (is) over. Today I feel a great potential was stolen,  my understandable and bright future, and that of my unborn children, my parents, (almost all) my compatriots, we all were robbed of a vision almost realized.

Translator T. V. Samarin in the workplace. DPU MW of the USSR, 1980 Photo: Yuriy Ibragimov
Interpreter and translator T. V. Samarin, at his desk at the Contractual and Legal Dept. of the Ministry of Foreign Trade of the USSR, 1980. (Photo: Yuri Zheludev)

But, after nearly 20 years, I've reason to be proud again. Proud of what my great country is now. To be continued...

More About Me: 

I have 22 years of experience as an editor of photographic magazines Photomagazin, E-Photo, Russian Zoom, FotoTravel, FotoTips.ru, or contributing to other editions, such as Digital Camera, Potrebitel. Fototekhnika i Videokamery, Tekhnika Molodezhi, Medved, Business & Exhibitions, etc. I also hold a Bachelors Degree in B.A., international economic relations, with an emphasis on English, Afrikaans, and German languages. My past includes experience in the Soviet Air Force, as well as in translation and interpretation for various private businesses. I live in Moscow with my wife and two wonderful sons of 22 and 17.

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