This is an old photo of my baby sister and I, 1982, Lithuania. My favorite part — the ladybugs on my knees. They are not for decoration, although I definitely think they are cute. In those days, we wore our clothes to shreds, and the holes on the knees of the tights had to be fixed. My mom would knit woolen ladybug patches and patch the knee holes or reinforce the knees. She would even go as far as to embroider ladybug antenna. What would a world do without a poor woman’s creativity.
As I was musing over these knee-patch lady bugs, I tried to recall some other nifty ideas that we did in the Soviet Union when in a pinch. And we were always in a pinch. My parents would recall a lot probably, I was just a kid. But I do remember most people tinkering with old things, like old cars, fixing them and re-fixing for decades, people making radios, TVs and music players out of many random electronic parts. My parents built their whole cottage with building materials salvaged from a dump where government dumped material left over from building sites.
We made friends with everyone, so that when you needed something (and you always needed something, like a pair of shoes for your kid, because you could not just count on getting them in the store), you always knew that one of your friends will help you out. We also lived in communal settings, so neighbors were always around to help out. There were some truly ingenious things though, like people making vinyl records out of x-ray films back in the 1960s and beyond.
Since economy was so messed up, and the party controlled supply and demand, huge shadow economy existed. And strange way it worked. Let’s say your best friend’s child really wanted a bicycle but they could not afford it or even get it in the store, and you worked at a recreation center that had many bicycles. You would “write off” one bicycle as a broken one, and would give it to your friend’s child. In America, that would be considered stealing. But how can it be stealing in communism, where everything belonged to the state, and therefore what belonged to the state, belonged to the people, and therefore everything belonged to you. I remember as a kid being quite confused about the morality and immorality of stealing. It appeared to be ok and sometimes even encouraged to “take” from any government institution: school, a place where you work, etc. but then it was not ok to take something from another person’s house.Some people even felt compelled to “take things” from government owned places in hopes to sabotage the whole system, as a way to fight it.
But I digressed. So back to the bicycle. You gave your friend’s child a bicycle, your friend will one day will help with something else, maybe you’ll need some hard-to-get medication and she works and has “connections” at a pharmacy . This ingenious friend-help-friend system really masked booming barter economy.
And last, but not least, all ingenious uses we had for the newspaper, it barely ever made to recyclables, it was used for toilet paper, for storing unripe tomatoes on, for drying herbs, for making paper hats when painting a house, for cleaning and polishing windows, making book covers to protect new precious books, for stuffing into shoes, fire starters, lining a garbage can, wrapping up some smoked fish and then eating it off the newspaper, weed control, swatting flies, lining pet and chicken living quarters, and using newspaper as a dustpan, in a pinch. Who says you cannot live a good life when poor.