COEUR d’ALENE — Luba Wold doesn’t believe in communism, even in theory. She has experienced its reality. The native of Omsk in Siberia, Russia recalls her life in poverty, powerlessness, and oppression.
In the Soviet Union, all the jobs paid workers the same wage regardless of their position, she said. Nice in theory, but in practice the pay of 100 to 120 rubles per month weren’t enough to make ends meet. People survived on “perks,” said Wold. Workers in restaurants or factories producing goods could surreptitiously smuggle some bread, pencils, or cloth home to sell on the side, and fudge the paperwork to cover their tracks. “There’s a lot of tricks,” she said.
For example, she learned how to knit socks because in the Soviet Union, the government controlled which companies made socks and how many were made. It was against the law to make products to sell in competition with the factories chosen by the government. There were not enough socks to go around, she said, so by learning how to make socks and to sell them illegally, she could earn a little extra money plus put socks on her feet. Workers in fields like engineering had nothing they could sell on the side to make that extra cash and were looked down upon.
Breaking the law was a way of surviving. Everyone knew that everyone else was doing it, and felt that they had to, Wold said. The government used its control of the economy as a means of keeping the people from resisting its control.
“It was preferable as a way to keep them under their thumb. That’s how come nobody stands up, ever,” she said.
Communism didn’t just tell you what to do, she said. It defined what you even could imagine as possibilities.
In socialist Russia, Wold recalls that no one ever criticized the government outside the confines of their own homes. “We would sit around kitchen table with friends and yell and scream about how bad life was.” She said she didn’t recall her older relatives ever telling her not to speak out in public, but that they modeled the behavior for her. Everyone had reasons to criticize the communist government, but would only ever say positive things about it in public, Wold said.
“It was instilled in us from Stalin’s time of our parents, that fear of expressing yourself openly. It might not go so well for you.” She added, “An older lady in Kiev who lived through Stalin told me once that if you did not report your neighbor, you were in danger.”
Self-censorship was coupled with despair that the situation could ever change, she added. “It never occurred to us that there could be a way that we could change things. The thought never would occur. It was just the way it is. We just adapt and try to survive.”
She added, “It was frustrating this and that, but what else? We are the best in the world, there is no other way.”
People under Soviet communism were always told that their country and way of life was the best, and that other societies such as the capitalist United States were bad. “Exploiters” is how she said Americans were described.
In addition to having to resort to illegal buying and selling of consumer goods, lacking guns was another way in which the Soviet government disempowered its people.
“We were all disarmed. No arms. That is a way to keep you under control,” she said.
She said the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is good for that reason.
“They know the people are armed and people can uprise. In Russia that was never a possibility,” she said.
Not everything was bad in Soviet Russia, she said. She praised the emphasis that Russians put on culture and good manners. Individuals put their country ahead of themselves, she said. Financial renumeration for great achievements in chess, at the Olympics, or in scientific fields were frowned upon. “We do it for the glory of our country. That’s how we grew up.”
Wold said that ordinary Russians also placed a value on morality, even though the Soviet government taught atheism and persecuted religious groups. The government knew that the values taught in the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule were valuable, so they taught them, minus references to God. The bastardization of Christianity took on odd forms, such as switching Christmas traditions like trees and presents to New Year’s Day in order to avoid any discussion of the birth of Jesus Christ. Many church buildings had been destroyed, but the ones that remained churches operated as museums instead of active places of worship. Active church congregations met elsewhere and in secret, she said.
Wold gave credit to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for opening the minds of Soviet peoples to what lay beyond their borders. Gorbachev’s 1985 program of glasnost — openness and transparency — changed everything, she said. “We started questioning is this the right way of living, or maybe there is a better way or something,” she said.
Once people could start asking questions without fear of police arresting them like in Stalin’s day, the handwriting was on the wall. Then the wall came down, at least in Europe.
The end of communism in Russia was not without dispute. Though communism had left them impoverished, older generations of Russians clung to the old system out of fear of losing their meager rations, said Wold. Younger people, however, embraced glasnost and the new opportunities ushered in by Gorbachev’s program of perestroika, or economic reforms.
When the Soviet Union transformed from socialism to economic freedom, the transition was not painless, Wold said. The economies of the former Soviet Union crashed and became corrupt to the point where, for a long time, Wold’s sister was paid with items to barter instead of money. Wold expressed skepticism about his governance today, but credited Russian President Vladimir Putin with putting things back in order during the early 2000s so Russia could rebuild its economy. For example, whereas Wold had no indoor plumbing or refrigerator while growing up in Omsk, and no one ever owned cars under communism, today her brother in Omsk not only has indoor plumbing and a fridge, but also owns two cars.
“That’s unheard of!” she said. “The whole standard of living really went up,” she added.
Communism ended too late for her father, however. At the young age of 44, Wold’s father died thanks in large part to the centralized system of health care in Soviet Russia, Wold said. He had suffered a stroke at age 36 that left him completely paralyzed on his right side. Under the Soviet system, patients were assigned doctors and had no chance to seek other medical help. When the doctor to which Wold’s father was assigned told him that he was incurable and sent him home, he had no other options. Ironically and tragically, he suffered a second stroke and died eight years later on Nov. 7, which was an annual holiday celebrating the Bolshevik Revolution.
Health care in America is expensive, said Wold, but competition and markets make for better quality and prices here. “In Russia, we had deficits of socks and shampoo,” she said, incredulous. “There was only one supplier and therefore there is no competition to drive the price, or the need to fulfill the needs with a better product.” It was the same thing with health care, she said.
After her father’s death, Wold became a college student in Kiev, Ukraine. While there, she met her American husband Tom. Together they have raised their son Val, 19, in pursuit of excellence. After becoming a piano prodigy during his childhood in Coeur d’Alene, the young man shifted his sights from starving artistry to a profitable career in electrical engineering, which he studies at the University of Idaho.
Wold said she just doesn’t understand why any American would want to recreate the system of life and government which failed her family and her native land. Wold said her other friends who left the Soviet Union for the U.S. are equally scared of America’s direction.
“This country is so great,” said Wold. “I hate to see you giving it away and changing to the socialism that doesn’t work. Implementing ideas that have already been tested and don’t work because of human nature.”
However, the freedom America still offers is mind-boggling for the former Soviet citizen. Since 2003 Wold has owned her own business, Photography by Luba, and earned accolades capturing the most memorable images of people’s lives. Wold rejoices in the freedom to earn her own living without the hand of the government involved.
“Where in the world had I ever thought to have my own business, set my own hours, and it’s all legal and great! It’s awesome. You can reach the skies here. You are free to do this.”