Russian Language Blog

19 Memories of 1991 Russia – Part 2 Posted by on Aug 22, 2011 in Culture, History, language, Russian life, Soviet Union

Quick Reminder

Yes, the secret GIVEAWAY is still going on. It will close in just a few days, at 11:59pm EST on August 26th. So there’s still time to enter by leaving a comment either on this post or on my previous post. Remember, you can leave more than one comment. The more you comment, the higher your chances are for winning this secret giveaway.

I’m excited that so many of you liked my previous post. I am quite a «болтушка» [chatterbox] and wouldn’t blame you for getting tired of my «болтовня» [chatter]. I might not be beyond hope yet since I love listening to you just as much (or more) as I love writing on this blog. Usually I respond to the comments you leave, but this time I’m running a cool secret giveaway and each comment is counted as a giveaway entry. So I’m abstaining from commenting myself even though it’s very hard. I promise, I will answer all as soon as the giveaway is over.

«Рекламный ролик» [TV commercial] – Can you imagine watching TV without a single commercial break or listening to a radio program that doesn’t get interrupted for “a word from our «спонсоры» [sponsors]? Well, that was Soviet Union before 1991-1992 when first Western-style «появились» [appeared] on TV screens and airwaves. Here’s some trivia for you – one of the first, if not the first, Western commercial shown in Russia was a Snickers commercial.

«Поле чудес» [lit. Field of Miracles] – Ok, I know, the show itself started in 1990. But it was in 1991 when «Леонид Якубович» [Leonid Yakubovich] became its host and once-and-forever, its symbol. Without him this show, a Russian analog (way more awesome, IMHO) of American “Wheel of Fortune”, is unthinkable. Even before the show, everyone was familiar with the phrase «поле чудес в стране дураков» [a field of miracles in the land of fools] which came from a movie «Буратино» [Russian version of “Pinocchio”].

«Виват, гардемарины!» – I don’t think this title was ever officially translated into English. «Гардемарин» is, from what I understand, a naval cadet, a midshipman. Anyway, this was the second movie in a series of 3. «Дмитрий Харатьян» [Dmitri Haratyan] and «Сергей Жигунов» [Sergey Zhigunov] once again became «предметы обожания» [heartthrobs] of girls all across the country. Interesting fact – the movie was supposed to premier on August 19th, but because of the attempted coup was postponed until August 31st.

«Малиновый пиджак» [crimson jacket] – ah, I love the fact that «малиновый пиджак» phenomenon has its own Wikipedia page. It became practically synonymous with «новые русские» [New Russians], a new social element that became the butt of so many «анекдоты» [jokes]. The wiki page gives a few theories of why crimson jackets became so popular. But I recommend watching a Soviet anti-utopian satire «Кин-дза-дза!» [Kin-dza-dza!] instead. And don’t be intimidated, it has English subtitles (ok, the movie doesn’t have any crimson jackets in it, but it does show a society in which certain things, including garish clothes, become status symbols)

«Будильник Кашпировского» [Kashpirovsky alarm clock] – quite a few of you mentioned that you would had liked to live in Russia in the early 90s and witness the historic changes taking place. I am not sure how many Russians would agree to re-live those days, when given a chance. For most people it was the time of great «стресс» [stress] and «неуверенность в завтрашнем дне» [uncertainty about the next day]. In a country where religion was suppressed and ridiculed for decades, a new outlet had to appear in the form of «экстрасенсы» [psychics], «белые маги» [white magic practitioners] and «ясновидящие» [clairvoyants; lit. those who see clearly]. They filled the newspapers and airwaves with «массовый гипноз» [mass hypnosis] promising «вылечить всех от всего» [to cure everyone from everything].

«Алан Чумак» [Allan Chumak], for example, had weekly sessions on TV passing “healing energy” from his hands into glasses of water people set up in front of their TV sets. One of the signature promises of another hypnotist, «Анатолий Кашпировский» [Anatoliy Kashpirovsky], was his long-distance treatment of «энурез» [bedwetting], in which he talked about an internal alarm clock.

«ПК» [PC] – this is the acronym for «персональный компьютер» [personal computer], something that started appearing in more and more homes around that time. In many cases these were home-made and used a cassette player for input and a TV for output. My first computer was a version of «Синклер Спектрум» [Sinclair Spectrum] that my dad assembled from scratch. I still remember how my brother and I spent hours winding thin wire for its «трансформатор» [transformer]. I’d love to say that we used our PC to learn programming, but that would be a lie. Instead, we mostly used it for gaming, playing «Арканоид» [Arkanoid].

«Школьная форма» [School uniform] – in Soviet Union school children had to wear uniform to school. It wouldn’t be too bad if it was something attractive or comfortable, but it wasn’t. Boys had to wear a dark-blue suite with a white collared shirt. Girls’ uniforms consisted of a brown dress and a «будничный» [everyday] black or «праздничный» [special occasions] white apron. Oh, and girls had to deal with removable «воротнички» [collars] and «манжеты» [cuffs], again, black for everyday and white and lacy for special occasions. I think most kids I knew hated their uniforms or at least preferred to change out of them as soon as they could. Fortunately, sometime in 1991 or 1992 the mandatory wearing of school uniform was abandoned and we all started wearing our families’ newly acquired «благосостояние» [wealth] or lack of it on our multicolored and variously styled sleeves.

«Лебединое озеро» [Swan Lake] – this beautiful ballet is firmly associated with «Августовский путч» [August attempted takeover]. Do you know this old joke about how there were just 2 TV channels in the Soviet Union? Communist Party meetings were on Channel 1 and on Channel 2 there was a «гэбист» [KGB official] ordering viewers to switch to Channel 1. Well, ok, we did have 2 channels for a very long time and the programming wasn’t all that fun or varied. But boy, did we come to appreciate that on August 19th, 1991! On that day, by order of «ГКЧП» [GKChP] or «Государственный комитет по чрезвычайному положению» [The State Committee on the State Emergency], also known as “The Gang of Eight”, all regularly-scheduled TV programming was cancelled. Instead, all we had was «Лебединое озеро».

«Путч» [military takeover] – isn’t it a German word? Well, it sounded just right for the occasion. I’m not sure why it was chosen over «переворот» [takeover]. One of the reasons that come to mind is that it’s shorter, sounds more efficient and way more sinister. Personally, unlike «переворот», «путч» wasn’t even in my «лексикон» [vocabulary] until August 19th, 1991. Once it was all over, there were quite a few jokes that used the wordplay of «путч» [putsch] and «пучить» [experience gas].


So here you go, between Part 1 and Part 2 (this one), there are 19 tidbits of my personal «воспоминания» [memories] about 1991. What were yours? I’d love to hear! And don’t forget, you still have a few days left to enter the giveaway by leaving a comment either on this post or on Part 1.

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  1. Harry:

    I watched Поле Чудес when I was studying in Moscow, but never got what was going on.

    And we do have uninterrupted programming in the UK, it’s called the BBC 😉 Thanks again for these posts, there should be more about the writers’ personal memories and experiences.

  2. meg:

    I arrived in Moscow on the eve of the coup, after having been in Leningrad enjoying the hospitality of the family of a taxi driver who had been shocked to find in his cab not only an Australian who spoke Russian, but one who knew and adored Viktor Tsoi and Kino. We visited Tsoi’s grave together.
    In Moscow on the day of the coup, I ran through the streets taking photos of everything, and have many photographs now. I will never forget it – a very exciting and worrying time.

  3. Fatemeh:

    i’ve always loved reading this blog. I love «Лебединое озеро». it is a beautiful ballet. Thanks a lot

  4. PaulS:

    Another interesting post 🙂
    Arkanoid!! I spent many hours playing that on our BBC Micro 🙂 This may bring back some memories…
    Oh and did you know Snickers bars used to be called Marathon in the UK?

  5. Mark Irvine:

    Another outstanding blog! Thanks.

  6. Simon Bradley:

    I watched «Кин-дза-дза!» recently! It’s quite strange, but also kinda fun. The copy I saw didn’t have subtitles, so my (Russian) wife translated the bits I didn’t get. 🙂

  7. Carrie:

    пожалуйста, меня любит без-платно подарки. спасибо

  8. Tim:

    thank you for these two posts, they bring back so many memories!

    I was in Baku, Azerbaijan during that time, and remember the general unrest and nobody really knowing what’s going on. Also, TV footage of tanks firing on the “White House.”

    Aside from that, i clearly remember no commercial breaks and TV shows/movies/cartoons starting whenever – we’d have to consult the schedule that was printed in the newspapers to hunt for when cartoons would be coming on.

  9. Delia:

    I remember playing TETRIS non-stop on my first computer around 1991-92.

  10. Dave:

    Yelena’s reminiscences about Soviet TV remind me of the times I spent in Moscow and Kiev in the 1980s—when I could never get any hotel television to work properly, so I missed it all!!

  11. Cássio:

    In two weeks we’ll have the incredible luck of seeing the Kirov Ballet performing Лебединое озеро in our town – Rio de Janeiro. I’m very excited and bought my tickets. Hopefully I’ll find some people of the cast and practice some Russian. I’d like to write my comments in Russian, but it takes a really long time in a laptop with a Western Keyboard.

  12. Ryan Moore:

    Thanks for the blog! Loved it!

  13. Julia:

    I was 8 years old, and my family was on the verge of moving to the U.S. We had sold our apartment that August, right before the “putch.” I remember my parents being worried (probably an understatement), but I was really too young to realize what had happened. Other things I remember that year in St. Petersburg: knock-off Barbies being sold in kiosks near the metro for outrageous prices, soft-serve ice cream, European bubble gum with little comic strips inside the wrappers (kids collected them), neon shoelaces–so pretty in the midst of Soviet drabness.

  14. Osvaldo Arroyo:

    Looking forward to winning some crap.

  15. Scott Simko:

    As an American I learned a whole lot from these two posts.

    Большое спасибо!


  16. Qetoni:

    I have spent the last two summers in the region of Moldova called Pridnestrovia. My friends have told me of these times and of their concerns that America will soon face similar issues. Reading this post really helps me understand what they went through during this time of transition and give me a real appreciation for their circumstances now. Thank you so much for your posts. In a short while, I will move to this area of the world. I am excited to watch history continue to unfold there.

  17. Irina:

    My main memory from 1991 is switching schools – leaving my neighborhood school to start studying at a Jewish school, the first one that opened in Moscow. I was nine years old and entering the fifth grade. Due to fears of anti-semitism, my parents made me tell everyone at my old school that I was transfering to an “English school” (a school with an intensive English-language program). I followed their instructions but felt bad about lying to my friends, and had some trouble explaining why I was going to an English school all the way across town while there were others closer to home. I also remember that during the putsch my family was worried that the Jewish school would be closed, but all ended well, the school opened as scheduled, and is still around today. I went there for three years before moving to the US.

  18. Rob McGee:

    one of the first, if not the first, Western commercial shown in Russia was a Snickers commercial.

    With the famous catchphrase, “Сникерс — покрыт толстым-толстым слоем шоколада”. Which means “Snickers — covered with a thick, thick layer of chocolate.” But you can also translate толстый-толстый as “fat-fat”, which inspired the sarcastic joke:

    Что случилось со Сникерсом, когда он приехал в СССР? — Он похудел!

    What happened to Snickers, after it came to the USSR? — It got skinny!

    (Note that похудеть, “to lose weight” is etymologically connected with хуже, “worse”! So the joke suggests that fat-fat Snickers became half-starved…)

    P.S. The “fat-fat” phrasing was never used in the English-language ads for Snickers, to the best of my knowledge. However, there were old Snickers ads that said, “filled with nougat that’s whipped up and up“. So possibly the “толстый-толстый” phrasing was meant to echo the repetition of “whipped up and up”.

  19. Rob McGee:

    Распространённая история у западных экспатов в Мосве в 1993 году (Widespread story among Western expats in Moscow in 1993):

    “The business partner of my flatmate’s ex-boyfriend went to a fancy party at the British(1) Embassy. There was a buffet table with huge piles of beluga(2) caviar served on beds of iceberg(3) lettuce. All the Americans/Westerners there were scraping off the caviar to take the lettuce!”

    (1)If the story was told by an American. If the story was told by a British person, then the party might be at the American Embassy. If both Americans and Brits were present, then the party might have been at the German Embassy or the Swedish Consulate or whatever — there was always a “degree of separation” so that no one could prove the story was false!

    (2) Note that “beluga caviar” is understood by English speakers to be “the most expensive caviar”…

    (3)…and “iceberg lettuce” is understood to be “the cheapest variety of lettuce.”

    So, this is a joke partly about the inconsistencies of the Russian food supply (caviar was said to be more easily found than fresh lettuce) but also about the nostalgia of foreigners for the simplest things from back home. The story is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but may have some “General Truth” to it.

  20. Russian:

    Iryna and I saw a Russian Ballet perform the nut cracker two years ago in Denver. Truly awesome, and out seats where up close but not to close. Prekrasno!

  21. Caroline Walton:

    I watched Pole Chudec and it was the most origianl game show I had ever seen. I remember a lady from Sakhalin gave the presenter a huge fish, and went on to win an industrial sewing machine

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