Russian Language Blog

19-20-21 Soviet Pop Culture Memories From 1991 Posted by on Aug 18, 2011 in Culture, History, Russian life, Soviet Union

This Friday, August 19th, marks the 20th anniversary of the Soviet coup d’etat attempt. I’m not going to do a history post because there are lots of sites online that do a much better job of it, complete with detailed timeline and analysis.  Besides, I was just 13 at the time and politics was the last thing on my mind. So what follows is not a historical account or overview, but rather some snippets of was most memorable that year for me personally. There’s also a GIVEAWAY announcement at the end of the post, so if you get bored, just scroll all the way down ’til you see it.

Also, there are 10 little snippets in this post. I haven’t decided if I should do 19, 20 or 21 total. What do you think? 

  1. «Дольчики» [patterned pantyhose] and «лосины» [tights] – It seemed like every girl in Russia had at least one pair of each back then. Women in Russia learned that pantyhose could be «чертовски хороши» [damn fine looking].  «Лосины» [tights] moved from historical paintings to the streets and changed their owners from dashing early 19th century military officers to «молодые модницы» [young fashionistas]. A source of pride for their wearers, «дольчики» and «лосины» were not meant to be hidden under «длинные юбки» [long skirts] and hemlines started going up, up and, in case of tights, away.
  2. «Шейпинг» [“body shaping” workouts] and «бодибилдинг» [bodybuilding] – there was a popular slogan in the Soviet days – «в здоровом теле здоровый дух» [a sound mind in a sound body] slogan. No slogan addressed the shapeliness of the said sound body. Before shaping and bodybuilding came along, Soviet citizens had «утренняя гимнастика» [morning exercises] radio and TV broadcasts (slow waving of arms and bending of torsos accompanied by classical music), «производственная гимнастика» [industrial gymnastics] (slightly higher paced version of the morning gymnastics) and «ритмическая гимнастика» [aerobics] on weekend mornings.
  3. «Вероника Кастро» [Veronica Castro] – in 1991 Russians were «прикованы к экранам телевизоров» [glued to TV screens] watching «Богатые тоже плачут» [The Rich Also Cry]. The title of this Brazilian Mexican (thank you, Aurea) soap opera has since become a «крылатое выражение» [catchphrase]. The show itself became a sensation. Things would come to a standstill not only during Tuesday-Thursday primetime when the new episodes were shown, but also the following mornings when reruns were aired.
  4. «Комки» [commercial stores] – early 90s were a weird time. We still had «талоны» [rationing coupons] on even most basic goods, including sugar, butter, hotdogs, and vodka. The government-owned stores were practically empty (I remember a large self-service seafood store that had just rows upon rows of canned seaweed). Yet new «комки», short for «коммерческие магазины» [commercial stores], and «уличные ларьки» [kiosks] sprouted «как грибы после дождя» [like mushrooms after a rain]. They sold an amazing variety of mostly western goods, from Snickers bars and the aforementioned «дольчики» to Marlboro Lights to electronics to bananas.
  5. «Пакеты» [shopping bags] – these were some of the more affordable things one could buy at a «ларёк» [kiosk]. I’m talking about fancy laminated shopping bags with rope handles. We, kids, ditched our old ugly «портфели» [schoolbags] for these bags which also served as «мерило» [a measure] of one’s coolness (the more colorful or risqué the print on the bag, the better).
  6. «Сигареты» [cigarettes] – even more affordable than shopping bags were imported cigarettes. They were sold in packs or piecemeal, so that middle and high school kids could afford buying just one or two. Buying just a couple of Marlboros at a time had an added bonus – eliminating the possibility of parents finding a half-finished «пачка» [pack] in your coat pockets.
  7. «Толкучка» [flea market] – it became just about the most exciting (and exasperating) place to be on weekends. There were still «старушки» [old women] selling hand-knitted grey «пуховые платки» [down shawls] and «старички» [old men] peddling rusted tools and various junk. But there were also rows upon rows of «челноки» [suitcase traders] selling every item of underwear, outerwear or shoes imaginable along with pirated video and cassette tapes, low-quality electronics, and lots of newly printed books.
  8. «Ножки Буша» [chicken legs] – back in the days of the empty stores, chicken was sometimes jokingly referred to as «синяя птица» [bluebird]. One reason for the moniker – it was such a rare sight in the government-run grocery stores. Another reason – chickens, when available, were sold frozen and had bluish tint to their plucked skins. American chicken legs, nicknamed after then-president of the USA, were abundant, relatively cheap, plump and quick to cook.
  9. «Либерализация» [liberalization] – this was the year of new big words that the whole country had to learn very quickly and suddenly. Liberalization meant that government was no longer going to control prices on «товары» [goods].
  10. «Борис Николаевич Ельцин» [Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin] – on June 12th, 1991 Russians voted him to be the first President of «РСФСР» [RSFSR, Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic]. I was too young to vote or even pay attention to this event. Most adults I knew voted for Yeltsin even though they were extremely skeptical about «выборы» [elections]. They believed there was too much truth in the old joke “In America, the elections decide the President; In Russia, the President decides the elections”.

To be continued…

And now a little bit about the giveaway.

Who can participate – anyone who reads this blog, regardless of how often or how thorough you read it.

To enter, all you have to do is to leave a comment on this post. You can leave more than one comment. Each comment will earn you an additional entry. If you link to this post from another site, let us know in the comments and you’ll get an additional entry as well.

The giveaway will run through 11:59pm EST on August 26th at which point we will choose a random winner who will receive the prize.

As for the prize… I’m not going to reveal it just yet except to say that it is a book (in English) about Soviet Union’s more unexpected, nostalgic and visually appealing accomplishments. Want to take a guess?

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  1. Lana:

    19 August will be exactly twenty years we moved from a city to a tiny village in the North of Russia due to some health issues of my son, who was only 4 years old then. Two months ago I could visit the place again for the first time in 7 years thanks to my friend from Holland.

  2. sh:

    i like the details of liberalization you gave in the article.. it’s just more than political.. liberalization also means that people are trying to western..

  3. Daniel:

    i’ve always loved reading these blogs! Great for new vocabulary!

  4. Jennifer:

    very interesting. you and I were about the same age in 1991. An American teenager, I did pay attention to the news, but a lot of this cultural stuff I didn’t know about. Good post!

  5. Han:

    When I read things like this I feel like I should have been born in 1970 СССР, not 1991 UK. I’m actually really looking forward to the next post on thus, I love hearing memories of the late Soviet era.

  6. PaulS:

    It makes interesting reading Yelena 🙂 I was only 14 back then so I don’t think I really watched the news or totally understood everything going on.

  7. Simon Bradley:

    I was 16 at the time. I seem to vaguely remember it from my parents watching the news.

    I’ll ask my (Russian) wife what she knows of this — although she was only nine years old at the time!

  8. Mario:

    It’s been a quite interesting read. As most of the previous commenters, I wish I were in Russia at that time, but I was only 11 and lived in Spain. Could you compare that August 1991 with the August in 1998 and the Ruble financial crisis. I’d like to read your take on it. Thanks!

  9. Wilson:

    What an interesting article reflects us 20 years back showing how culture changes over time. The year 1991 however only reminds me about my year of birth. So, of course my interest and curiosity grow gradually as I read through the article. History sure change the world we are living now in different ways and is crucial for us to learn from the past and treasure the good remains for our next generation!

  10. Tina:

    In 1991 I was just starting to think of Russia as a place I might like to visit. When I did go two years later the stores were still empty. Of course everything was so so strange for me, and I felt like I was on a different planet, not just another country. It’s really interesting to see the perspective of someone who was there, thanks for sharing! Great vocabulary, too.

  11. Tina:

    The more “snippets” the better!

  12. Jeanette Morris:

    Thanks for this great post! I am currently writing a novel set in Russia during this time. My protagonist is a teenager…so this infor is PERFECT. Hope to see more soon!

  13. Ken:

    I recall watching events unfold in Soviet Russia, albeit through the lens of mainstream media, and feeling amazment. Although the unrest that brought about the coup had been brewing for some time the actual event came as a surprise.

  14. Stepan:

    This made me feel nostalgic for Moscow.

    I also Facebooked this page.

  15. Tom H:

    I love reading your posts. It helps me build my vocabulary.
    I was in Russia a few months before the actual fall of the Soviet Union. It was interesting to see the encroachment of American pop culture. Most of the people that I spoke with openly put American culture on a pedestal then.

  16. Аurea Freniere:

    Oh yes, I do remember it as if it was yesterday. I was in my early teens and I watched it on tv. I know that the fall of the soviet union improved the lives of many russians, but I can’t help to think what was loss in that change.
    thanks for sharing this with us. But just a note: The Rich also Cry (originally titled Los Ricos También Lloran) is from Mexico. Veronica Castro is one of our dearest actors and that soap opera was a HUGE hit. I was actually re runned a couple of years ago. But it’s mexican, not brazilian.
    My russian teachers tells me that many mexican soaps were translated into russian (badly dubbed) and she watched them all! (she tells me she learnt her first spanish words that way) 🙂

  17. Аurea Freniere:

    oh and I linked the article on my twitter and FB 😀

  18. Delia:

    That August, my friends and I were I a little town of Taganrog by the Azov sea. We rented a cottage in a pretty remote area and spent two weeks with no newspapers, TV or radio. So on August 20th we we on our way to the airport and I noticed a lot of excitement (or nervousness ?) in the tram and then train we took. Several people mentioned the name of Gorbachev. So I asked a passer by what was happening and why everybody was talking about Gorbachev. He looked at me as if I were from Mars saying that there had been a coup in Moscow. When I asked what was actually happening and who was at power, he said nobody knew what was going on.

  19. Delia:

    Already at the end of the 80s there were many кооперативы (coops) making обувь (shoes) и одежду (clothes) which were намного лучше (much better) than those made by государственные предприятия (state entities). Качество часто оставляли желать лучшего quality often needed much to be desired but they were still pretty popular. So by 1991 and later there were basically no coins (монеты) left in circulation as they were used …. For jewelry! Metro authorities started introducing tokens.

  20. RedCosmonaut:

    Thanks for yet another great post, I love and follow this blog! Best Regards from Moscow! RC

  21. Delia:

    PS to my first comment. When we left Rostov ( we had to go to Rostov which is a bigger city with an airport), our plane was the last one they let take off as Rostov was the only city that поддержал (supported) the coup and the city was closed for a week or so.

  22. Candace:

    I remember when there was a sudden surge of Russian heavy metal/rock music that sounded a lot like early British rock. In the ’80’s the music was banned but once the USSR was dissolved, there was suddenly a huge wave of national music and arts.

  23. Mark Irvine:

    I enjoyed reading this blog and all the comments. I look forward to the next one.

  24. Booradz:

    I really enjoy this blog, and especially enjoyed this post! Lots to learn for sure. Keep up the good work.

  25. Sam:

    I have thoroughly enjoyed the blog, and enjoyed reading this post. I look forward to many more! 🙂 Just to add another milestone coming up, August 31 is when the Kyrgyz are celebrating their Independence Day. Спасибо для информации!

  26. Luba:

    I was born their in 1991 🙂

  27. Annie:

    Privet! Your post was amuzing; since I started scanning it I enjoyed it. Then, all of a sudden, it was the end of it! Thumbs up!

  28. Anna:

    I love this post! It brings to light a very different side of that era! (I especially love the tights part as I’m a big sucker for pretty tights myself).

    (I shared this post via facebook twice with my bestie Anita who loves Russian culture as much as I do, and my Russian American friend Marsha 🙂 )

    Also, a while back I saw the film “Stilyagi” and wondered if you know anything about that movement – all that colourful clothing and music. And whether there are photo documentaries from that beautiful era?

  29. Anita:

    I’m a beginning Russian student and this website & blog are helping me connect. So much better than sitting in a University language lab!

  30. Jim Nichols:

    As a retired prof of Romance Langs. and Lits. I must say that your blog is top notch! I’ve been learning Russian in order to share the culture of my daughter-in-law and grandchildren! I never miss a posting and feel quite guilty that I haven’t left you any comments up until now. If you’re interested in learning any of the Romance languages (especially French and Spanish), I’d be glad to help you out.

  31. Marina:

    Yep, good times. Красовки (snikers) and дженцовый пиджак (denim jacket) with лосины were a hit 🙂 I was 15. Also the show “Santa Barbara” with CC (сиси) in main role. We used to refer to family drama as Санта Барбара. We were playing Enigma and Deep Forest a lot

  32. Cássio:

    I think the Brazilian soap opera that became a hit in the late Soviet era was called “Slave Isaura”. It was about a white girl who was born and lived in the 18th century as a slave. Some friends told me the primetime was very late in the night (around 1 a.m.) but people stood awaken just to watch it.

  33. Carol LeMasters:

    I studied in Moscow about 10 years before the coup d’etat attempt. I would never have believed at that time so much change was around the corner.

  34. Ian:

    This is a fascinating post. Us Westerners never really learned about the popular culture of the Soviet Union, so it’s interesting to see what was popular and how daily life was.

  35. hugo ly:


  36. Delia:

    After Kyrgyzstan comes Uzbekistan – September 1st is independence day in Uzbekistan.

  37. Art Acosta:

    I was with a group of athletes “Athletes United for Peace” promoting peace and friendship through Sports. Our group visited Moscow and ran the route of the Olympic Marathon, Played tennis in Sochi, and ran with a soviet running club in Lenningrad. Your post brought back vivid memories of great times, good food and everlasting friendship.

  38. David:

    At the time It seemed to bring the Gorbymania era to a disappointing conclusion. It seemed to me Gorbachev was trying to reform the communist system in a good and positive way and the West didn’t really go far enough to support him. In retrospect, maybe he wasn’t going about it the right way, or maybe it was too late. For a short time Yeltsin looked like a hero when he stopped the hard liners, but I wasn’t impressed by him afterwards. The Russians I’ve met all say that it’s better now than it was in Soviet days, but then the only ones I meet are the ones who have done well. I’m not sure what the balance of winners and losers really is.

  39. David:

    Jim, I have a question for you on the topic of Romance languages. How do you say “Romance languages” in other languages? Los idomas Romamos etc? Елена, как по-русски
    Romance languages?

  40. Delia:

    David, it is романские языки

  41. Mario:

    David, in Spanish they are lenguas romances. Probably in other romance languages quite similar. You can try Google translate and it will surely give you the right answer in most romance languages.

  42. CaitieCat:

    Love the idea of the giveaway, and a great post with it. I always thought it ironic that I took up the study of Russian when I went to university, given that I only went to university after leaving the Canadian army. With which organization, in 1984-1986, I was posted to (then West) Germany, as part of the Canadian NATO commitment vs. the Warsaw Pact.

    I have moved from being indoctrinated to recognize the Russian as my enemy, to being an unabashed Russophile. You never know where the world will take you.

  43. Suzanne G:

    Giveaway sounds fascinating. I had an interesting conversation with a Russian-born who lives in the USA. She is now an American citizen. We were talking about the cold war and how we were taught to simultaneously fear and hate the USSR. She indicated that her sister still hates all Americans, but she is trying to teach her that there are a few people who are bad, but not necessarily all people….

  44. Michael Thompson:

    O Great Mother Russia, please return to us. Return to your former glory with your rich culture and heritage. We are waiting for you.The land of glory and majesty.
    Do not be decieved by the western sweet talking soothe sayers because these are “Wolves in sheep’s clothing”. The world is in awe of you, admires and craves your strength. Please do not fail us, you are our only saviour.
    Do it the Russian way, Stand High and Proud because you are Russian.

  45. Ryan Moore:

    This blog is awesome! As someone who has studied Russian history and culture through two degrees I really loved this entry!

  46. Kris:

    Спасибо Елена, очень интерессная статья!

  47. Rob McGee:

    Also the show “Santa Barbara” with CC (сиси) in main role. We used to refer to family drama as Санта Барбара.

    I was teaching English in Moscow in 1993 and one of my female students asked me: “How does Santa Barbara end?” (Since it was an American show, and I was American, obviously I must know how the story ended!)

    I had no idea how to answer… it was clear that she was accustomed to Mexican-style telenovelas — which usually run for about six months or a year and have a definite (and finite) “story arc.” Thus it makes sense to ask “How does Богатые тоже плачут end?”

    But Santa Barbara was on the air for almost 10 years, and some American “soaps” have run for several decades (General Hospital is almost 50 years old!) with many changes in actors over the years, and countless interwoven storylines. Typically, an American soap opera “ends” when the audience loses interest (or dies of old age!) and it can no longer attract advertisers — the ending is not when the writers decide that the story is over!

    So I had to disappoint her by telling her that I had never watched Santa Barbara (true), and that I didn’t know what would happen with the characters.

    Also in late 1993 or early 1994, Twin Peaks started showing on Russian TV. I remember there was a lot of talk about it because it had much better production values than the popular telenovelas like Просто Мария (Simplemente María, “Just Plain Mary”) — and for Твин Пикс, they also spent more time and money on the Russian dubbing.

    But the show also had a rather confusing and surrealist storyline, and the second season had been notorious in the US for pissing off and alienating all the viewers who loved the first season. So it was a controversial choice for a market of Russian TV viewers who were more accustomed to telenovelas with very straightforward stories.

  48. Carla Stern:

    I remember those days well. Great blog and great for new vocabulary.