Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Cuban Pictures: Great Help in Reducing Soviet Nostalgia

Written By: Bakhtilie Fazylova
MPA, Georgia State University

Fulbright Student, Ukraine
Published: 6/16/2015

The recent news on Cuba reminded me of my childhood spent in then-Soviet Uzbekistan, a doubly landlocked country thousands of miles away from the Caribbean. At that time Uzbekistan, being part of the Soviet Union, had food shortages which I experienced as the absence of chocolate, cheese, and sausage in addition to some everyday necessities such as toothpaste. I still vividly remember going to a small store around the corner, with an enameled container and a 20-kopeek coin in my hand, somewhere between six and seven in the morning, in order to get a gallon of milk. Until the early 90s, all local stores in my neighborhood were state-run: loaves of brown bread and similar-looking pickle jars were lined up in straight rows to conceal the fact that there was little to sell. Despite all shortage, however, we could buy Cuban sugar, a seemingly odd item, considering the distance between two countries.

Not only the Cuban sugar, but all those rare pictures of Cuban non-tourist areas remind me of the Soviet Union. Just like in Cuba, the streets of my hometown were more walked than driven, and the photos of those times depict old “Moskvich” cars parked at shabby buildings all brightly lit by the hot sun. My parents had their wedding photo in front of a monument to Soviet guerrillas, a city landmark where every newly-wed couple would go on their wedding day. Symbols of those days - statues, portraits, badges, and banners of Lenin - depicted his face staring at us thoughtfully from every corner. Even my first memory of the kindergarten was of a large room that, apart from toys and folding beds, had a Lenin’s corner – a huge portrait placed on a bookshelf and decorated with flowers and red banners.

Similar to Cuba whose economy suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan underwent an economic crisis when cotton, its main exported crop, was found to be hardly competent in the world market. Trying to become economically independent, the Uzbek government took a number of initiatives to develop small business and create new economic relations. It took some time to build new factories, grow new crops and develop distribution chains. Naturally, there was no Cuban sugar anymore, and for one year sugar was rationed and we had to buy it with “coupons” - paper stamps - that allowed each person to buy one pound of sugar per month. When political considerations had been eliminated from the equation, the local production made more sense than imports from the other side of the globe.

The economic interdependency created bizarre trade patterns in the Soviet world. At a time when we were eating Cuban sugar in Uzbekistan, the cotton that the Uzbek collective farms produced was transported to the Russian city Ivanovo. Being called the “capital” of Russian textile industry, Ivanovo made textiles and clothes which then were sold to the rest of Soviet republics, including that of Uzbekistan. Cheap fuel prices and a network of railroads allowed the Soviet Union to enjoy low transportation costs. They also made it possible to cement ties of friendship both among “brotherly republics” and outside of them. The long-term damage of such dependency to an individual nation was overlooked.

Now that the Soviet Union does not exist, we can observe its former republics and partners struggling at different stages of economic and political independence. Ordinary people in Uzbekistan and Cuba, the two countries that don’t look like they have anything in common, encounter some similar challenges, including nostalgia for “good old days”. Looking at recent news and pictures from Cuba, I personally feel happy to be outside of that system and I am probably among people who prefer not to return to those places even in my imagination.

Disclaimer: This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.