How I Survived My Country’s Collapse And How Not to Lose Your Mind During COVID-19 Pandemic
by Irina Litvin
I was 10 years old when my country, the Soviet Union, fell apart, and I remember that overwhelming shock, dismay, and frustration that we went through over the years very well.
As I was carelessly playing outside with my friends, I remember that there appeared some kind of dreadful silence in the air. Every single adult was glued to their TV, holding their breath as they watched the parliament’s debates. At first they thought it was just another debate, nothing serious. But the more they watched, the more worried their faces grew because they began to realize that they had been lied to about the immediate changes, the extent of those changes, and whose fault it was – all while sensing that the world they lived in was about to change dramatically.
Nobody knew how huge this change would be – it was beyond comprehension. But for most people it would bring a paramount change. Even those who were excited had no idea about the impact this change would have on everyone’s life.
When we go through a major shakeup like this one, as devastating and scary as it may look, we change. Some may find more compassion for other people, who they possibly judged before or were arrogant about their issues and needs. We may become humbler and realize that no one is better than anybody.
When this happened in the Soviet Union, most people were seriously worried for their future because they were used to being taken care of by their government: they had guaranteed employment, free education, free not-so-bad healthcare, one month of paid vacation, paid maternity leave, to name a few benefits. Who was going to guarantee this now? People were so used to be riding on one track. For most of them, it was shocking to even think how things could be different, and how different their environment could become.
My parents were seriously worried about our future after my dad lost his job. My mom became the only provider, selflessly working long hours as a nurse for very little pay while my dad dealt with endless frustration and depression. He was one of those many men in the country who had a hard time adjusting to new reality.
How Political Changes Affected People’s Lives
As a result of this major collapse, we had two groups of people. One was those who were upset about this change because for them it was also a huge collapse of their belief systems, including their ideals and heartfelt dreams to create a better life for everybody to be happy, their sense of stability, their hopes to build a bright future for their kids – all trashed by a small group of folks in charge.
The other group included people who were hungry for that change, who wanted to share their opinions freely (without getting in trouble), who wanted more freedom and were desperate to get out of depressing dogma, dictated from above. They wanted to have similar diversity and abundance of goods as in developed countries behind the iron curtain. This group of people wanted to matter, to be acknowledged for their uniqueness, and not just be regarded as sheep in a herd.
People in both groups were just regular people who lived regular lives and simply wanted to be happy, like anybody else across the ocean. Survival and adaptation to a rapidly changing environment was a new trend in every household. That deeply rooted hope that there should be a bright future somewhere was like a beam of light in the darkness, guiding and supporting them in overcoming all kinds of difficulties, because for the most part Soviet people were used to coping with suffering for the sake of the bright future. The government used this feeling of hope a lot to manipulate people’s behavior during those days.
Yet, along with freedom came chaos. The conflict between the president and the parliament escalated and went out of control. Gun shooting at the Parliament House while filled with people, took the lives of 150 people and pushed things to the boiling point – the Soviet Union empire shattered like a colossal giant falling down, sending a shockwave through each family in the country. There was no turning back.
A lot of men felt helpless, unable to provide for their families, and succumbed to increasing pressure. As a result, they became deeply depressed, often turning to the good old friend – alcohol. It was one of the few things that was available and cheap. And sometimes those unemployed dads would send their underage kids to go grab some more at a kiosk nearby, knowing that no one would ask for their ID. If you had the money, you were old enough.
To have a better understanding of the economic chaos, imagine that the Soviet Union, as a country, was one living entity that had a developed self-sustainable system of supply. For example, one republic was focusing on textile industry, another on producing metal, a third on manufacturing machinery, and so on. When this system fell apart, it was as if this entity was chopped up into pieces, dramatically impairing economic ties. Corrupted mismanagement, often ruled by greed of those in power, rolled the entire country downhill.
People were used to supply issues in many places during perestroika (the drastic restructuring of economic and political systems). It was Mikhail Gorbachev who was in charge of that reform. Perestroika intended to increase automation and labor efficiency, yet it brought a greater awareness of inadequate economic markets and the ending of central planning. This time around, the ongoing political crisis made things much worse.
The Progression of Economic Collapse
I remember being puzzled to see empty shelves in many stores. Some of the big supermarket-type stores were out of business and remained empty for many years. To give you a better idea, picture this as your reality: you come to your local grocery store only to find a table at the entrance with just some items of first necessity like basic grains, soap, matches, salt, some canned food, and maybe toothpaste. All the shelves in the store were empty. And because the ruble was devaluating by the minute, with zeroes added to all the prices on a daily basis (they looked like phone numbers), you could not buy even those things with your money.
Every family was given a specific number of vouchers per person to purchase certain things, even clothes. For instance, a mom with twin girls could get just one girl’s dress in the store because there was a limit of one coupon per purchase per adult.
Before the crisis, some people could have had enough savings to buy a house, and then almost overnight those savings were barely enough to buy a table. Can you imagine the rush of adrenaline in their veins? To say the least they felt like they had been thrown in the cold Arctic Ocean and had to learn to swim in these unwelcoming foreign waters of unpredictable market economy. How were they to survive?
Waiting in a line for two to three hours to buy some dairy or meat products was a big part of everyday life back then. Sometimes those basic things were sold out before your turn. Stores in the Soviet Union weren’t like supermarkets in the US with one register where you pay for everything all at once. Different departments had their own separate registers. Those who didn’t want to stand in line for two hours to get one thing and another two hours in a different line to get something else, went shopping with a whole family, putting each family member in separate lines. That way it was more efficient.
It was not unusual to see some people, locked in survival mode, hoarding hundreds of pounds of pasta or grains at a time and turning their tiny apartments into warehouses.
The local market was a place where you could buy anything from fresh produce (very seasonal) to auto parts. Needless to say, a lot of the salespeople there were, for example, college professors who had to wear multiple hats to support their families. And, of course, there was a bunch of folks who had no problems with stealing. They thrived.
Those who somehow still had money (only a handful of the population) took advantage of the situation and purchased abandoned factories for pennies, and today, a lot of them are billionaires.
The rest of the country’s population survived because they had a garden where they grew their fruit and vegetables. Even those who lived in big cities had what they called “dacha” somewhere in a rural area. It was a place where they spent long weekends tending their land.
How People Adapted to the New Reality
I remember very well trips to my grandpa’s huge garden and picking buckets of strawberries, currants, and apples, or digging out potatoes in the heat of the summer. We never really had to buy potatoes or things like jams and other preserves because we grew our own vegetables and made lots of preserves, enough for our family for a year. Eating out was not common at all, and most people cooked all their meals at home.
Because many business connections were derailed, a lot of factories had to pay employees with the goods they produced instead of money, leaving it up to their workers to sell or barter those goods for what they wanted. In other cases, pay was delayed for several months. Most people owned their houses or lived in apartments provided by the government, so they didn’t have to pay rent, but they had plenty of other bills to pay and mouths to feed.
What Helped People Go Through That Challenging Time
It was a very difficult time, and people had to be very flexible in order to ride the wave of the sudden change. Almost every day demanded to let go of some sort of a basic attachment such as stability, security, or personal comfort. Like one of my friends recalls, “If you heard gun shooting on the left, you went right.”
Crime was definitely booming, as well as corruption. All kinds of stress-related diseases were on the rise all over the country. Yet those who were most flexible, willing to accept the new situation as it was, ready to adjust their views and beliefs, had the smoothest ride through all that chaos, living one day at a time and not worrying much about tomorrow.
The shock from realizing that the world we are used to is slipping from under our feet helps us slow down and shift our perspective.
How to Stop Anxiety and Panic
Our worrying comes from our desire to control the situation, the desire to keep things as they are, staying within our comfort zone. It is natural for us humans to do that, and we easily get caught in this mindset. Our ability to adapt to the rapidly changing environment plays a crucial role in navigating through these times.
These tough times remind us to enjoy every moment and be grateful for what we have, most importantly, to appreciate the gift of life.
Challenges make our spirit stronger and our hearts more tender.
With all my love and compassion for my brothers and sisters going through tough times of COVID-19 pandemic, for those who feel scared, stressed, feeling that you are losing your ground, know that this too shall pass.
In order for us to withstand this unexpected chaos that is full of fear and uncertainty, we need to be emotionally stable, staying optimistic and as flexible as possible.
I believe that COVID-19 shakeup is for us to reevaluate our life. It is a chance to see things differently and to reconsider our priorities: what is really important and what is fleeting.
Who knows, we may awaken to realize that we are one human family.
Our Thoughts and How We Feel
Latest research says that our thoughts create our emotions. It is easy to drive ourselves crazy just by watching news too much. That is why it is best not to think about anything when you are stressed out.
Yes, it is important to stay informed about CODID-19 and other things happening. Yet, taking breaks from it all is crucial for our sanity. Negative thoughts may seem to make a lot of sense now. However, they weaken our immune system and can bring more anxiety or trigger depression.
As most of the world is now forced to slow down, spend more time with our loved ones – we may realize that those moments of deep connection and love are our biggest treasures.
You can be losing your mind in social isolation, feeling overwhelmed and frustrated after checking the news, anxious and stressed about your safety or economic recovery. Or you can ride the waves of change with relative ease by staying calm and as flexible as you possibly can.
So, no matter how crazy the times may appear, when you feel stressed, remind yourself to breathe and take care of yourself, and do everything you can to maintain inner peace and to elevate yourself. Move your body, dance, do yoga to shake the stress out. Remind yourself of all those things you can be grateful for.
When our inner peace prevails, we can relax and see hope even in hopeless situations. This will make your spirit strong and resilient.
To help you quickly come out of stress and anxiety, I want to share with you my free guided meditations.
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