Why you should care
It’s too easy to forget the promise and the appeal of the Soviet system, even if it never could deliver on that promise.
The day Anna Babitskaya first stepped onto the Taras Shevchenko was the proudest of her life. She was just 19 as she boarded the giant East German-built cruise ship named after the Ukrainian poet and statesman. Her job, waiting on the Soviet elite, capped the end of a six-year journey through school and technical college. More important, it would spell an end to the poverty that had plagued her family since the end of the Second World War.
It was an escape — literally and figuratively — from the dreary life of the Soviet Union, and yet was only made possible by the Soviet sense of power and hierarchy that put the elite of the Soviet world on the ship. Her escape almost ended immediately. “I was so happy to get on that ship, but I got seasick,” she says now, the terror of that moment still audible in her booming voice. “I couldn’t stand it. I was terrified I wouldn’t make it through.”
Traveling the Caribbean — and Crimea and the Baltic and the Mediterranean — was impossibly exotic for a kid in post-war Ukraine.
Anna did make it, though. For years she would serve actors, singers and artists from all over the communist world. One time Raul Castro took a ride on the Shevchenko. “Cuba was my favorite place to visit,” she says, at her home in Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa. “For the first time I saw giant tortoises in a Cuba zoo.” Traveling the Caribbean — and Crimea and the Baltic and the Mediterranean — was impossibly exotic for a kid in post-war Ukraine. Anna was born the youngest of three children in 1946 to Anatoliy, a factory worker, and a housekeeper mother, also named Anna.
This is the fourth in a series of articles marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They tell the story of the wall and the division of Europe through the eyes of individuals who lived under its shadow.
Anatoliy, 42 when the war began, had marched all the way to Berlin with the Red Army, sustaining shrapnel blasts that would eventually cost him a leg. Born in 1899 imperial Russia, he, along with his friends, longed for the old days. Once he signed a treatise named “God Save the Tsar.” “That was, of course, totally unacceptable for the Soviet authorities,” says Anna. “One of his friends threatened to tell on him to the KGB, but never did so.”
Anna looks few of her 68 years. Her wavy hair may be white, but her deep brown eyes compel attention to every word spoken in a booming Ukrainian voice.
Post-war Odessa was dangerous. German troops captured the city in 1941 and together with Romanian troops massacred tens of thousands of Jews. When the war ended, a power vacuum brought waves of street crime. “Odessa was crowded with KGB agents undercover,” says Anna. “They were dressed as ordinary people, and when someone tried to rob them, they killed the robbers on the spot. Most of the racketeers vanished straight away.”
Food, though, also vanished. “We didn’t have anything to eat,” says Anna. Her childhood rations consisted mostly of mamalyga — a cornmeal soup from her mother’s native Chisinau, now in Moldova — corn husks and potato peelings. Hunger prevented her from concentrating at school.
Still, there were simple diversions. At night she sewed dolls from rubbish and made dresses for them. Then Anatoliy would win holiday vouchers at the factory. “I would go to different holiday camps in Odessa,” she says, her voice picking up. “We were marching, singing, playing games.” When someone stole Anna’s scissors and needles, she turned to the radio for escape. “When there was no one home, I turned it up to maximum volume and was dancing, imagining myself somewhere else.”
Then, finally, she escaped for real. Life on the Shevchenko was fun but regimented. KGB officers watched everyone — romances forbidden, off-the-cuff remarks punished severely. “One time we were carrying German tourists,” she says. “One of the waitresses said, ‘I wonder if Fritz who killed my father is on board? If I met him I’d poison him.’ ” The next day she was sent home. Anna kept her head down. She was a respected member of the Soviet hierarchy. That brought rewards. “When I returned home from work, my mother bought a huge turkey,” she says. “She could barely carry the old bird. The hunger days were over.”
“When I returned home from work, my mother bought a huge turkey. … The hunger days were over.”
In 1971 Anna married Joseph, a local bus driver. Life in the Soviet Union got better. “There was plenty of entertainment. We had dance evenings and sports contests. You could do any sport you liked, and everything was free.” They had a child, Andrey, in 1983. “Back then the authorities cared about you,” says Anna. “Medicine was free, education was free and if you found work you’d get an apartment — yes, they gave out flats in new buildings for free!”
Andrey now works in public relations in Odessa, and Anna’s retired. “Now people have to care about themselves,” she complains. “In the Soviet Union there were high social standards. Yes, now we have supermarkets full of different goods. But the prices are a hundred times higher.” In the ’80s, Anna and Joseph moved to East Germany for a few years, to work at a cafe for Soviet soldiers — she as a waitress, he as a chauffeur. “When I saw the Berlin Wall falling on television years later, it wasn’t a big deal for me. I remember [Mikhail] Gorbachev saying something about perestroika, but we didn’t really understand what the wall falling meant.”
It’s 25 years since then. Joseph died five years ago, at 65. Ukraine is a mess, those stable Soviet days distant. Life on the ocean was never as rough as this.