My Memories of Soviet Minimalism

Ana Goldberg
by Ana Goldberg

Unlike the current minimalism of choice, Soviet minimalism was a forced behavior that was practiced in every home.


It was a time of total deficit of everything and connections were valued more than money. People stretched every single cent as far as they could and there were no risks of impulse purchases.


I want to share some of my childhood memories of forced minimalism.

Milk, bread and newspaper

1. Grocery shopping

When considering Soviet minimalism, there were two essential must-haves for grocery shopping. The first one was a string bag called “avoska” . It's a lightweight bag that exposes everything that you were lucky or not that lucky to purchase. The name of the bag is derived from the Russian word “avos.” It’s a bit hard to translate, but it means something like, “counting on a miracle,” or “take a chance.”

People holding bidons

The second item is a metal vessel called “bidon.” It was used for carrying fluids safely home. Fluids like milk were sold on tap from special tanks. I was always horrified by those tanks. There was an urban legend that they were never washed and were lined with worms inside.

Soviet poster

2. Zero waste

With almost no plastic available, we reused every vessel we could find. Glass jars were filled with soup, pickles, and jams. We even used glass jars for transporting things like samples for medical exams because there were no other options.


Bottles like beer bottles that couldn’t be reused were recycled. Soviet kids collected all those bottles and brought them to recycling points. They’d get small sums of money for them. My cousin and I used to be so happy to get that pocket money to spend on things like bubble gum.

Potato gathering

3. Food

We cooked almost everything from scratch. Preservation techniques like pickling, salting, and drying were huge. Most families also had relatives in the countryside with gardens. They’d use that garden for growing our own food. We’d grow things like potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, and beans.


Every kid I knew was recruited by their family to participate in potato gathering weekends. In winter, the passion for planting was satisfied through growing spring onions on the window sills in glass jars. Spring onions on rye bread with salt was one of the best treats.

Red scarf

4. Thrifting

I don’t remember Soviet thrift stores being useful or popular. They sold everything that we already had, so there was nothing interesting. At times we were lucky enough to get access to centers of humanitarian aid.


Those had piles of second-hand clothes from people in the West who donated. It was pure textile magic. I remember one time when I found items that were still in the pockets of the clothing I got and I felt very connected to the person who used the clothes before me.


New items were bought very rarely and adored enormously. Each item had a special story and was cherished throughout its lifecycle. The quality was always much higher than what we were used to. I had a Yugoslavian wool coat that my aunt managed to buy in the 70s. Throughout the 90s it was used for potato digging until I found it.


5. Me-made everything

I remember us having the most sustainable and cruelty-free wool production ever. We used our pet cat and dog’s fur. We had to comb them for weeks or even months to collect enough fur. Then we’d give it to a lady who would spin it into yarn. My mother would use it to knit mittens and socks. She’d also use it to knit a special belt for back support that was always needed after potato digging.


Mending and repurchasing were major pillars of Soviet minimalism. Every kid’s coat was passed down from their parent’s childhood coat and then eventually repurposed again.


Now it seems obvious that the less you own the more creative you can become. With excessive accessibility of everything, you fall into a consumerist coma. But back then we weren’t so philosophical about it. We had no other choice.

Raskladushka

6. Home

There were no sofas or armchairs in Soviet apartments. Everything had to be convertible. Things had to be foldable. During holidays our tiny apartment would be filled with relatives who needed places to sleep. During those times we had something called “raskladushka.”


This was a type of foldable cot that was usually used in the army or in an emergency situation, but for us it was standard. They were pretty uncomfortable, but it was what we had. Many people would even travel to other cities with their raskladushkas in order to make sure they had a bed.

Books

Home libraries were obligatory for showing off education and taste. Even my grandparents who lived deep in the countryside had a significant collection. Some of the books in my parents’ home library still have never been read or even opened.

Card

7. Self-care

We had to be very creative and inventive with self-care. I remember that women used to spit into their mascara boxes to prevent them from drying. Women would collect lipstick from different tubes that were nearing the end and heat them up to combine them and get more use from them.


A simple box of matches would serve a number of purposes. They’d be used for deodorizing the bathroom or making cotton swabs. They’d even be used as toothpicks.


Soviet minimalism

In my childhood, I perceived this forced minimalism as an extended adventure because I didn’t know anything else. Now I try to make minimalism an intentional journey of owning less. I’m trying to make it a joy instead of a burden.


Right now minimalism seems like the only way to combat global excess. Do you have other old-school hacks that you grew up with? Please share in the comments.


Next, read about My Experience of Frugal Living in Albania.

Comments
Join the conversation
Next