Blog Post: What was public transport for the Soviet citizens?

Street in a soviet city, people walking on the street and entering a tramway.

This article is republished from the It is written by Liubov Tugolukova, who was doing an internship within CoMoDe and now works as a student assistent at IfL´s Cartography and visual communication department. Read the original article here.

Soviet public transport inspires a wide range of emotions among citizens who lived in a country that forever disappeared from the world’s political map. Various Internet forums and videos uploaded on YouTube are full of heart-warming stories about the USSR, where the grass was greener, ice cream was tastier, people were friendlier, and life itself was beautiful. It is not surprising that nostalgia about public transport of that time occupies as important a place in the memories of the past as other attributes of a bygone era: „lucky tickets“ that helped pass university exams, crowded transport that a Soviet citizen tremblingly expected to see around the corner every morning in order to have time to „jump in“ and travel to work or school, highly paid and respected work of drivers, let alone the merely symbolic fare for a ride. Researching the history and legacy of Soviet public transport its institutional arrangements and everyday negotiations in the framework of my internship in the project Contentious Mobilities through a decolonial lens, this short article is my endeavour to pay tribute to the fascinating, but complex story of public transport system of the USSR, revived by the memories of people who were in one way or another connected with it. In this regard, the interviews I held with the passengers and drivers, who had lived and worked during the Soviet times, can give public transport a human face. Moreover, it should be indicated that for the following research I used the materials kindly provided by Russian historian A. Gorshenin.

Soviet public transport as a truly public space

Human memory changes with time, colouring our past with bright colors, joyous moments and lights times that we will never get back. Probably, the public transport of the USSR also becomes a hostage to such happy memories of people who lived at the well-known address, then proudly called the Soviet Union. Soviet public transport was truly „public“ and the most popular means of transportation for the Soviet citizens along designated routes. It was represented by a wide transportation system, which included electro and moto transport. Public transport daily turned the Soviet people into a single living organism with its well-established formal and informal rules of behavior, and sometimes appropriate techniques of „survival“. Sometimes it came to ways to deceive the system, travelling to the final destination without paying the fare, and yet, conscience and fear of seeing your own photo in the tram’s cabin in a frame, decorated with the inscription „This is not a forest hare – this is a city free rider“ could positively impact the consciousness of most passengers. But what did the above-mentioned animal and penny-, or in our case kopeika- pincher, have in common? In everyday Russian speech, riding as a hare means using public transport without a ticket. Apparently, it comes from the fact that a frightened free-rider would be set in motion like a hare by the sound of a ticket inspector.

A constant obstacle for those who wanted to use the urban transport was its overcrowding. For example, one driver working in Leningrad in the 1980s recalls that Soviet buses were often observed to be slightly falling onto its side from overload. Another example from the newsreel „Siberia“, shows reporters visiting Novosibirsk in 1955. They say that the tram looks „like a besieged fortress“, that „people still have to try to get on the bus, which is a very complicated task for brave hearts“. In another dialogue, those reporters argue that local drivers apparently like the famous Russian saying „you drive more quietly to get further“, because they all prefer to have lunch at the same time, while Novosibirsk passengers are forced to be waiting for them for hours at the bus stop.

It is obvious that time passed, the models of buses, trolleybuses and trams changed, the network of their routes became wider and more complex with the growth of cities and industrial centers of the country. The methods of paying for travel also transformed depending on the conditions (of course, the behavior of passengers and drivers played an important role in that process), but one thing remained unchanged – a trip by public transport always promised a little adventure. From the memories of former citizens of the USSR, it was possible to meet old acquaintances in transport (not only pleasant ones), and, therefore, sometimes there were conflicts between people who eventually found themselves in a sealed space for a certain period of their ride: sometimes representatives of the older generation appealed to the conscience of young people and demanded to immediately give them a free place, given their social status. All in all, traveling by public transport during rush hour was unsafe for the nervous system and health in general, especially traveling by the most popular of its modes, which was the bus. If the passenger finally managed to enter the transport unharmed, having survived the stampede, the comfort of the trip, as well as the preservation of his personal property (from buttons to the handles of bags and diplomats) could be guaranteed to him by anyone. Thus, public transport was a kind of social cross-space within which people, performing routine actions for them, traveling from point A to point B, were forced „for the sake of survival“ to adapt to and integrate into a system of rules, norms and behavioral stereotypes common to all passengers and drivers, regardless of their civil, economic and social status. At the same time, each participant in this system could have different roles and related social and economic preferences, limited to one frame.

Fare system of Soviet public transport within the context of socialism

As for pricing, the socialist principle of distribution of goods and services played an important role in the USSR, especially when talking about the 1920s and 1940s. For instance, it was Karl Marx’s „Law of Value”, that influenced the establishment of low prices for transport. At that time, the dictatorship of the proletariat was the main principle of society’s existence, and communism emphasized the public ownership of the means of production as well as public reallocation of wealth. That system extended to the entire USSR, but the budget was controlled and established by each republic separately. Public transport for most residents of the Soviet Union was the only way to get around for decades. Therefore, the state sought to make it even more accessible to any citizen over time. The reference book „Pricing in the national economy of the USSR“, published in the 1950s, states that tariffs, including tariffs for passenger transportation, „are such a tool with which the Soviet state actively influences the economy of the branches of the national economy that consume certain services, stimulating them to rational allocation of productive forces, saving raw materials and fuel resources, rational use of vehicles.“

If in a capitalist society, maximum profit at minimum costs is important, so the cost price cannot be lower than the funds spent on transport maintenance, under the Soviet government, the public transport system was part of the social sphere, which without the support of the central government would not be able to provide services to every citizen. Since the cost of transport in the USSR did not pay off, this required an explanation not only economically, but also from the point of view of the existing ideology (why certain areas of the economy are unprofitable for the state a priori). It was believed that mechanical equalization in determining tariffs for the cost of certain types of services would mean refusing to use them as an important tool for „economic, organizational and educational activities of the Soviet state“. Moreover, there was an important explanation of this trend through the system of distribution of the national product: everything that the state earned was distributed among those who worked for the production of this national product – the workers. The state, therefore, did not appropriate the result of their labour, but fairly redistributed it.

The social character of public transportation in the USSR

All in all, when talking about Soviet urban public transportation, one should remember that this discussion would always start with a really simple, but at the same time, a really complex question: why did public transportation itself matter in people’s life? The social character of transport system outweighs the material value of the soulless car, be it a tramway, a bus, a trolleybus or a mode of transportation not yet invented, because nothing has a meaning outside of the social container that produces concrete social contexts, narratives and imaginaries. For example, even the ordinary travel by bus did not mean absolutely the same for its driver and passengers, given the complexity of social practices created by those actors within the artificially-constructed space, ranging from finding ways of how to pay nothing for a ride to enjoying an additional income. Entering a space shared by so many of other Soviet passengers, one was aware of the rout the bus was taking, but s/he never knew when a turn in that road could reveal a surprise or life changes. But that is a story for another day …