My big Soviet block housing building in Sosnivka opened onto a large courtyard. It was snow covered in winter, verdant spring, sun drenched in summer, and copper-coloured with turning leaves in the autumn. If I stood on my crumbling concrete balcony (which didn’t do often: I was always nervous it would fall straight off the building’s third floor wall) and looked off to the left of the square, I could always see a group of about 6 old men playing durak (the unofficial-official card game of Ukraine). Bottles of beer or vodka were never lacking from their table. Sunflower seeds and cigarette butts always littered the ground around them. Their presence at that broken-down wooden bench was a visual indicator of the time of year—they brought in the first warm days of spring, and ushered out the last bearable days of fall.
Another only slightly more permanent fixture of the courtyard was a rusting old swing set standing immediately outside my stairwell. Now, if you’re American, I can imagine the picture you have in your mind—a black rubber seat that gets scorching hot in the summer sun, and that burns your bare thighs when wearing anything but shorts is unthinkable. And those heavy, gray link chains that connect the seat to the thick metal bar some 10 feet up. Remember swinging on those—splaying your legs so that you start to rock, not only back and forth, but also side to side? Or spinning round and round, twisting the metal chain so tightly that you raise the seat a few extra inches from the ground? Then watching the world blur by, whirling around so fast your stomach still spins even when your body stops.
Well, stop that visualization. That is not what a Soviet swing looks like. Instead, picture something sturdier, more rigid. Much less flexible. The structure is entirely metal, completely solid. The particular swing set outside my apartment was painted blue, but the cheerful color was flaking and faded; the red-brown of rusted metal shone through the once-bright paint. Hard and unbending, there is absolutely no room for creativity in a Soviet play structure. Its construction dictates the one acceptable method of play. On every swing across the Former Soviet Union, children swing in the exact same manner. There is no spinning, no side-to-side, no nuance. Everyone swings only back and forth, and back and forth.
Ukraine was always surprising me. It would throw my naïve perceptions of the Soviet Union back in my face; it would show me how biased my American ideas were. I was humbled again and again during my time in the Peace Corps. I learned about myself, my own country, my new Motherland, Ukraine. I learned how tainted my ideas of life and the world were, even though I had imagined myself to be worldly and sophisticated. I was wrong all of the time. My motto became “Babushkas are always right.” Life in the Soviet Union was always far more than the simplified stories I had been fed in my American history classes as a teenager. It was more complex, more nuanced, more emotional, more beautiful, more everything than I had once been told.
However, this story—the story of the swing set—is not a lesson in misunderstood nuance. It is in fact, an allegory, albeit one I’ve had approved by Ukrainian friends. It is an infantile oversimplification of overarching ideas and world-views, because this swing set, blue and metal and rusted, represents the Soviet world. For even in their playthings, there was only one way to do something. There was one option, one forced choice. There was a right way, with no room for individuality or aberration. Soviet children swung back and forth, and back and forth. Period.
American swing sets, by contrast, encourage the crooked, the different, the choices. They allow you to rock your world in crazy, twisted, independent ways. They encourage you to experiment, to do what you want, and to jump off and fly free. There are a million qualms I have about these United States. But the creativity and independence that America encourages, that is one thing that living in the Soviet Union truly taught me to appreciate.
It’s a detail, a small thing, a simplification. It’s just a swing set. But you know what? Any small thing can tell you a story. And this small thing, a swing set, it explains the world.
Want to read more? Click below:
From August 2011: Happy Independence Day Ukraine
From August 2012: Back in the USSR
From August 2014: Castle on a Cloud