The Let's Play Archive

KGB aka Conspiracy

by red mammoth, Xander77

Part 74: Best posts from the thread - Part 1

Appendix – Best posts from the thread, part 1

Here's a selection of posts from the thread, which had a lot of interesting discussions about Soviet Russia. Many thanks to everyone who contributed, for making the thread a very interesting read!

On Soviet life in general:

Xander77 posted:

Right, let's finally get around to talking about life for the average Soviet citizen in the late 80's.

Actually, let's test my knowledge of Soviet history without any online references and talk about the 50's for a bit. The USSR didn't quite get the same economic boost as the United States - in fact, the country was still recuperating from the war damage (hell, I seem to recall being told that the economic situation was still partially the result of WWII The Great Patriotic War damage when I was in the first grade [1988] [On another note, "Great_Patriotic_War_(term)" doesn't have a Russian section, and "Великая Отечественная война" doesn't have an English section, apparently due to irreconcilable editing differences]). Still, the economy was bouncing back thanks to improved trade with both the West and Asia. At this point Comrade Kruschev decided to change the economic policy to what I'd refer to as "feeding people with something besides promises".

This might have been out of the goodness of his heart, because the economy could actually use some trade in consumer goods or because the carrot and stick of "endure a bit as we build communism" didn't work quite as well when the stick was less liberally applied. Err, Liberally less applied. Whatever the case, the USSR (unofficially) became a consumer society, one in which you could get a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, and could expect to get certain creature comforts for your pay. You could get some colourful clothes* (influenced by limited exposure to Western fashions), your own car (provided you waited in line like a good citizen) get your own tiny personal apartments in lieu of sharing one with a number of families in a Communal apartment (after a far longer wait), consumer electronics (presumably there was also a queue involved but I'm not sure on this count).
* Did you think that Soviet fashion consisted entirely of grey fur coats and ushankas? I once read a newspaper article about a woman who slipped into a coma during the late 40's and awoke during the early 60's, and one of the lovely details was that she kept thinking that every day must be a holiday or something of the sort, since clothes like that used to be reserved for special occasions.

Most importantly, this was all handed to you on a silver platter merely for doing your part. Sure, you could use proper connections to skip ahead in the line or get your hands on some Western goods, but you'd get your turn by hunkering down and plodding along. By Second World standards (how many people here don't actually know what that term used to mean? Don't be shy, many a person born after the 80's shares your ignorance) life was pretty good. (Caveat warning - all of the above may apply to a far lesser extent to people who didn't live in one of the large metropolitan centers. Russia is traditionally a highly centralized country and the difference between life "proper" and life "provincial" is quite extensive).

The whole things comes to a crashing stop in the mid-80's as the party elite wakes up and discovers the economy is quite fucked. Why? Pick a theory - it could be because Reagan was a smart fellow who caused Saudi Arabia to flood the market with oil, thus dropping the prices on the main Russian export (presumably the only export Russia could provide that was almost untouched by the hands of the common Russian worker). It could be because Reagan was an utter moron who seriously believed that a defense program named after a space opera is going to work and give the US an undeniable edge, thus forcing the Russian economy to switch focus from consumer goods to military development, bankrupting itself in the process. It might be a simple failure of the Planned Economy that was inevitable once the Western powers grew tired of having to periodically bail the USSR out. It could be because pretty much every leader of the communist party was a Zionist CIA spy, sent to undermine Russia from within. There are a million and one theories - "the Russia that we lost, how and why" has been a favorite topic of discussion for a generation, and will probably still be debated in a generation from now.

The first draft of this post (yes, I put way too much effort into this) accidentally presented the following as something new. However, everything I'm about to relate was already inherent in the system, merely aggravated into an all-pervasive practice by the collapsing economy (Or possibly merely finally extended even into Moscow and Leningrad). So let's talk about deficits - localized as "Дефицит", with a "tz" sound:

Actually, let's continue this at another time, ending this post on a moderately optimistic note. I have to go do stuff, and I'd hate for an errant power surge to wipe this post out.

Xander77 posted:

Back to the subject of deficits and / or a day in the life of an average Soviet citizen in the 1980's.

As the aforementioned citizen, you probably have a stable job. No, I mean a stable job that forms the foundation for your stable life. Chances are that you started working once you finished highschool / the university, and you fully expect to be employed in the same place / profession up until you retire. Your place in the social order and your place in line for various benefits (the aforementioned cars, apartments etc) is mostly determined by how important your job is. Your job, not your performance thereof, mind you. There are only so many working class heroes that the country really needs (various intellectual professions are a bit different, but even there your mastery of ideology / proper connections meant more than actually doing your job well) and in all other cases your encouraged to perform no better and no worse than your workplace average. The collective is what's important, not the individual. (People who are more familiar with Japanese / Korean workplaces can let me know whether it's worth making an analogy here)

There's a small chance chance that you're working hard nine to five, but statistically speaking, you're more likely to devote your energy to imitation of hard work. Why? Might be because, as per the Russian Hell joke, half the time you simply don't have the necessary material to work with - and when it does arrive, you engage in a flurry of actual activity, make a bunch of cheap and low quality products in a hurry and then go back to lazing about. Might be because "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us" (we'll get to what your pay actually means in a paragraph or so). It might just be because you're not going to get fired as long as you're maintaining the most minimal pretense of giving a shit - even if you do constantly show up for work blatantly drunk, or even miss work altogether, firing you is a black mark on your managers record. And most of the time you're not drunk or lazing about on your own, but as a part of the collective as a whole - in which case the manager is practically powerless.

As you leave work, tired but satisfied after a productive day of doing absolutely nothing, your manager carefully falsifies papers to make it look like your department has not merely produced everything demanded from it according to the weekly / monthly / annual plan, but actually exceeded said demands. Every department manager hands over his falsified documents to the head administrator, who corrects the more obvious mistakes and reports that his sector is producing record results, exceeding or doubling the expected returns. Having done that, the administrators and managers load up whatever products they have carefully accounted as missing or used up into their cars, to take home or sell on the black market. Workers are limited to stealing by the pocketful, but managers get to steal by the car / truck / wagon load. Luxury goods, food items and electronics sell well, but pretty much anything can find a decent home on the black market / literally in someone's home. Anything is better than wasting said items by sending them out to be sold to any random person.

Having received your pay (handed out in cash at the end of the month, with the stereotypical housewife standing by her husbands side to make sure he doesn't drink his pay on the spot), you head out to the shops. Ostensibly, you can buy anything at a really reasonable price ("Say, where's the shop that's called 'Theory'? I've heard that 'In Theory, you can buy anything'"). In practice, not only does the planned economy produce a whole bunch of needless rubbish for every useful item*, but the manufacturers, managers and sellers have already set aside a healthy portion of the useful stuff for their own needs AND when said useful stuff actually hit the stores, it would do so at random unannounced intervals. Huge queues were formed on the spot, with people sending word to friends and relatives even as they kept a spot for them - even if you don't actually need the stuff, you're going to buy it when you can since you may not get another chance. Naturally enough people would sell their place in line, pay others to stand in their place (a common source of employment for bored teenagers etc) - queues had a life and culture all of their own.

* For instance, ideologically proper communist drivel floods the book stores even though no one is going to buy it. Meanwhile, sci-fi, detective stories and other items of interest come out in limited editions and are sold out on the spot.

Do you remember that scene in Moscow on the Hudson with the huge line of people trying to buy toilet paper? Of course, that's not entirely realistic - if you didn't live in one of the major cities where shops were better supplied so as to cater to foreigners / local elites, you probably had no idea what toilet paper looked like, much less had a chance to stand in line to buy it. As a resident of Muhosransk (the proverbial Flyshitville in the middle of nowhere) you'd spend several days traveling by train to a major city / a friendly southern republic in order to get decent food / clothes / whatever. You'd get entire "sausage trains" heading into Moscow from the provinces, to the point that even the capital stores were emptied out. Non-residents were first restricted from purchasing too many items while away from home, then a rationing system was (re)instated, and then said rationing got a bit creative - if you'd like to get some soap and / or sugar, you'd have to buy a sack of coal to go along with them.

Don't care for queues, ration coupons etc that run out before your turn comes along? The black market is always at your service. The prices are anywhere between 5 and 20 times as high as the official prices in the stores, so you're not going to buy much (unless you're one of the aforementioned managers), but you can trade in something from your place of employment - it's not like you paid for it to begin with.

Red Mike posted:

A lot of these sound very similar to the stories told by my elders, about the former communist regime in Romania, where I live. Especially the lengthy ration queues which you had no guarantee of getting something out of, and the planned economy leading to falsified production and stolen goods. Imports were horrifically limited here, so we this sort of mediocre-to-none production ended up leading to "We were producing every possible good by the boat-load, but the quality was horrible.". These posts really flesh out this thread.

I tried finishing this game myself as a kid, but only got as far as getting locked into the room. I think I figured out I was supposed to flush the cocaine, but once I got out into the apartment, I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to do to escape.

On the KGB itself:

Xander77 posted:

In an ironic twist, let's actually talk about KGB in the KGB LP thread. To begin with, let's establish that everything is not KGB and KGB is not everything. I'm not being facetious - people tend(ed) to take an approach that's pretty much the equivalent of taking everything from FBI to military intelligence and through the local sheriff's department and attributing it to the CIA. The Internal Troops (the boys with AK's and slavering doggies guarding sensitive objects) are not KGB (at the time the story takes place). Pretty much anything related directly to the military is not KGB (ditto). Pretty much anything related to corruption among party functionaries is relegated to the Central Auditing Commission, and woe be to the KGB investigator who dares undertake such an investigation on his own instead of handing over all his evidence and stepping away. The KGB does not produce propaganda, whether within or without the USSR - special party organs deal with that as well. The International department of the central party presidium finances and organizes subversive / revolutionary activities abroad, and party leaders may truthfully claim that the KGB does nothing of the sort. The KGB does control the Border patrol ("пограничники") and (for some odd reason, as any properly paranoid Premier would have made that branch autonomous or directly under his control) the Kremlin Guard. In general, the KGB was extremely limited in the scope of its actions (though within that scope, which included the daily activities of every Soviet citizen, the organization was practically omnipotent), since the party learned rather well that giving the secret police too much power would allow said police free reign to attack the party. As one of my professors put it: If you know a little about the Soviet system, you may think that there was a certain system of checks and balances between the party, the KGB and the army. However, if you know more than a little, you'll see that the army and KGB were both (by necessity) the loyal (but unequal) arms of the party. The party may spy on and discipline both, but not vice-versa. The KGB has a bit of leeway as far as investigating army activities, but not the other way around.

All this, however, is a (quote unquote) recent development. Up until 1954, the KGB had a finger in every one of those pies. Let's take a stroll through history, shall we? The USSR security services, CHEKA - the special commission, was established in 1917, right after the (second) revolution, so as to destroy the Contra. No, I meant the contra-revolution forces, shortened as contra by the communists (known as the defenders of monarchy / supporters of the true democratic revolution* / anarchists / whatever, all rolled into the singular category of "Whites" by Soviet history). A proper Chekist is always stylish. He has a long hands, a neat leather coat and a handy Mauser / Nagant ("A cool head, a flaming heart and clean hands" - The Iron Felix whose portrait must forever hang in every KGB office, including our own). The Chekist-Classic model is (pretty much) the only one you could portray in unabashedly positive / romantic terms in latter Soviet days, or even in the 21st century (for instance,At Home Amongst Strangers, a Stranger Among Friends. Mikhalkov may be a huge pos, but this is objectively an excellent movie you should check out). How come? Probably because that was the one time when the secret police was genuinely necessary / useful (let's put aside the relative value of KGB/GRU accomplishments during WWII for now forever). The burgeoning Soviet republic fought for its very life against an enemy that controlled more territory, had more resources, more troops and more experienced officers - a situation a casual observer would probably consider hopeless (as it well would have been, except see above about the error of considering "Whites" a single category and/or a unified force). During this time Chekists helped lead troops, spied on the enemy and infilitrated armed bands under the guise of Cossack boys caught a large number of genuine spies, saboteurs and enemy sympathizers.

The problem is that nobody wanted to stop when they ran out of real spies, saboteurs etc. Pro-Soviet / Trotskyist history tends to blame Stalin for subverting proper communist values and massacring people out of needless paranoia, but comrade Lenin himself was quite specific in writing that the notion of guilt being proven in the court of law is a liberal-bourgeois one. To the Marxist prosecutor, it matters not whether an individual has committed acts of treason / sabotage / etc - it matters whether that individual is a member of a class / group classified as enemies of the proletariat. Such membership a priori determines his guilt and allows the Soviet courts (the most humane of courts) to do as they will. Throughout the 1920's, the Cheka / OGPU exterminated those aristocrats / capitalists / NEP profiteers that were foolish enough to remain in the USSR - and that's the extermination that no one was particularly bothered by, as it seemed an inevitable and rather necessary consequence of of communist rule.

Some of you may be familiar with Martin Niemöller's First they came. The USSR secret services did precisely that, well over a decade before the Fascists came to power. First they came for the classes outright hostile to the communists. Then they came for the people who weren't properly allied with the communists. Then they came for those allies whose loyalty was questionable. Then (in the 1930's, as the NKVD - The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) they came for members of the party to the right of Stalin, to the left of Stalin, up, down, back and forth. Of course, one these people were eliminated, paranoid delusions standard precaution demanded that their immediate allies, friends and family were eliminated in turn. They, in turn, also inexplicably had some allies, friends and family, repeat ad infinitum (or as fast as the NKVD investigators could get through the queue. 1000 death sentences per day during certain periods between 1936-1938) Apparently comrade Stalin wanted his family to be the last living people in the USSR. Actually, Scratch that, Comrade Stalin wanted to be the last person left alive in the USSR.

Lesser party functionaries / everyday workers were lucky - they would get arrested, beaten, asked to sign a confession - spying for England / Japan / both at once and also Germany, sabotaging the Soviet peoples attempts at industrialization / agrarian reform (the notion of "hidden sabotage" wherein the administrator seems to be doing his work properly up until an NKVD agent drops by to examine it is just brilliant), poisoning wells, drinking the blood of christian babies planning to assassinate comrade Stalin / being a part of the conspiracy to assassinate comrade Kirov (ironically / cynically / apathetically, it appears that even engineers in Vladivostok / Mongolia were members of said conspiracy). Prominent party members had to face show trials, which were much more elaborate affairs.

* Those of you looking for a bit of interesting reading can do worse than Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution which is extremely well written, if not a tad bitter. Specifically,"Five Days (In February)" is a really engrossing story about the forces of Good, Democracy and Enlightenment triumphing over stupid ignorant darkness. Shame that that's not where the story ends.

I'm going to take a break here before going to chronicle the rise and fall of the Roman Empire NKVD power. Let me know if I'm missing / misrepresenting something and/or should focus on a particular subject.

Xander77 posted:

A proper show trial did not begin with an arrest and a fabricated accusation - that was the last act of that particular bit of political theater. First, your former comrades make clear that you are politically isolated, and urge you to publicly confess all your mistakes - thus far, merely errors in judgement rather than active subversion. You're demoted to a irrelevant position and left alone for a while, then you're asked to make yet another speech explicating your many ideological deficiencies, and denounce a number of comrades, most of them already disgraced, who shared you errors. Now you can be arrested. Enhanced interrogation methods were officially condoned in the mid-30's, but interrogators had ways and means before that (and afterwards as well, since the condemned still had to appear in public after their afterwards) - such as arresting your family (who aren't really going to do well regardless of your cooperation). Sign a confession implicating ten to twenty of your comrades, make a speech acknowledging your guilt at the trial, and find a convenient wall to lean against.

The show may have been a bit repetitive, but probably necessary - it wasn't just any odd politician being executed, these were revolutionary heroes. People revered them, taught their children to be like them, named cities after them (on one particular occasion, a city was named after a revolutionary, then renamed after his executioner. When he was un-personed in turn, the city was named after the local ethnicity, under the rational assumption that at least some of those are going to survive). When men like that are revealed to be Finno-Japanese spy at every step, it's much easier to accept that you own little remote village / town / city is also swamped with saboteurs and spies. Even if you're unwilling to accept this, a friendly NKVD agent will prove you wrong - they have a certain arrest and execution quota to meet on a monthly basis.

At this point the NKVD could investigate and lead to the near-guaranteed execution* of ordinary workers, party leaders and military heroes (in the height of the Great Terror, this could be done without a trial, within days). Men would be recalled from Spain or the Chinese front to face charges of being Francoist / Trotskyist collaborators or Japanese agents (for best results, switch the two around. Nowhere was Franco's spy network quite as active as on the Mongolian border). A commissar could execute a unit commander on the spot and lead the men in an attack himself (yes, as per W40K tabletop rules), being sure that his faithful comrades in the заградотря́ды would stop or shoot any men trying to flee. Agents would travel abroad to assassinate political opponents, enemies of the Soviet people or dissidents. The NKVD was at the height of its power.

* On occasion comrade Stalin would take a personal interest in the life of an anti-Soviet writer or some former comrade - a mark of power, so to speak. That's pretty much the only reason Bulgakov lived as long as he had, and anecdotal evidence attributes Budenny's survival to a last minute phone call. Of course, pretty much any condemned comrade and / or their families would write protestations of innocence to Stalin, trying to arrange a personal meeting to plea their case - to no avail.

And at the same time, the NKVD itself was purged from top to bottom, several times in a row. Coming home from a hard days work repressing the proletariat, they would find a group of former subordinates in plain-clothes waiting on the spot. Said subordinates would carefully explain that their former superiors were German / English spies, lead them to a nearby wall for a hasty execution, then take over their office - only to come back home the very next day to their very own surprise party. If a small number of party leaders managed to survive the 30's by sticking to Stalin like glue and posing absolutely no threat, NKVD members had no such recourse - their very position meant they were too threatening to be left alive. When Yezhov was sentenced to be executed, a part of his speech went "I have personally purged 14000 Chekists, but my fault was not purging enough - enemies were everywhere." Agents abroad had a slightly higher survival rate, but their time would certainly have come as well if Beria didn't come into power.

Honestly, I don't know that much about Beria. He's a bit of a divisive character, so a brief summary of the relevant facts leaving the conjecture aside in parenthesis: Up to 1938, Beria was in Georgia, "planting clementines". He helped deal with the local nationalist "bandits", helped develop the agricultural sector, and (by some accounts) personally killed the First Secretary of the Armenian communist party. In 1938 he was recalled to Moscow, appointed the deputy director of the NKVD, and quickly helped organize the demotion, arrest and execution of the previous director, at which point he was promoted to that position. Shortly afterwards, Yezhov's confidants were also demoted, arrested and executed. The "excesses" of the Great Terror were blamed on them, and the purges started to get dialed down a bit - Beria preferred targeted accusations against specific groups / individuals to indiscriminate mass arrests. And... fast forward to 1953. Shortly after Stalin's death, just a Beria (likely) plans to deal with his political rivals and take over the party leadership via the tried and true method of arrest / accusation of treason / execution. (He also forbids the use of torture in interrogations and declares an amnesty - for criminal prisoners, but not politicals). He is arrested (maybe, there's a number of conspiracy theories involving body doubles etc) and executed. After his death, he is accused of having responsibility for the mass repressions of the 30's (which isn't quite the case, see above), being a mass rapist / serial killer (quite likely at least for the former), engineering Stalin's death (no opinion) and being a German agent (cynical nonsense).

At this point, Kruschev and co (re)separate the secret police functions into the Ministry of Internal affairs (MVD) and the Ministry of State Security (MGB, later the Committee of State Security, KGB) and make absolutely, positively, 100% sure that state security will never again be able to touch a member of the part elite. MGB/KGB leaders now come from within the party / Komsomol, and the KGB apparatus is full of party agents (and not vice-versa). When Kruschev faces a conspiracy to demote him, he deals with it using party resources - calling up those members loyal to him into the forum and denouncing the people involved, who are left alive and unharmed. When he is demoted and replaced, the conspiracy acts via a party vote, and the corn grower gets to spend more time with his family.

Things improved for the average Soviet citizen as well - though informers were everywhere(particularly among the creative class), the secret service no longer had an arrest / execution quota, which meant you had to actually say or do something in order to fall within the scope of their attention. You could even protest in public, whether for the enforcement of the Soviet constitution (as our comrade stated, it is indeed theoretically the best constitution in the world), the right to bugger off to Israel etc. You don't get hauled off to the Lubyanka basement on the spot, and friendly KGB agents will in fact warn you to leave off repeatedly before putting you on trial / making sure you're diagnosed as a lazy schizo.

Ensign Expendable posted:

Don't get too sensationalist. Blocking squads were there to reform fleeing soldiers and send them back into battle (arresting those that would not), not executing anyone that they saw. Also the only account of a commissar doing anything like that I have read of was one where a commissar allegedly shot the only remaining soldier in his battalion for trying to surrender, and then himself (but then, who told the story?).

On Russian fashion:

Xander77 posted:

Here's an illustration of my harping on about 60's-70's fashion - satirical cartoons about those damned long-haired hippies. (One picture is worth a thousand ushanka stereotypes)

Actually, that's a thread in the archives, so those of you who can't access it will have to settle for Weird Al Yankovic's nerdier Russian cousin. Or the Russian version of The Musicians of Bremen.

On laziness and decadence:

red mammoth posted:

Sorry guys, I've been busy with school and stuff. The next update should be ready soon, possibly tomorrow.

Ensign Expendable posted:

More like too busy watching television on the beach, decadent capitalist scum!

(From a real Russian texbook, albeit a very much tongue-in-cheek one).

On the guns used in the game:

Mikser posted:

You can actually suppress a Nagant revolver, which has has an unusual moving cylinder construction. But I'd just as readily attribute it to the French developers not being gun nuts.

Comrade Koba posted:

I was about to write a post on how it seems a bit odd that a 19th-century weapon would still be used by criminals in the early 90's (since I imagine TT's and Makarovs would be easier to aquire), but then I found this:

Wikipedia, on the Nagant M1895 posted:

It remains in use with the Russian Railways and remote police forces.

Comrade Koba posted:

Makes me wonder if any other countries are in the habit of arming their railway workers.

Xander77 posted:

1. The nagant is the traditional Chekist weapon.

2. In comrade Lenin's words, "post offices, telegraph centers and railway stations" - capturing these was enough to effectively overthrow the regime. Once the means of communication and movement are under the parties control, areas where no Bolshevik has ever set foot were taking orders from the VKP(B).

More specifically, a number of attempts at counter-revolution were foiled simply because the railway workers were loyal to the party and simply didn't allow trains filled with soldiers to move into Peterburg. By now I suppose it's a merely a matter of practical caution, much like keeping guard over the Aurora cruiser.

On the overall accuracy of the game:

Xander77 posted:

Believe it or not, people didn't actually talk in party slogans - not even people working for the party. Kantselyarit is the common way to characterize / satirize bureaucrats of that sort. The dialogs in this part of the game are stilted and "off" in general, but that's more to do with the writing abilities of the game makers.

As to more common factual mistakes, they are mostly concentrated in latter parts of the game, so I'll go over them then, rather than spoil anything. Still, even for conspiracy media, there's just a lot of fundamental misunderstandings of how the USSR government / secret services worked, nevermind their responsibilities.

Edit - Oh yeah, just one example: Obviously the KGB is not in charge of the GRU, and people can no more be "ordered" transferred from one branch to the other than one can be ordered transferred to the CIA from the military intelligence branch.

red mammoth posted:

And what does it get right?

Xander77 posted:

The standards here are really quite low. Moscow isn't entirely covered in snow regardless of the time of the year. Dancing bears don't drink vodka on the streets. The Ushanka isn't mandatory even indoors. That sort of thing.

Seriously though, this was written by people with at least superficial knowledge of Russia, and that's more than you could expect from most games / movies / books set in the area. Russian naming conventions are used correctly, and those can be hard for foreigners to follow. KGB personnel (and presumably other party functionaries) still use "comrade" as a form of address, but it's out of fashion (except ironically) amongst the civilian population (Russia still doesn't have a standardized polite form of "hey you" to replace "товарищ", for somewhat elaborate reasons).

In general, the end of the 80's was a complicated time, with free enterprise and organized crime making the first inroads into an ostensibly communist country. Little media focuses on that era, as the wild 90's provide a greater scope for political machinations / gun battles on the streets of Moscow, but the game's settings seems to represent the spirit of the time accurately enough.

Xander77 posted:

I forgot to note the smuggled video cassette as an excellent example. One of the definitive cultural markers of the time (though classic 40's noir wasn't as in demand as contemporary action movies etc), it's not a well known signifier outside the former USSR.

On Maksim and Vanya's house, and Russian literature:

Ensign Expendable posted:

I grew up a bit later than that, but I don't think the books changed. A lot of Marshak's books, classic fairy tales. Sherlock Holmes was the shit. Winnie the Pooh was very popular, too. If you were lucky enough to know a guy who knows a guy at school, you could get a shitty quality carbon copy of Western science fiction, for one night only. Lots of books about war, too, not just WWII, but modern stuff. My grandfather also had a copy of the Partisan's Companion that I read end to end a number of times, but that might be atypical.

There were no superheroes, in the Western sense. Supernatural abilities were rare in fiction. I only remember two instances: a short story about a policeman who was very tall, and, of course, Karlsson. A lot of the books were about Young Pioneers or similarly "nice" children getting up to an acceptable amount of mischief and then thwarting the plans of some corrupt Bourgeois/border smugglers/anti-social elements.

Xander77 posted:

Oh! Here's something I neglected to mention about Uncle Vanya's gloomy abode - it doesn't have a piano! It doesn't have any carpets hanging on the walls either (for insulation, yeah, but mainly as an ostentatious display of disposable income), but some "intelligentsia" class family didn't approve of such crass displays. But a piano? That's a must. It might be completely out of tune, it might have served as nothing more than a particularly cumbersome shelf for years, but you can't have a "kulturniy" home without a piano.

One of those things you may not note when you study Russian homes from media rather than by living in one.

Ensign Expendable posted:

I was about to say "but Xander, we did not have a piano!" and then I remembered we did, but my interaction with it was limited to elbowing the keys to make some horrible sounds as a child. I was not a proper wunderkind, I could neither play the piano nor the violin, and could barely recite any theorems at all.

Xander77 posted:

When I might have a slightly more in-depth answer when I can check out my parents bookshelves. But some things I can come up with:

Detective stories. Some translated stuff (Sherlock Holmes yeah) - Russian detectives were mostly (entirely?) police procedurals, as the standard talented amateur who makes trained detectives look like utter fools would be politically incorrect (I actually rather like that). The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed is probably the best one (the same authors, the Vainer brothers, had quite a lot of similarly decent detective stories, most of which were adapted to the screen as well, but never quite as successful)

18th and 19th century adventure stories - Stevenson, Dumas obviously, but also a great deal of stuff that isn't really that popular in the US nowadays - "The Diamond Thieves", Quentin Durward and the likes. Through that, some of Conan Doyle's (relatively) more esoteric stuff, Rider Haggard, Jack London, Kipling (oddly enough) Mark Twain (the full Twain collection contains so much fluff that almost no one in the West would bother with - essays, anecdotes, all sorts of stuff that was barely relevant when published and utterly outdated decades latter).

Limited editions of translated sci-fi, carefully screened. Jules Verne and Wells are prefectly acceptable, Heinlein a bit less so (that Russophobia of his would probably have gotten him banned regardless of what he actually wrote), Asimov is somewhere in the middle. Soviet sci-fi was fairly decent (the Stugratski brothers are still my favorite writers, period) but fantasy was generally discouraged (for a good reason - the flood of terrible generic fantasy that took over the Russian literature market once there was no one around to stop it was overhwelming)

As the Ensign pointed out, a great deal of war literature, some better some worse. I'm still rather fond of The Story of a Real Man.

As to the generic "Russian literature" you're probably thinking about - the 19th century classics? I don't really know if anyone read Gogol or Tolstoy as a teenager outside school assignments. I read Pushkin and Dostoevsky, but I don't know if that was the norm for USSR teens.

This is just the first part, since the full post went over the 50,000 character limit.