Something delightful happened on a day in June 1955 that changed the lives of tens of millions of Soviet citizens: public parks, which were a precious escape from people’s drab urban existence, opened up free of charge.
The entrance fee had amounted to the cost of a loaf of bread, not a sum to be sneezed at in a country that was still impoverished by the Second World War. But that day in June, word spread rapidly over that land of 11 time-zones: Thank Jawaharlal Nehru! The prime minister of India was then visiting the Soviet Union, and he became an instant – an unwitting – hero for young Soviet men and women. For many of them, now in their 70s and 80s, he remains a sentimental memory.
The story told around the country, but never officially reported, went like this: Among the numerous showcases of socialist progress to which the Soviet leaders took Nehru, the giant central park in Moscow was one. The leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita S. Khrushchev, his second-in-command, Prime Minister Nikolai A. Bulganin, and a host of lesser lights, including the mayor of Moscow, accompanied Nehru to the grand entrance to the central park. Nehru suddenly noticed something his hosts had never paid attention to and had taken for granted: a long line of people queuing at the ticket boxes near the gates. This was the scene one would expect to see at a sports stadium on the day of a major game, not at the entrance to a public park on an average day. Curious, Nehru asked who those people were, and why they were queuing. His hosts told him that they were purchasing tickets from cashiers to enter the park. Nehru, it is believed, was dumbfounded. He asked again to be sure, and received the same response.
The exact words uttered by Nehru are thought to have ranged from astonishment to admonition. He inquired how a communist government of a socialist country could charge its people to enter public parks, while the British, the US and other capitalist countries made public parks open to the public free of charge. The Royal Parks of London had been free public parks since 1851, a century before this Moscow encounter. Khrushchev was profoundly embarrassed, and livid. His retinue could not understand what had gone wrong and looked at their boss for instructions. He said something to his minions, who ran to the ticket boxes yelling and waving hands.
The ticket boxes were closed immediately, and the crowd was told that entrance was free. A minor stampede occurred when the people already inside ran back to demand refunds. Overnight, telephone calls and telegrams were fired across the Soviet Union. In the morning, the radio announcers informed the Soviet people that all public parks were free. In many parks, the surrounding metal fences were removed and the gates stood open even at night. That was a social revolution.
Why were there entrance fees in the first place? Most likely, it was a fiscal matter of municipal budget revenues. Soviet municipal governments, which had to take care of underpriced public utilities and the repair of the aging housing stock, were starved for revenues. Public parks entrance fees were handy – especially since rapid urbanisation had increased the number of paying customers. But once these fees had been exposed as unbecoming of a socialist country, they were doomed.
A great social liberation ensued. More people could afford to use public parks more often for recreation, family pursuits, picnics and romantic exploration. Everyone was elated and grateful to Nehru, the young and the old, the athletes and the war invalids, the picnicking families and the dating singles. Especially the latter. It so happened that in the Soviet Union, public parks doubled as open-air dance venues and dating spots, for the lack of other options. People had had to pay twice, once for the park entrance and again – the same amount – for the dance enclosure. Now, thanks to Nehru, the price had halved.
This was a huge deal, especially for students, young workers and apprentices. In the early and mid-1950s, urban social life was constrained. There were very few opportunities for young people to meet and date. Restaurants were beyond reach. A restaurant meal cost about 10% of the monthly wage per person. People ate at cheap factory cafeterias and municipal diners, which were not quite romantic. People lived in barracks and crammed communal flats, several persons to a room, often a dozen or more per apartment. Young people gathered in the backyards and basements of buildings – shabby, murky places. There were, in each city, a few factory clubs and community centers where people could dance; but it was assumed, with good reason, that the management was watching.
After Nehru, dancing in urban parks became more affordable. Strangers could meet more easily. The dating pool became greater and more heterogeneous, which facilitated matching. The effect on dating, matching and mating opportunities was hard to overestimate. To wit, this was Nehru’s profound and lasting contribution to the liberation of Soviet sexual life. In economic terms, he expanded and diversified the dating, matching and marriage markets in the Soviet Union. Some people, now in their late 50s and early 60s, exist today thanks to him, possibly without ever having heard of him. This is fitting. The greatest contributions to humankind have been anonymous. Think of the invention of the wheel, fire, art, the alphabet – and free public parks.
Michael S. Bernstam, an economist, is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was born in Russia in 1943 and emigrated to the United States in 1977.