I lived in the Soviet Union for two years in the 1970s, at the height of the cold war, under the dead hand of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule. It was a state that isolated itself from the world, in which the Communist party attempted to exercise total ideological control. It believed that central state planners could organise the economy more efficiently than the market. In fact, the planned economy turned out to be barely controlled chaos, further muddled by everyday corruption and sheer bloody-mindedness. If a shop assistant was more interested in painting her nails than in serving you, there was little you could do about it.
Yet somehow the memory I retain most strongly is not of oppression and empty shops, but of a society that thrived on something that was missing in our hectic western lives – a sense of togetherness and sharing, by which Russians contrived to beat the system.