Wednesday, November 18, 2009
It's Hard Out Here for a Communist
One of the best ways to understand the Soviet Union is to look at the country through the lenses of ordinary citizens. But since the Soviet Union was a police state, it only became possible to learn the views of ordinary citizens during the period of Glasnost and Perestroika. The moment when citizens began to write letters of complaint, protest, and accusation to liberal journals such as Ogonyok (Small Fire) was extraordinary.
Until 1988, the public sphere in Russia had been small and fragile. But when the process of liberalization began, the floodgates of suffering opened wide, and people began sending thousands upon thousands of angry, plaintive letters to the editors of liberal journals, who printed a wide variety of them in each issue. It’s difficult to summarize the hundred or so letters that appear in Small Fires: Letters from the Soviet People to Ogonyok Magazine, 1987- 1990, Edited by Christopher Cerf and Marina Albee. They touch on every aspect of Soviet life, and leave no doubt that modern Russian history and experience had little in common with that of America or Western Europe. As the 20th century drew to a close, a large portion of the Russian people understood that the Communist experiment—at least in the form it had taken in Russia up until that point—had failed the Russian people. Agriculture was underdeveloped, the state couldn’t properly regulate supply and demand, shortages and queues and rationing abounded, corruption was endemic, the political process didn’t cater to the will of the people, and so on.
Below are just a few of the letter-writers complaints:
The kolkozes (collective farms which, in theory, belonged to the workers who ran them) and sovkhozes (state farms—not so different in practice from the collective farms) were collapsing. The discrepancy between their optimistic names and reality had become increasingly jarring to Russians who knew they absorbed huge amounts of targeted investment but produced very little agricultural produce. Most were called things such as “Will of the Proletariat” or “Lenin’s path,” but, as one embittered jester pointed out in his letter, they ought to be renamed “40 years without a harvest” or “30 years of padded figures.”
The economy was in ruin. Railroads were in disrepair. People were waiting line for everything. Wait lists for cars were 15 to 20 years, and spare parts were so rare that existing cars were often off the streets one half of the time. There was no sugar for cakes and cookies. Women couldn’t get perfume or skin crème. Stores were closed and then remodeled when foreign dignitaries came to down, but these same stores stocked nothing when foreigners weren’t in town. People were on rations for basic necessities, and forced to make 100 milligrams of soap, for instance, last three months for an entire family.
Corruption permeated every corner of the Soviet economy. The retailers were collecting scare goods and selling them at a huge markup to select customers and keeping the profits. Telephone operators sold calls to friends and acquaintances.
Technology was outdated. The state apparatus bragged about Soviet production levels, but often the country was producing obsolete products like typewriters even after the West had long since switched to computers. One letter writer seemed in awe of the idea of a personal computer and a personal printer.. He also wondered why copying machines were considered to b e sacred machinery in Russia, when Americans seemed to be able to make copies whenever they wanted to. Russians were still using carbon paper when the West didn’t even stock this obsolete office supply anymore. The reader noted that the Soviet government might still be hoping to combat the spread of pornography and bourgeois ideas by restricting copy machines—so the scarcity of new technology might be due to Soviet ideology as much as to Soviet economic backwardness.
Censorship was still being practiced as evidenced by the publication of Dostoyevsky’s complete works, minus his political novel, The Possessed. Indeed, one letter-writer also called attention to the irony that he couldn’t get a copy of Gorbachev’s new book, Perestroika, although it was readily available in the West. Whether the problem was related to the paper shortage in Russia, or a form of indirect censorship, he did not say.
The people had little access to information. The most informative state news show was deliberately aired when older people had gone to bed. The dangerous situation in Armenia was ignored altogether in the press. For decades, state propaganda had been blaming the Pentagon for everything that went wrong in the world. The Soviet press was severely restricted in its access to the news makers. The history books were tainted by official propaganda. One dictionary that was published in 1988 proclaimed that only the West used racist stereotypes, that Western philanthropy was a tool of its spy services, that Soviet anti-Semitism did not exist, and that the U.S.S.R. had solved its nationalities problem once and for all. Trotsky and the Bible were only now becoming available to readers. Soviet geography was only slowly becoming a declassified subject, even in the age of satellites.
The Soviet Union was spending far too much money on its military budget. Moreover, the Soviet Army was a closed institution and provided the public with little or no information about how it operated, or how much money it drained from the Soviet economy each year. The Afghan invasion was, of course, a disaster with disastrous and far-reaching consequences.
One man’s wait for a new automobile sums up the desperation of the citizenry. As a veteran, he was entitled to “jump” to the head of a wait for a new car. When he went to find out about that car, he was told that many other veterans were already in this line and that it would be 62 years before he would be eligible for the car. In other words, the man could expect the car in the year 1051. With grim humor, the man wrote to the magazine to say that he thought that he would like to visit his heirs in the new car. At 130 years of age, he would make quite an impression on them all.