Friday, January 22, 2010


Life In The Former Soviet Republics 15 Years After USSR Breakup

It’s self-evident that totalitarian regimes take the liberty of monopolizing the media and bending the truth to suit their needs. This being said, it’s sometimes shocking to encounter specific pieces of propaganda. Take for instance a pamphlet entitled USSR-7: Entering the 21st Century, donated to me by a friend who visited Russia in the 1980s during a high school trip. The pamphlet is a tour de horizon of Soviet accomplishment in technology, manufacturing, science, health care, education, and social reform. Needless to say, the pamphlet presents the country in the best possible light, but the copy is nothing short of ridiculous, even in the era of glasnost and Gorbachev.

According to USSR-87, the October Revolution actually “put an end to exploitation” in socialist countries once and for all. It also ensured that almost all Soviet working men and women were members of trade unions with direct responsibility for organizing factory work, and the ability to nullify management decisions whenever necessary. In one strikingly false passage, the writer stresses that “Moscow and the Kremlin have become symbols of social progress and the struggle for mankind’s future.” In another, the writer insists (somewhat defensively?) that the Soviet Union is blessed by a unified proletariat, peasantry, and intelligentsia. In a third, the writer touts figures of industrial expansion and impressive increases in the standard of living of Soviet citizens.

Beginning in 1917, Communism had granted a backward people free education and health care, complete equality of the genders, and diverse leadership roles for ordinary men and women. It had also equalized the wealth in the various republics and autonomous regions. Moreover, the county was witness to a system of total fraternity among the many nationalities. As the writer tells us, the USSR’s “1500 Eskimos” are treated as the absolute equals of even the vast Russian people. Absurd exaggerations like that one might strike some readers, then and now, as comic, but they are also saddening. What must it have been like to live in a society where lies like these were so ubiquitous? How much worse must life in the previous generations have been when even the benign Gorbachev era had so much trouble discussing the country with any degree of objectivity or realism?

It’s possible that an official short summary of the American experience would be inadequate and biased, but certainly this tract demonstrates that the Soviet government was totally unable to either recognize or admit some basic realities about the USSR, even 70 years after the October Revolution Gorbachev’s “revolution from above.” The tract does hint at some fundamental problems within the USSR, including housing and other consumer shortages as well a gap between scientific breakthroughs and their application to manufacturing problems, but the cures involve breathtakingly naïve generalizations about “renewing” all aspects of society and “accelerating” the pace of development. They also involve more strenuous “five year plans.” The plans suggest a certain frenzied illogic in governmental thinking: the Soviet Union had to get better in each five-year cycle, no matter how bad things had gotten in the previous cycle.

On the other hand, the USSR was at least paying lip service to ideas related to consumer desires, democratization, and active citizenship. And in a sense, the country was reaching out to the West for support in the form of increased trade. What is more, the Soviet Union really was making concrete proposals for the improvement of international relations, something the pamphlet touched upon, even as it took gentle stabs at the Western powers for not fully reciprocating. But sadly, the Communist system was set up to fail. The political system ensured that the rural soviets as well as the Supreme Soviet were passive entities, rubber stamps for executive power, whether it came from a despot like Stalin or a would-be reformer like Gorbachev.

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