Thursday, August 23, 2012

Francis Sufford's USSR

I've been buy packing up my Soviet books again, preparing to take them to their new home.  As I put them away I feel deeply nostalgic.  The books have travelled quite a lot.  These past two years have been difficult ones for them, and for me.  In about twenty-four months my son and I established a new home, and set out to create a new family, a family of two, with surrounding circles of love and support,  but a history of loss and sorrow.  Of course, my son now has two wonderful, and deeply interconnected, families.  What have these two years been like?  My quick-witted, strong-willed son and I have created new rituals, eating patterns, and patterns of work and fun.  We've even thrived.  What's strange is to realize this:  in two years my son and I left a family of three, landed in a family of two (actually, he found himself in two different families of two), and now my son and I are launching into a brand new family of four.  It's amazing how much life can change for a boy of seven.  I take comfort in knowing that my son's journey involves love and growth and family and adventure--all the best parts of living.

But enough about us... We all deal with change, and in many ways change and development are the preconditions of nostalgia.  In the Soviet Union, every man woman and child experienced change on an almost unprecedented level.  The average citizen dealt directly or indirectly with some terrifying combination of war, famine, political terror, and economic revolution.  Francis Stufford's Red Plenty, a book I've discussed previously, captures the essence of this radical change.  Even after the brutal Stalin left the stage of history, the Soviet Union innovated on an unimaginable scale.  According to Stufford, the Party had given its leaders the right to determine almost every aspect of its citizens' lives.  Like Plato's Philosopher Kings, Russia's leaders felt obliged to make decisions about the people's spiritual, cultural, political, military, and economic life.  They believed that Marx had taught them a special theory of social change, and that leaving history to the uninitiated was a ridiculous and even immoral proposition.  History had refuted the quaint nothing that individuals and bourgeois freedom would get a people where it wanted--indeed needed--to go.

To be create a happy civilization, Philosopher Kings needed to ensure that ordinary people weren't allowed to make mistakes, be inefficient, or exercise some kind of misguided and chaotic will to power.  The result was that a very tiny group of people (but primarily Khrushchev,  and later Brezhnev) road roughshod over any pretence of human rights or autonomy.  For a while, the system seemed to work.  Economic centralism produced growth.  Eventually, the limits of Gosplan, and its inherent absurdities, were reached.  The economy began to stall, even grinding to a virtual halt at the end of Khrushchev's rule.  People had little incentive to work.  Notwithstanding the massive planning bureaucracy, the various parts of the economy never seemed to fit together.   Lines and shortages proliferated.  Innovation was rare.  Agriculture fell apart.  The end might have come sooner, but according to Stufford, the USSR's massive oil reserves and new petroleum discoveries during an oil boom hid the underlying sickness of the socialist economic regime.

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