Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Soviet 1970s

It's an odd experience to own a suburban home again.  I grew up in a suburban home, or two homes rather, but left for college when I was 18 years old, and never really got back to a home until now, 24 years later.  I've lived in apartments or condominiums in Washington, D.C., Santa Monica, Los Angeles, Northern Virginia, Montreal, Urbana, Chicago, and Phoenix, but I never owned or occupied a single family home, except on two short occasions when I, with three or four other students briefly shared a rental home.  Today, I can't help but make endless comparisons between my current domicile and my parents' first home.  In fact, I'm obsessed with the differences.  I dream of them.  Memories flood back to me every time I climb a staircase, get something from the garage, change out a storm window, store something in the basement freezer, or water the lawn.

These two homes are like bookends on the life I have lived so far.  The similarities between them are striking:  how different can one suburban home be from any other?  The architect's intention, surely, was to make the buyer feel like he never really left his original dwelling place, and to induce an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.  Live here, and you won't even notice the passing of time.  Is this lawn so different from the lawn to which you were born?  Are the neighbors any different than the ones you first encountered as you left home to play for the very first time?  There's no geography here to remind you that you are anywhere other than where you grew up and first ventured into the world.

Has America changed since 1970 when you entered the world?  If so, you wouldn't know it from the look or feel of your quiet suburban home or its gentle, serene surroundings.  If they play soccer in the local park rather than baseball, is that really so unexpected?  If there's a Meyer's nearby and not a Jewell grocery store, are you really so astonished?  Your home is the same, only slightly refurbished.  Your neighborhood is the same.   You don't believe me?  Do you really know where you are?  Are you really so sure you aren't exactly at the spot where you were born?  They say this is Northwest, Indiana, and not the Southwest suburbs of Chicago, but if you weren't looking at the license plates, how could you be sure?  All Christmas trees look alike;  all fireplace mantles are analogous; all backyards are commensurate.

I was born in 1970.  At that time, the world was divided into two, and America competed for the role of global hegemon with the Soviet Union.   It's hard to go back in time to the early 1970s and analyze the contest objectively.  Did we know that we were destined to overawe the communist way of life?  Did we feel the weakness of our opponents on some subconscious level?  The simple answer is that we couldn't have known.  We were distracted by Vietnam, anti-colonialism, OPEC, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the non-aligned movement, inflation, urban blight, nuclear worries, and a hundred other things.  On the other hand, when one reads a book such as Hedrick Smith's The Russians, one wonders how we ever really worried about Russia at all.  Of course, Russia always maintained a massive nuclear arsenal;  undoubtedly that very real threat to America's suburban paradise is the single great explanation of our inability to grasp that that things in Russia were much, much worse than they were in the U.S., and that Russian communism was already doomed.

Hedrick Smith's famous book was the result of a three-year stint in Russia as the leading correspondent of the New York Times.  According to Smith, Russian citizens (he mean Soviet citizens) were living an almost intolerable life, mired in an anti-consumerist hell.  While he admitted that Soviets had some privileges related to free or subsidized education, food, health care, and housing, and he said many Russians celebrated the fact that they couldn't really be fired or laid off from their jobs, he found a country that functioned poorly, even horribly, in comparison with its Western counterpart.  The Soviet system was of course unfree:  Russians lived in a state of almost perpetual police surveillance and ordinary Russians had little or no opportunity to meaningfully participate in politics or public life in general.  Yet Smith focuses on the intolerable daily life of ordinary Russians, who suffered tremendously from the anti-consumerist mentality of Russian communism as it was practiced in the 1970s.

Most Russians didn't protest against the Soviet system that oppressed them politically as well as economically.  The lack of protest can be attributed to many tools of coercion at the disposal of the Party and the government.  But Hedrick also argued that Russians acquiesced to the system because they knew how far they had come in the past few decades.  Even so,  Russians suffered mightily everyday from the system they had inherited from the Bolshevik founding fathers.   They waited endlessly in lines, endured complex bureaucratic procedures, bought substandard goods, and tried to find clever ways to circumvent endemic shortages in basic consumer goods.  Although Russians enjoyed a high degree of job security, the downside of that security was that factory workers and salespersons had almost no interest in helping people get what they wanted or needed to live better lives.

Although Brezhnev had other leaders made small overtures to make life a little easier for ordinary Russians, most Russians continued to experience the torturous effects of a centralized economy.  For instance, as an average Russian, even in the 1970s you might be expected to live either in a communal apartment (Hedrick says up to one third of all Soviet citizens did so at the beginning of the 1970s), or at the very least live in a very crowded two-room flat, perhaps sleeping with parents or children in a converted living room.  You might also expect to wait years for a poorly made new car, which, sadly, could not easily be repaired since there were few garages and even fewer spare parts.

Soviet citizens were supposed to have access to free health care, but here too socialism failed to produce a good product.  The incentives for quality simply didn't exist.  So people waited years for important surgeries, experienced dreadful care from poorly trained or poorly motivated nursed, and counted themselves lucky if relatives could bring them food while they underwent treatment in a hospital.

Insofar as Russian communism worked, it worked because of graft.  People stole, bribed, and traded favors to survive.  Although statistics were naturally hard to come by, the Soviet underground economy constituted a gigantic proportion of the total economy.   As a rule, everybody stole.  The real question was whether one stole on a small-scale or on a big-scale.  People siphoned gas from cars that were owned by the state, pilfered small amounts of good meat in order to resell that meat to "friends" at inflated prices, or got involved in large-scale efforts to systematically defraud the government by short-changing contractors.  And they also cheated the system in other ways, as they almost needed to do in order to survive.  For instance, Russians were restricted from moving to Moscow without the necessary legal paperwork, which was difficult to attain.  Thus Russians often participated in fictional marriages in order to attain a permit to live in the Soviet Union's most favored city.

The great irony of the Russian system was that society was a split into classes again.  While Hedrick reminds us that official ideology acknowledged only two classes--workers and peasants--Soviet reality contained a sharp division between the nomenclature and ordinary people.  In practice, Soviet citizens didn't really care all that much about money.  The scarcity and poor quality of Soviet goods meant that people craved access to consumer goods and services more than they craved currency.  Party members, military men, and certain other special categories of elite knowledge or culture workers, enjoyed tremendous advantages over their counterparts in the regular Soviet economy.  They had access to special stores, special schools, special hospitals, special camps, and special dachas.  What is more, in the ultimate symbol of special status, the Soviet elite could travel abroad.

The class stratification in Soviet life didn't lead to open rebellion but it was not invisible.  In fact, ordinary Russians often came face to face with their own low status.  Every Soviet institution or activity was touched by favoritism.  Members or the nomenclature could quite openly skip the queues in order to claim tickets to sporting events, seats on Aeroflot planes, seats on trains, and beds in elite hospitals.  They shopped in well-stocked stores and rode around in easily identifiable cars that barely stopped for pedestrians.

Near the end of communism Gorbachev famously exclaimed:  "We can't go on like this."  Reading Hedrick, who, like other American journalists, was restricted from observing most of Russian life by rigorous censorship, travel restrictions, and a general culture of state-inspired fear among Russian citizens, one cannot help but wonder how Americans and others so overrated the Soviet Union's capacity to compete or even survive in a modern world.  Even a reasonably perceptive foreign journalist in the early 1970s could see that Russian communism could do nothing other than eventually collapse under its own weight.  If the Soviet Union could temporarily compete with the West militarily, it could not produce what Soviet citizens wanted, neither in terms of quantity nor quality.

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