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Why Learn About the Soviet Union?

After wanting to do it for a very long time, I finally published to this web site a long-ish paper I wrote in 1985 called An Overview of the Soviet Economy. It probably took me longer to prepare it for the Web than it took to write in the first place. I had converted the original WordStar* file on my old Osborne computer years ago, just to make sure I didn’t lose it. (Although, as far as I know, the old computer still works, if the rat droppings in the garage haven’t gummed it up. I don’t know about the 5¼-inch floppy disks, though.) The real time-eater was the two dozen tables and graphs; getting them scanned and ready to display was a real effort.

Why did I bother? Was it worth the effort? Why are any of the things I wrote on the USSR here on this web site? The USSR is gone. The Communist Party isn’t running Russia any more. What’s the point of reading this stuff now?

I think it was worth the effort. The reason is to understand. I researched and wrote it so that I could understand, and I put it in cyberspace so that others can understand, without having to do their own research. Except for a few scholars, most people in the US never knew much about the USSR, even if they thought they did. Even most scholars were so caught up in the Cold War that their bias clouded their judgment. As a result, most of them never really understood it, either (or they felt obligated to toe the U.S. party line to keep their jobs), and they were the ones on whom the rest relied for information about the Soviet Union.

Between that and the constant barrage of anti-Soviet propaganda aimed at the population in this country, continued today by media idiots-without-a-clue glibly throwing off comments about the West having won the Cold War and Communism being dead, it’s no wonder that most folks don’t have a sense of what really happened there. They just know a few horror stories, and don’t think that there is anything else worth knowing. In other words, most people in the U.S. never had a feel for the USSR being a real country with real people with the same kinds of hopes and dreams that they themselves had. All most people in this country ever got to hear about were the problems in the Soviet Union, and they even got a distorted and exaggerated picture of those.

Knowledge Is Different from Propaganda

Despite those circumstances, there developed a new layer of scholars who were more interested in gaining an understanding of Soviet history and culture, instead of doing research mostly to beef up arguments that the Soviet Union was an evil empire. Their much more objective and honest studies of the USSR has brought out much new information about  the Soviet period. At the time I wrote this paper, I had read much about the USSR, out of a curiosity I had developed when I was about 11 years old, after reading a biography of Peter the Great, and I had a pretty fair personal library on the subject. (Unbeknownst to my younger sisters and I, our parents had gone to the public library as soon as we had moved into town and told the librarians that we kids could read anything we wanted. As a result, we had the run of the library, and we never got herded into the children’s section to read dumbed-down kiddie stuff, but we could develop and satisfy our own curiosities.)

I learned from the non-Cold-War scholars that one could study and write about the Soviet Union, and at least try to understand and tell the truth, and neither inject personal bias nor bow to the political correctness of the time, the way most Sovietologists of that era did. I was lucky to find some younger professors at Brown to help guide my study, 

  • Louis Putterman in Economics and Linda Cook in Political Science. They were scrupulously academic, but without enforcing any ideology the way some older scholars did.
  • However, age itself was not a factor. History professor Abbott Gleason, who had been teaching very popular courses on Russian history for years, somehow floated in the highest circles of Sovietology without being ideologically oppressive to his students, and was always very helpful.
  • Moreover, I got in touch with scholars at other universities whose work I had read in the journals. University of Southern Maine professor Frank Durgin (now emeritus) I found particularly inspiring. He showed no fear taking on the establishment to get at what he saw as the truth, and it was Durgin Against the Dinosaurs in some journals.
  • Also, Harry Shaffer of the University of Kansas, also now emeritus, but still teaching at about age 90, was kind enough to send me an unpublished paper to help with my research.

All of this was amazing attention to a lowly undergraduate in academia.

But Why Bother Today?

Still, why should people bother trying to understand Soviet history, unless they have a special curiosity about it? For one thing, the Soviet economic system brought a giant, backward, mostly rural and semi-feudal country to being a major player on the world stage in only thirty years, and after thirty more years, it was one of the world’s two superpowers. It took centuries for most other world powers to get so highly developed. That in itself makes it worth studying.

For another thing, one can’t really understand the modern United States without understanding the USSR. The two countries’ interactions shaped each other for the last ninety years, and the legacies of those interactions will be with us for a long time. For yet another thing, how can one try to make a better world for the future without understanding the events that formed the present? How can we avoids the mistakes of the past if we don’t understand them? And how can we build upon the successes of the past without understanding them, too?

Since the Russian Revolution, the foreign policy and much of the domestic policy of the United States has been geared toward countering and destroying the Soviet Union. If one looks at the situation in the U.S. today, one sees a country looking more and more the way the Soviet Union looked, in many ways.

  • Living standards and real wages have been declining.
  • Elections are being stolen.
  • Wars that the public opposes are being conducted.
  • The government is lying to the electorate in an ever more blatant fashion.
  • The news media are becoming less independent. (It is not a state-controlled media, but the same corporate interests that are backing government policies also control the media, so it amounts to the same thing.)
  • More and more rights are either being abridged or are under attack, by both major political parties:
    • Christian interests are attempting to force their ways onto the general population with efforts to return prayer to public schools, get religious ideologies like creationism/intelligent design taught in public schools, evangelical harassment of others in the country’s military academies, etc. (Is there any difference between attempts force religion onto a population, or to force atheism? I see none.)
    • Individual privacy is threatened by government and corporate use of personal information to their own ends, airport machines that see through people’s clothing and national ID schemes.
    • Second Amendment rights are threatened by all kinds of restrictive legislation. (The disarming of the Soviet population gave the world yet one more example of how easy it is for a determined, organized political force to take over when the population cannot fight back.)
    • Search-and-seizure and habeas corpus rights are being violated under the guise of the “War on Terrorism.”
    • Travel is being restricted by no-fly lists of people who have been convicted of no crime. Of course air travel has become a misery both because of corporate greed, herding people into planes crowded in like cattle, and by security regulations, so just the unpleasantness of it all can be viewed as a travel restriction.
    • Laws restricting flag burning and promoting “Internet decency” have been passed by Congress and signed by a President. Thankfully, the Supreme Court found them unconstitutional, at least for now. Nevertheless, two out of three branches of government tried to foist them on the population.
    • Legislation ostensibly supporting restrictions on campaign contributions by large donors have attempted to restrict speech by individuals and organizations representing individuals. (See legislation promoted by John McCain.)
  • The very fact that the two major political parties are becoming less and less distinguishable makes the U.S. look more and more like a one-party system.
  • We face legions of government bureaucrats and “public servants” who are “just doing their jobs,” said jobs often not involving even common courtesy, never mind giving a damn about the folks whom they are allegedly serving.
  • Legislators at all levels, from city councils to Congress, spend their time kowtowing to big contributors and looking out for themselves instead of the voters whose welfare, security and interests they have sworn to guard.
  • Government at all levels has aided and abetted an enormous corporate mafia in the U.S. that has deindustrialized it, shipped jobs overseas and generally raped the country. Is this any different from the bureaucratic and Communist Party mafia that controlled the Soviet Union? If there is a real difference, I don’t see it.

All of this is the result of elected officials running the United States to be against something, i.e., socialism and its possible spread from the Soviet Union, instead of being for something, i.e., the constitutional ideals on which this country was founded. Beyond the domestic, the U.S. has used (and squandered) its wealth and power invading, subverting and overthrowing countries around the globe, allying itself with the worst, most corrupt and despotic dictators on the planet. (It is interesting that those in charge of the U.S. government have used the excuse of fighting Soviet aggression and subversion, when the USSR never did anything like that beyond the countries on its own border, and that only because it had been invaded so many times, including by the U.S. The Unites States hasn’t been invaded since the War of 1812, if one doesn’t count a few million illegal immigrants.) Domestically, this attitude led to the Palmer Raids, in which suspected leftist immigrants were summarily deported, the purge of many of the leftists who built the big industrial unions from those organizations, McCarthyism and a gigantic amount of government spying on U.S. citizens.

One last point

If the above criticisms lead you to expect some apology for Stalinism or for the terrible things that happened while it was in control of the Soviet Union, relax.  You won’t find it here. Neither will you find an any attempts to artificially blacken or whiten things in the USSR. If you are used to the usual dark, bleak images of a USSR under the totalitarian control of evil people, that are nearly the only thing one encounters in the West, you might find some of this jarring. Instead of trying to emphasize the negative, the attempt here is to show things in their real perspectives, the good along with the bad.

April 19, 2009

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