The Totalitarianism I Know

I think many people don’t understand what it was like in the USSR. Back there, we weren’t afraid of being executed or sent to a concentration camp. Even during the Stalin era, when there actually were mass executions and labor camps, most people didn’t fear them because nobody was supposed to know. It was all done in secret.

But after Stalin’s death, it weren’t done at all. We didn’t fear physical violence from the state. Honestly, the idea is ludicrous.

We feared being publicly shamed. We feared becoming pariahs. We feared social, not physical, death. We feared being socially, not physically, cancelled. We feared being prevented from making a living, being fired, denied promotion, being told we are agents of international imperialism. We feared public humiliation.

And we feared that this was going to happen to us not if we did something egregious like molesting kids or beating up old ladies for fun. We feared that this was going to happen if somebody found out we enjoyed ideologically suspect news programs, read politically incorrect books, didn’t show up for climate strikes subbotniks, didn’t add pronouns to our email signatures Communist terminology to every sentence we wrote, didn’t condemn Trump US imperialism loudly enough, didn’t give away our jobs toys to the suffering refugees children in Guatemala, and didn’t join the Twitter mobs Komsomol leaders with enough enthusiasm when they condemned white Ukrainian nationalists and the growing threat of the KKK and world fascism.

This is what I don’t want to experience again. This is the totalitarianism I know.

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12 thoughts on “The Totalitarianism I Know”

  1. When I was first in Poland, in the 1970’s. people were concerned that if they ran afoul of the secret police, they could end up in prison, in the worst case. I was advised by colleagues that, even as an American, I might not be completely safe from this threat.

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      1. I have toured the largest prison run by the East German secret police which is now open as a memorial/museum. The guide told us that the vast majority of prisoners there were people caught trying to cross the border into West Berlin or into West Germany or people caught helping others to get across the border. Most of the rest were actively engaged in anti-communist political activities. The average person really didn’t run much risk of winding up in the secret police prison.

        They did actively torture and murder people at that prison in the late 40s and early 50s, but they had a fairly radical shift after the death of Stalin and shifted the focus to breaking people psychologically; they deprived them of sleep, kept them in solitary confinement, interrogated them for countless hours, and filled their heads with all sorts of lies designed to destabilize them and confuse them.

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        1. In the USSR, even somebody as openly dissident as Sakharov didn’t have to fear death or torture. He was exiled and put under surveillance but his biggest problem was that his wife wasn’t allowed to travel to the US.

          There were a few people who were institutionalized with fake diagnoses for dissidence but they were a handful.

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          1. Sakharov is not a particularly good example here – he was too famous to do something worse to him, by Brezhnev’s era standards. Less famous dissidents were not as lucky as him, and some of them (of course in much smaller numbers than under Stalin) were actually imprisoned and tortured, some were imprisoned in psychiatric wards and treated with some fairly harsh “medicines”.
            I also disagree that people were not aware of the extent of Stalin’s purges and labor camps. Many were sure that as long as they are innocent, they were safe, and that those who got imprisoned maybe deserved it. (Or maybe that was a psychological defense mechanism they employed.) But one really cannot hide the extent of the purges when everyone has a neighbor or two who got arrested, and whose family was ostracized (or worse) as the “family of the enemy of the peoples”. OK, maybe in some inner-Russia proletarian neighborhoods not everybody had a neighbor or two like that… But even they were reading the newspapers that were condemning “spies” and “traitors”.

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        2. During the 1980s when I was stationed with the NATO forces in Germany, I went on a tour of Berlin and was able to move with complete freedom throughout both West and East Berlin. When I wore my uniform (all the time in Berlin) I was able to ride all the public transportation (subway, buses, etc.) free of charge, and if I’d gotten on a full bus and tossed a German out to get a seat, the local authorities couldn’t have touched me.

          There were definite rules in place that nobody dared to violate.

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      2. “performing for your benefit to look more pitiful”

        That certainly happened, but it was a very different situation from the Soviet Union.
        Fear of the secret police (UB) was very real if probably exaggerated. And in the early 1970s would have been not long after the bloody protests of 1968 and 1970. Anti-government protests and systematic opposition was proportionately a lot larger and there were more open protests and a lot more foreigners interacting with the local population.
        The social aspect of repression was also very real, especially in terms of housing. The post WWII housing shortage only really started to ease around 15(!) years ago or so. The shortage affected people the same way that natural disasters in other countries might and the prospect of losing housing was a real concern used by the government.

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  2. Well, I’ve only visited US and South American prisons unless you count some memorial type prisons in Europe. I don’t list pronouns on e-mail and I spent the weekend translating for ICE detainees and it’s not either-or if you are thinking in terms of free society.

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  3. (…but of course if you are thinking in terms of narrow self-interest then here you are best off speaking a certain acceptable line and acting differently.)

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