On Soviet Economy

I have a feeling that I’m not making myself clear on the subject of the so-called Soviet economy. So let me put it this way:

The lifestyle I, the daughter of a linguist and a school teacher and a grand-daughter of a famous doctor, a corporate lawyer, a school-teacher, and a World War II veteran, enjoyed while growing up in the Soviet Union is the kind of lifestyle that a kid has today in the US if her mother is a drug-addicted prostitute and her father is a convicted criminal who hasn’t seen the outside of a jail in a decade.

My parents only had 2 kids, didn’t drink or smoke, and worked all day and well into the night to the point where we barely saw them. And the result of all that industry was that I saw a piece of cheese maybe once a year if I was lucky, only wore hand-downs, and couldn’t visit my friends’ birthday parties in winter because – other than my school uniform – I had no clothes to wear outside. My cousins (both boys and girls) had to wear my and my sister’s used underwear. Where my underwear came from is also a very interesting question. That’s how we lived. And that’s just a small part of it.

The children of the party apparatchiks, decked in diamonds and furs and lighting cigarettes with a bill that represented my father’s entire monthly salary, lived differently, of course.

But yes, we all had security. We could all be completely secure in the idea that, as long as the USSR persisted, every generation of us, lowly doctors, teachers, academics, lawyers, etc., would live exactly the same abject lifestyle where the greatest achievement you could hope for was to wrestle a piece of butter from the hands of equally desperate and pathetic individuals beating each other up in stores over basic food-stuffs.

Is it a little clearer now why steam starts coming out of my ears whenever anybody says anything even remotely positive about the Soviet Union?

How Horrible, Mean Americans Destroyed the Soviet Poultry

If you have had the misfortune of living in the Soviet Union, then the words “Soviet poultry” have already made you pee yourself with laughter. If you haven’t, then I promise you’ll get why it’s funny by the end of this post. You see, it isn’t that hard to find out things about the USSR. All you need is do some research, ask a few questions, talk to people. Unfortunately, Stephen Cohen, whose bizarre and ignorant article about the Soviet Union has been published in The Nation, didn’t take that route. Instead, he wrote a piece that hammers in two ridiculous ideas:

1. When a bear sneezes in the woods near Magadan, somebody in the US must be to blame.

2. Soviet Union equals Russia. The other fourteen republics that constituted the USSR deserve neither to be mentioned nor to be taken into account.

It’s one thing when my freshmen respond to the questions of who won World War II with “Russians!” Cohen, however, is supposed to be a professor of something. I’d expect him to be able to figure out the difference between the USSR and Russia (a hint: you can do that by looking at a map for 30 seconds) and to realize that not everything in the USSR and the FSU happens because of some gaffe by the president of the United States.

The entire article by Stephen Cohen is an exercise in mind-numbing ignorance and intellectual carelessness. And what really bothers me is that many people will read the article and maybe even buy this quack’s books and form their opinions about the USSR on the basis of the egregiously stupid statements he makes. Let me just give you a few examples:

Accordingly, most American specialists no longer asked, even in light of the large-scale human tragedies that followed in the 1990s, if a reforming Soviet Union might have been the best hope for the post-Communist future of Russia or any of the other former republics.

In Cohen’s warped mind, the people to ask this question are some mysterious “American specialists.” What does he care that in 1991, 84% of registered voters in Ukraine came to the polls to vote on whether they wanted their country to become independent. And out of those voters, 91% voted in favor of independence. I cannot recall either such a high turnout or such a degree of unanimity in any US elections recently. And this is just Ukraine. Have you heard about the Vilnius massacre? The conflicts in the Transcaucasus area? Does the word Chechnya ring a bell?

Cohen obviously is not aware of any of these powerful independence movements. Anybody who is at least marginally knowledgeable about the nationalist explosions of the late 1980ies and early 1990ies, would not have written the following:

Nor have any US policy-makers or mainstream media commentators asked if the survival of a democratically reconstituted Soviet Union—one with at least three or four fewer republics—would have been better for the world.

Yes, let’s forget the wishes of the Ukrainians, the deaths of the Lithuanians, the Armenians, the Georgians, the 300-year-long fight for independence by the people of Chechnya. Let’s pretend that none of these colonized peoples have any say in the matter of their own independence. Instead, let’s turn to the US media commentators. These commentators should decide which lucky three or four republics will be allowed finally to be independent and which will be drowned in blood to prevent their independence.

I lived in Ukraine in 1989, 1990, 1991. I saw the faces of the people when the Ukrainian flag was raised. I heard people sing “Ukraine hasn’t died yet” (our national anthem). Nothing short of an outright genocide could have stopped these folks from seeking independence. But what does Cohen care? For him, everything that happens in the world gets decided on the pages of the New York Times.

In support of his uninformed opinions, Cohen turns to manipulating the facts:

A majority of Russians, on the other hand, as they have repeatedly made clear in opinion surveys, still lament the end of the Soviet Union, not because they pine for “Communism” but because they lost a familiar state and secure way of life.

I have no doubt that a few years after India achieved its independence, many people in Great Britain still lamented the loss of the empire. No decent person, however, granted their suffering that they couldn’t abuse and exploit Indians more respect than they did to the joy of Indians who were finally free of the colonial overlords. It would be a lot more honest on Cohen’s part to include the opinions of people from newly independent Republics.

Now let’s turn to one of the most hilarious parts of Cohen’s rambling article:

 That kind of nihilism underlay the “shock therapy” so assiduously urged on Russia in the 1990s by the Clinton administration, which turned the country, as a columnist in the centrist Literary Gazette recently recalled, into “a zone of catastrophe.” None of the policy’s leading proponents, such as Larry Summers, Jeffrey Sachs and former President Clinton himself, have ever publicly regretted the near-destruction of essential consumer industries, from pharmaceuticals to poultry, or the mass poverty it caused.

I dislike Larry Summers profoundly. However, the destruction of “essential consumer industries” in the USSR is not his fault. It isn’t really anybody’s fault since those industries did not exist. By way of illustration, let me share with you a well-known Soviet joke about poultry:

An American chicken and a Soviet chicken are lying next to each other at the supermarket.

“Look at you,” the American chicken says. “You are so scrawny, ugly and pathetic. And your color is both yellow and blue at the same time. I, however, look beautiful. I’m plump, pink, and juicy.”

“Well,” the Soviet chicken responds, “at least I died a natural death.”

As anybody who lived in the USSR knows, finding a chicken to buy in the USSR was a rare feat, indeed. When you managed to find one, though, it looked exactly like the chicken in the joke. God, I’ll never forget those tortured-looking blue Soviet chickens. Seriously, blue was their color (after the feathers were removed.) They did look like they had died of horrible diseases. And those were the eighties. Which means that President Clinton was not the one who made them look that way.

In terms of poultry, the nineties were actually a great moment because American chickens started to get imported in the early nineties. They were abundant, plump, juicy and cheap. Many a poor family survived exclusively on those American chickens. But does Cohen care? Of course, not. The actual living reality of all those post-Soviet people is of no interest to him.

I could continue discussing other egregiously stupid statements this pseudo-academic makes in his insulting article but I don’t want this post to last forever. It really bothers me that many people are buying into the idiotic and uninformed opinions of this quack. It is very difficult to maintain an intelligent conversation about the Soviet Union nowadays because people glean their information from such unreliable sources.

Thank you, n8chz, for giving me this priceless link.

How We Felt About the Soviet Union

People often ask me how we felt about living in the Soviet Union. Here is an anecdote that perfectly illustrates out feelings.

When Tarkovsky’s 1973 film Andrei Rublev first came out, my father was discussing it with his mentor.

“I have no idea why this film is being persecuted by the authorities,” my father said. “It is about the Middle Ages, and there is nothing anti-Soviet about it.”

“You are mistaken, Misha,” the mentor replied. “This film is very subversive.”

“How so?”

“Well, to give just one example, do you remember this scene where horsemen are riding down a muddy road?”

“Yes,” my father said. “So what?”

“This slurping mud that the horsemen trample with the hooves of their horses is precisely what we, the Soviet people, are.”

The Tragic Story of Little Misha

This is an excerpt from my literary translation. Just so that you know what it is I’m working on. The story is completely true.

Once she made sure that Zinovi and Vladimir Fedorovich were prepared for everything, Berta began her story.

“In our communal apartment, we have a young family. These are amazing people, a young married couple called Tonia and Fedia. Their last name is Gustokasha. They have a son called Misha who is three and a half years old.”

“Klara also wants to call her son Misha,” Zinovi observed.

“Maria will never agree to that,” Vladimir Fedorovich said, shaking his head.

“I hope Klara’s Misha never has to experience what our Misha did!” sighed Berta wistfully.

Zinovi had a tragic premonition, just like the one he’d felt when sausage was discussed.

“Berta,” he asked in a half-whisper, “is the kid alive?”

“Bite your tongue, Ziama!” exclaimed Berta. “Would I even be telling the story if the kid, God forbid. . . God help you, Ziama, how could you even think of something like this? Of course, the kid is alive. But just barely, poor mite.”

Vladimir Fedorovich smiled, while Berta calmed down a little and continued, “The parents asked Tonia’s grandmother, Baba Klava, to stay home with the kid until he is old enough for daycare. The grandmother agreed and moved to Kharkov from her village. She is a good person but she’s hard of hearing in both ears. More importantly, she is also tall and as fat as a rhino, especially in the front. And in the back, too, of course.”

“Berta,” Zinovi murmured, “I never realized you had this tendency to recur to Naturalist descriptions in the style of Emile Zola. It’s almost like you’ve become a completely different person right before my eyes.”

“Just hear me out,” said Berta and gave an insistent nod that was to serve as a warning to the listeners. “Once, little Misha went to the outdoor facilities to do his business. The outdoor toilet is quite narrow but one can still turn around in there. And there is a seat. I’m not telling you all this because I love Naturalism but just to make sure you understand the story.”

Zinovi and Vladimir Fedorovich looked at each other. Neither of them had the slightest idea about how the seemingly innocent story was going to end. Berta continued, trying to sound as mysterious as possible in order to keep her listeners in suspense.

“Little Misha always found it easy to go into the facility and sit down. He’d come in, take his seat, and stay there as long as he needed. Baba Klava, however, had a lot of trouble trying to get inside the booth. She couldn’t squeeze in there sideways because her chest made that impossible. If she just walked in there, she found it impossible to turn around in order to take a seat comfortable. The only remaining option was for her to remove her underwear before entering the toilet, bend over, and enter the facility by walking backwards. She always introduced herself into the little booth very slowly and carefully to avoid catching her shoulder on the wall or hitting her head against the toilet’s ceiling.”

Vladimir Fedorovich and Zinovi seemed to start realizing what was going to happen. They were afraid, however, to confess what it was that they had started to realize. Berta, in the meanwhile, continued her story with an implacable determination to get it to the ending that could have become tragic.

“Tonia and Fedia don’t allow little Misha to lock the toilet door from the inside. They want to make sure that in case something happens to the kid, they will be able to rush in and save him, without wasting time on breaking the door down. So little Misha went into the toilet and had barely had time to sit down, when suddenly the door opened, and he saw a hugely grandiose backside of Baba Klava moving towards him.”

As they imagined this scene, the men felt their blood run cold, inhaled and forgot to exhale. Berta didn’t allow them to recover their senses and continued her story.

“If you, two grown men, are so terrified, just imagine what the poor child must have felt! Little Misha screamed, yelled, cried, but Baba Klava’s backside kept moving in his direction. She didn’t hear his screams because, as I said, she was hard of hearing.”

“How hard of hearing do you have to be not to hear a scared child scream?” Zinovi finally managed to exhale.

“Between the child and Baba Klava’s ears, Ziama, her humongous backside was located, that same backside that was moving towards the child like the “Tiger” tank.”

“Do you remember, Berta, how I told you what we used to do to those tanks during the war?” Zinovi commented.

“I can imagine,” Vladimir Fedorovich smiled. “Did the kid chase Baba Klava all the way to Berlin, like you guys did with the German tanks?”

Berta triumphantly finished her story.

“He chased her even further than that. When Baba Klava’s huge behind came close to little Misha’s face, he bit it with all his might. He practically took a chunk out of it with his teeth. Poor Baba Klava grabbed her, to use a polite term, underwear and ran out of the scary facility. She was yelling so loud that she even managed to hear her own screams. She told us that herself when we went to see her at the hospital.”

“And what about the kid?” asked Vladimir Fedorovich and Zinovi who still didn’t dare to laugh.

“Dr. Gilman cured him,” Berta reassured them. “He prescribed showers, relaxing conversations, and a nutritious diet. Of course, Tonia had to take care of the child’s diet while Baba Klava was hospitalized.”

A Weird Defense of Communism

I think that any defense of communism is weird but there are really egregious attempts to defend this horrible, inhuman system of beliefs. I encountered one of them in this discussion. To spare you the pain of reading so much utter ridiculousness, here is a pertinent quote:

Yes they were ultimately failures because they aren’t around anymore (Russia free-marketized totally, China is state capitalist, etc.), but that still does not mean these weren’t the greatest moments of human freedom the world has seen: first places where women had equal rights, access to birth control, for example, first place [Soviet Union] where same sex relationships were legal [then removed when it degenerated, but still we’re talking about decades and decades ahead of everything else], not to mention so many other social/economic egalitarian programs that made the capitalist world look utterly backwards.

Women had access to birth control in the Soviet Union? As one of those women, I’m very surprised to hear this piece of news. After abortion stopped being punished by death in the USSR, there was absolutely no access to any means of birth control. Except abortion. I know women who had over 30 (THIRTY!) abortions because there was no other means of contraception available. Instead of birth control, we had forced gynecological exams. We also had no access to any hygienic means that would allow us to preserve some dignity during menstruation.

Oh, it was amazing to be a woman in the USSR. Especially if you were a victim of rape and were subjected to so much shaming and persecution for this horrible failing on your part that you’d try to kill yourself or, at best, choose to keep quite about the crime.

Same sex relationships were legal? Tell that to all those people who were put in jail for practicing gay sex. Homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993.

Social/economic egalitarian programs? Like what, for example? Paying a pittance that was barely enough to survive to everybody except the party apparatchiks? I can’t come up with any other “egalitarian” social program in the USSR.

Do people even understand how offensive they are being when they spread such egregious lies about other countries? Countries that they never even visited, let alone lived in? A horrifying reality that so many people were trapped in should not be used by some bored pseudo-intellectual who is too lazy to read at least a couple of articles about the Soviet Union.

Should the October Revolution Be Celebrated?

Most of my readers probably didn’t notice that yesterday was the anniversary of the October Revolution. Around every November 7th, the Russian-speaking blogosphere explodes with discussions as to whether this date should be celebrated. My answer to this question is an unequivocal yes.

Regular readers of my blog know that I hate the Soviet Union with abandon. Unlike many of my compatriots, I fail to find a single redeeming feature to this horrible, repressive, monstrous country. The October Revolution, however, was a progressive, profoundly transformative event that initially* destroyed all of the remaining vestiges of the hopelessly outdated and degenerate Empire of the Romanovs.

Whenever I read late XIXth and early XXth century literature by American authors, I always feel stunned by how much freedom women in North America enjoyed compared to the women of the Russian Empire. The October Revolution bridged the gap in women’s rights between the countries of the Russian Empire and North America overnight and allowed women to move very far ahead on this issue, overtaking every other country in the world instantly.

The Revolution also liberated the Jews of the Empire from the pale of settlement and allowed them to become integrated into society easily and in any form they chose.

The decade of the 1920s saw an explosion of artistic production in Russia and Ukraine. The Russian Modernists of this decade created outstanding works of art and started the Silver Age of Russian literature.

Of course, later Soviet Union transformed into a repressive totalitarian state. The Russian Modernists were silenced. Their Ukrainian counterparts were exterminated. Soviet Jews rediscovered antisemitism in the late 1940s. Women were persecuted by puritanical ideologues for any suggestion that they can be sexual beings and not just productive workers and efficient baby machines.

Any good idea and any hopeful event can be perverted to the point where they turn into their exact opposite. This is what happened to the October Revolution. The society it ended up creating was structured very rigidly in terms of economic and social classes. Inequality was shocking. Artistic creation was stifled. Ethnic minorities were oppressed and subjected to genocide.

Still, even knowing what I do now about the results of the Revolution, if I happened to live in 1917, I would have fought for the Revolution. For a woman, a Ukrainian, a Jew, a peasant and a descendant of slaves, there was no other legitimate course of action.

* Stalin reestablished quite a few of the traditions of the Russian Empire in late 1930s.

My Intellectual Journey, Part I

When I was 20 years old,  all I did was read CosmoElle and Marie Claire. I also believed that studying was useless and stooooopid and that the only worthy pursuit was to make lots of money to help one become a true Cosmo girl.

I didn’t arrive at this worldview by accident. It was a product of my experiences in the Ukraine of late eighties and early nineties. The years between 1986 and 1990 were a moment of a great intellectual awakening in the Soviet Union. This was the era when intellectuals had their long-awaited opportunity to read, think, debate, and feel very appreciated for doing so.

Every day brought new publications of authors that had been censored before perestroika. My parents subscribed to so many magazines and newspapers that it was weary work to drag them all out of the mailbox every day. Earth-shattering revelations about our history awaited us each morning. People gathered in the streets to discuss a new novel, film, or article. I remember many occasions on which I would be walking down the street with either of my parents only to have them stop and start delivering an impassioned speech on politics, literature, economy, etc. to admiring crowds. The Soviet intellectuals finally felt completely relevant and appreciated. They believed that now they would get an opportunity to have a say in where our country – or, hopefully, our many new independent republics – were heading.

And then all that came to an end. The nineties brought us bandit wars, organized crime, violence, fear, hunger, and insecurity. Most of the intellectuals never managed to find ways to inscribe themselves into the new economic reality. The hunger for material goods that everybody (except the Communist party leaders and their lackeys) had experienced during the Soviet era proved stronger than the need for intellectual nourishment. A veritable orgy of materialism overpowered the FSU countries. You either could inscribe yourself onto this really scary version of out-of-control, wild capitalism or you couldn’t.

For most of the intellectuals, this was a truly tragic moment. The new reality had arrived but there was no place for them in it. They had no tools that would enable them to deal with the demands of the free market. Looking for a job, starting a business, competing with others, being rejected when you apply for positions – these were skills that neither they nor their parents and grandparents ever had to develop. And it’s not an easy task to learn to adapt to this way of being from scratch.

(To be continued. . .)

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part III

What the veterans discovered when they came back from the war wasn’t just the poverty, the hunger and the destruction. They also came back to a country that had changed completely between 1941 and 1945. The former idealism, the faith in the revolution, communism, fraternity and equality were dead and gone. Profound cynicism and materialism set in. A very visible elite was formed that consisted of people who had connections and could get objects of luxury and trade them for other objects of luxury. The last generation of party leaders who took a tram to work was the pre-war one. The new generation led truly princely lifestyles. (This is something that would never change. Today, their grandchildren are the political leaders and the owners of the supposedly post-Soviet Russia.)

Understandably, the popular discontent was growing. People realized that even though they had won the war, all they had to come home to was misery and back-breaking labor that would only enrich the lucky few. Stalin needed to channel this massive unhappiness somewhere. As usual, he didn’t invent anything new but simply copied one of the people he admired the most in the world: Hitler.

The remedy took. People remembered how comforting it was to hate those greedy, nasty, scheming Jews and popular anti-Semitism grew.

There was another reason why Stalin encouraged anti-Semitism, though. There is ample evidence that at the time right before his death he was preparing to unleash World War III. Of course, he couldn’t initiate a nuclear conflict and expect the downtrodden of the world to support him. He needed to provoke his greatest enemy, the United States. I strongly believe that public trials of Jews  and mass deportations were planned specifically to provoke the United States into doing something that would justify the entrance of the USSR into a global nuclear conflict.

After Stalin’s death, anti-Semitism remained the daily reality both on the popular and on the institutional levels until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nowadays, I don’t think that anti-Semitism is much of an issue in the FSU countries for the simple reason that most Jews left.

This concludes this series of posts. I will now accept questions and comments on how well I explain complex facts of history. 🙂

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part II

In 1945, Soviet Union defeated the Nazi Germany and liberated the surviving Jews from the concentration camps. Soviet Jews had participated in the war effort heroically, in every capacity imaginable.

Three years later, a vicious anti-Semitic campaign was unleashed within the country against the Soviet Jews. If Stalin hadn’t died (or had been killed, which is far more probable), Soviet Jews would have been deported to Siberia. This was a very doable plan for Stalin, since he had already deported several nations to Siberia in their entirety. The deportations were going to be preceded by 1937-style trials over prominent Jews. The first such trial was going to be one where famous Jewish doctors would be condemned to death for, supposedly, organizing the murders of the Communist leaders of the Soviet Union, starting with Lenin and Gorky.

Many people believe even today that this anti-Semitic revival was a result of Stalin’s personal dislike for Jews. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no evidence that Stalin ever relied on personal sympathies or lack thereof in any of his crucial decisions. Let’s remember that he played the key role in the creation of the State of Israel. Besides, he collaborated with Jews in his government for decades. It’s very hard to believe that one day he just woke up and decided to entertain some long-held grudge against Jews all of a sudden.

Just like everything else he did, Stalin’s anti-Semitic policies served very practical purposes. On the one hand, anti-Semitism was what the country needed to vent the grievances caused by the war. During the war, many people crossed the Soviet borders for the first time in their lives. My Ukrainian grandfather was from a small village that had been ravaged by the Soviet policies aimed at destroying the Ukrainian agriculture. He walked across the entire Eastern and Central Europe with his regiment. And that was when he discovered that Soviet propaganda had been lying to him his entire life. Polish and German farmers lived incomparably better and richer lifestyles than he on the most fertile soil in Europe, in Ukraine. Even after the destruction of the war, it was obvious that he was a pauper compared to these “poor victims of capitalist greed.”

There were millions of soldiers and prisoners of war who came back with such stories. Many of them were sent to the concentration camps. Stalin couldn’t jail every single war veteran, however.

(To be continued. . . )

Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, Part I

Reader el asked me to write a post on the trajectory of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, and I’m happy to oblige.

The revolution of 1917 was welcomed by most Jews. The Russian Empire  had been violently anti-Semitic. The Jews were only permitted to reside in the Pale of Settlement, their access to education and entrance into professions was severely constrained. The tsarist government encouraged pogroms that kept the Jews in constant fear for their lives. In my own family, we had a scientist, a brilliant mathematician, who had to renounce his religion and convert to Christianity in order to continue pursuing his research.

When the revolution took place, the absolute majority of Jews was extremely happy (Ayn Rand was an exception.) Now they had full rights and nobody discriminated against them.The opposite often took place. When the first round of cleansings started in the mid-1920s, Jews were pretty much the only people who had nothing to worry about. In case you don’t know, a cleansing was a process of investigating every person’s antecedents. Those who had a rich relative, a business-owner of some sort in their family, or, God forbid, an aristocrat (no matter how far removed) would lose their jobs and be ostracized in the first round of cleansings. In the second round, they would be sent to the concentration camps or exterminated. For the Jews, cleansings represented no danger. They were all dirt-poor and in opposition to tsarism. The best thing you could be during the cleansings was a Jew.

Right after the revolution and until the end of World War II, the Jewish culture experienced a veritable boom in the Soviet Union. There were dozens of newspapers and magazines in Yiddish. Every major city had a Jewish theater of its own. Jews could have great careers and any kind of education they wanted. In case you haven’t read the story of my Jewish great-grandmother, who went from an illiterate family in a shtetl to a position of great responsibility, you can find it here.

There was a price for all this, of course. In return for these great things, Jews had to abandon their religion. This wasn’t discriminatory, though, because everybody was expected to move away from religious practices. Exploited and degraded for centuries by corrupt priests, the former Christians of the Soviet Union forgot the religion they never really perceived as their own very easily. The Jews followed suit. They found non-religious ways of preserving their identity and practice their culture.

The popular anti-Semitism of the Russian Empire was eradicated during the first decades of the USSR’s existence. If a kid made an anti-Semitic joke at school, for example, that kid was berated and ridiculed forever. Among adults, an anti-Semite was perceived as a counter-revolutionary (once again, because the Jews were seen as extremely pro-revolution). By 1940s, people of the Soviet Union didn’t even know, for the most part, that it was possible to be anti-Semitic.

In my next post, I will tell you how this all came to an end, and why the USSR became profoundly anti-Semitic (both on the level of the government and among people at large) right after the Soviet Union defeated Nazism in 1945 and liberated the European Jews from German concentration camps.