August 2008

Why Learn About the Soviet Union?

by Bruce A. Clark

After wanting to do it for a very long time, I finally published a long-ish paper I wrote in 1985 called An Overview of the Soviet Economy to my personal web site. It probably took me as long to prepare it for the Web as it took to write in the first place. I had converted the original WordStar* files on my old Osborne computer years ago, just to make sure I didn’t lose them. (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 digitized and ready to display was a real effort.

The USSR is gone. The Communist Party isn’t running Russia any more. Why did I bother? Was it worth the effort? Why are any of the things I wrote on the USSR there on my web site? What’s the point of reading that stuff now?? Well, I do think it was worth the effort. The reason is to understand. I researched and wrote the paper so that I could understand the subject, 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 that country, either, and they were the ones on whom the rest relied for information about the Soviet Union. (It’s also possible that they felt obligated to toe the U.S. party line to keep their jobs.)

Between that biased information 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.

One More 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 in the things I wrote. Neither will you find an any attempts to artificially blacken or whiten things in the USSR. However, 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 writing jarring. Instead of trying to emphasize the negative, I attempted to show things in their real perspectives, the good along with the bad.

Knowledge Is Different from Propaganda

Despite the Cold War hijacking of academic “Sovietology,” a new layer of scholars developed 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 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 by then read much about the USSR. When I was about 11 years old I read a biography of Peter the Great and developed a curiosity about Russia and I had acquired 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 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 professors at my university to help guide my study. They were scrupulously academic, but without enforcing any ideology the way some Cold War dinosaurs did. Moreover, I got in touch with scholars at other universities whose work I had read in the journals, people who showed no fear taking on the establishment to get at what they saw as the truth. They also were kind enough 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. (One often hears people fretting about the costs of development in the USSR, as if chattel slavery, colonialism, imperialism, poverty, depression, worker oppression and fascism weren’t costs of development in the western world, and for many more years.)

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, wherever they took place?

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:

Why Has It Come to This?

All of this nasty stuff 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. Domestically, this attitude led to the Palmer Raids at the end of World War I, 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.

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 didn’t practice that beyond the countries on its own border, and it did that only because it had been invaded so many times, including by the U.S. The United States hasn’t been invaded since the War of 1812, if one doesn’t count the few million illegal immigrants who are in the country now.

The USSR did aid the efforts of national movements trying to replace colonial or authoritarian governments in numerous countries, but that is a very different animal from the U.S.-style interventions using its own troops, invented surrogates or the CIA to destabilize, invade or overthrow governments for its own foreign policy goals. The U.S. could have chosen to be on the right side, from the Spanish Civil War through Vietnam, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Iran (1953) and many other places over the years, but the government chose not to. One can say what one wants about the methods used by the Soviet Union. It is inescapable, though, that according to the professed ideals of the United States, the USSR was usually was on the right side and the U.S. was on the wrong.

Can It Be Fixed?

For many years there has been anti-American sentiment demonstrated around the world. It’s not because, as said by Karl Rove and George Bush, “they hate us for our freedom.” How ludicrous! The United States has lost so much respect in the world because of the way it has acted. Sadly, most Americans have been propagandized for so long that they believe the jingoist propaganda. Just as tragically, many others do realize something’s wrong, but they get themselves caught up in the same syndrome of believing that they, and only they, have all of the answers.

One great advantage that the Soviet Union’s population had over that of the United States was that they all knew that they were getting screwed. Although they had much national pride in the giant steps their country had taken toward becoming a modern world power, there were no illusions that they were actually in charge of their country. This might be the most important reason for studying the Soviet Union: to see the United States for what it is becoming, so that Americans can abandon any illusion that this country is living up to its ideals, and that forcing opinions and behaviors onto others will never fix anything.