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TWO decades of polling by the Levada Centre, a Russian NGO, show that the majority of people in Russia regret the downfall of the USSR. It is mainly economic and social reasons that fuel this regret. This year, positive sentiment towards the Soviet Union has hit a 14-year-high.
These statistics are worth spending some time perusing. The popularity of the Soviet Union ebbs and flows with the strength of the economy. Yet only once since polling began in 1992 did regret at its demise fall below 50 per cent.
What may come as a surprise to most of us in the West is that the inability to travel and holiday freely since the collapse is one of the reasons cited by the public – a stark contrast to the familiar tales of Soviet citizens yearning for free travel. The relaxation of travel restrictions to countries outside of the former Soviet states mean little to those who used to spend their holidays in Sochi, Batumi or Crimea but can no longer afford to do so.
Somewhat unexpectedly, I became a personal witness to the disintegration of the USSR. I saw state services slide into severe chaos as pay packets became meaningless and people began taking individual action to salvage conditions for their family, including looting their workplaces.
In Turkmenistan, where I lived, the situation was so dire that waste management collapsed. I watched as people began throwing their rubbish out the windows of high rises in desperation, forcing the evacuation of the ground floor which had become impossible to occupy as the windows were blocked with decaying refuse. I looked on in horror as later those same uninhabitable apartments were re-inhabited by the desperate newly homeless.
People lost their security, their jobs, their access to reliable sources of inexpensive food and many fell into despair. Alcohol consumption increased dramatically, further exacerbating the social chaos. The number of excess deaths from the dislocation was estimated to be in the millions.
The USSR was thoroughly imperfect. Among its flaws were a democratic deficit, bureaucratic capriciousness and an insufficiently open intellectual culture. However, many of these deficiencies persisted with the adoption of capitalism and a Western-style system. Socialism, however, was destroyed. And to what end?
When I returned from the former Soviet state of Uzbekistan to the United States, I couldn’t help but wonder about another path forward. Nothing I had seen suggested that the economic system had been more dysfunctional under socialism than in the chaos of privatisation, or the decade that followed. Surely they could have retained economic planning and merely relaxed the intellectual culture?
I have since come to believe that a significant fraction of the leadership of the USSR had begun to yearn for the kind of privilege enjoyed by the oligarchs of the West, with whom they would jealously compare themselves when abroad. Weary of the continuous threats of attack, and no longer personally invested in the importance of the project, it appeared to them to come at significant personal sacrifice. These individuals then collaborated in the destruction of their state and the welfare of its people.
Our own Western democracies are sometimes considered mildly flawed but always fundamentally legitimate. The millions of people killed in foreign wars of aggression, CIA interventions and US-supported dictatorships and death squads since WWII, if mentioned at all, are victims of nothing more than policy errors. International abductions by the CIA to torture centres – a mishap committed by callous leaders who can be voted out. The poverty, illiteracy, lack of healthcare and declining lifespans of the working class in the US are a mere aberration.
Content to sweep our own atrocities under the rug, we are uneasy at the idea of celebrating the successes of the much-maligned Eastern Bloc states. Any evidence of superiority is treated as an apology for excesses or deficiencies. The experience of the majority of people who lived in them is not considered valid unless it is negative. Who knew that more women were involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or enjoyed better sex lives under socialism? Let’s take a closer look at achievements in the areas full employment, housing, universal healthcare and education. Let’s remember that they enjoyed an economy without periodic crises and steady growth over decades, with inequality decreasing rather than increasing over most years.
If and when we get another opportunity to build an economy which is not based on the profit motive, but rather around human need, based on principles of equality, we should learn from past attempts with some humility. Their successes were not easy achievements. But we would also do well to think of ways to protect our successes so we don’t fall prey to such a catastrophe again.
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