Soviet regime: were there any advantages?
Posted 11 March 2005 - 06:56 PM
I am a an IB student and I would like to ask a question about the Soviet Union, but as this question may seem a bit unusual, I will tell how I came up with it.
I have recently had an argument with one person about the Soviet Union (being a Russian native, it is something I feel strongly about), and this person has argued that we cannot consider the advantages of this period simply because they have overpowered the great deal of its disadvantages leading to the failure of the regime. I have argued, however, that to be able to evaluate the period you have to consider all the advantages, however small, and disadvantages to be able to compare the two. Perhaps, this is just hard for me to dismiss a whole century of history, my history as well, as a failure. May be someone may disagree with me on this point, but this event made me think about my grandfather who still finds advantages in this period of time. Is it just because of coercion? He is not being frightened or misinformed right now. Is it a habit? All this thoughts led me to my question.
I thought that I would like to work on this period (I have not yet defined time exactly, definitely from Stalin onwards) as part of my IB Extended Essay (4000 word free choice essay), proving that some advantages did exist, something must have attracted my grandfather and many others in the regime, beside coercion and propaganda. So, my question is: do you think there have been advantages in Soviet regime and if you do, what would you name? Or do you think there was not any, and if you do why? I would greatly appreciate any help!
Thank you very much, and sorry if this question turned out a bit long.
Posted 17 March 2005 - 09:05 AM
So, my question is: do you think there have been advantages in Soviet regime and if you do, what would you name? Or do you think there was not any, and if you do why? I would greatly appreciate any help!
Thank you very much, and sorry if this question turned out a bit long.
Sorry for the delay in answering your question. (I have had some deadlines to meet this week).
To answer this question it is necessary to have some understanding of Russia before 1917. In the 19th century a significant number of Russians attempted to persuade their rulers to introduce democracy. The same thing was happening all over Europe. It was a slow process. By the beginning of the 19th century most countries in Europe had either removed its monarchy or got it under control. However, these countries were still being ruled by elites. The vast majority of people had no say in the running of their country.
Throughout the 19th century people attempted to achieve democratic rule. The UK was one of the more successful but even so, by the end of the century, the majority of adults did not have the vote.
Russia lagged behind the rest of Europe. By the end of the 19th century the Russian people were still being ruled by the Romanov Dynasty. The Tsar took the title 'Emperor and Autocrat of all Russia' and imposed autocratic rule - government by one man. Unlike in most other European countries, power had not passed from the monarchy to the people. The Tsars of Russia did not take advice from an elected parliament. Instead, the country was run by a ten man ministerial council. Each minister was both appointed and dismissed by the Tsar.
The Tsar also appointed the Chief Procurator of the Russian Orthodox Church. In fact, since 1721, the Orthodox Church had been run as a government department.
The Tsar also had the power to grant hereditary titles. These usually went to men who had achieved high rank in the armed forces and the civil service. It 1900 it was estimated that there were about 1.8 million members of the nobility in Russia.
There had been some attempts at reform. Alexander II, who became the sixteenth Romanov tsar in 1855, attempted to bring in some political reforms. This included permitting each district to set up a Zemstvo. These were local councils with powers to provide roads, schools and medical services. However, the right to elect members was restricted to the wealthy.
Russians in favour of democracy were in a difficult position. They had tried using the methods adopted in other European countries. However, this had been unsuccessful. Some came to the conclusion that democracy could only be achieved by violence. See:
Only a small minority argued for the use of violence. This number grew throughout the 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century. Some of these revolutionaries also developed different objectives. Those inspired by the writings of Marx began to argue that it was not enough to aspire to the introduction of a parliamentary democracy. They argued that this system had failed to deliver true equality (to them you could only have a true democracy when you had equality).
See the following for a discussion of these issues:
These revolutionaries differed on the best way this could be obtained. Some like Rosa Luxemburg and Julius Martov argued that unless you got the timing right, you would only replace one kind of dictatorship with another.
Others like Lenin and Stalin disagreed (Trotsky originally agreed with Luxemburg and Martov but he changed his mind in 1917).
I believe Luxemburg and Martov were right and this helps to explain why Russia never developed into a democracy. I would not say there were no advantages to having a communist dictatorship. For example, in the early days of the new government, great strides were made in education and women’s rights. However, it is difficult to argue that the Russian people benefited by the rule of Stalin. For a discussion of these events see:
There is another thing to consider. Did the people outside the Soviet Union benefit from this communist dictatorship?
Yes and No. Stalin’s dictatorship seriously damaged the image of socialism and communism (although I would argue that what happened under Lenin and Stalin had nothing to do with socialism and communism).
However, without Stalin’s regime, Hitler and his Nazi government might well have taken control of the whole of Europe.
Posted 17 March 2005 - 10:06 AM
Certainly, forced collectivization and the de-kulakization programs can scarcely be seen as beneficial to the ordinary Russian peasant.
On the other hand, there were positive gains for ordinary Russians to set off against the evident loss of personal freedom and all the sufferings Stalinism imposed.
Literacy rates before 1917 hardly reached 40%, much less in rural areas, and lower still among women. By the fall of the Soviet Union, literacy rates were higher than in the West.
The advances in health care were also startling. Although Soviet statistics were notoriously unreliable, it is undoubtedly the case that, for the rural and urban poor, access to medical care was very limited, despite the pioneering efforts of the zemstva in the pre-Revolutionary period. I lifted the statistics below from a highly unreliable source which is selectively citing highly unreliable Soviet figures, but the trend is, I think, undeniable...
· By 1938, the 21 years of Soviet rule had brought about a 50% reduction in child mortality rate.
· The height of the average Soviet child in 1938 was one and a quarter inches greater than that of the average child in tsarist Russia.
· The weight of the average Soviet child was eleven and a half pounds greater in 1937 than in 1925.
· The chest expansion of the average Soviet child in 1938 was roughly 1 inch greater than that of the average child in tsarist Russia.
· Incidence of tuberculosis decreased 83% under Soviet rule up till 1938 and continued to decrease.
· Cases of syphilis decreased 90% by 1938 and continued to decrease.
· The death rate in 1937 in the USSR was 40% below the death rate in Russia in 1913 (implying a much higher life expectancy)
There were other "social advances" that can be cited, such as the greater role in society granted to women, greater access to higher education, improved rural and urban housing conditions, the very first provisions for the old, and so on.
Obviously, none of this can be weighed in the balance against the horrible suffering imposed by the Stalinist regime, but I do think Pipes and his co-Reaganists go too far in saying that there were no benefits at all for the Russian population as a whole...
Posted 17 March 2005 - 01:11 PM
On one hand Stalinism did provide a kind of "scarecrow" used against anyone who sought social progress in the West. We were traditionally told to "Get back to Russia!" This was applied indiscriminately to anyone whose ideas were not traditional and led to absurd excesses, when the Beatles were told to get back to Russia and responded with "Back in the USSR."
And on the other hand we have seen that privatisation in the UK has led to the wrong people having unaccountable power over the economy and in Russia this seems to have been the case only tenfold.
Finally I believe the achievements of the Russian revolution came from the fact of the Soviets of Workers and Soldiers' Deputies which forced the pace of the revolution. They do not come from any Marxist text book, they were driven by the mass movement of the working class in 1905. It is as well to remember that, 100 years later when Bush and his cohorts appear to bestride the world all powerful, history is full of surprises; for the Romanovs and for world imperialism it turned out to be a very nasty surprise
Posted 18 March 2005 - 08:55 PM
Lets focus on Stalin. There was coercion and terror. There was little attention paid to living standards, as opposed to economic growth. And yet there were millions of proud volunteers who worked long and hard to make their country great, especially as the West was in a Great Depression at the time. That is something that we must not ignore. Some indicators, as previously mentioned, show a distinct improvement - literacy, scientific education, role of women, to name just a few. Also during WW2 Russians were proud of the sacrifices they were making for freedom - as they saw it - and defeating Fascism. They expected a better life after the war, and the political leadership let them down. So there were gains. But there were losses too - or perhaps broken aspirations? But doesn't that apply to Western Governments too? Many people in Britain feel badly let down by the Labour Governments they elected and expected so much from....
Perhaps, given the perceived chaos in Russia at present it is still far too early to make a definitive judgement - only time will tell.
Posted 20 March 2005 - 06:43 PM
I think I got few follow-up questions.
All the advantages pointed out (skipping of course the disadvantages) seem to be related to social welfare (except women' rights): education, healthcare, etc...
Do you think that these advantages came to existence because the elite tried to create some allusion of following Marxism and the principles of common good or to create healthy workforce? Or those were indeed the results of collective actions of people that had aspirations to improve their lives? As Mr Wilkinson pointed out
there were millions of proud volunteers who worked long and hard to make their country great
Mr Simkin also mentioned Luxemburg and Martov. Do you think that if time was given for revolution to occur 'at the right moment' the regime would turn out different?
Also, I will try to interview some people in Russia on the question, but I was wandering if anyone has any personal experiences or may be knows any real life stories, like Beatles' song:), about the period that would show some of these advantages? Or may be there is a writer who unlike Richard Pipes has wrote anything showing both sides of the question?
Posted 20 March 2005 - 07:26 PM
The history of the working class movement has a thousand examples where struggle and self-sacrifice obtain real benefits, cuts in working hours, rights at work, equal pay. In fact the very democratic rights which exist in the West came about because people were prepared to sacrifice themselves to achieve them...
And the working class movement, any movement for social progress, has to be constantly on the look out in case some bureaucrat sells them down the river. Good luck with your attempts to contact people in Russia about this. I will IM you the details.
Posted 14 June 2005 - 03:44 PM
All the advantages pointed out (skipping of course the disadvantages) seem to be related to social welfare (except women' rights): education, healthcare, etc...
Do you think that these advantages came to existence because the elite tried to create some allusion of following Marxism and the principles of common good or to create healthy workforce? Or those were indeed the results of collective actions of people that had aspirations to improve their lives?
I am sure that all the leaders of the Russian Revolution initially believed passionately in the need to improve the condition of the people. This is reflected in the first things that the government did when it gained power. For example, it abolished private ownership of land and began distributing it among the peasants. Banks were nationalized and workers control of factory production was introduced. The government also demobilized the army and announced that he planned to seek an armistice with Germany.
After nine weeks of discussions without agreement, the German Army was ordered to resume its advance into Russia. On 3rd March 1918, with German troops moving towards Petrograd, Lenin ordered Trotsky to accept the terms of the Central Powers. The Brest-Litovsk Treaty resulted in the Russians surrendering the Ukraine, Finland, the Baltic provinces, the Caucasus and Poland.
The decision increased opposition to the Bolshevik government and General Lavr Kornilov now organized a Volunteer Army. Over the next few months other groups who opposed the Soviet regime joined the struggle. These forces were joined by the Allies at the end of the First World War.
Lenin now introduced policies that were known as War Communism. All companies were now nationalized and the government decided what should be produced. The government also had the power to force men and women to work in certain industries.
Soldiers were also sent into rural areas to requisition grain and vegetables. The peasants responded to this by cutting down the sown area. There were also peasant risings in 1920-1 in the Volga basin and Siberia.
War Communism took away a lot of the freedoms that Russians had gained as a result of the October Revolution. Lenin justified this policy by claiming that these measures were necessary in order to defeat the enemy.
After the Civil War came to an end Lenin was reluctant to restore the freedoms obtained in 1917. He claimed that this was necessary in order to prevent an invasion by capitalist countries. Some have argued that this reinforces the idea that you could not have “socialism in one country”. Others have claimed that once a military dictatorship has been installed, its leaders are unlikely to release hold of its power.
The problem became much worse under Stalin. He adopted the policy of “socialism in one country” (a promise not to help socialists to gain power in other countries). He then began persecuting those revolutionaries like Trotsky who still believed in world revolution. It has to be remembered that Stalin’s policy was extremely popular in the major capitalist countries. There main fear was that the Soviets would export its revolution. The kind of hostility towards the Soviet government experienced in the years that followed the revolution was not to reappear until 1945 when Stalin left his Red Army in countries “liberated” in Eastern Europe at the end of the war.
Posted 14 June 2005 - 11:47 PM
You have received some good answers which give you the historical background. However, since most of the people who frequent this forum are Westerners who live in democracies, I don't think you are going to get a clear answer. Few Westerners who live in a democracy would endorse life in a totalitarian state. So we may not be the best people to ask. You in fact might be in a better position to answer the question of how good the quality of life was before the Soviet Union was dissolved. From what I hear it could have been better than it is now, is that so? So in fact, you may have lived in a dictatorship but perhaps in some ways, life was good, is that right?
I was a bit surprised at Derek McMillan's statement:
'On one hand Stalinism did provide a kind of "scarecrow" used against anyone who sought social progress in the West. We were traditionally told to "Get back to Russia!" This was applied indiscriminately to anyone whose ideas were not traditional and led to absurd excesses, when the Beatles were told to get back to Russia and responded with "Back in the USSR."'
I may be wrong, but I don't believe the Beatles' song "Back in the USSR" had anything to do with being told to go back to the USSR. Isn't the song actually a satirical poke at the Beachboys (their great rival in the Sixties) and their "Back in the USA" also getting in a reference to "Georgia on My Mind" and other musical references along the way in the White Album -- just as "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" was a poke at the Rolling Stones"
Here's a quote from Paul McCartney during his tour of Russia when he met Putin--
Asked about The Beatles' hit "Back in the USSR", McCartney said he did not know a lot about the former Soviet Union when he co-wrote the song with John Lennon. "It was always a mystical land," he told reporters. "It's nice to see the reality. I always suspected that people had big hearts. Now I know that's true."
The Macca Report 4
Posted 30 June 2005 - 11:23 AM
Your opinion that Stalin was a "right-winger" is so far out it does not merit comment. The fact that Trotsky may have been to "the left" of Old Joe does not make Joe a right-winger. Mao was probably "to the left" of Nikita, but Nikita was no Republican!
Let me explain. The thing that unites people on the left is a belief in the need to develop a society based on equality. Therefore they advocate things like progressive taxation and increased state spending on health and education. These services are delivered free of charge (the services are paid for by general taxation). This is what people in Europe call the welfare state (I believe some right-wingers in America call it a “socialized state”). A good example of a left-wing administration is the Labour government between 1945-51. This was a period where wealth was redistributed in the UK. This was mainly done by progressive taxation and the establishment of the welfare state.
People on the left also favour equality between nations. They believe it is immoral that in some countries people are dying because they overeat while in other countries people are dying of hunger. Therefore, they are in favour of increased overseas aid and cancellation of debt repayments.
What people on the left are called depends largely on the country and the time they are living in. Therefore they may be described as “communists”, “socialists”, “liberals”, “progressives”, “radicals” or “social democrats”. Whatever they are called, they all want change to take place. This change involves the redistribution of wealth and political power. For example, they argue that someone who is very wealthy can “buy” politicians. In this sense they have more political power than someone who is poor. This is undemocratic and therefore urge both the redistribution of wealth and controls on the money the rich can spend on manipulating politicians.
People on the right share a different philosophy. They usually go under the title “conservatives”. In other words they want to conserve the status quo. They want the rich to keep their money and their power. Sometimes people on the right are called “reactionaries”. These people want to go further than conservatives. They want the redistribution of wealth and power towards the rich and powerful. They rarely admit to this (it is hardly a vote winner) but that is the consequence of their policies. In the UK both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair are examples of reactionaries. Bush is also a reactionary, as are of course are all the New Cons.
As left-wing policies clearly favour the majority over the minority, political philosophers in the 19th century thought that the 20th century would be dominated by left of centre governments. In some countries, for example, Sweden, this was the case. However, in most cases, it is the conservatives or reactionaries who have maintained control. Sometimes, as in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Spain in the 1920s and 1930s, they have been forced to overthrow democracy in order to maintain control.
In most cases the conservatives have used propaganda to brainwash people into believing that it is in their interest to have a government that rules for the benefit of the rich and powerful. This is done by controlling the media. As you know, except for example in the case of state owned media outlets like the BBC, newspapers, magazines, television and radio stations are controlled by the rich. These people are of course rarely in favour of the redistribution of wealth and power. Therefore they use their media power to convince people that the redistribution of wealth and power is a bad thing. This tactic is especially effective with people who are politically illiterate. Unfortunately, the number of political illiterates in the western world is growing. This convinces poor people to vote for people like George Bush. Others do not vote at all. This of course reduces their power and groups with poor voting records, such as young, working-class citizens, are as a result ignored during election campaigns.
With this background in place I will get onto Stalin. It is true that in his youth Stalin was on the left. He advocated a society based on economic and social equality. That is why he joined the communists and engaged in revolutionary political activity (Russia was not of course a democracy when Stalin was a young man so he had no option, given his political opinions, to become a revolutionary).
In 1917, it became clear that the Russian upper-classes had lost control of the country’s political system. This had happened largely as a result of Russia’s involvement in the First World War. Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks, realised it would be possible to take control of the government. Some members of the party, notably Rosa Luxemburg, argued against this action. Luxemburg believed that if a revolution took place without the support of the majority of the people, it would eventually develop into a dictatorship. That the old ruling class would be removed and replaced by a new ruling elite, members of the Bolshevik Party. Stalin and Trotsky also shared this view but were convinced by Lenin’s arguments and took part in the revolution.
At first Lenin brought in policies where wealth and power were redistributed. He also allowed the first democratic elections to take place. A total of 703 candidates were elected to the Constituent Assembly in November, 1917. This included Socialist Revolutionaries (299), Bolsheviks (168), Mensheviks (18) and Constitutional Democratic Party (17). The SR represented the interests of the majority of people in Russia (peasants living in rural areas). The elections showed that the Bolsheviks could not rule via a democratic system. Therefore, the Constituent Assembly was closed down and Lenin became a dictator. He continued to follow some radical policies but he was unwilling to redistribute power.
This was a system that Stalin inherited. He immediately announced a change in Lenin’s policy of trying to spread communism to the rest of the world. Stalin’s new policy was “socialism in one country”. Not that his policies had much to do with socialism. His main objective was to conserve the status quo. This meant keeping the control of the county in the hands of the Communist Party. As Rosa Luxemburg predicted, the Communist Party had become the new ruling elite. Stalin then set about purging the party of people who disagreed with his “new conservatism”. This included those people he described as “Trotskyites”. That is why George Orwell had so many problems with Stalin’s supporters in Spain.
As you can see, Stalin was a conservative and therefore on the right of the political spectrum. He might have still used the language of the left but he is to be judged by his actions and not what he said.
As someone on the left I am totally opposed to any dictator. It does not matter if they call themselves a socialist or a communist. I will judge them on their policies. Therefore, to my mind, Stalin, once in power, became a conservative. What he said about being in favour of left-wing policies when in his youth, is irrelevant.
Posted 01 July 2005 - 09:10 AM
And of course, I have got some follow-up questions, especially after doing all my interviews...
First of all, just a little note as follow up to one post...
Mr George, although all the answers I received so far were indeed from 'Westerners', they were extremely useful! I have recently interviewed some Russians as well, notably a 82 years old lady whose account was also very useful. I suppose, it is very interesting and exciting to get all kinds of different interpretations in the answer to this question, no matter from which kind of perspective they are. So, a big thank you to everyone who replied! However, after having done my interviews I came so far to the conclusion you summarised so well.
You in fact might be in a better position to answer the question of how good the quality of life was before the Soviet Union was dissolved. From what I hear it could have been better than it is now, is that so? So in fact, you may have lived in a dictatorship but perhaps in some ways, life was good, is that right?
I thought that the interpretation of Stalin being a conservative that John gave was very interesting and to be honest I have never encountered such before. It made me think about the importance of coercion in any totalitarian state. At IST my history teacher, Mr Jones-Nerzic, have taught us the ‘formula’ to apply to any totalitarian state: ‘coercion, persuasion, consent’, meaning that all three were usually necessary to keep a single person/party in power. So, would you agree that all three were important in Stalinist society? I do not want in any way to undermine the importance of the coercion, which of course has been crucial, but to what extent was it? Do you think that Stalinist regime could have survived if based only on coercion?
Thank you very much!
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