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Communism in the Soviet Union

John Simkin

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John Simkin, aged 40, history teacher in Brighton, Sussex.

In the 1980s. I managed to visit several countries with communist governments: Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

I found the time I spent in the Soviet Union was the most depressing of all these visits. I could find no enthusiasm for the communist government that existed at that time. I was shocked by the hostility towards Mikhail Gorbachev who I considered was a great statesman genuinely trying to reform the country. (The hostility was even greater towards his wife). It was clear that people no longer believed that the Soviet government could reform itself.

What was most striking was people’s dissatisfaction with the communist system. The main complaint was against the inequalities within the system. People claimed that the Soviet Union had a two class system. The ruling class were officials of the Communist Party. Everybody else were members of the second class (the same thing was said when I was in China). People pointed out the differences in goods that existed in shops set aside for party officials and foreign tourists with those available for the rest of the population.

What a betrayal of the idea of Karl Marx? The state had not withered away. The class system was far stronger than it was in the west. The inequalities (especially in power and the access of information) were far greater in this so-called communist system that we had in the capitalist west. I recalled what George Orwell had written in his novel Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. I thought Orwell had been guilty of exaggerating his point about what had happened in the Soviet Union (influenced by his experiences in Spain during the Civil War). After all, it was satire. However, I now realised that Orwell had got it right. There was nothing communist about the Soviet Union.

The big question was what would replace it? Would it become a modern democracy like Sweden or would it take the worst from the western system. We now know what the answer was to that question.

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Andy Walker student 17 years old

I visited the Soviet Union in 1983 (or was it 81??) as part of a Manx Youth Choir cultural tour organised by the visionary then Director of Music for the Isle of Man Board of Education, Allan Pickard. Looking back it was quite extraordinary that such a tour could take place from such a "conservative" place and at the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Yuri Andropov was in power at the time and any reform of the Soviet system seemed impossible. There was quite some local opposition to the visit going ahead at the time - all of which was faced down and the visit did take place.

Appropriately enough the tour had three legs ( :) ), Moscow, Leningrad and Riga. We chartered a jet from Air India with just about fitted on Ronaldsway's runway and once inside the country travel was by overland train.

During our visit we performed a number of concerts, none more suprising than the first one as just as we arrived in our monstrously opulent hotel we were whisked away to perform live on State television. Throughout the trip we were guests of the Communist party and were escorted around by communist party members all of whom could parrot Marxist-Leninist theory to an impressive degree - as quite a radical student myself I could do likewise and did my best to annoy them!

My impressions of Moscow were of a relatively poor city but of a functioning one. My exposure to "ordinary Muscovites" was very limited because of my hosts but I sensed a general feeling which supported communism amongst the people. I appreciated the fact that the city was not made ugly by the usual advertising boards and neon lights and was hugely impressed by the workmanship and civic pride that went into public buildings like the underground. It was made very clear by my hosts that there was full employment, no homeleness and no drugs problems. The latter I had to differ with after watching military officers queue up at liquor stores to fill their attache cases with vodka bottles for the evening shift!

It my silly student way I was a little seduced by all this and covered my lapels with Lenin insignia!!

My most scarey moment in Moscow was at Lenin's mausoleum where I was frisked at gunpoint for ambling in with my hands in my pockets - not showing enough respect!

On the train journey from Moscow to Leningrad the windows were blacked out as we travelled through the country and each compartment guarded to make sure we didn't peak a look. I have distant memories of extraordinary black market trading going on between choir members and Russian citizens - jeans being sold for 100 roubles - people even trading bars of Imperial Leather soap for large amounts of roubles. The official exchange rate was fixed at 1:1 the black market one more like 1:200.

Leningrad was an absolutely beautiful city though seemed to be suffering greater hardships than the capital. Food even in the tourist hotels was extremely poor and the people looked a degree more downtrodden than in Moscow. Like Moscow it appeared completely crime free and safe.

Visiting Riga was like visiting another country! Though still guests of the local CP the atmosphere changed considerably with all pretence of adherence to official ideology quickly being dropped. I remember distinctly the disappointment on peoples faces on viewing the soviet propaganda so many of us were wearing. A very poignant moment occurred when our director introduced us at our first latvian concert. He said something along the lines of "Like you we are officially part of a larger state but we like to think of ourselves as independent". The applause which followed nearly brought down the roof. Our performance of national songs brought a similar response. With hindsight this perhaps taught me that national pride and the desire for self determination will always be stronger and more emotional than adherence to ideology.

I left the Soviet union with very mixed feelings about the Soviet experiment, and perhaps at the time mistook Russian nationalism for a commitment to communism amongst the people.

Sixteen years later I returned to Russia this time as the teacher in charge of a group of A level historians. Communism had fallen by then and this time I was faced with a crime ridden, dangerous and frankly rather desperate country. We had to have body guards everywhere we went, and there was very obvious poverty everywhere. The saddest sight of all was the decay that had fallen upon Leningrad (St Petersburg). The infrastructure was crumbling, everywhere you looked was some sort of flea market, while citizens were reduced to begging for food or fishing all night in the river Neva. The principal aspiration for every young boy appeared to be to become a gangster, and for young girls to become a hard currency prostitute... not a very hopeful scenario!

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My most scarey moment in Moscow was at Lenin's mausoleum where I was frisked at gunpoint for ambling in with my hands in my pockets - not showing enough respect!

I had a very similar experience. It was a cold day and I had my hands in my overcoat pockets. This is apparently unacceptable while waiting to see Lenin. Two very tall soldiers told me that it was a sign of disrespect. To me it was just another example of an authoritarian state trying to make everybody behave in a set manner (in fact it took me back to my schooldays when I was told to take my hands out of my pockets while I was waiting to enter my prefabricated classroom).

A very old Russian woman (dressed like a peasant) in front of me actually began crying once we got inside and saw Lenin’s body. I read in the paper before hand that one of Lenin’s ears kept falling off. However, they were both in place when I got to the body.

Like you I was shocked by the corruption in the Soviet Union. Waiters in our hotel frequently offered to sell as stolen goods such as jars of caviar. Guests were buying these goods as well. They then complained later on in the week when the hotel appeared to be running out of food.

Walking along the streets of Moscow was slow going as you were constantly being stopped and asked if you wanted to change money. What struck me about this was that people did not seem to be scared of the authorities (this was in stark contrast to China where people seemed to be petrified of the police). I suppose it was just a sign that law and order was breaking down.

You make an interesting point about mistaking “Russian nationalism for a commitment to communism”. I am sure this was a common mistake. Yet, should we be surprised by this. Is British nationalism seen as an endorsement of capitalism?

The most powerful experience I have had of nationalism took place in Hungary. I was In Budapest on their “National Day”. There was a procession around the streets of the city. Every conceivable organization one could imagine was represented in the march. There was about 50 people for each organization and many of them carried flags and banners that I assumed had links with the group they were representing. As they marched they sung a series of patriotic songs. I did not understand the words but fully comprehended the emotions that were being expressed. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It created a tremendous feeling of unity. There is a saying in Britain that people from the same organization “rarely sing from the same hymn sheet”. Here was an example of people from a wide variety of different organizations singing the same songs. I came away feeling that these people had something very special going for them.

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Vladimir Kalinin is from Belarus. A former soldier in the Red Army he is now a teacher in Smorgon.


My name is Vladimir and I played quite an active role during the so called cold war period. As millions of former soviet people I grew up under communist ideology and believed in it at the very beginning. Later I saw that it is false system but more than 20 years came just to understand that. I graduated at a Air Force College and was an officer in the former USSR (later I obtained a degree from University in the social sciences). For five years I served in East Germany and helped defend Eric Honneker in Berlin. I thought that the balance of power between USA and USSR quite a good thing because they were both afraid of each other and checked each other over the world. Now we see a completely different situation - one super power and they are doing what they want.

I have to say something following the discussion about your visits to the former USSR. A lot of people were rather satisfied by the former soviet system especially in terms of social protection - no jobless people, free of charge medical care, rest on resorts were covering by trade unions, free education, equal salary for women and men, voting for women (in many developed countries like Switzerland, Canada, maybe in USA as well, women got access to vote just 10-20 years ago. I guess that in this period of time your people could only dream about that. But in terms of political and civil rights - a lot of problems. We have not any experience what it is about and what is it civil society and democracy and still now former soviet people do not know what it is.

Concerning Lenin, former communist leaders made an idol out of him but in his last letters he asked to bury him but they made completely different thing. In Russia they need some time to do that now. They are afraid of old communist generation, they do not want to listen about killings and horrible nature of the former soviet system.

You got new EU members but I guess that very few of you know that in Latvia and Estonia half of their people denied civil and political rights because they are not citizens of these countries despite helping to rebuild their economies after the WW2. Members of their parliaments are going on demonstrations with former nazi soldiers. Now they are national heroes in these countries. UN, EU, CoE passed a lot of resolutions about situation of minorities rights. Now they do not want to correct the situation and we accept them as potential hot spots on European map. I was in some EU countries including UK and I was shocked by the picture when young people were sleeping on the street, drug issues and poverty as well as racial discrimination and etc. Now all these things we have unfortunately. So, we have not perfect system where people could live in dignity and peace.

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William Patterson, student, 1929

As my return to the United States approached, I began to evaluate many aspects of the socialist country in which I had had the good fortune to study, to travel, to learn, to participate in the anti-fascist struggle. The peoples of the USSR were faced with a mountain of problems in the building of a socialist society. The tsar had bequeathed them a heritage of poverty, ignorance, medieval farming techniques, racial and national prejudice. In addition. World War I, the international enemies of the Revolution, and the defeated counterrevolution had wrought wide devastation. Millions of families were homeless, tens of thousands of orphaned children wandered across the land, stealing to live.

It is difficult to convey the impact of a place like Moscow in 1927, particularly on a Negro. Just the strangeness of the city - the architecture, the foods, the clothes, the customs. The quiet darkness of the streets at night. There was nothing to compare with the massive explosion of neon signs in New York, the sidewalk pitchmen, the blaring music, the flags and bands of our hard-sell society, the general Main Street hysteria - nor the river of autos, taxicabs and trucks that fill our own downtown streets with the roar of a giant waterfall.

The second impact, if one is an American Negro, comes in the discovery that there is no racial tension in the air. One looks at, talks to, works with white men and women and youth as an equal. It is as if one had suffered with a painful affliction for many years and had suddenly awakened to discover the pain had gone. The Russians seemed to give a man's skin coloration only a descriptive value, looking immediately past this attribute to the significant human differences of character, mind and heart.

I saw the people of the USSR facing up to the tasks of removing the ruins of the old and building the new. Under the leadership of the Communist Party, an awe-inspiring creative explosion was under way, touching every aspect of life. From their western borders to the Pacific, the people were mobilized to solve their tremendous problems.

There were four jobs waiting for every available worker. Yes, there were homeless children but homes and work and educational camps were being built for them and they were becoming citizens of their motherland. Here was a people who had found a way to throw the fantastic power of their collective strength into solving the basic problems of living. In the process, the participants were remaking themselves; learning to think and work collectively - for the benefit of all. The remnants of racism and religious bigotry of tsarism was being fought tooth and nail.

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As a child, I still found vestiges of the way of life that was typical for the Russian village before the Revolution and collectivization. Adobe huts with an earthen floor, and no beds at all: people slept either on planks fixed above the stove or on the pech (the Russian stove), with sheepskin coats or rags for a cover. In winter, the calf would be brought into the hut from the freezing cold. In spring, hens and often geese would be brought inside, there to expedite hatching. From a present-day point of view people lived in wretched poverty. The worst part was the back-breaking labour. When our contemporary advocates of peasants' happiness refer to the 'golden age' of the Russian countryside I honestly do not understand what they mean. Either these people do not know anything at all or they are deliberately misguiding others - or else their memory has totally failed them.

On a bookshelf knocked together in my grandfather Pantelei Yefimovich's house, I discovered a series of slim booklets: Marx, Engels and Lenin. There were also Stalin's Principles of Leninism and Kalinin's essays and speeches, while the other corner of the room was adorned by an icon with an icon-lamp: Grandmother was deeply religious. Under the icon, on a little home-made table, stood portraits of Lenin and Stalin. This 'peaceful co-existence' did not bother Grandfather in the least. He was not a believer himself, but he was endowed with admirable tolerance.

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I remember well the winter evening when Grandfather returned home (after being arrested by the KGB). His closest relatives sat around the hand-planed rustic table and Pantelei Yefimovich recounted all that had been done to him.

Trying to get him to confess, the investigator blinded him with a glaring lamp, beat him unmercifully, broke his arms by squeezing them in the door. When these 'standard' tortures proved futile, they invented a new one: they put a wet sheepskin coat on him and sat him on a hot stove. Pantelei Yefimovich endured this too, as well as much else.

Those who were imprisoned with him later told me that all the inmates of the prison cell tried to revive him after the interrogation sessions. Pantelei Yefimovich recounted all this just once - that very evening. Nobody ever heard him speak about it afterwards.

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Khrushchev's secret speech at the XXth Party Congress caused a political and psychological shock throughout the country. At the Krai Communist Party committee I had the opportunity to read the Central Committee information bulletin, which was practically a verbatim report of Khrushchev's words. I fully supported Khrushchev's courageous step. I did not conceal my views and defended them publicly. But I noticed that the reaction of the apparatus to the report was mixed; some people even seemed confused.

I am convinced that history will never forget Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin's personality cult. It is, of course, true that his secret report to the XXth Party Congress contained scant analysis and was excessively subjective. To attribute the complex problem of totalitarianism simply to external factors and the evil character of a dictator was a simple and hard-hitting tactic - but it did not reveal the profound roots of this tragedy. Khrushchev's personal political aims were also transparent: by being the first to denounce the personality cult, he shrewdly isolated his closest rivals and antagonists, Molotov, Malenkov, Kaganovich and Voroshilov - who, together with Khrushchev, had been Stalin's closest associates.

True enough. But in terms of history and 'wider polities' the actual consequences of Khrushchev's political actions were crucial. The criticism of Stalin, who personified the regime, served not only to disclose the gravity of the situation in our society and the perverted character of the political struggle that was taking place within it - it also revealed a lack of basic legitimacy. The criticism morally discredited totalitarianism, arousing hopes for a reform of the system and serving as a strong impetus to new processes in the sphere of politics and economics as well as in the spiritual life of our country. Khrushchev and his supporters must be given full credit for this. Khrushchev must be given credit too for the rehabilitation of thousands of people, and the restoration of the good name of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens who perished in Stalimst prisons and camps.

Khrushchev had no intention of analysing systematically the roots of totalitarianism. He was probably not even capable of doing so. And for this very reason the criticism of the personality cult, though rhetorically harsh, was in essence incomplete and confined from the start to well-defined limits. The process of true democratization was nipped in the bud.

Khrushchev's foreign policy was characterized by the same inconsistencies. His active presence in the international political arena, his proposal of peaceful co-existence and his initial attempts at normalizing relations with the leading countries of the capitalist world; the newly defined relations with India, Egypt and other Third World states; and finally, his attempt to democratize ties with socialist allies - including his decision to mend matters with Yugoslavia - all this was well received both in our country and in the rest of the world and, undoubtedly, helped to improve the international situation.

But at the same time there was the brutal crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956; the adventurism that culminated in the Cuba crisis of 1962, when the world was on the brink of a nuclear disaster; and the quarrel with China, which resulted in a protracted period of antagonism and enmity.

All domestic and foreign policy decisions made at that time undoubtedly reflected not only Khrushchev's personal understanding of the problems and his moods, but also the different political forces that he had to consider. The pressure of Party and government structures was especially strong, forcing him to manoeuvre and to present this or that measure in a form acceptable to such influential groups.

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