A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ABSURDITIES OF THE SOVIET UNION
Translated from the Estonian by Tarmo Heyduck
Executive editor: Markus Hess
Cover: Silver Vahtre
THE BIG FAILURE
In May 1991 a Soviet cosmonaut Sergei Krikalyev was sent into space. At the end of the year he was still circling around the Earth waiting for a spaceship to bring him back. He had left a Soviet Union that was still a superpower but would return to a world where there was no Soviet Union any more. The Soviet empire had just ceased to exist and had dissolved itself. One of the biggest experiments of the 20th century had ended in failure.
How many human lives were lost during this experiment, nobody knows. It is stated in the „Black Book of Communism” that in the Soviet Union alone the death toll of communist terror was at least 20 million people. Recent Russian studies put the count of lost lives and unborn children as high as 170 million people. Communism has been not only the biggest but also the most expensive experiment in the history of mankind.
For a moment it looked like communism and communist ways of thinking were dead and gone for ever. Unfortunately, this was not the case. While nazism and its crimes were condemned after World War II, making the return of this form of totalitarianism impossible, this has not happened with communism. It still seems almost respectful to wear Che Guevara T-shirts, demonstrate on the streets with red flags and the Soviet Star and present slogans such as „CCCP 4 ever”. This is the main reason why we still see so much communism in the world around us.
Another reason for this is that the people from the other side of the Iron Curtain have not realized what the Soviet system actually looked like. They have long held Hitler as the biggest criminal and murderer of the 20th century. It is hard to believe that, actually, Stalin murdered significantly more. Not only are the crimes of communism not condemned, but they are by and large not known. Because the Soviet system seems so hard for foreigners to understand they would prefer to ignore the fact of its existence rather than try to learn about it.
To avoid this and to spread authentic knowledge about this criminal regime it is important to know how the Soviet system really worked in everyday life. Lauri Vahtre’s book is an excellent guide to the Soviet reality, combining descriptions of everyday life with an analysis of Soviet ideologies, foreign and security policies. Vahtre’s book is especially useful for the people who still dream of building a paradise on earth. Such attempts have always ended in the same way – with massive bloodshed.
Vahtre’s book helps to explain as well, what is going on in modern Russia, which was infected by the virus of communism for much longer than other countries. The result is that even with the Soviet system in Russia being gone, absurdity lives on. Vladimir Putin has declared the fall of the Soviet Union the biggest tragedy in the history of the 20th century. The West may perceive this statement as an absurd humour but for the neighbours of Russia it sounds like a distant thunder. If we do not want history to repeat itself, we must all know the truth.
Lauri Vahtre is an excellent person to talk about the truth. He was born during the heights of Soviet Absurdity and lived most of his life under it. He was personally touched by the highest levels of absurdity as a youngster when some verses in one amateur poetry-almanac took him to the interest-field of the KGB. Such almanacs were actually not forbidden, but since they were neither allowed, the very fact that one would participate in such activities was enough for the KGB to label a person as “under suspicion”. Later, just before graduating from university, Vahtre was expelled – a punishment, which, in these days, was almost equal to a march-order to Afghanistan. The actual reason was his antipathy towards the Soviet regime, Soviet ideology and Soviet reality which he couldn’t hide. After such experiences it was only through strong personal integrity and an excellent sense of humour that has allowed Lauri Vahtre to become what he now is in modern Estonia – Member of Parliament, Ph. D., well-known columnist and bestselling author of books on history and philosophy.
Estonia’s ex-prime minister
The idea to write a book about everyday absurdities of the Soviet Union was given to me by my good friend Markus Hess who, although born and raised in Canada, has Estonian roots. During our conversations it became clear how difficult it is for a Western person to fully understand what really happened and what daily life was really like in the Soviet Union. Even today, the Westerner regards the vanished Soviet way of life as if from another planet and can ask odd, sometimes humourous questions. Perhaps the most shocking, but also a classical, example of this lack of comprehension is the question posed by a Western lady after hearing about the brutal forced mass deportations in the Soviet Union.
She asked, “But why did people let themselves be stuffed into cattle cars bound for Siberia? Why didn’t they call the police?”
Perhaps there are only a few as naïve as that lady; however, there are certainly quite a few less naïve people who nevertheless do not understand what the Soviet Union was. This book is meant for them.
This is not an academic study but an essay whose main source of information is memories and impressions from 31 years spent in the Soviet Union – okay, more specifically, under the power of the Soviet Union. I have not been able to fact check all these memories and impressions, but I also don’t find it absolutely necessary. Thus, much subjectivity has no doubt found its way into the book, but I have tried to remain fair and not vilify that which is not worth vilifying. The Soviet era was not made up of only Soviet power and Soviet power was more than only absurdity. There was much more.
But this book is not just based on my memories. I used various resources, especially Enno Tammer’s collections of memoirs “ The Soviet era and the Individual” and “The Soviet school and student” (quotes from these are indicated with an asterisk*) and Uno Mereste’s book of memoirs “Of Happenings and Sufferings” (quotes indicated with two asterisks **). (The above Estonian books have no English translations available yet.ed.) I also used monographs by Sovietologues, like Richard Pipes’ “Communism”, and refreshed my memory with Soviet era reference and propaganda works, newspapers and educational materials.
I need to explain that I am not a Russian but an Estonian born and raised in the most Western area of the most Western region of the Soviet Union, on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea in illegally annexed Estonia, which was then called the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. My homeland was swallowed by the Soviet Union during the World War II; I was born fifteen years later, in 1960.
Estonia was in some ways different from other regions in the Soviet Union. On the one hand, Estonia’s Western customs and intrinsic ties to the West were not obliterated by the Soviets during 50 years of occupation. The preservation of these ties and customs was aided by contact with relatives who had esacaped to the west, The Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and Finnish television.
On the other hand, Estonians were driven together with other peoples in the Soviet Union through brainwashing by Communist propaganda, and the everyday compromises people were forced to make with their consciences to stay alive.
For these reasons I view my background as one that was and wasn’t part of the Soviet Union; one that was and wasn’t part of Europe.
Even today, Estonia is a border nation – metaphorically, culturally, and geopolitically: Estonia’s eastern border and the European Union’s eastern border are one and the same. During the time of the Soviet Union, it was the other way around: Estonia’s western border and the Soviet Union’s western border were one and the same.
This does not mean that we are dealing with some sort of a half-Russia, or that Estonians are some sort of half-Russians. This is not so. The Estonian language is as similar to Russian as English is to Chinese. Estonia is again an independent republic, but since we have been under Russian occupation half a century, we have more extensive knowledge of the empire to the East than others in the West.
I THE ROOTS OF SOVIET ABSURDITY
1.1 Absurdity within us and around us
Just as there are plenty of ways of preparing eggs in the morning, all of them correct, there are plenty of ways of defining absurdity. Generally one can say that absurdity is the bamboozling of the mind in the style of “did you eat an apple or is it raining today” or “one bus turned left while the other bus was blue”. These witticisms use unexpected endings to mock any preconceptions we may have. And this is what makes them even more bizarre and unexpected than “standard” buffoonery.
Absurdity stands as a reminder that the preconceptions that we usually call knowledge and upon which we base our considered and well founded expectations, are not 100% fool proof after all. It stands as a reminder that beyond the rational facets of the world is an unexplainable nuance (or nuances) that we cannot comprehend. This nuance represents that domain that lies outside the abilities of rational human understanding, that we may only comprehend with that unexplained portion of our soul that we refer to as intuition or a sixth sense.
It follows from this that the wellspring of absurdity is within us: nothing is absurd in itself, but is absurd because of us and who we are as people and who we are as logical thinkers. Absurdity becomes absurdity only if it is absurd to us. We can not quite explain it, but we instantly recognize it when it occurs. Just as we cannot completely describe why a certain piece of music or work of art is brilliant, so can we not completely explain why something is absurd.
So let us say that without people, absurdity does not exist. And further; if there is a human being, then without fail absurdity is also present. At least in 20th and 21st century Western civilization.
In the history of civilized man, there have been eras where absurdity has blossomed and eras where it was practically non existent i.e. it was not noticeable nor part of that era’s consciousness. During these eras a phrase such as “One cow gives milk while the other is brown” would not be greeted with laughter but a shrug of the shoulders, questioning the speaker’s sanity. During eras where absurdity blossomed, absurd humor, art and literature became popular. Philosophers such as Karl Marx appeared, speaking of alienation, and later, philosophers such as Antonin Artaud found that life itself is absurd – i.e. that those things that should only be exceptional nuances in a generally logical and rational world were actually the rule and that almost everything was absurd.
The present era of absurdity is associated with the aging and disintegration of Western civilization. The era of absurdity is the stage of a civilization’s development or evolution which can be reached, but never returned from. Society’s consciousness of absurdity can be identified as mankind’s second bite from the forbidden fruit. Once culture has bitten into absurdity, it can never get rid of the taste. Then culture has become civilization and can never go back.
But this does not mean that everything changes so simply. If alienation in society reaches the individual level (i.e. everyday life becomes absurd) it does not mean automatically that there will be lots of absurd humor. There may be a grain of truth in this but in its present form, the concept is overly simple and correct. It is too logical. It is somehow odd to think that absurdity, which presents as a rebellion against rationale and logic, occurs and develops in a rational and logical manner. Probably there is some absurdity in the very emergence of absurdity itself and absurdity does not always occur where it should, and may occur where it shouldn’t.
An absurdity that bamboozles sanity may be a natural or man-made creation, the latter in turn intentional or accidental.
Of course, what to regard as a natural absurdity is a matter of taste. A city dweller may think that a giraffe is a freak of nature, a biologist obviously would not. We need not be embarrassed; nature can from time to time truly be absurd (for us). For instance in Estonia there is a well from which water flows from time to time. The key here is that it doesn’t always flow, but only occasionally. No matter how much I might know about artesian wells, this spectacle is for me absurd.
We are similarly very familiar with man-made unintentional absurdity.Usually we call this miscommunication, misunderstanding, misstep etc. It can befall us on the street, in a coffee shop, in the family or even at the World Cup of soccer. In Spain in 1982, at the beginning of one of Yugoslavia’s games, the Swedish national anthem was played; another time Denmark’s national anthem was played. Absurd, isn’t it. It can also happen that instead of a birthday card your workplace sends you a sympathy card on the passing of your mother-in-law because someone got mixed up. Again, absurd.
This book is dedicated to perhaps the greatest producer of man-made absurdity in the history of mankind, namely, the Soviet Union. The absurdity cultivated there was both intentional and unintentional, though in both cases very real. It got its start in the remote from life ideas and thoughts of a few but they developed and garnered the support of increasing numbers, until these ideas began to renew themselves from their own inner strength. Absurd ideas gave birth to absurd solutions which in turn demanded new absurd methodologies, the latter new absurd ideas until no one knew anymore from where it all started. The only thing that could be understood was that life had become monstrous, incomprehensible, imbecilic and any struggle against it was futile and hopeless since absurdity rules everywhere – there simply was no force to draw on to help dismantle absurdity. And even when a rare innocent voice would shout out that the emperor had no clothes, a terrorized population pretended not to hear. And absurdity’s reign continued, year upon year and decade upon decade.
This absurdity had two main pillars and sources. These were Russian national absurdity and Communist ideological absurdity which, blended together, formed the absurd Soviet regime.
Thus, to understand Soviet Absurdity we must take a brief glance at both of these basic sources.
1.2 Russian National Absurdity
Russian absurdity is ancient. If we wish we can look for its roots as far back as the first Russian state i.e. Kievan Rus. Such a conclusion might arise while perusing old Russian documents and noting the contradictory attitude to the expensive parchment: on the one hand, to save parchment, many and various abbreviations are used, while on the other hand, a single letter is stretched with incomprehensible bravado to a length greater than some whole words.
Such an apparently illogical course of action seems undoubtedly absurd and perhaps it is. We—or at least I—simply do not know if there is any rhyme or reason that can be applied to this. The Kievan Rus faded into the past 800 years ago and there is no one to ask.
A second, and perhaps even more captivating example of absurdity in the Russian Kiev era, is found in the monumental chronicle “Tale of Bygone Years” written by the monk Nestor in the eleventh century. Nestor describes in these chronicles how in the 10th century Grand Duke Vladimir (later Saint Vladimir) converted to Christianity. He weighed the merits of Christianity, Judaism and Islam and decided upon Christianity because Islam forbade the use of alcohol. Vladimir averred that ”Russians cannot live without alcohol”. Many researchers have surmised that if this was not absurd then it was a close relative of absurdity, namely self-irony. Unfortunately we have no real hope of confirming this supposition.
Therefore let us preserve caution just in case; and to clarify the necessity for caution let us take a small methodological detour. Historians and cultural experts often see regulations and traditions that initially appear to have an absurd behaviour, manner, or usage but upon further analysis prove to be quite pragmatic. Or the reason for the odd manner is based on some false belief – false for sure, but still a belief that in its time was felt to be sensible and reasonable. In such a case we are dealing not with absurdity but with pseudo-absurdity, of which three categories can be identified: (a) error-based, (b) tradition-based, and (c) virtual absurdity (which isn’t really absurdity at all).
a)An example of absurdity based on error is how an Estonian peasant reacted to his first chimney-equipped wood burning stove. At the beginning of the 19th century, the peasants were still certain that warmth came from the smoke and refused to have chimneys put into their houses. This reminds me of a true story that occurred in the middle of that century.
Famous German statesman Otto von Bismarck was in Estonia visiting the big landlord Count Keyserling. The count was proud of his progressive views and bragged how he had forcibly installed chimneys in all of his peasants’ houses. Bismarck stopped his carriage in front of a peasant’s home and asked if the new stoves were to the peasant’s liking. “Yes,” responded the peasant “especially after I stuffed the damn chimney with rags”. This was the third and last time that Bismarck was known to laugh heartily. (The first time was when he was told of his mother-in law’s death and the second time was when he was shown a Danish marine stronghold.)
Erroneous logic can be overcome and absurdity will disappear. Estonian peasants no longer live in chimneyless homes. They learned quite quickly that a house with a chimney is more comfortable and also warmer and thus chimneys were accepted.
(b) Excess conservatism. A good example of this category is the nomads who, forced to move to apartments, erected their yurts in the living rooms and tried to continue living in their accustomed style.. Occurences such as these happened in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities thought that they were doing a good deed when they built row upon row of high rise apartment buildings on the lands of native people and forcibly stuffed these free range herders into them. They ruined the traditions of an ancient people without allowing time for new traditions and ways to be assimilated and learned.
In regards to principled conservatism it must by all means be noted that even though it occasionaally bears strange and absurd fruit, cultural conservatism as a whole is still sensible and rational. Conservatism protects all kinds of cultures against useless and/or harmful innovations almost in a manner akin to using “Safeguard” soap. This is because most proposals for innovation are useless and/or harmful, and the rule of thumb says if you can continue living as before, then live as before. Or in other words, as many changes must be made as needed and as few as possible. (This rule of course applies to cultures in a general way and not to the economic situation experienced at the end of the 20th century by those nations in transition from the Soviet Union and the whole “Socialist camp”, when it was necessary to change as quickly and completely as possible.)
(c) And finally, as noted earlier, we have the possibility that something may have the appearance of absurdity, yet in reality is very sound (i.e. virtual absurdity). For example, it may make you shiver with fright when you see photos of respectable old men in some Central Asian desert wearing heavy sheepskin coats and hats in the middle of a scorchingly hot summer day. It gives one shivers until one realizes that this coat and hat are actually holding in coolness.
Virtual absurdity is usually a stumbling block for a person when he enters into a new culture; especially when that individual comes from a people that consider themselves more cultured and advanced, like most larger peoples. When he sees something unaccustomed, he is convinced that he is dealing with a backward and foolish phenomenon which must by all means be eliminated.
At times, the individuals are already so positive and confident in their judgment that the phenomenon itself isn’t even required. When the Soviets invaded Estonia in 1940, they were certain that in Estonia – as in all non-socialist and therefore poor and unenlightened nations – illiteracy had to be wiped out. They had no idea that in Estonia, general illiteracy had been eliminated already in the 18th century, at the same time as it was eliminated in England, Sweden and Germany and before France and Italy, not to speak of Russia which did not achieve general literacy until the second half of the 20th century. A similar conflict between the English and the Irish at the beginning of the 19th century is described by Brian Friel in his 1980 play “Translations”.
But let us return from our detour and look at Russian absurdity. Although we cannot be certain that its roots extend into the beginning of the 2nd millennium, we can be certain that they reach far into the past. The Kievan Rus state was obliterated by the Mongols and Tartars and splintered into independent principalities, whose rulers paid tributes to the conquering Golden Horde and fought amongst themselves for the title of Grand Duke. By the end of the 14th century, the Golden Horde’s power declined and by the end of the 15th century, the Russian princes declared themselves independent. At this time, the most powerful principality was Moscovy, whose rulers by the 16th century had become rulers over all of Russia and began to call themselves Tsars.
In 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Turks and the Byzantine empire ceased to exist. Muscovy’s Grand Duke Ivan III married Sofia Palaiologos, the niece of the last Byzantine emperor and Muscovy set their theologians and ideologists to work to acclaim Muscovy as the world’s Third Rome after Constantinople and Rome. Moscovy was to be the most correct and purest – Orthodox – Christian land, keeper of the faith and the very seat of tradition and civilization (as hints the word “Tsar”, the Russian word for Caesar). This ambitious vision placed Muscovy in a position boundlessly higher than Western Europe.
Alas, this immensely higher placement of Muscovy existed only in the minds of Muscovy’s rulers and not however in those of Western Europe. The West viewed Russia as something distant, dangerous and foreign—barbaric as Turkey and exotic as China. This had not been always this way. As late as the 11th century, the Grand Dukes of Kievan Rus hobnobbed in the elite society restricted to the crowned heads of Europe and where the branches of royal family trees were tightly interwoven in defense (and quest) of dynasties. After the Mongol conquest, Russia was pulled to the East, and when Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century tried to forcibly take a piece of Western Europe during the Livonian war, he was deemed to be a frightening eastern barbarian.
By the way this belief was not far from the truth. The acts of cruelties and monstrosities committed on a huge scale by Ivan the Terrible in his own land and to his own subjects under the framework of Oprichnina politics could not be adequately explained by any sane person then or now. The 16th century chronicler Balthasar Russow of Tallinn, a contemporary of Ivan the Terrible, wrote in astonishment that if an army of a hundred thousand men attacked Russia, they could not do as much harm and damage as Ivan the Terrible had done to his own land and people. The Tsar slaughtered all of the people in whole regions and killed, in waves of thousands, members of the upper crust of the society regardless of their loyalty. The Tsar’s behaviour has usually been seen as indicating paranoia, or at least its manifestations, which over time grew ever deeper.
Worse yet. Russian rulers knew, or at least suspected, what was thought of them and their land in the West. From this state of affairs stems what may be Russian culture’s most agonizing problem – a deep inferiority complex. Muscovy rulers have always suspected that the West masks a mocking or even disdainful smirk in its relations with them and this suspicion can bring about a dire, unpredictable reaction.
It is not quite clear whether this inferiority complex can be considered the main progenitor of Russian absurdity, but we may say that it is a contributor. To prove this point, all we have to do is recall the absurdities caused by the inferiority complex of one of Russia’s most contradictory rulers, Peter the Great.
Peter was undoubtedly a gifted person, but his talent and openness were mixed with the worst characteristics of Eastern despots, namely cruelty and a hair trigger temper. Especially despicable was his delight in the humiliation of people to which his own subjects and foreign visitors alike fell victim.
Peter the Great simultaneously admired and envied the West. His respect was sincere and he did not hide his desire to turn Russia into a Western country by accepting and incorporating western dress, manners, architecture, weaponry etc. The inscription on Peter’s seal said “I am a student and I seek teachers.” At the same time he did not cede a single iota of his despotic power, thus attempting to westernize the nation with purely eastern methods. For instance, the brutal methods used to build Russia’s new capital city, St Petersburg, resulted in remarkably more workplace deaths than a king could have tolerated in France or England, since life was considerably more valued in Western Europe.
Even though we need not yet definitively denote these juxtapositions as absurdities, we may claim that Western ideals and Eastern customs are incompatible, and sometimes brought about strange or weird consequences. In spite of this, the westernized appearance of Russia sought by Peter the Great’s reforms and the furtherization of westernization during the 18th and 19th century is a historical fact.
Many of Peter the Great’s famous oddities occurred during his sojourn to the West in the years 1697 to 1699 when he travelled to the Swedish territories at the Baltics and Courland, Prussia, Holland, England and Austria. This mission is usually referred as the „Grand Embassy”.
The first conflict occurred in the city of Riga in Swedish owned Latvia. For some unexplained reason, Peter wished to travel incognito under the common name Peter Mikhailov whilst still enjoying the honours, attentions and respects afforded to a Tsar. The Swedes did not know how to handle such a situation and thought it correct to treat Peter Mikhailov as they would any other common member of the Russian entourage. Thus Peter Mikhailov was treated as all other Peter Mikhailovs would be treated. When Peter went out with his men to study and measure Riga’s ramifications, the Swedes sent him and his crew packing, just as they would have done with any other strangers.
To Peter, this was such an immense insult that it drove him to despise Sweden and Riga. Peter repeatedly named the so called “Riga insult” as a cause of the Great Northern War with Sweden. And during the siege of Riga, in 1709, Peter himself threw the first three grenades onto the walls of that city. The fall of Riga, weakened by plague, in 1710 brought Peter the Great tremendous satisfaction.
Another of Peter’s strange capers is especially astounding. This occurred in London where Peter wished to see a sitting of Parliament without actually entering the building. A ridiculous solution was found, where the Tsar was perched on the roof where he could view a joint session of the lower and upper house presided over by the King himself. The sight of the Tsar balancing on the eave of the roof soon brought gales of laughter and ridicule from MP’s, Lords and passersby in the street below. Becoming aware of the absurdity, Peter had to clamber down from his perch sooner than he had planned.
Let us finish Peter’s outrageous escapades with one more fact. Peter attempted to be simultaneously an all powerful Tsar and one of his own subjects. Sometimes he was an officer of the Preobrazhenskij Regiment, sometimes a naval sailor who rose step by step through the ranks to the lofty position of vice admiral.
Attempts to hold positions of subservience to oneself would suggest a schizophrenic state of mind; to avoid this Peter planted a fake Tsar, Fyodor Romodanovsky, on the throne and wrote groveling letters to him as a subject (“slave”) to the master. Note that Ivan the Terrible had created the same spectacle with his own fake Tsar more than a century earlier. In Peter’s defense, he served honestly both in the army and in the navy, rising through the ranks from a private to an officer and an admiral on merit. Still it was a rather absurd charade.
These farcical games with fake Tsars and other weird officials were performed in public and Peter’s subjects were forced to play along. Most certainly it left an imprint upon Russian culture. Still, regardless of his absurdities, Peter the Great is generally remembered as a serious and harsh ruler and his farcical escapades and charades were remembered in later years in good humor and deemed to be rather praiseworthy than shameful.
It can be said that the formation of Russian national absurdity was influenced by Peter the Great’s actions as a whole, not just by his odd personal antics. By these actions I mean his coercive mixing of East and West into some concoction, full of conflict and weird harmonies. Somewhere in this mixture lies the very strength and weakness of Russian culture, if weakness is seen as a continuous problem with identity. In more than half a millennium, Russia has not been able to decide whether it belongs to the West or to the East, and finds itself a stranger in both.
This was not a favourable situation to be in as this could, and in fact has done so repeatedly, instigate irrational aggressions and real life absurdities. Still, it also creates fertile soil for a finely textured culture and therein some incomprehensible absurdity and surrealistic humor.
It is not hard to see the analogy to the Austrian-Hungarian empire where East and West met and partially mixed. As a result, an Austrian differs, especially culturally, from a Prussian, although they speak the same language. Side effects of the “Austrian case” are some classical blossoms of absurdity – the texts of Franz Kafka and Jaroslav Hašek.
After the reign of Peter the Great, two prolific wellsprings of practical absurdity started (or continued) to work in Russia. The first was the unscalable wall that separated the striving to be Western upper crust of society (merchants, entrepreneurs, nobility, intelligentsia) from a deeply conservative peasantry that included 80% of the populace. Until 1861, this ponderous majority, the serfs, lived in virtual slavery (people were bought and sold in public markets), illiterate and “tied to the land”. They could not move away from their rural communities without their lord’s consent.
The second wellspring was deeply and inextricably rooted in Peter the Great’s rigid bureaucratic system and the general state administration’s arrangements and functioning. There were countless strict rules and regulations, at the fore of which sat the notorious service code which governed in minute detail how civil servants must address each other, how they must dress, how a civil servant’s position compared to a military rank, what his career opportunities were, and so on.
Similar codes and regulations were employed in all European states but nowhere in as rigid a fashion as they were in Russia. The Russian service code system’s special rigidity and consequent absurdity were a result of the fact the system was borrowed, in other words imitation of an idea, or mimicry. An imitator will always be in greater danger of inclining to absurdity than the originator because he cannot quite understand the connection between the phenomena (such as some law, custom, manners and dress code) and the reason it was created.
For instance, a person who only in adulthood learns to eat with a fork and knife “because it is the cultural way to dine” will eat porridge with a fork and knife as well. Although it is normal to eat porridge with a spoon. Or a person may go to a luncheon meeting wearing a tuxedo. An imitator overacts, trying too hard. This is a critical key to understanding many Russian absurdities.
Russian bureaucracy became especially absurd because of its deeply ingrained inefficiency. In comparing Russian imitation with genuine Prussian bureaucracy Juri Lotman has described their principal difference like this: royal orders in Prussia were slowly and methodically delegated through a chain of command until the task was assuredly completed by a responsible designated individual. In Russia, a command may have gotten stuck at any level for the reason that “auntie went away” (tiotia ushla). This meant that some secretary was having a cup of tea instead of answering the telephone call, or that a servant had forgotten to fill the clerk’s ink pot, or that the clerk had a serious hangover, or that someone had lost some necessary paper and so on. Glitches such as these did not especially bother this huge machine. This calls to mind the building of a 1000 kilometer railroad over rugged terrain at great trouble and expense with one kilometer stretch of rail missing somewhere in the middle and no one – or almost no one –letting himself get upset over this.
Russian bureaucracy has always been associated with a certain level of corruption, whose most evident manifestation was bribery. It was never as rampant and cynical as in classical Eastern tyrannies, but considerably higher than was the European average. And this feature too was taken along by the Russians into the Soviet Union.
To be a tiny, insignificant cog with almost no responsibility in a huge, complex machine but to also have no opportunity to go elsewhere or deal with something else in this totally regulated society is a comparatively surrealistic state of affairs that only those with little imagination – dull, apathetic people – can tolerate.. A Russian usually is not dull. Therefore such circumstances lead to discouragement and frustration, resulting in unpredictable reactions and also very often alcoholism.
The reader may have noted that alcohol had already made an appearance as a source of ancient Russian (possible) absurdities. The reason why it seems to have been present, before all the codes and regulations and the daily tortures and struggles of insignificant clerks within a bureaucratic machinery, will remain unknown to us. We know more about this significant problem in Russian society and culture from the reign of Peter the Great onward.
In perhaps his most famous novel, “Crime and Punishment”, Fyodor Dostoyevsky dedicates several pages to a minor character, an intentionally and purposefully misfortunate clerk by the name of Marmeladov, whose credo was “to be unhappy in order to drink, and drink to be even more unhappy.” There is something primevally Russian in that.
Russians’ relationship with alcohol is very different from the French relationship with wine. To put it very simply, a Frenchman drinks for pleasure and to sharpen his wit. A Russian, on the other hand, drinks to lose reason and ideally consciousness; to find, even if temporarily, an escape from his insurmountable troubles. And perhaps to fight a bit. However a sophisticate such as Marmeladov, would justify his drinking with the desire to be unhappy – to suffer –, which in his estimation was quite a noble reason.
(The above remark is not meant to cast Russians in a harsh light in comparison to other nations. Estonians and Finns, too, drink more often as an escape mechanism rather than to sharpen their wit. The same can be said about many aboriginal peoples where alcohol has had an unduly incapacitating effect.)
The West has long made note of Russians’ specific ties with alcohol, especially vodka, which is the diminutive form for the Russian word “voda” or water. So it happened in Paris in July 1914, during the last days of peace before the World War I, the Russian ambassador requested that French Prime Minister Viviani be awakened early in the morning. An irritated Viviani blurted out, “These Russians’ insomnia is becoming worse than their eternal addiction to alcohol.” Thus, their addiction to alcohol was long known.
The perception that Russians and their alcohol were inseparable was furthered already by Peter the Great. He took pleasure in forcing guests, including foreigners, to drink colossal goblets of wine or vodka, or sometimes even straight alcohol. Some died drinking from Peter’s goblet. A man, like Peter himself, who could drink immense volumes of alcohol was held in heroic esteem.
Great quips and witticisms have been associated with liquor throughout Russian folklore. The famous Russian General Alexander Suvorov (from the latter part of the 18th century), for example, announced: “Even if I have to sell my trousers, drinking must be done after a sauna”. Tsar Alexander III (ruled from 1881 to 1894) was a consumate alcoholic, who from time to time loved to shout out, “bring me an imperial schnapps!”, which meant a concoction of vodka and champagne. This is surely a cocktail that has not received any popularity in the West, nor are there many Westerners who could survive it.
To finish this topic, let us turn to the part of Russian absurdity that was not centered around alcohol and its abuse.
There was plenty of this, enough to amuse any member of society from the lowliest peasant to the noblest of the nobility. For example, there is a story, that occurred in the second half of the 19th century when Russia began to build railways. One of the first main projects was the rail link between Moscow and St. Petersburg. When the Tsar asked the chief engineer how things were going, he received a detailed response of how certain natural obstacles such as lakes and rivers and marshes were slowing the progress. The militarily brusque Tsar listened to the dissertation with an increasingly sombre expression, until finally he took out a straight edge and a red pencil, placed the straight edge on the map, one end at St. Petersburg, the other at Moscow and drew a straight red line on the map.
“The railroad will follow, without exception, this line”, announced the Tsar and left. The chief engineer noticed that the Tsar’s index finger and thumb had slightly overhung the straight edge so that the red line was not quite straight, leaving two small arcs in an otherwise straight line. But this new trajectory had been drawn by the royal hand and was thus sacred. Railroad construction thus followed it to a “t” including the two little curves born from the fingertips of the emperor, on either side of Bologoye and so it stands to this day.
Historians say it is just a story, not truth, but still it says something.
To try to summarize all that has been said above, we may state that over many centuries in Russia actions frequently did not have predicted consequences, and consequences frequently did not arise from actions in the way that one might have assumed.
This problem exists to this very day. In 1990, Russia’s Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, commenting on yet another flop, was quoted as saying “We wanted the best but the outcome was still the same as always.” I recall how my friends and I laughed when we heard this statement for the first time. Bingo! We thought that it could have not been put better or more succinctly.
This short phrase has now become a classic for it reflects all the shortcomings and beauty of Russian culture, and all of its absurd charm. No other people have so ingeniously and cleverly commented on their own failures.
And it was just this nation that began to build Communism…
1.3 Essential Absurdity of Communist Ideology
To avoid any confusion with terminology, let us first look at the difference, at least in the framework of this book, between Soviet absurdity and Communist absurdity. Communist absurdity is that which from its very inception was based on the ideology created in the middle of the 19th century in Germany by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and whose primary source is the Manifesto of the Communist Party, published in 1848 and usually referred to as the Communist Manifesto. Soviet absurdity, in its turn, was created when this European-born ideology was incarnated in Russia.
To be precise, the ideology for which Marx and Engels coined the phrase “spectre of communism” was not initiated by the Communist Manifesto. Indeed, it existed earlier in some vague form or other; in fact much earlier if Plato is to be taken into account. But The Manifesto gave this ideology a solid form and framework, as well as a strong jump start. Parties and organizations, identifying themselves as communist, soon sprang up everywhere like mushrooms after rain.
For the sake of brevity I won’t detail the development of the Communist movement. I think it will suffice to say that throughout the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Communists were confident that all of the West would become communist societies around the same time, with the most developed nations in the vanguard. In the middle of the 19th century Communists thought that this change was imminent and would occur within the next few years. Instead, the bourgeois way of life, christened “capitalist” by the Communists stumbled from crisis to crisis, and instead of collapsing grew stronger and stronger. This had to be somehow explained and Marxism was developed further. Some Marxists believed that a proletarian revolution in the form prescribed by Marx would never occur. Others believed that it would occur, but a litlle later. Their hopes were lifted by the turmoil at the beginning of the 20th century, especially WW I, which finally did provide impetus to the inception of an unprecedented social and political experiment in Russia.
But let us start with the Communist Manifesto which is the holiest tome of communist ideology and can be called the red gospel.
The Manifesto’s first chapter begins as follows: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” This thought is repeated later: “Hitherto, every form of society has been based, as we have already seen, on the antagonism of oppressing and oppressed classes.”
It is a matter of preference whether we categorize this statement as an absurdity or as something astoundingly primitive. It is unquestionably primitive. To stuff all of the great events that ever occurred in the history of mankind from the Crusades to the Reformation, from the 100 Years’ War to the invention of the steam engine into the rigid framework of class struggle is as senseless as to treat all of history as a perpetual gender war between Man and Woman. In other words, such a mindless generalization does not explain history, but violates it.
Unfortunately this type of one-sided generalization sold well in the middle of the 19th century and sells well even today. Any new would-be prophet who starts his sermon with the words “everything actually comes from…” or “all that we know can be traced back to…” will always attract thousands of devoted listeners and believers. It was sufficient for Freud to announce “all derives from the sex urge” and his teachings conquered the world. It’s true that ridiculous all-inclusive statements (in the style “we are all pancakes”) attract only some intellectual friends of absurdity but statements like “everything is for sale”, “everything is an illusion” or “the whole world is in decay” are welcomed widely as deep insights. In their subconscious hopes that a societal formula is as simple and as universal as the famous E=mc2, people are prepared to believe nonsense if it only sounds good.
Having postulated its primitive launching point, the Manifesto proclaimed that “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly opposing each other — bourgeoisie and proletariat.” This proclamation is the nucleus of Communist ideology and, as we can see, even here uses a shouting simplification that borders on absurdity. Moving a small step along this road of absurdity we might divide “society as a whole ” into smokers and non-smokers, or drivers and pedestrians as was done by the Soviet era satirists, Ilf and Petrov. (Soviet censors obviously did not catch on to what Ilf and Petrov were mocking otherwise their satire would have been forbidden.)
Hence, according to Marx, classical bourgeois society is divided into two classes, bourgeoisie and proletariat, who are firstly, in conflict with each other and secondly, their conflict is unresolvable – a struggle that can be classified as antagonistic. Antagonism may be overcome only by the destruction of one of the antagonists, unless by chance both antagonists perish. Marx did not foresee the occurrence of the latter. Quite to the contrary. Marx maintained that “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. The fall of the bourgeoisie and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.”
Still, the inevitable demise of the bourgeoisie will take some time and in the meantime, an angry conflict will prevail where any victory for one side will be a loss for the other. Any type of win-win coexistence is out of question and any hint of that would be viewed as an act of treason to the sacred cause of the proletariat and seen as shameful bootlicking. The proletariat must be united in hatred because there are reasons aplenty:
“Not only are they slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois state; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the overlooker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself. The more openly this despotism proclaims gain to be its end and aim, the more petty, the more hateful and the more embittering it is. (…) No sooner is the exploitation of the labourer by the manufacturer over in that he receives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portion of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.”
It follows then that to be a proletarian is the only condition that must be met for a person to be morally justified to use whatever violence is necessary against the aforementioned bloodsuckers. Whatever violence – but preferably organized violence.
This is but a short step from a brutal and hateful ideology that calls for the massacre of all the wealthy. An anecdote on this very topic became popular in the later Soviet Union. A young communist proclaimed victoriously: “We have founded a society where there are no rich people!” To which an old social democrat shook his head and muttered, “Actually our intention was to found a society were there were no poor people.”
In this little anecdote is hidden the false belief that was quite popular some time ago both in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, that Marx and Lenin were “good men” and everything would have been different had not Stalin ruined their good work. This false belief is still alive. In fact, as we can see, the aim of destroying all wealthy people is clearly stated in the Communist Manifesto, and thus, a tenet of Communist ideology, which means that there has not been any “good “ Communism ever. From the very beginning Communism has contained a vague element of revenge that has been an attraction to those who find they are vicitms of injustice. People such as these are always to be found, it is a psychological-statistical inevitability.
From this proclamation that the bourgeoisie are vulgar exploiters has arisen the concept of objective guilt developed by Stalinist Soviet Chief Prosecutor Vyshinski. So-called objective guilt provided a rationale for numerous crimes by the justice system.. Simplified, “objective guilt” meant that a person could be sentenced to labour camp or executed purely for the reason that he had been at any time a bourgeoisie, an officer, policeman etc. He had committed any crime but “objectively” he was guilty and had to be destroyed, even retroactively
Besides, one may argue that Hitler’s treatment of the Jews was an outcome of the very same ideology of hatred first expressed so forcibly in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx, a bourgeois should be destroyed because he was a bourgeois. Hitler merely exchanged the word bourgeois for Jew. The guilt of both was “objective” and all that was required was to establish his race or class. Next there was the gallows.
In all of this shrill rhetoric about the enslavement and exploitation of the proletariat by the factory owner, an exceptionally absurd detail stands out. And this time it follows the meaning of the word absurdity to a “t“. Marx’s co-author of the Communist Manifesto and closest friend, Friedrich Engels was in his private life … an individual manufacturer. In other words he himself was an exploiter, abuser and enslaver. He did not stop being a factory owner but kept on enslaving and abusing and exploiting his workers for tens of years and with the money gained supported Karl Marx – so that he could write more books on how the factory owners enslaved and exploited and abused the proletariat. Because every factory owner is an exploiter, if he wants to be or not.
To think too much about this fact will set one’s head spinning.
By the way, Marx and Engels both noticed this absurdity. To explain their way out of this mess, they added the following statement to the Manifesto:
“Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands.”
Since Engels still did not give away his factories in order to join the proletariat and earn, together with Marx, their meager daily bread in some huge workshop, preferring instead to live by the sweat and toil of the ”enslaved”, another sentence was added:
“Just as, therefore, in an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.”
With this they said that although all factory owners are exploiters, those who understand the historical process (namely Engels and his good friend Marx) are not. Simply put: “All factory owners are exploiters, but I am not.”
This can be compared almost word for word to George Orwell’s famous summary of Communist dogma: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” Hence, even this kind of statement isn’t a “Stalinist distortion” of another good Marxist idea (recalling the character “Major”, one can see that Orwell himself believed in the goodness in Marxism) but already exists in a somewhat covert fashion in the Communist Manifesto.
The Communist Manifesto plays a very important role in, perhaps, Marx’s biggest crime – the one he committed against morality. This topic is closely linked to the aforementioned statements.
We have seen that Marx’s basic tenet was that the proletarians and the bourgeois were in unresolvable conflict and that the bourgeois must be destroyed. This is not a metaphor – the Manifesto demands, in the truly literal sense, destruction by force. The demand for violence is clearly etched into the Manifesto: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” And on another page: “… the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”
Such statements spawned estrangement in the middle 19th century and later. The question arose: why, unconditionally, must the overthrow be accomplished through force and violence? Are there no universal truths such as freedom and justice that have been recognized and believed in by all previous and present civilized societies and which the Communists should also recognize and believe in? Grounds must exist that might be used to justify an attempt to take power without violence?
No, say Marx and Engels. All societies to date are based on the enslavement of one class by another which means that “the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms.”
In this somewhat confusing statement we find hidden the denial of any universal moral norms: there exist morals for a class society and morals for a classless society. It follows then that we can scrap all basic principles including mercy, justice, honesty and so on because these principles are the oppressors’ mercy, the oppressors’ justice and the oppressors’ honesty. Just in case it was missed the first time, the co-authors repeat the thought:
“The Communist revolution is the most radical rupture with traditional property relations; no wonder that its development involves the most radical rupture with traditional ideas.”
This was practically a universal indulgence. Since all of these ideas were created by exploiting and enslaving property relations, we may and must discard every single one of them. All that was previously forbidden is now allowed.
The few dozen pages of the Manifesto are abundantly rich in absurdities and those who wish can study them further. At this point we will note only some especially baroque examples.
“On what foundation is the present, bourgeois family based? On capital, on private gain.” There’s a blow! You dreamed of a home and children and of Christmas Eve together with your beloved ones, but no – you were only scheming how to make a profit. But this is only half the truth, the rest is even more exciting:
“Bourgeois marriage is, in reality, a system of keeping wives in common and thus what the Communists might possibly be reproached with is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized system of free love. For the rest, it is self-evident that the abolition of the present system of production must bring with it the abolition of free love springing from that system, i.e., of prostitution both public and private.”
It is difficult to provide any commentary here. The bourgeois, enslaving, keeping of wives in common will disappear and be replaced with a free Communist keeping of wives in common? And in this case how to define a woman who “is kept”? As a pet or a cut above?
In reality, these statements from the Manifesto are disgusting. One can only note that almost every radical movement in the history has put together a bouquet of clever little reasons to discard all “passe” standards regulating sex life and begin this activity anew in the spirit of “right” and “free” principles.
Usually a philosophical system becomes most comic at the spot where the philosopher begins to dispense concrete instructions on activities. That is how it is with Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, so it is here as well. Marx and Engels enumerate ten measures that must be put into practice in the most developed countries. Among them we find the abolition of all rights of inheritance, centralization of finance and founding of a national central bank, free societal education of children, amalgamation of transportation under the control of the state etc.
It was in the field of monetary policy and finance where Marx presented one of his most ludicrous ideas: money will disappear from circulation. What it was to be replaced with no one then or later exactly knew. Stalin gave the most extensive response to this quandry in his “Economic Problems of Socialism” (1952). Furthering Marx’s idea of centralization and a single bank, he wrote that „a national economic organization will be created (…), which has in the beginning the right to take into its accounts all of the nation’s production of consumer goods, but in time will also have the right to distribute these goods, for example, in the form of exchange of goods.”
So, the good old barter system “I give you a sheep, you give me a barrelful of wheat” returns, except that, different from the stone age, this primitive trade is done through a centralized economic organization complete, of course, with thousands of bureaucrats who all take their portion of both the sheep as well the wheat.
In Marx’s list there is also a demand: “Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.”
An industrial army for agriculture? Here the comedy turns into a nightmare, especially for a person who knows how the collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union occurred and with what results. It’s as if Marx held an irrational hatred against traditional country life – a hatred that shows up in the manifesto behind the words „the idiocy of rural life”. This heart-felt curse, which sounds much like a Freudian slip (perhaps Marx was beaten up as lad by some young farm-hand) is solidified by the authors in the back pages of the Manifesto with the short clarification regarding peasants and petite bourgeoisie. Both are “… reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history. If by chance, they are revolutionary, they are only so in view of their impending transfer into the proletariat; they thus defend not their present, but their future interests, they desert their own standpoint to place themselves at that of the proletariat.”
Thus the peasant and the shoemaker are somehow ex officio reactionaries, at least until they want to be a peasant and a shoemaker. Because they are trying to roll back the wheel of history.
It is even possible understand what Marx was trying to say. Marx was certain that in addition to smelting metal, large industry would begin growing wheat and rearing children as well. The future in this scenario would belong to large industry and small businesses and farms would be a hinderance. History would show that there a was modicum of truth to this. But still only a modicum, for large factories have not made small businesses extinct nor have the small businesses eliminated the large entities either. Therefore they must complement each other. In addition, to stamp “reactionary” and “to be destroyed” on the dreams, desires and necessities of millions of people is equivalent to the brutality of Pol Pot. There is absolutely no difference whether you announce the extermination of all the peasants, as did Stalin, or the city dwellers, as did Pol Pot. Both doctrines lead back to Marx and Engels and their slogans that were the progenitors of the concept of “objective guilt”.
If we look for where Marx made his greatest error, or, in other words, for the nucleus of his utopia’s absurdity, then I would like to present two points of view in this question. These have been advanced by two internationally known Estonian scholars, the economist Uno Mereste and the psychologist Peeter Tulviste.
Mereste writes: “Marx’s basic flaw, the reason no economy that followed Marx’s teachings has successfully developed, or ever will develop, in my opinion, is that his fundamental supposition that the elimination of private ownership will result in an explosion of productivity that will drive a national economy to new, unimaginable levels, is based on pure fantasy. An unprecedented rise in productivity would increase production to a level that would allow for practically boundless spending (…) Such an increase in production has not yet been observed anywhere where private ownership has been liquidated and we will certainly not observe this in the future. Many objective facts speak against such an occurrence, including by the way, all resources’ inevitable law of limitations.. Resources are always limited; nothing can be produced or consumed limitlessly.”**
Peeter Tulviste’s epilogue to the Estonian language translation of Richard Pipes’ “Communism” makes the salient point that “Communism is a bad idea, that can never be carried out well – because its view of humanity is wrong”.
As we can see, one expert emphasizes the limitations of resources, while another points out incompatibilities of the human psyche with Communism’s “new person” ideal. These views do not oppose one another, rather they complement each other. The elimination of private ownership will not raise productivity for the simple reason that, contrary to Marx’s assertion, it will not raise motivation. A situation where all are equal is not liked at all by the majority of people, rather it causes distress: forced equality means the destruction of any possibilities of individual achievement. And this hurdle is a direct result of the false view of humanity.
The problem of limited resources comes also from psychology, as paradoxical as this seems. Limited resources would not be a problem – we wouldn’t even notice it – if our desires and wants would be limited. But they are not. This means that the age of plenty will never arrive – because mankind is never satisfied. Trying to achieve the age of plenty will necessarily result in exhausting every resource and destroying the Earth.
This last truth is not only relevant to the analysis of Communism. It should also be kept in mind by human rights theorists who with admirable fortitude ignore the fact that the actual securing of any human right requires resources and energy.
It is unbelievable how many millions of people have maintained that the Communist Party Manifesto is a tome of deep, humane and far seeing truth. A certain international group of self appointed thinkers and intellectuals even had the audacity to name Karl Marx as the greatest thinker of the second millennium.
If we understand “greatest thinker” to mean a person who has best demonstrated the ability to express one’s ungrounded obsessions and idée fixes as rational and scientific statements, or a person who with these ideas has made fools of the largest masses of people, then we might agree with their nomination.
1.4. Soviet Absurdity – Communist Absurdity in its Russian Coat
We noted earlier that 19th century Marxists were convinced that the proletarian revolution would explode at more or less the same time in all of the most developed countries in Europe.
An important correction was made to this doctrine in 1915 by Vladimir Ulyanov, the leader of Russian refugees living in Western Europe and better known under the name of Lenin.
Lenin was in a rush to found Communism. He did not want to leave this duty to anyone else and for this reason the work had to be finished during his lifetime. As the inception of Communism in the developed countries of Europe dragged on and on, and since Lenin saw that he could not spark a revolution there, he amended the theory with the proposition that it was possible to initiate Communism in a single isolated nation, and that nation did not have to be the most economically developed country. Rather, this nation needed to be one where class differences were most severe, which therefore that made it Imperialism’s weakest link. In short – this country was Russia. Communists may start their job in Russia, without having to wait for a pan-global or pan-European revolution.
This correction launched Soviet Absurdity which manifested itself both in real-life and in the Russian revolutionaries’, later the rulers of Soviet Russia, always developing Communist ideology. An ideology that they proudly held to be not just a theory, but a proven theory.
Thus Soviet Absurdity divided into practical and theoretical branches. Both absurdities were reflected in Soviet art and literature, as many reflections as made it through the doors of the censor’s office. As well, Soviet absurdities were portrayed in living folklore, idioms, anecdotes, nicknames and other vehicles that were outside of the censor’s reach but could still land you in the GULAG. This possibility is depicted by the following anecdote:
Churchill and Stalin each were boasting about their personal fame. Churchill said he collected jokes about himself. ”I’m so famous that I already have three thick volumes of jokes about me“. Stalin responded, “That’s nothing. I too collect jokes about me. Together with the ones who tell them. I’m so famous that there are thirty Siberian labor camps full of jokes about me and we are building more“.
The creation of Soviet Absurdity did not proceed by strict schedule but by trial and error. Or if we paraphrase Chernomyrdin’s recent statement, then “We wanted to build Communism, but, tiotia ushla, the workers got drunk and the result was the same as always.“
By the way, there was not always a union of the two absurdities but sometimes a union of Communist absurdity with Russian culture with all of its good and bad facets. The prime example of this is the so called red corner (krasnyi ugol). Every factory, school, commune office and so on, had a red corner. This was a corner of some bigger room, or in some cases a whole special room. In the red corner painted slogans and portraits of Lenin, Stalin, Marx and Engels were hung on a red cloth; in the red corner you could peruse newspapers or the works of “Marxist-Leninist classics”. It was here that political training (that which we call today regular brainwashing) was held. The red corner was the symbol of the new age and new thought and, in general, the symbol of everything new and progressive.
But… the red corner as such was actually an adapted variation of the holy corner (domestic shrine) found in the home of every “reactionary“ peasant. The holy corner was a shrine diagonally opposite to the entrance and held religious ornaments such as icons and candles. Guests, upon entering, always looked first toward the holy corner and crossed themselves. The Communist red corner merely substituted one icon for another. Christ, the virgin Mary and St. George were replaced by Marx and Lenin. It was as simple as that. Even the name did not have to change for the name for holy corner in Russian is krasnyi ugol. In archaic Russian the word krasnyi means both red and beautiful/pretty. (That’s why, by the way, Red Square in Moscow can also be translated to mean Beautiful or Pretty Square). However, that which possessed meaning and deep substance in the Russian Orthodox peasant culture was taken into Communism’s workshops and pounded into an absurdity
Another example where a time honoured Russian cultural element was transformed into a Communist absurdity was the carrying of the portraits of the leaders in Soviet parades. It was mandatory throughout the Soviet Union that, on the occasion of the anniversary of the October revolution, the pictures of each member of the Politbureau of the Central Committee had to be carried in every organized parade, be it in Tallinn, Tashkent or Moscow. Not a group picture, but separate, individual pictures, each mounted to the end of a pole and carried on high. This was an exact copy of the carrying of symbols in Russian Orthodox religious processions. These symbols were not of course portraits of the honourable comrades Podgorny, Pelshe, Suslov, Ustinov, Aliyev etc, but of Christian saints.
Different religions, Christianity especially extensively, have used the method of co-opting established religious symbols, customs and rituals, giving them new meaning. But in these instances one religion replaced another religion and no particular absurdity occurred. Communism, on the other hand, declared itself to be enlightened and in sharp opposition to Christianity and any other religion; in actuality it behaved like a religion itself. And this was already an absurdity – the leaders of atheists being worshipped as saints. An atheistic religion. In short – a virgin grandmother, hot ice-cream and a lead balloon.
The opposite could occur as well: Russian absurdity attached itself to some standard or idea derived from Communist ideology that in itself wasn’t an absurdity. This too was a very common occurrence. For instance, Marxist–Leninist theory states that to overtake capitalism, Communism must reach a higher level of labour productivity. This in every way common sense proposition (if John wants to pass Tom, he must walk faster) was adopted with typical Russian bravado, regardless of life, resource or end result.
A little example, if you please. When they began to build the city of Komsomolsk on the banks of the Amur river, they dropped off hordes of Comyouth (members of the Young Communists’ League) into the Siberian taiga and ordered them to cut wood. No-one had thought to bring any axes so they proceeded to down the trees with ropes: one Comyouth would climb to the top of a spruce tree and fasten the rope. A hundred young Communists would pull on the rope. With a resounding crack the tree came crashing down. You of course think that I am exaggerating. Keep thinking that…
In 1935, Aleksei Stakhanov, a miner from Donbass, descended into a mine and over the span of 5 hours hacked out 14.5 times more coal than the norm required. From this came the so-called Stakhanov movement – an idea and campaign that one must work with desperate strength and speed, as though in a life and death struggle. Stakhanovism came to mean that a crane that was designed to lift 3 tons was used to lift 6 tons. Nobody cared that the crane would soon break to pieces and the operator be killed. Stakhanovism also came to mean that a forestry enterprise cut down many more trees than the plan called for, and was praised for it. Who cares if these trees weren’t able to be dragged out of the forest and were left to rot. The Stalingrad Tractor Factory was built with Stakhanovist self sacrifice. Once this achievement was announced, no one cared that the productivity of the factory was one tractor per week and that the tractor did not work.
We will speak more of nonsensical things later. They can be categorized under the name pakazukha (the presentation of enhanced pictures) and the roots of even this phenomenon reach back to tsarist Russia. Old stories relate that the famous 18th century duke Potemkin had so called Potemkin villages, which consisted only of facades of well kept farmhouses and homes, erected in his duchy to impress Empress Catherine the Great during an impending visit. Although historians have declared that these stories are not based on truth, the phrase “Potemkin village“ was coined and is still in use because examples of enhanced false fronts abounded and still abound in Russia. The Stalingrad Tractor Factory is a perfect example of a Potemkin village.
The rule of thumb was that if some sensible idea or aim could be associated with Communist ideology, (e.g. electrification of backward Russia, elimination of illiteracy, erection of communication lines, limiting alcoholism etc.) then they always proceeded into the task with such magnitude, exaggerated vigour and excess fervor that the whole enterprise soon turned into either a complete absurdity or left the odor of absurdity. A good example of this was perhaps the Soviet Union’s last great campaign—the campaign against drunkenness. The goal was noble, but quickly descended into idiocy. For instance, they chopped down centuries old Massandra vines on the shores of the Black Sea. Fortunately, not all of the vines were destroyed. It is not surprising that the people would say things such as: “Illiteracy in the Soviet Union was eliminated extremely quickly. They just eliminated the illiterates“.
In these cases, a traditional quality inherent to the Russian state machinery was harnessed: ensure that the results on paper are exemplary. And they were; the Kremlin only began to take an interest in the actual results once the economy had hopelessly deteriorated. Even then, Gorbachev could not obtain factual data about the faltering economy since, by ingrained habit, officials sent to their bosses, and they in turn to their bosses, not statistics but fiction. The general principle of falsifying reports was not a sporadic problem but an epidemic that infected the Soviet Union from bottom to top and from top to bottom.
We described two instances that show how absurdity could bond with nonabsurdity, and like a dominant gene, usually result in absurdity. More common, however, was the new strain of “Made in the Soviet Union“ absurdity where both constituent components were already absurdities on their own accord. As mentioned, the new strain could be theoretical or practical.
First a few words about theoretical absurdity. The contribution of Soviet Marxist-Leninist theorists to the world’s history of absurdity is so vast that it is impossible to provide any kind of systematic overview here. Yet even a somewhat chaotic description may be of certain epistemological and emotional value.
If the father of Marxist absurdity was Marx, then, undoubtedly the father of Marxist–Leninist absurdity was Lenin himself. His enormous theoretical creation was declared upon his death to be a holy text from beginning to end in which there was not one error. This means that there could not be a single error because this was Lenin’s text. Therefore it follows that all his false logic, tautologies and journalistic exaggerations are raised to the same level of infallibility and regarded as holy truths. These were quoted as maxims, exactly like the phrases from the Bible. When Lenin in an article dropped in the word play “doveryai, no proveryai“ (trust, but control) it was on the lips of people across the Soviet Union without anyone caring that its meaning was nonsense. Why control if you trust? Another favorite demagogic pearl from Lenin the self-confident fiery debater was: “Marxism is omnipotent because it is right“. Actually this was Lenin’s personal opinion. As an element of a debate the statement that Marxism is right normally would require logical proof. But Marxism had to be right, because Lenin said it was right. And if it was right, then it was omnipotent.
In 1970, a similar example was noted by some European film makers in Northern Korea where they were shown a film that was rife full of errors in logic. After viewing this film the European film makers asked the director why this and that were presented in such a ludicrous and unbelievable manner. The North Korean film director seemed astonished and responded: “Comrade Kim Il Sung personally examined this film. He found 22 errors in it. I corrected all these errors according to his instructions. Now there is no longer any errors in this film.”
These few utterances as described above were but minor things. Leninism’s grandest absurdity was primarily the belief that it was possible to raise, in quite a short time, a new Communist person who no longer had an instinct for private ownership and had an innate need to work. The second greatest absurdity was the belief that it was specifically Russia where a Socialist society would be built first.
By the way – socialism and communism. What is the difference? When Marx and Engels wrote their Manifesto in 1848, then, without exception, they used the term “communism“. Decades later this became “socialism” and was used as a synonym for “communism“. The most dedicated communists were simultaneously socialists (Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party). Only when a new social structure was being organized and put into practice in Russia and when it became clear that this was easier to do on paper than in real life, communism and socialism were separated from each other. Socialism – this came to mean a communist rearrangement which did not yet bring people maximum peace, well-being and good fortune (rather mass murders, deportation and starvation, as we know now); and communism came to mean a time of great plenty and happiness that would come soon, but never did.
All Communist leaders made influential contributions to Marxist-Leninist theoretical absurdity; especially noteworthy was Stalin’s contribution. Stalin shocked the world with his personal interventions into fields such as linguistics and agronomy. As with many other dictators before and after him, his despotic psyche did not withstand the burden of absolute power and he began to see himself not only as a great ruler and commander but also as a great scholar. (It’s a wonder that he did not become a great artist like Nero or a great writer like Brezhnev). After Stalin’s intervention, it was impossible for these disciplines to advance until after his death because the final truth had already been voiced by Stalin himself.
In 1961, Nikita Khrushchev, who followed Stalin, contributed to the Marxist–Leninist treasury of absurdity by declaring that the long awaited Communist age of plenty would arrive in 1981. When 1981 did arrive, the Soviet Union was on the brink of famine. By that time Communism, fortunately, no longer interested anyone. The Soviet Union had reached its most absurd era, that of Leonid Brezhnev. His additions to Marxist–Leninist theory consisted of enormous tomes of incomprehensible and nonsensical texts (actually verbal burbling). These texts had no real content, being just liturgical mumblings that accompanied a Soviet person everywhere and always.
Let us begin our presentation of practical Soviet absurdities by noting that they take up the lion’s share of this book. For this reason, only the most general subdivisions and historical stages of practical absurdities are presented in this chapter.
Just as predicted by theory, those two absurdities, theoretical and practical, met first in the domain of economics and private ownership. In November 1917 (October in the Julian calendar) the Bolsheviks, who had recently taken power, announced the nationalization of all of the land and, a short while later, all of the factories. By the spring of the following year, most of the nation’s industry, banking, transportation (just as Marx had ordered), along with foreign trade, was nationalized. This action was called “an assault on capital in a red-guard manner” by Lenin, and the textbook on the history of the CPSU, printed in 1978, flatteringly called his phrasing apt. Perhaps it was apt, perhaps not, but what really occurred was a brutal expropriation that the bourgeois, shackled with old time morals, habitually called robbery.
That such a thing could occur, was largely due to Russian society which, as was described in the subchapter on Russian national absurdity, was primarily affected by the deep splits that yawned between educated and uneducated social groups, between the Westernized upper crust and the common people who still remembered the days of serfdom. It became apparent that within the lower classes there existed a multitude of those who readily exchanged their fanatical faithfulness to the Tsar and the Orthodox church for equally fanatical faithfulness to the Bolsheviks and hatred.
Initially the large industries and large land tracts were expropriated; then very quickly the Bolsheviks achieved the same with even the smallest of enterprises. To Lenin, and many other Communist leaders intoxicated by the revolution and power, it appeared as though the communist society was within their grasp. Private ownership along with its enslaving “capital“ was eliminated, unleashing tremendous energy and will to work. The age of abundance and happiness was surely imminent.
Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that this scenario – one that should have been appreciated by every normal person – had incomprehensibly many enemies. At times it seemed as though the majority of the people were enemies of the people. Embarrassingly, Lenin was forced to label his first economic rearrangement as “War Communism“ and replace it with the New Economic Politics or NEP (more on the NEP in the next chapter), which permitted a certain degree of entrepreneurship and market freedom. For some reason, only at that moment were energy and will to work unleashed and the nearly collapsed Russian economy recovered after a few years.
But the doctrine’s strength was so tenacious that when the threat of starvation had passed, the Bolsheviks reverted to the task of building a “socialist economy”. A second wave of robbery took place and the last remnants of private ownership were mercilessly eliminated. From the 1930’s onward, a rigid national “command economy” ruled the Soviet Union. This could have even functioned in a desperate way, had it been managed with Prussian precision. Unfortunately this was carried out in the traditional spirit of tiotia ushla and, as can be guessed, ended as always.
By the way, later in the German Democratic Republic (i.e. DDR or East Germany), they did attempt to combine a planned/command economy with Prussian efficiency and the results were better than in Russia. Of course, here we must keep two things in mind: firstly, East Germans changed over to the command economy only on fear of death, and secondly, their results were still much worse than those enjoyed by West Germans. Hence, the Marxist economic model was not possible even for the Germans.
With regard to agricultural economics, Marx’s great student Trotsky, with Lenin’s blessing, set out to cure the peasants’ alleged “reactionary“ mindset and the obvious idiocy of rural life by executing masses of peasants in Tambov province during Russia’s civil war. But all this was just a trivial prelude. Marx’s other great student, Stalin, raised the destruction of peasants from mass murder levels to outright genocide: in 1932-1933 a state created, deliberate famine killed 3.5 to 4 million Ukrainians; other data puts this number considerably higher. The result: Marx’s detested idiocy was replaced by a great Stalinist absurdity called kolkhoz economy. We shall deal with this topic in a later chapter.
From its very inception, the Bolshevik party was emphatically centralized – hiding this behind another senseless term “democratic centralism” – and immediately upon taking power Communists installed tyranny across the nation. Not only across the nation, but tyranny also took gradual hold in the top layer of power itself. Top Communist leaders who, at least amongst themselves, had in the first years after the revolution maintained certain freedoms of opinion and speech gradually lost these as Stalin’s power strengthened. By the late twenties, Stalin had defeated his chief rival, Lev Trotsky, and ruled as a dictator until his death in 1953.
Here we had a classical Oriental despotism except that the despotism declared itself the world’s only true democracy. This was certainly one of the many blossoms of Soviet absurdity.
Absolute power forces its way into every sphere of its subordinates’ lives. Just as it was in Orwell’s “1984“, so it almost was in the Soviet Union. Long chains of glorious new campaigns were forged where everyone was forced to devotedly assist and participate, be it a campaign to install hydroelectricity or develop a wondrous new two-headed strain of wheat. We had to proclaim our support; we had to exhibit our boundless loyalty; we had to resolutely express condemnation; we had to selflessly struggle. For who or against who, that was regularly announced by the Communist Party.
Some campaigns became so famous that they competed with the classical absurdities of Mao Tse Tung. Perhaps Mao’s sparrow killing campaign is the most idiotic of all time, but Khrushchev’s corn growing campaign has to be a close second.
There is nothing absurd in growing corn; it was changed into an absurdity by Khrushchev, whose grand scale plan was to plant corn really everywhere, including in the polar regions. Even in Estonia, which is far from a polar region, it is useless to plant corn and expect any sort of crop, even for livestock feed. The Baltic German landlords, at one time the upper crust in Estonia and Latvia, had learned this already in the nineteenth century, yet Estonia still had to participate in Khrushchev’s farce. As everybody had to cultivate corn, then, without exception, everybody did cultivate corn – for he who did not cultivate corn was not a Soviet person. And whoever was not a Soviet person was therefore an enemy.
A Soviet person had to constantly be on alert as if he or she were in a state of war – in a constant euphoria over the impending victory, and in a state of continual readiness to leap out of the trenches and put a final end to the enemy that was ever lurking nearby. Since normal market regulations did not work, and since the majority of stimuli for greater and more effective productivity were eliminated by the loss of private ownership, then the only resources left to stimulate people were the two important levers: frightening them and befooling them.
Fear meant that if a person did not fill his quota according to plan, he would have to face repressions. By befooling, I mean that incredible institution that existed throughout Soviet times, namely, Socialistic competition. Of course, working was first and foremost a struggle against international imperialism (even when producing brush handles), but working was also a competition. Factories, communes, schools, stores and train stations competed. Even lawyers competed. Who had given more counsel, who had prepared more documents, and presented more defence pleas. Prisons competed, authors competed, universities competed (even faculties within the same university competed). Everybody competed. Winners received great honour and a little bit of money.
Traditional Russian absurdity and Communist absurdity merged, by the way, in the sense that graft continued to be rampant in the Soviet Union. As noted, graft was a major characteristic of Russian bureaucracy since its beginnings, but the Communist command economy gave it ample new prospects. A pearl of Soviet absurdity was that the traditional paying and taking of graft was in many ways a serious benefit to the Soviet Union – it helped to keep this insane economy alive. If a pipe blew in a factory and a replacement could not be procured through official means, then the plant would have remained shut unless a replacement could be found through more artful – and illegal – means.
Graft in the Baltic States was more or less on the same level as graft in Europe. Russians could somehow never believe that. Once during the early 1980’s an official commission set up to investigate universities across the Soviet Union was sent from Moscow to investigate an Estonian university to find and discharge faculty members who were guilty of taking under the table payoffs. To their great chagrin, they could not establish a single incident of graft. After completing their report, the commission chair took the university representative aside and asked him off the record, “The report will be fine, but I’m curious. How do you do it, how do you take graft so slickly that we couldn’t trace it?” The university representative shrugged his shoulders and responded, as he had done repeatedly, that this custom did not exist here. The chairman was somewhat insulted that during a clearly off the record session he was fed, in his opinion, bunk and still was not told how graft occurred. Perhaps it bothered him to the end of his days.
To complete this general overview, let me present the more significant stages of Soviet absurdity’s development.
First, we have futuristic absurdities from the time that Soviet power was initially established. It was dynamic and even vivacious, especially in comparison with later times. Cultural life was made vivid by many extravagant individuals (Mayakovsky and Yesenin among many others) who later vanished. It wasn’t yet clear what this Soviet power exactly was, what it demanded of an individual, or what it punished for.
Secondly, Stalinist absurdity. This was harsh, frightening and oppressive. People began to disappear by the whole villages, regions and even nationalities into the secret “fifth dimension“ called the GULAG. Or they were sentenced to death for the most unexpected offense. No one could ever be sure that the managing director of the plant where they worked wouldn’t be shot the next day as a Japanese spy.
Thirdly, Khrushchev’s somewhat more pleasurable absurdity. At the centre of this absurdity was Khrushchev himself whose antics were the sources of countless anecdotes. The vision of Khrushchev pounding his shoe on the podium at the United Nations is part of world history. In summary, all his actions led to absurd. For instance, Khrushchev as a man born in the country, tried to improve the lot of country folk. His attempts were summarized by the public in a two-sentence joke:
Nikita visited a kolkhoz and jokingly asked, “How’s life?” The collective farmers jokingly responded, “Quite well“.
Fourth, the temporary regression of practical absurdity and absurd humour in the 1960’s. This was a time when progress was earnestly hoped for in the world as well as in the Soviet Union. The young were especially optimistic. The future seemed to be generally rational and to be subject to scientific prognoses. But this certainly does not mean that absurdity was entirely lost.
Fifth, the Brezhnev era, the most absurd of absurdities. The period of hope ended in the 70’s and the Soviet Union entered into the most mindless phase of its existence. From the outside, the Soviet Union paradoxically seemed to be stronger than ever and its position as a superpower seemed to be unshakeable. In reality, the empire survived on inertia and the older and more senile Brezhnev became, the more pronounced became the absurdity that ruled the land.
II ABSURDITY BORN OF CHRONIC POVERTY
2.1. The meaning of the word “deficit”
The word “deficit” has a definite meaning, especially in the world of finance. It means a shortage or shortfall and to a person from a free society is usually associated with the state budget, which is annually and eternally in a deficit. Unless we are talking about the Estonian Republic’s state budget, which is consistently in a surplus.
Or was, at least, until recent times.
But let’s return to the Soviet days.
Excluding monetary experts, we in the Soviet Union did not know the correct meaning of the word “deficit”. Why talk of financial terminology when even the state budget was a relatively unknown phenomenon. A Soviet person’s life did not include parliament or party, therefore also no budget debates. Only through our newspapers could we find information about the latter, where they apparently created all sorts of quarrelsome trouble in England, France, America and other capitalist parts. The insatiable Pentagon constantly demanded more money than poor overburdened and exploited John Smith was capable of paying.
Soviet people naturally felt sorry for poor John Smith. His life in the “jungles of futureless society”, as Soviet journalism named those unhapy places, was not a bowl of cherries, fraught as it was with unemployment, interest rates, floods, train wrecks, drugs, racism and crime… Especially if compared to the statistics showing the well-being, wealth and freedom in the “most advanced and most democratic” country, the Soviet Union.
Poor John Smith’s situation is almost inhumanly horrible, sighed the Soviet person, having put the newspaper aside. And in addition to all those troubles, that state budget with its everlasting deficit. Soviet people, on the other hand, had no problem with interest rates, train wrecks or budget deficits. Anyway, banks didn’t give out loans to private persons. Why did a Soviet person need a loan? What would he start doing with it? Train wrecks never were reported in any of the official mass media. The budget was ratified every year according to the method preordained from above, exactly as needed by those who were chosen for this. The ratification of the state budget in some supreme council was not any kind of news – no one was interested – and this budget was never in deficit.
Wealth and well-being did nothing but grow. Official information channels asserted this. And whoever didn’t want to believe them, could read the statistics that (and here I drop some arbitrary numbers because they were arbitrary anyway): the production of ferrous metals has surpassed by a factor of 27 the levels achieved in 1913but non-ferrous altogether 36 times. The production of TV-sets and radios which had already enjoyed a 15.3 % growth last year, has increased by 16.1% this year, and next year the increase is predicted to be in the range of 19.8%. Twice as many shoes ,boots and rubber boots were made last year than during the previous pyatiletka (a special 5-year time unit) all together. The news about linen and woolen cloth was equally fantastic. True, a slight decline was reported in the production of cotton cloth, but the Party had already noticed this and taken the needed actions. So, cotton cloth should be arriving soon.
Moreover, all of these shoes and boots, TV-sets and radios, woolen and cotton cloth, ferrous and non-ferrous metals came with a very affordable price tag. And the quality of these goods, as the statistics proved conclusively, had risen by 22.4% (or maybe 44.2%, whatever) over the last five year results and much more than in 1913. This was verified by the rise in the number of All-Soviet Seals of Approval awarded during that time.
Hence, according to the newspapers and broadcast media, life and living standards improved daily. Astonishingly, along with these great developments and improvements of living standards came one nagging little word – deficit, which over the decades ate its way deeper and deeper into Soviet daily life until it became such an inseparable and essential part that without it Soviet life would not have been Soviet life.
“Deficit” was used most often to characterize certain tangible products. Take for instance the statement, “mayonnaise and smoked sausage are deficit”. This meant that if a happy and wealthy Soviet citizen went to the store to buy mayonnaise and smoked sausage he didn’t find any. There were none because a) these goods had not been delivered to the shop that day or b) they had been delivered but had been sold out. And when there would be a new delivery, nobody knew. Maybe next week.
Soviet man didn’t rack his brains over the underlying reasons for the deficit. It was a big enough problem that this or that needed product wasn’t available in the store or market and he had to somehow get by.
Only the children in their naïveté asked sometimes, why things are this way and not another way. On this, one reminiscence.
“‘Life is good in our country’ That was a verse in our primary school song-book. We learned that our life is so good from songs and newspapers. But there was one thing I did not understand as a child: if life is so good here, and so bad in capitalist countries – why do they have so many beautiful goods, while we have nothing?
Well, at times we could see some foreign catalogue or magazine. It was hard to believe that all those things are really available. Once we started to talk about it in the class. The teacher then tried to explain to the children bewitched by capitalism the real reasons. She said things were not at all the way we saw them. She knew well that all those pretty items were only for the few rich people; ordinary workers in the West could not buy anything and lived in deep poverty. This was the reason, she explained, why there was an illusory plentitude of goods – the majority of people could not afford anything and the goods stay in the shops. Here, in Sovietland, we have shortages of goods for the opposite reason – all people are wealthy and have purchasing power, thus goods do not stay in the shops.”*
Briefly: where store shelves bend under the weight of goods, there is poverty; where store shelves yawn empty, there is well-being. It is unbelievable that, in addition to some simple-minded child, even some adults believed in this kind of humbug.
Still, the vast majority, as was already mentioned, never pondered too much over the origins of deficits. With such bad management, with such incredible waste of resources, with so much stupidity and laziness, one couldn’t expect any plentitude – that was clear without any pondering. And people adapted to this state of affairs. They learned not to ask in the store for things like the aforementioned smoked sausage, cognac or bananas. Their absence from the shelves was never any news. What was newsworthy, spreading by word of mouth, was when they did appear, occasionally and in limited amounts. Then, in the blink of an eye, a monstrously long line would form in which people would wait patiently for hours to buy, for example, a rabbit skin hat.
It has been calculated that with the productive time that was wasted by Soviet people in queues, a medium-sized state could have been founded or a railway built from the Earth to the Moon and back.
When you stood in line you never knew whether the desired item would still be there when you reached the counter. I remember a story that happened to a friend of mine. After waiting in line for hours, he saw that he would be lucky enough to get the very last bunch of bananas to take home to his children. But just as he reached the counter, a war veteran, covered from head to toe with medals, stepped into line in front of him – which was his legal right – and bought that last bunch.
It is important to add here that these war veterans were never particularly liked or honoured in the Baltics. At least by the great majority of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. They were not regarded as liberators but just as the ones who brought along the Communist regime and took our freedom and our last bananas.
By the way, about bananas. Before World War II, when Estonia was independent and free, they were available here as well as in Europe, but mainly as an exotic fruit for the wealthy, not for everyone every day. After the war, bananas became an everyday commodity in the West, but by then we lived on the other side of the Iron Curtain where the banana was not a cheap fruit but a delicacy. A delicacy available only to the few chosen comrades or, as we called them, the nomenclatura.
An Estonian poetess has described her dilemma over a tray of fruit at a Soviet era reception, to which in addition to all sorts of important Party figures, some writers and artists had also been invited. What to do? Eat one here or take home? She knew it was not proper to take it home but… Finally, after a long struggle she grabbed a banana and stuffed it into her handbag. She was extremely embarrassed for stealing from those she despised, but she did not want her child to grow up without ever having tasted a banana. At home, when her child spit out the first mouthful of the new food, saying that it was “poopoo”, the poetess started to weep. Why? Because it was all so humiliating and stupid. What had a simple Soviet man or woman done that was so wrong that out of all those many millions of oil revenues, enough to prop up all of Cuba and tens of communist parties throughout the world (to say nothing about the enormous military spending) not even a banana was provided?
The rare appearance of this average – but good for the digestion – fruit on the open market always incited the previously mentioned buying panic. Simply because that which is unavailable seems especially desirable. It has been said that what you do not know, you cannot desire. The problem was that we still remembered the banana, at least enough that it was fervently desired. The desire was so strong that when the borders opened up a little in the 80’s and some Estonians could travel to visit their relatives in the West, the latter learned to warn each other: “When you have a guest from Estonia, go and buy a pile of bananas. For some reason they are mad about them.”
I’m sure that the banana craze was true for all the visitors from behind the Iron Curtain, not only for Estonians.
Today, our banana famine has ended and we now consume them in moderation. Perhaps as a remembrance of those gray days when that fruit was but a dream, the banana now beautifies our thriving supermarkets and can always be found under the number 1 key on the scales, located in the upper left corner. They say that this is the case in Germany as well. It may be so, but for me that number 1 designation remains a peculiar remembrance of Soviet times and Soviet dreams.
But that’s enough about bananas.
One thing does need to be clarified, however. While I mentioned earlier that deficit ate slowly and incessantly into Soviet life until it became an inseparable part thereof, that does not mean that there ever was a time in the Soviet Union when everything had been available. Those times never existed. After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, a frightening “war communism”was introduced. Market regulations were destroyed which meant the introduction of legalized robbery which, in turn, drove almost everything into deficit. War communism was replaced in the 20’s and early 30’s with a brief period of limited economic freedom, the so-called the New Economic Policy (NEP). Although it was called “new”, there was nothing new about it. It just allowed people to produce and sell items as before the revolution, but in a more restricted manner. Although the stores in those days had the greatest choice of goods in Soviet history, this was still well below normal because the economy as a whole was not free to operate under normal conditions. For example, the export and import of all goods was kept under the tight control of the state.
But even this economy was too liberal for Josef Stalin and he slowly began to tighten the screws. The so called Nepmans, (entrepreneurs and businessmen) whose hard work and perseverance had saved the Soviet Union from economic ruin were proclaimed to be enemies of the people, blood suckers and exploiters, and were sent to Siberia. The main result of this action was the renewed shortage of goods. In 1939, by an agreement signed under duress, the Soviets were allowed to set up military bases in my homeland. For nine months the Soviets maintained their military bases in Estonia before toppling the government and taking the country over completely. So here you had, for a nine month period, Soviet soldiers living in a bustling Western consumer driven economy, with normal stores and markets chock full of goods and produce. It was a shock for the poor soldiers, both for the privates and the officers. To counteract the shock, the politruks or political officers had ready answers. “All that you see are merely decorations meant to fool you”, they said. “The Estonian people actually live in darkness and poverty. Cunning capitalists have emptied their warehouses as a clever ruse to trick you. What you see cannot be purchased so don’t be amazed by this charade.”
Things became more difficult when Soviet officers received part of their pay in the Estonian currency, the crown. When they finally discovered that they could really use that money to buy all those goods “on display”, even wrist watches which back home they could only buy with a special permit, they were infected with a buying frenzy. When the Soviets totally occupied the Baltic republics in 1940, Soviet order was imposed, including the Soviet ruble – and the Soviet deficit. Tallinn’s markets and stores maintained their normal variety of consumer products until the end of 1940. But then these levels were lost for 50 years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then, independence and monetary reform in 1992 restored them.
The terror of Stalinism along with World War II brought enormous ruin to the Soviet Union. Some of this devastation can be attributed to “burnt land tactic” which was carried out by the Soviet Army itself or special Communist destruction battalions in the first phase of the German–Soviet war. The whole economy was subordinated to the needs of war. This priority remained generally intact after the war and became one of the reasons for the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union.
Right after the war it was utterly impossible to buy anything and even many years later more significant necessities could only be purchased with coupons. In the fifties the situation improved a little and this trend continued in the 60’s, but in the 70’s, there was retreat again. It was then that the word “deficit” came into use. There were more goods and in absolute numbers consumption increased but at the same time the lag in comparison to the West widened. Wages increased, but the increase in production was slower, resulting in chronic deficit. There was much more money than goods, and even more money was printed constantly. At the same time, the prices were fixed by the state, being raised from time to time, but not sufficiently to bring into balance the amount of circulating money and available goods.
Consequently, those who had better access to the goods were in a much better position. An ordinary Soviet had to stand in endless queues, while a successful and clever one had connections and could buy some items, a ticket to the cinema or a piece of sausage, without the queue, “through the back door”. Most people were somewhere between those two positions – some things were acquired through the queue, some things through connections. If you had an acquaintance in the grocery shop, you could get a chunk of salted salmon or a tin of cod liver sometimes, but this contact was of absolutely no use if you needed to procure a proper wall unit or a pair of Italian shoes. In addition to direct “strategic” connections, there functioned a specific network of mutual aid between friends and relatives: if, during a reconnaissance, someone in your circle spotted something that was in deficit, such as a finer type of flour or Moldavian canned peas, then he would acquire more than would satisfy his own needs to give, sell or barter with others.
The Soviet Union’s economy never did break out of the vicious circle of deficit. More was always produced, but less and less was available. This absurd situation was summarized in this joke that spread in the 70’s:
- What would happen if the Soviet Union expanded and took over the Sahara desert?
- Nothing for the first 10 years but then they would run out of sand.
One may find this a good joke or not, but it is just a joke nevertheless. No one can really believe that the Soviet regime could consume all the sand of the Sahara. But … you never know. For example, tourists, having visited Cuba in the 50’s, were surprised to hear that candy was not produced in that country, because sugar was “deficit”.
You read it correctly – sugar was deficit in Cuba. (During translation of this book from Estonian to English I learned from my friend the amazing fact that sugar is deficit in Cuba today as well.)
It is truly unbelievable what could become a deficit under the “fertilizing” conditions of the Soviet rule, as Communist propaganda for some reason loved to call them.
2.2. Deficit of goods
When looking at Soviet era deficits, one must begin with consumer goods. This was the most obvious and daily noticed aspect of the overall deficit. In 1982, Estonian professor Uno Mereste was lucky enough to go to Hungary on a work related excursion. Hungary did not have a free market system, but its economy was markedly more normal than the one in the Soviet Union. His wife sent along the following shopping list:
a teflon coated frying pan
a large eraser
perforated leather driving gloves, size 7
cloves (two packages)
„Season All“ seasoning, or equivalent
„Vileda“ dish cloths
velvet trousers for the girls
instant coffee (two cans)
size 46 sweater
Later, after having lived for many years in a free market society, the professor found the list between the pages of a book and read it with astonishment.
“In what other nation would a professor leaving to lecture in a foreign country be given such a wish list by his wife? This has the air of mental deficiency! Why not go to a nearby store in your home town and simply buy all those very ordinary nick nacks stacked up just waiting for buyers?”**
This episode perhaps explains why it is difficult to even begin to explore this subject. To begin with what? It’s hard to remember if there was even a single consumer good in the Soviet Union that hadn’t by some secret method disappeared from store shelves at least once. I have seen with my own eyes a sugar and butter crisis, pepper and cigarette crisis, candle and cognac crisis, potato and bread crisis and so on ad infinitum. Perhaps there was some article of commerce that was in continual supply throughout the Soviet Union and throughout the history of the Soviet Union. If somebody can ascertain one, please let me know. (During the translation period I was told: maybe baking soda.) Until then, let us agree to use the following set of ad hoc classifications. Please note that this reflects life in the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until the end of the Brezhnev era – i.e. the “average” Soviet everyday life – but not the very last years of Soviet rule where hardly anything was available.
Class 1: Goods that were regularly on the market but would still, without any notice, suddenly disappear for an unknown time. Here we can place items such as salt, black pepper, bread, buns, potatoes, various locally grown vegetables, jackboots, potatoe masher, wood splitting axes, fish conserves in tomato sauce, macaroni, tea, cotton socks, thick and awful cotton underwear, dried plums, felt boots, stove plates, brooms and ugly brown nylon jackets that became as hard as tin in the cold and started to fray.
Class 2: Goods that sometimes were on the market and at other times were not. In fact this was perhaps the most often occuring class of good. In general, you had a fifty-fifty chance of finding these items on the shelves. In any case, you were never sure that you would be able to get them. Examples are beer, milk, fresh cream, sour cream, butter, pork, ground beef, ice cream, various clothes and furniture of mediocre quality.
Class 3: Goods, that on a regular basis would be in deficit for a short period of time. These were things like cigarettes. Every summer, the industrial combine “Leek“, Estonia’s only cigarette factory, went on holiday collectively (can you imagine what such a thing is?) and the plant was closed down. For two straight months, cigarettes gradually disappeared from stores; first the better ones, then the inferior ones and then the unbearable ones. Or, for example, candles that would become deficit at the opposite time of the year – in the dead of winter when nights were longest and the new year was greeted.
Class 4: Goods that you could generally not get, but at times would make an appearance in stores. These were things like mandarins, oranges, canned peas, wieners, toilet paper, and a raft of imported goods such as shoes, perfumes, clothing etc.
Class 5: Goods that were usually available in early times but later had moved into a higher or lower degree of deficit. Items in this class included tins of tuna, sprats and Baltic anchovies, eel, cognac, smoked sausage, salted salmon and coffee. And cotton wool. Female comrades needed it desperately because no sanitary pads were produced nor sold at all during most of the Soviet era.
Class 6: Goods such as Czech rubber boots for ladies and bananas that were in perpetual deficit.
If you saw a product from class 4, 5 or 6 for sale, you had to immediately grab all of your free cash, stand in the endless line and buy up as much as you could, no matter if you needed it or not. You always could and should share your take with friends, relatives and neighbours. Not given for free but resold without profit. And your friends, relatives and neighbours did exactly the same thing. The favour was in the procurement of the product. If you had a telephone, it could ring at any moment and your cousin’s voice would tell you that she had just been downtown and seen mayonnaise for sale: “I took some jars for you as well. Do you want them?”
Class 7: Goods that although they were produced, were not sold but allotted. The most important item in this class was the automobile. It is true that some time in the 1950’s, when cars were very expensive for the average person, they were freely sold, but this time soon passed for ever and car purchasing licenses were introduced. These could be obtained from trade unions after a long wait that usually lasted years. Another item that was alloted, and not sold and bought, was housing.
Class 8: Goods that were not produced nor imported (or perhaps imported in insignificant quantities). For instance, the Soviet Union did not produce any erotic or pornographic magazines and the possession and trafficking of these materials was a crime. Sanitary pads for women were not produced, and when cotton wool was in deficit, then… then I do not know how women dealt with this deficit. Not a drop of Coca Cola was produced nor a single pint of beer packaged in aluminum cans. For this reason a can of Carlsberg that was bought at a special hard currency store or brought in from across the border had a double value – first because the beer was markedly better than the locally produced one, and secondly, because of the wonderously beautiful can, that was never discarded once empty. Rather, it was placed on the shelf as a decorative ornament between the porcelain angel and crystal vase.
Class 9: Goods that were not originally produced, but were produced later. After that, they could be generally available or generally unavailable. For instance, when they started producing plastic bags and chewing gum, then at the beginning this created a great stir and long lines, but later became generally available. They were produced in Estonia and not in other parts of the empire, and thus afforded Estonians opportunities to do quite good business across the Soviet Union. The same opportunities came with some other goods such as the whiskey and Pepsi Cola bottled in Estonia – they were deficit in other areas of the Soviet Union. However, classical jeans, with the local trade mark “Sangar“, remained difficult to obtain even in Estonia.
This categorization is doubtlessly subjective and reflects first and foremost the author’s personal experiences and memories. As well, it is one-sided, since when dealing with the deficit of say, razor blades, the quality problem must also be considered. Soviet era apologists can bring up, and do bring up, startling statistics about how much of this item or that item was produced in the Soviet Union, or find multitudes of witnesses who will swear that, yes, these things were always available.
But these don’t take quality into account. Take these same razor blades as an example. Old-fashioned, replaceable razor blades – just like the ones that Gillette invented. In some period of my life I shaved daily with them myself. They were produced in abundance in the Soviet Union, and although, like everthing else, they turned into a deficit sometimes, the general situation with razor blades wasn’t really that awful. Together with tasteless macaroni and canned fish drowned in tomato paste they were usually available. Once I happened upon some Dutch made razor blades, and naturally bought a pack or two. Because they were made in the Netherlands. (Our regard for imported goods will be explained soon.) I went home, screwed a blade into my shaver and dragged it across my chin. And my poor chin bled in about ten places. The reason: I was used to Soviet blades that were built for scraping one’s face but these blades were of a normal quality and were made to glide gently and delicately over your face.
I gave one pack of Dutch blades to my brother who made the same mistake before I had a chance to warn him. We looked upon this imported product – this standard, inexpensive household staple –, looked at each other and became lost in thought. It reminded us of a true story that happened in a Russian university that we had heard from an unbiased source. A professor gave a lecture on construction to Soviet students, or more exactly, about how construction was organized in the West – most likely France where he had been recently. And the more he spoke, the quieter the class became. By the end of the class you could have heard a pin drop. The professor looked at his class of silent faces, coughed and asked “And now how do we go on living?“ (Nu, kak dalshe bud’em zhit’?) This meant: How can we now, knowing how things are over there, go on living and working here?
The low quality of Soviet goods was one of the rare things that you could more or less have confidence in. The average Soviet person assumed that local goods were worse than foreign ones. It didn’t matter if they came from Romania or Sweden as long as they came from outside the borders of the Soviet Union. You did not have to describe in great detail what shoes those were, and why the crowding and bustling around the shoe store was the same as in the Kursk railway station in Moscow. It was enough to say they were imported.
We acquired this attitude towards imported goods as children when we collected Western candy and chewing gum wrappers or noticed our parents’ excitability when they mentioned the word “imported“. Later, however, we were amazed to discover that a few of our products, such as vodka and even Estonian cheese, were valued by some Western consumers.
But still, Soviet products valued by Western consumers were few and far between. I remember the perplexed face of a visiting American relative when he imprudently bought local ice cream and tasted it. He didn’t like it at all. Soviet cigarettes were horrible. They were so horrible that when the borders opened and we began traveling to foreign countries, the following situation happened to an Estonian visiting Sweden. He had brought along his own cigarettes because in Sweden cigarettes were unbelievably expensive and we were unbelievably poor. When he lit his first cigarette at a party, he was politely asked to finish his smoke in the stairwell. And even from there that awful stench permeated through the walls and into the apartment.
Just as legendary was the extremely low quality of Soviet made shoes. The low quality of footwear and clothing was matched by their ugliness. That’s why my beloved home town always went crazy when, for example, Italian shoes happened to arrive in our stores. The Italian Communist Party lived at our expense and in return we occasionally were given the right to stand in a queue for several hours and reconfirm that products produced in the horrible, capitalist West were more modern, more beautiful, of higher quality and smelled and/or tasted better.
I have spoken of lines or queues earlier, but will mention them again. The most famous queue in the Soviet Union was at the entrance to Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow’s Red Square. However, the Soviet Union was proud of this queue since it was seen as proof of the people’s devotion to the establishment of Communism. It never occurred to anyone to ask whether it was proper for a civilized people to stuff their dead leader and put him on public display. This queue was different because nothing was sold in the mausoleum. Yet the queue was in its own way a symbol, just as Lenin, the Red Square and the Kremlin were symbols.
Standing in lines was not just a waste of time, however. For thousands of people it was a way of life that had its own ins and outs, a way of life that required certain skills, schemes, strategies and created its own subcultures. While in Estonia people stood in line relatively grudgingly because long lines were still regarded as anomalies, then the first time I travelled into Russia, I noticed that people were much more relaxed about queuing. Many had brought books along. People stood in line and read. So when I said earlier that you could have built a nation with the manhours that were wasted standing in queues, then I should point out as well that those millions of hours were also used to read literature, including good literature.
This brought some surprising results. Once, while in Moscow, an inebriated John Steinbeck landed in the hands of the local militia (police in the Soviet Union were called militia). When asked to identify himself, Steinbeck responded in his rudimentary Russian, “I am the American author John Steinbeck“. Since the simple cop knew very well who and what John Steinbeck was, he laughed and said: “And of course I am Ernest Hemingway.“
Russians were the most talented queue standers. Estonians were too angry to be any good at it while Central Asians could not stand in queues at all and resorted to general pushing and shoving. A few Russians were required who could organize them into queues. In the waning years of the Soviet Union the rudiments of civil society could be detected in the queues. Spontaneously, active comrades emerged who organized fellow queue-standers into a collective, and wrote numbers on their hands with markers so that people could leave the queue for a while, perhaps for a few hours of sleep.
The classic mega-queue formed every year on the first day of September to buy annual subscriptions for the newspaper. It usually formed the night before. This was so because yes, even the cheap, thin and deceitful Soviet propaganda newspaper was in short supply. Therefore you had to battle for it.
“If there was more than one subscriber per household, then you would arrive the night before around 5 or 6 o’clock. Ten to twenty people would form a brigade of their own. A brigadeer was chosen and everyone was given a number to mark their position and night time guards were posted. In the morning everybody listed showed up, stoutly prepared to endure to the end. People who came from far away would bring chairs, food and reading material. Members of the group would take breaks to stretch or snack at cafeterias. The queue would move slowly along. And people would get antsy when they heard rumours that some publication or other’s quota was being sold out. (…) If you started in the morning somewhere at the corner of Müürivahe Street (which makes the queue about half a kilometer long – LV), there was a good chance that you would get your subscription order form from the Main Post Office by four or five in the afternoon. It was a good long day’s work.”*
This queue was regular—once a year. There were other regular annual queues, such as the one for ordering peat briquettes to heat your home in the winter. Beyond regular queues there were also irregular queues and continuous or permanent queues.
Irregular queues were those that were formed as a result of deficit products reaching the market. Some especially talented queue standers seemed to have a unique intuition as to when and where these products would appear. Still, whoever saw such a queue would immediately join it and only then investigate what was for sale. No such investigations were needed for the continuous or permanent queues – one queued to enter a restaurant or at a taxi stand or at a so-called packing-station. People would stand in these lines if they really needed to and could not do without.
The packing-station was usually a decrepit rundown shack that stank of old beer and winos where you could sell your empty bottles and jars back to the Soviet Union. If you now think that the Soviet Union, where scarcity ruled, would at least buy back your empties eagerly day and night, you are mistaken. It was the usual case that after you had dragged your empties to a packing-station (on foot since very few people owned cars), you would find it closed because of lack of containers i.e. they were already full.
In general, it was somehow odd if you bought something without having to stand in a queue. Here is a true story. Three young Russian women from Estonia were allowed to travel for the first time outside of the Soviet Union and went to Finland. The girls went into the first little store that they came across and upon entering saw that the shelves were full and that there were no other customers. A moment of silence, and then one of them shouted instinctively: “Girls, into the line!“ And in an instant they formed a three person queue.
In these conditions of permanent deficit, people learned to look for desired goods not only in their home towns, but elsewhere as well. Usually people would go on a shopping trip to a neighbouring Soviet republic, or perhaps Leningrad or Moscow. People all over the Soviet Union did this. Train tickets were relatively inexpensive and trains were stuffed full of people travelling from one end of the empire to the other and back again in search of a better place to live. And where the stores would have more to sell.
The best stocked stores were in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Leningrad and Moscow. However, the choice of products there was not identical. That meant that people would travel, purchase, transport, divy, and travel again. Estonians brought a certain caramel candy (“cow-toffees”) from Latvia, or baked goods and quality water colour paints from Leningrad.
The Soviet Union wanted to maintain the greatest variety of products in Moscow. And how did they do that? Let’s read some memoirs to find out.
“In the 1970’s, part of my job as bookkeeper for the meat plant was to prepare bills of lading for smoked sausage. Every week close to 4000 kilograms of smoked sausage was shipped to Moscow while 100 kilograms remained in Tallinn. 20 kilograms of the 100 went to the Estonian SSR Council of Ministers, 20 kilograms to the Planning Committee and 20 kilograms were divided among all of the taverns in the city. After all of these years, I could be mistaken in the exact numbers, but not in the proportions.”*
So you see, they shipped all of the products to Moscow and people from all over the Soviet Union travelled after them. Every day thousands of buyers from the region around Moscow, armed with huge empty bags, arrived at the Moscow train stations ro raid the capital’s stores like a cloud of hungry locusts.
And the nomenklatura were shameless enough to boast about this artificial “plentitude of goods” in Moscow. When an important figure appeared on a national radio broadcast, he was asked, among other questions, “Why aren’t there any children’s leotards available in our stores?“ The answer was cynical: “What do you mean? They are always available in Moscow’s Main Store (GUM) in aisle 13!“
Not only smoked sausages and leotards were sought out in Moscow, but almost everything, because almost everything was in deficit. For instance, Moscow had the only store in the whole of the Soviet Union where you could buy sewing machine needles. Sometimes. Once, when I had to go to Moscow during my student years, I was also asked to drop by that store. So I took a crowded bus to the address I’d been given. Unfortunately, I could see from far off the sign in front of the store that said “We are out of needles”. Heart-breaking groans came from about half of the people on the bus when they saw that sign. They were all there for the needles; who knows from how far they had come.
In addition, I’ve forgotten one detail which I as a former Soviet person treated as a trivial, generally known reality: special stores for the more important party members.
Regrettably, a person raised in a free, market-oriented society doesn’t understand that those same Communists who with their absurd ideological dogma robbed bare, enslaved and impoverished the common people, regularly shop for ham, butter and shoes in stores restricted to only the most important leadership. They create deficits and hunger but don’t share the hardships. They’re like captains who are the first to abandon ships sinking due to their incompetence. They don’t consider themselves piratical or hypocritical, as this behaviour deserves to be called, but “a community- leading troop” acting “as our era’s honour, common sense and conscience”.
Special stores existed in each republic as well as in Moscow to serve the higher leadership and various central committees. I don’t want to write more about these.
A chapter on deficit would not be complete if we didn’t consider a closely related phenomenon – perhaps even institution – which was called contacts. He who had contacts lived well in the Soviet Union. He who had none, lived like a maggot.
Contacts help people in all societies; there is nothing strange about that. A successful Anglo-American is supported throughout his life by his university friends, a German by his fraternity brothers, and so on. This support comes into play when, for example, a reference is needed for a good job. Contacts mediate trust – someone trusts me and I tell him that he can trust the third member.
For example, a person might have a contact in a grocery store. With the help of that contact, he was able to get a can of instant coffee or a string of smoked sausage. Not for free of course, for money. But others got nothing even if they had money; they were told “There’s none”. And if they asked when more might arrive, the answer was “Don’t know”. Goods in deficit sat in warehouses (to use a more picturesque image, under the counter – though sometimes they were there in reality, as compared to the goods on the counter).
Why and how did a person have contacts? There could be many reasons. For example, a salesperson could be someone’s close or distant relative. Or sheer luck – a person’s child happened to be in the same kindergarten as the store’s manager and (oh what luck!) at New Year’s it was possible to engage the somewhat inebriated manager in a pleasant conversation.
But the most common system was “favour for favour”. A Soviet contact didn’t usually mean trust, rather profit. You had a contact in the grocery for the simple reason that you yourself worked as a restaurant doorman, television repairman, furniture store manager or whatever. He sold you smoked sausage from under the counter, you let him into the restaurant even though the sign hanging on the door said “No tables available”. There was never space for maggots; always space for essential and useful people.
Thus, two kinds of commerce existed in the Soviet Union – official trade and the resultant secondary trade partly for money, partly as barter. This system could be called a black market though it varies a bit from that in a more traditional free market. In a traditional system, the black market involves prohibited goods like guns and narcotics; the Soviet black market involved Yugoslavian purses, Lada car parts, Polish perfumes, Danish canned meats and so on. Even contacts were sold or bartered. Get my wife some imported rubber boots and I’ll introduce you to the manager of the car dealership. Or even more simply, the opprtunity to buy was sold. Give me 40 rubles and I’ll sell – because I’m a salesperson there – that imported tape recorder stashed in the warehouse and unavailable for sale. This last example is called bribery and is widely known in the West as well, but hardly anyone there would believe that a salesperson needed to be bribed to sell a product!
Absurd? Yes, absurd.
Some deficit goods need to be discussed separately. Bananas have already been discussed; now it’s time to discuss chewing gum.
Chewing gum was for a long time regarded by the Soviets as specifically American and therefore hostile to their interests (like Coca-Cola). Its import by foreigners or Soviet seamen was not prohibited, but the chewing of gum was condemned ideologically and from time to time newspapers printed articles that proved that chewing gum was first of all unbecoming for a Soviet citizen because it was “grovelling before the West” and secondly, unhealthy.
“I remember how our teacher ordered a girl to the front of the class. He found a wad of gum in her mouth. The teacher then gave us a long lecture about gum and chewing, saying this constant need to chew is a mark of ill people and drug addicts. A reprimand was put in her student record as well.”*
This kind of attitude was of course great advertising and chewing gum became the dream of dream. Especially for children and teens. If someone was lucky enough to obtain this fantastic stuff from a seaman or a tourist the same stick was chewed for weeks on end. “The wad of gum was stuck to dry on the mirror overnight, in the morning back it went in the cheek and off to school . Sometimes, as an expression of good will, it was passed on for chewing.”*
But this kind of luck happened seldom. Still, dire straits leads to creativity and kids began to make their own gum. The most common raw material was ski wax which was warmed and mixed with sugar and syrup. This might seem astonishing, but when furniture polish was used by hairdressers to spray on hairdos in the absence of hairspray, then using only mildly hazardous ski wax becomes understandable. Another raw material was pinetar which also was mixed with sugar. These experiments weren’t particularly successful. The main problem was that bubbles couldn’t be blown with homemade gum. Another was that it lacked a element key to the original – the wrapper. Wrappers were collected like stamps. They were bought, sold and traded. I too had such a collection – Wrigley’s, Jenkki, Toy, Spearmint, Juicy Fruit, and whatever else.
In the 1960’s, permission came from Moscow to start production of chewing gum. One reason for this relaxation was that by this time quite a few foreign tourists were beginning to visit Estonia, and they couldn’t help but notice children’s mania for chewing gum. Some tourists – no doubt CIA agents! – made photos of children begging for gum and sent these to “imperialistic” newspapers. This kind of denigration of the USSR had to be fought.
Thus production was initiated, with the first gum called Tiri-Aga-Tõmba (Drag and Pull). It quickly became a deficit good. But then Moscow withdrew permission – after some discussion it had been decided that the chewing of gum was still aping of the degenerate West and therefore impermissible. Chewing gum was also supposed to dilute digestive juices and misshape facial muscles.
However, production didn’t stop completely. Semi-secretly, chewing gum was produced for cosmonauts to chew in orbit. In the mid 1970’s production resumed thanks to the impending Moscow Olympic Games.This gum was already of high quality and so much was produced, at least in Estonia, that a deficit in it no longer existed. Thus Estonians were able to find good markets for gum in Russia. Of course, not in the Western sense but as small scale profiteers/speculators. Later, chewing gum production began in Moscow, Leningrad, and Armenia.
Let’s return to the teacher who explained to the children that only the mentally ill and drug addicts chewed gum.
“A few years passed. The Kalev candy factory began to produce chewing gum. Finally, it was freely available even in the stores; every nut case and drug addict could indulge themselves Nerves frazzled from grooming us, our teacher now chewed as well.”*
Another legendarily deficit product which must be mentioned is denim, especially denim jeans. Craving for these grew around 1960, about the same time as they moved from work clothes to fashion items in the West. In the 1970’s, this craving became almost a craze and jeans, like chewing gum, became “hard” currency in the Soviet Union. In other words, they had such value that they could be exchanged for whatever was desired whenever.
It was of primary importance, however, that these jeans be the right kind, that is, of fadeable denim. Jeans made of nonfading material also were available in official and unofficial markets but these just didn’t meet the mark. An example is Polish made Odra jeans. The ones everyone craved were the originals – Lee’s, Wrangler’s, Levi’s, and so on. In 1980, a pair of jeans from one of these companies cost 200 rubles. This is comparable to, or even more than, the average monthly wage. The famous brand name was important, but not primary; primary was, as stated, fadeability. In the late 1970’s, when the Sangar clothing factory finally began to produce proper jeans from properly fadeable denim, the product was eagerly received.. The price was also an incentive – jeans from Sangar cost about 30 rubles a pair. When imported jeans occasionally appeared in stores, they cost 100 rubles a pair. However, before one was allowed to buy jeans, sometimes proof had to be provided that a certain amount of used clothing had been taken to a recycling depot.
These expensive jeans, treasured and carefully handled, were worn for many years, with patches sewn on worn spots. When the pants finally wore out completely, they weren’t thrown away, but unstitiched for material to patch the next pair. I got my first pair of jeans in 1976 as a 16 year old ( a proper age, don’t you agree ); later I was able to obtain more. I kept them all for at least 10 years ( even those that were worn out ) and I remember exactly which year each pair was obtained. Thus 1976 stuck in my memory for two reasons: a pair of jeans and Presley’s death. Each equally important.
Even though Alexander Solzhenitsyn says that there is no greater or deeper longing than that of a GULAG prisoner for amnesty, in truth it is impossible or very difficult to compare longings. How, for instance, to decide which of the following three are greater: a child’s longing for chewing gum, her teenaged sibling’s longing for jeans or finally their parent’s longing for a car? An impossible task. All these longings were very strong and serious, and they came to fruition a bit less often than a prisoner’s hoped for amnesty.
Thus, the car. Two things were needed to own a car: a car purchase permit and money. To obtain a car purchase permit required contacts, luck, and patience. In actuality, contacts didn’t help much because a car isn’t a pair of Czech boots or a bottle of the best liquor which a salesperson could hide in a paper bag and slide into your coat from under the counter. No, car purchase permits were allocated in order; usually the trade union kept the list and gave out the permit. The list was a year long and movement up the list depended on the contacts one’s workplace directors had – depending on these, your workplace or factory received a certain number of permits a year. For example two. Or perhaps three. Or perhaps none. But there were 30 names already on the list …
When the miracle occurred and one day a person truly received the notice, “please go and buy your car”, and when that person consequently had called all his friends together for a serious celebration, then the money question arose. This was no minor problem. In the 1970’s an average Lada cost about 5000 rubles, but the average monthly salary was around 200 roubles. This meant that the average person who had a family and no other source of income couldn’t afford to buy the car. Usually, however, some opportunities existed. A cousin might give or loan the money. Or one had a market garden, and went for example to Leningrad to sell cucumbers. Money was saved with unbelievable diligence year after year, rouble by rouble. The only ones able to quickly gather money were such star-kissed Soviets as restaurant doormen, taxi drivers, barmen, waiters and others in similarly lucrative professions.
There were cheaper cars, like the fanciful Zaporozets, with its motor in the rear – no doubt because its main designer mixed up, perhaps drunkenly, the front and rear of the car. No one could come up with any other explanation for this strange design. But even the Zaporozets worked and opened much wider travelling opportunities for the Soviet person.
The most absurd situation pertaining to cars, at least for someone brought up in a market oriented economy, was the fact that a new car cost less than a used car. However, the answer is simple. A new car was bought from a state store at a price established by the state. This price – as high as it was – was still below the car’s market value which because of the huge deficit in production was especially (it could be said artificially) high. Market value accrued to the car because one could sell one’s personal auto at a price created by demand. Consequently, it could happen that a person bought a car for 5,000 rubles, drove it for a few years and then sold it for 10,000 rubles.
However, these instances were rare. Why would one want to give up one’s long held dream? The dream was so strong that it could destroy lives and break up families. In the 1980’s I heard a true story of a man who won a car in a lottery. He didn’t die from joy, but began drinking in celebration and became an alcoholic. His family broke up. Because of cars, marriages were formed and broken; because of cars, divorce proceedings lasted for years in court.
Marriage was also used to procur smaller items. Strictly speaking not exactly marrying, but imitating a plan to marry. Namely, the Soviet Union had a great system in place: a special store for potential newlyweds. There, the groom could buy a quite respectable pair of shoes and a suit, the bride a white dress, shoes, veil, and so on. In addition, this store also had a food section stocked with some items unavailable in regular stores ( usually from deficit classes 4 and 5).
However, to enter this store a document had to be produced proving that the two people had registered themselves at the marriage bureau as planning to marry on such and such a date. Obtaining such a document was not difficult; one had only to be single, find another single co-signer, and go. Difficulties emerged only if an acquaintance happened to see the two of you; unwanted rumours could start to fly. But if all went well, the pretend sweethearts marched into the special store on the other side of town and carried out their purchases. Then, a week or two before the wedding date, the marriage bureau was informed with regret that due to “personality differences” the marriage was being cancelled. All was legal: cancelling marriages was permitted. The Soviet Union didn’t demand the return of the shoes and the canned peas.
All the preceding is but a small part of life in the Soviet Union with a focus on deficit. Perhaps the following anecdote will help picture what life was like in the declining years of the regime.
“A Soviet woman goes to a capitalist country and visits a department store. Of course, all anyone could desire is available. Thus, three possiblities exist for her.
- The woman gazes and gazes with glazed eyes at the store counters. Then she falls in a faint. No one can revive her.
- Arms outstretched, she leans over the counter and shouts, “This is all mine, mine! Don’t crowd any closer!”
- She begins to sob uncontrollably and can’t stop.”*
A joke is a joke, but there really were people who began to sob upon first entering a store in the rich West. Thinking about their children who were growing up never having tasted a banana, kiwi fruit or pineapple. By the way, there is another possibility the anecdote didn’t include. This happened to two of my acquaintances on their first trip abroad (to Finland). They began to laugh hysterically. The more they examined the store shelves, the more hysterically they laughed.
Why? Perhaps the following true story will help explain. In the final years of the Soviet Union another acquaintance of mine wrote to a cousin living in the West, asking that toilet paper be sent by post. (We had learned in the 1970’s to use toilet paper instead of newspaper, but this became a deficit product.) The foreign cousin wrote back: “I cannot send you toilet paper if you don’t tell me if you want yellow, light blue, pink or green, single or two ply, and the size of the rolls.”
When my acquaintance recounted this story to people, there always ensued laughter with a hysterical undertone. Those over there have totally forgotten what is important and what is trivial, implied the laughter.
Now, our store shelves are stacked high with different kinds of toilet paper. And entering the store, we think hard about what colour of paper to buy.
- Opportunities Deficit
A person does not live by bread alone, says the proverb. In other words, a person needs much more than bread, milk and sausage, even if it’s smoked sausage. He needs security, love, recognition, and opportunities for self fullfilment. The last two are closely connected.
The personal security situation in the Soviet Union was unbelievably contradictory. On the one hand, no one was protected from repression. This could hit even the quietest and smallest who were unaware of any personal faults. For example, tens of thousands from tiny Estonia alone were deported to Siberia for the sole fault that they had well-kept farms and didn’t want to become collective farm members. In later years, no young man could be certain that his time in a Soviet army unit wouldn’t be served facing the bullets of Afgan patriots.
On the other hand, life was secure. There were no bank loans, therefore there were no bank fees or percents. There was no real worry over one’s job or workplace; one was available for everyone. Wages were low, but fear of losing one’s job was almost nonexistent. A person pretended to work; the state pretended to pay him. Living accommodations were crowded and faint hope existed to find a better apartment, but all had a roof over their heads.There had to be, since homelessness was forbidden by law.
Nowadays, there exist people who yearn for that mollusk-like life. Life was more secure. There was nothing to win, nothing to lose. On payday you bought a chunk of cheap sausage, half a loaf of bread, a bottle of vodka, took the tram out of town, and finished them off on the edge of a ditch somewhere. The next day you spent hung over, but the following day life went on as usual. Until the next payday.
But not all people, not even those born and raised under Soviet rule, were satisfied by this life. They wanted more – they wanted to freely make decisions about their lives and activities, they wanted to travel the world, they wanted to express freely, without fear, their thoughts and opinions. They wanted to have more opportunities, they wanted to achieve things, and they wanted recognition for that.
But few opportunities existed, which means that an opportunities deficit existed. And this was perhaps even more gruesome than the deficit in material things.
Of course, at times the deficit in things and the deficit in opportunities coincided. If you lacked a car (or if you had a car but no gas for it ) then your opportunites to travel narrowed decisively – certainly not in the whole world which was inaccessible with or without a car, but in the Soviet domestic sphere. Even using mass transit to travel in Soviet neighbourhoods was difficult and tiresome. Whether it was a bus or a train, it was always overcrowded, and besides you lost the opportunity to decide when to come, when to go.
Soviet propaganda contended that nothing was wrong – no one is really free. Freedom is a “perceived necessity” – therefore, one has to simply know the limits of one’s potential. A person cannot fly like a bird and when he understands that inevitablity, then the inability to fly doesn’t bother him. From this philosophizing the Soviet citizen had to learn that owning a car was as impossible as flying like a bird – therefore it wasn’t worth yearning for. If you don’t yearn, you don’t overstress your heart. Soviet propaganda further contended that if a Soviet citizen is limited by a temporary and nonessential deficit, then a Western man suffers from a constant deficit of money, which is much worse. A Westerner has a car and the gas station has gas – but he has no money to buy the gas. This situation is much more torturous than that of a Soviet citizen who has neither car nor gas. Besides,who needs money, if there is neither car nor gas.
Another vital coming together of the two deficits was the apartment, more specifically the lack of one. There was never enough living space in the Soviet Union. Huge numbers of houses and whole cities were destroyed during the World War II (by both German and Soviet armies). That, and the slowness and inefficiency of Soviet construction created the situation where a young couple had no hope of obtaining their own apartment after marrying. Extensive construction of precast concrete slab high rises beginning in the 1960’s only slightly relieved the situation but in doing so created innumberable numbers of bleak and horrible urban quarters and even whole towns. Often, the young couple was forced to continue living as they had – the groom with his parents, the bride with hers. Or perhaps in hostels – one in the boys’ room, the other in the girls’, like Mikhael and Raissa Gorbachov had.
Now consider the opposite. Imagine a family – man, wife, and two children. The parents divorce and the wife gets custody of the children. But the man doesn’t leave – he has nowhere to go. Living on the streets or under the trees is forbidden, but there is no room anywhere else. Thus, in legal terms, a stranger keeps living with the divorced woman and even continues to share her bed. Now, if these two had tried to go to a hotel, they could not have rented a room together – only showing a marriage licence would permit that. Soviet morals were strict, but also unfair.
Before construction of the precast highrises began, the Soviet citizen typically lived in a communal flat. This represented the normal pre-Soviet apartment, where each family was given one room and the common use of the kitchen and toilet. The precast highrises lessened the number and percentage of people living in communal flats, but the flats remained, as well as all that “communal flat ghastliness”, to use Mikhael Bulgakov’s words.
Apartments weren’t bought or sold, but rented from the state. The state gave a person a so-called order, which signified a bequeathable right to rent a certain apartment. Rent was low and Soviet propaganda continuously praised the Communist party for this.This state-owned apartment couldn’t be sold, but could be exchanged. For example, a two room apartment could be exchanged for two one room apartments. The orders were then rewritten. Sometimes this provided a way for a divorced couple to escape each other.
From time to time new houses and apartments were built, but these didn’t seem to change things to any degree. In order to get to live in one of these new apartments, one had to get onto the apartment waiting list and wait. Five years, ten years, until death – depending on one’s luck.At some time the opportunity to own a cooperative apartment arose. This differed from a state apartment in that a cooperative apartment belonged to the person; he could officially sell it. But for all that, the apartment wasn’t just handed over, it had to be paid for. The price was sky high – an apartment of a few rooms cost about three years’ pay. Finally, it was possible for a Soviet citizen to build his own house. This was not easy.
By the way, Soviet ideology was childishly stubborn in its treatment of these individually owned houses and apartments. Essentially, what was being dealt with was private property, but since private property had been officially abolished, then other terminology had to be found. Thus it had instead to be called “personal” property and “private” house had to be called “individual house”.
This chronic and soul stressing lack of living space was not of itself absurd, rather merely restrictive. The absurdity was found in the fact that a Soviet citizen could join the apartment waiting list only when his apartment had less than 3 square meters per inhabitant. Yes, you read correctly – 3 (three). And the official standard was 7 (seven). Therefore the normal living area for a family of four was 28 m2. He who had a bigger apartment had to pay a higher rent for the extra space. Another situation which approaches the absurd to Western eyes is that at any abritrary moment in a communal flat or in a new highrise apartment, hot water – or even all water – could be cut off.
From the life experiences of a journalist born in 1960:
“My first individual living space had no hot water. Fifth floor, 14 square meters. I remain amazed to this day how this space accomodated two small boys of almost the same age with their wooden cribs along with their two parents with their own bed, stove, a few cabinets and an old black and white TV.
But all fit. We became accustomed to the tight straits, it soaked into the blood. When we later became the owners of a two room cooperative apartment, at first we sat predominantely in the kitchen. It was like we didn’t really need two rooms.
An unarguable plus of the 14 square meter apartment was the separate small toilet. There, one could spend evenings doing written work. Especially when I owned a German Democratic Republic made portable typewriter Erika. In the late evening, when the two scamps had fallen asleep, I took Erika and locked myself in the toilet. I sat on the lid, put Erika on my lap, and tapped out a few articles.”*
Massive cheating occurred in the apartment waiting lists. No matter who kept these lists officially, a nomenclatura bureaucrat could interfere using so-called telephone rights – simply ”recommending” that comrade so and so be raised to say spot number 3 in the apartment waiting list. An apartment was a desirable morsel; with it more than a few people were forced to choose an occupation or place of residence they would otherwise in no way have chosen. In many circumstances the apartment was also (one) reason why a person joined the Communist party.
Apartments were used by the Soviet powers to carry out Russification policies. Throughout Soviet non-Russian territories the practice existed that immigrating individuals, who mostly spoke Russian – essentially colonists – were given priority access to apartments in the newly built concrete slab highrises. The native population, who had for many years remained on apartment waiting lists without much hope, had to watch as hundreds and thousands of immigrants marched straight from the railway station into new apartments, figuratively speaking. It probably doesn’t need to be added that this created racial tensions. Nowadays, similar policies are in use in the Sinofication of Tibet.
`In addition to the car and apartment, there was one other thing which required years of standing in line and which, like the other two, represented more opportunity than the possession itself. .This was the telephone. The opportunity to speak to an acquaintance from home – that was a big deal. Persons without a telephone needing to make a call had to search out a public telephone in working order and spend time in the meandering lineup. Interesting and typical of the arrangement of Soviet life was that when your call finally went through, the 2 kopeks payment allowed you to prattle on to exhaustion or until the next ones in line forcibly tore you out the phone booth. Foreigners were proudly told how unprecedentedly cheap a telephone call was. Yes, cheap it truly was, if measured only in money. If you added time and stress as expenses, then absolutely not.
I hurry to explain that the 2 kopek call was local, meaning in the same town or county. If you wanted to place a call to a neighbouring town, for example from my birthplace Tartu to Pöltsamaa 60 km distant, then you had to make a long distance call. This cost 15 kopeks a minute and could only be placed from special long distance automatic phone machines or from so-called distant telephone stations. He who wished to make a long distance call from his home phone similarly had to place an order with the distant phone station. The connection was typically made after a few hours and it wasn’t cheap.
Unfortunately, it often happened that the acquaintance you wished to talk with didn’t own a telephone. If he lived in a neighbouring town, it was smartest to send him a letter. If he lived in the same town, it was often best to visit the acquaintance personally which meant you had to 1) undertake a shorter or longer hike or 2) immerse yourself in the fairytale world of the Soviet transportation system. In both cases, you had to plan for the possibility that you were knocking at the acquaintance’s door at an unsuitable time or that the acquaintance wasn’t even home. Because telephones were rare, unexpected visitors were treated more tolerantly than they are today.
Obtaining a car, your own apartment, and telephone was undoubtedly tedious and humiliating, but even more clearly illustrative of the Soviet citizen’s humiliating situation was the lack of opportunity to travel outside of the Soviet Union. A trip to a capitalist country – to the Soviet citizen, this sounded about as enticingly frightening as would supper with Luciano Pavarotti or meeting Darth Vader to a Western person.
The Soviet regime understood its subjects’ desire to travel outside the Union and there buy something desirable. Even if it was just chewing gum. This corresponded to Soviet understanding of the citizen’s nature, of what is important to him and what isn’t. The Soviet regime understood, but usually still didn’t allow. But if a person appeared with his application to travel to a foreign country, wanting to “just walk around there a bit”, then the Soviet regime refused to understand and accept such a reason.
Such situation occurred with an Estonian intellectual, who presented his application – please permit me to travel to Finland for a few days because I want to walk on the Esplanade boardwalk, where many famous people have walked. Not one bureaucrat responsible for examining foreign travel applications believed his reason. He was ordered to make up a more believable reason. But the intellectual refused. Finally, he was summoned to the Interior Ministry and asked if he was trying to mock the Soviet regime.
“He reiterated that his reason truly was as stated – to stroll on the Esplanade. After all, Many Finns come to Tallinn to walk and view the town; they’re not trying to mock the Finnish government with these actions! The bureaucrats of the interior ministry replied that Finns are Finns, but he is a Soviet citizen, and Soviet citizens do not travel to foreign countries simply to walk around.” **
In summary, that man did not get to the Esplanade.
It is to some extent debatable whether this deficit – foreign travel deficit – fits into this chapter which is dedicated to absurdity springing from chronic poverty. Permitting a person foreign travel wasn’t after all some restricted resource, which like caviar had to be sold to the West for hard currency so that not enough was left for your own people. Still, this deficit is directly tied to poverty. Why? We’ll see momentarily.
The opportunity to travel outside the borders of the Soviet Union – this truth belongs undoubtedly on the Soviet Top 10 list of absurdities. Theoretically one was dealing with the workers’ paradise, the world’s happiest and most free country. At the same time, people were kept there by force. Propaganda films about Soviet border guards tried to prove that the border guards’ everyday work was to repel from the border capitalist spies, saboteurs, and perhaps even whole armies, but all even slightly intelligent Soviet citizens knew this was twaddle. In reality, the border guard stood not with his back to the people and facing the border, but rather the reverse: facing his own people and with his back to the border. The border guard guarded that the workers’ paradise wouldn’t run empty of people. The workers’ paradise was a prison surrounded by razor wire fences and armed guards. On the other side of the border, a person could walk to the border and touch it (like, for example, the Berlin Wall) On the Soviet side, a border zone of tens of kilometers preceded the border where special permission was required to live and move about. Closer to the border was an especially prohibited zone, where no one was allowed other than border guards and their dogs. Whoever else was seen there was shot at.
The truth that in August 2006 the Russian Republic established the same border zone as had existed in the Soviet Union is no trifling matter. It tells us a lot. Whether the West wishes to and knows how to notice this, is something else.
Why was the Soviet Union a prison? For a simple reason: it was immensely poorer than all those disdained imperialistic or non-imperialistic capitalistic states. If the Soviet Union had been more prosperous than the Western states and its citizens richer, then there wouldn’t have been any problem of escape attempts and the Berlin wall and all other walls and fences could have been left unbuilt. This explanation is of course one-sided because it doesn’t take into account the lack of freedom, but overall they needn’t be differentiated. If we speak of society as a whole and not the individual, then it can be said that freedom and prosperity go hand in hand.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to completely prohibit cross border travel. If for only the fact that occasionally the West would ask Soviet leaders why they treated their own people as prisoners. Soviet leaders of course replied that a Soviet person’s life is so good that he doesn’t want to travel abroad, less so to the rotting, festering West. But this much foolishness was embarrassing to spout, even for Gromyko. Therefore, a small number of Soviet citizens had to be permitted to cross the border from time to time so that questions could be answered thus: “But masses of people travel, wholly 2.45 times more than in 1921”.
There were three main opportunities for a Soviet person to travel to foreign lands: as part of a tourist group, on a workplace related business trip, or by individual invitation. This last opportunity applied mainly to the Baltic states, because massive flight in 1944 had allowed thousands of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians to escape to the free world, while their brothers, sisters, children and others remained trapped in the Soviet Union. Beginning in the 1950’s, some of these were allowed sometimes to visit their relatives living in exile. In these circumstances the Soviet regime jealously insisted that the visitor leave behind as hostage perhaps an ill mother, helpless child, loved spouse and so on, whose lives would be made hell if the visitor escaped. Remaining in a foreign land was, by the way, legally called treachery to the homeland and punishable by at minimum 10 years imprisonment, at maximum execution by firing squad along with confiscation of all property.
Similarly, the opportunity for a work-related business trip wasn’t a usual event at all, and it can only be said that the opportunity to go to, for example, Sweden, France or the United States for business discussions, to buy some assembly units, or to present at a scientific conference caused tremendous excitement and stress, no matter what the institution. All sorts of intrigues and negative denouncements were initiated, purely for the sake of grabbing a foreign travel opportunity.
Thus, the most typical opportunity was a trip as part of a tourist group. In order to join such a group, first one had to get recommendations from one’s workplace leadership, secondly from the workplace Communist Party Committee, thirdly – most importantly – from the local KGB branch and then from perhaps someone else too. After that, the list of candidates for travel was examined “at higher levels” – in the capital of the Soviet republic and/or in Moscow. If a person’s candidature was everywhere endorsed, then he could begin to apply for a foreign pass.
A Soviet person required a passport even to live in his own state and had to present it even to receive a registered letter at the post office. But this pass was unsuitable for foreign travel. A special foreign pass was needed, to which first of all had to be appended a foreign travel visa – that the Soviet state allows citizen XY to cross the border – and only then could one apply for a visa to the country one planned to visit.
But even this wasn’t enough. Namely, the foreign travellers had to go through a thorough briefing – about how to behave abroad and what dangers to fear. For example, it was said that the imperialists had a habit of constantly scamming Soviet citizens, putting in their path all sorts of temptations (alcohol, girls, gambling, church, Coca-Cola, etc.). If the Soviet citizen falls into the trap, by getting drunk for instance, then he’d surely be photograghed and the photo printed in hostile news journals.
To prevent such slips, strict discipline reigned: the tourist group always travelled together or at the least in three person groups with Soviet citizens guarding each other in comradely fashion. Roaming alone or in pairs on the streets of London, Paris or some other sinister imperialist nest was categorically forbidden. The briefings further explained that generally the capitalist world was much worse than it appeared. Under the glossy surface lurk prostitution, violence, poverty, disease, unemployment and starvation. People are brutal to each other, ready to do anything for money because the cruel exploiters have made them so. Luckily, there are honest and friendly workers everywhere who warmly love the Soviet Union and its people. Still, they are frantically persecuted for this. In summary, a trip abroad is senseless, though the party and government in their benevolence permit it – so that people themselves will be convinced that life in the Soviet Union is much better.
As a result, upon setting foot on foreign ground, the average Soviet citizen’s feet hesitated as if cramping. He appeared suspicious, distrustful and morose; he hunched and pulled his head between his shoulders, buttoning his coat to the throat as if setting foot in some strange and hazardous place where one had to be constantly ready to repel attacks and provocations. I’m not exaggerating – I witnessed this kind of body language in 1989 at the Helsinki port.
But this same Soviet citizen still lost his head in foreign stores and markets. Façade or not, unemployment or not, imperialism or not, but as much merchandise as possible had to be hauled back from abroad. There was no money to do this, because the Soviet citizen was forbidden, on threat of long term imprisonment, to own or gather foreign currency. The ruble of course was not convertible; no currency exchanges existed. The only foreign currency the citizen had was that which was officially exchanged for him as a traveller abroad ( a small amount, perhaps a few tens of dollars). However – NB! – this was in addition to that which he was lucky enough to gather by selling his things. This was not well regarded by the Soviet regime, but not outright forbidden. It was impossible to forbid, because all Soviet tourists, includung the nomenclatura, were seized by the uncontrollable urge to go to the foreign market and there sell something.
What could a Soviet citizen sell? The most widely used method was to sell off one’s camera. Some Soviet cameras, namely the Kiev, were of fairly good quality. This was due to post World War II removal from Germany of the Zeiss factory equipment as reparations. Easy to sell as well was liquor, but only a limited amount could be taken abroad; other possibilities included amber, caviar, leatherwork.
Most tourist groups departed from Moscow because most flights and trains to foreign destinations originated there. I too have travelled from Tallinn by train through Moscow to London. If you would cast a glance at a map, you’d understand why I place this fact into the absurdities column. It is possible that a Moldovian travelling to Turkey or a Vladivostok resident going to Japan had to travel by way of Moscow.
Tourist trips were of two main kinds – trips to capitalist states, or the “real” abroad, and trips to so-called people’s democracies or Soviet satellite states like Poland, Hungary and so on. In this second group, the most desired destination was Yugoslavia, the least Bulgaria.
It’s probably not necessary to emphasize that to be allowed abroad a person had to be trustworthy in the eyes of the regime, a loyal Soviet person.The chances of someone with some kind of “black mark” against him of seeing the Eiffel Tower with his own eyes were essentially zero. But that made it even more desirable.
On return from abroad, the Soviet citizen had to write a thorough report, accounting for hour and day – where he went, who he met, and what he talked about. Regarding his foreign trip, a person could be forced to write or to speak on the radio utter nonsense: that in Paris he saw starving children looking for food in trash barrels, that in New York he saw a black youngster lynched, that in Rome he saw people beaten with truncheons, that in London it is impossible to procur a pair of shoes, and so on.
Relevant to that is a personally experienced episode. About 1995, representing the restored Estonian Republic parliament, I attended the International Parliamentary Union Congress in Copenhagen. The program included a visit to the Carlsberg brewery. In our small group, consisting of myself, two Czechs and an elderly married couple from Canada, I remarked that I don’t understand why the Union found it necessary to invite representatives of the cruelest dictatorships. For example, glassy-eyed people from the North Korean or Cuban “parliament”, when it is well known that parliament or parliamentary democracy cannot be found there even in your dreams. Why do we have to pretend that they are our colleagues and pass resolutions and declarations with them when they are in fact loyal servants of their dictator?
The Canadian Member of Parliament looked at me pityingly – in his eyes I was a less-evolved ex-Soviet – and began to patiently explain that they are people like we all are. Let them travel in the free world and understand what is democracy.Then they will begin to understand what a great thing democracy is and will pass this on to others at home. In this fashion Cuba and North Korea will also become democracies.
To my shame, I must admit that I got irritated by this unbelievably naïve, but at the same time typically Western attitude. I told the old gentleman that these people would not speak of a beautiful and rich Denmark when they returned home, but rather of capitalism’s horrors, epidemics, unemploymeent, crimes, narcomania, and inhuman exploitation existing in Denmark and the whole West. These people are ready to testify to anything, just so that they will be allowed on the next trip abroad. I had looked them in the eye and their glassy countenance left me with no doubts. They are rigidly faithful – otherwise they couldn’t have come – they are under constant control, they are brainwashed every night at their hotel, they subjugate themselves obediently and participate actively in this.
The old gentleman noted impatiently that I don’t understand anything, which comes from the fact that I don’t understand democracy. I wanted to continue the argument but then I noticed the Czechs grinning mockingly at both the old geentleman and I. They knew very well a totalitarian regime’s machinations with travel abroad. But they knew as well that there was no hope of convincing a naïve as well as pretentious Westerner of this. In their eyes, the conflict was between two simpleminded, idealistic world fixers.
Dejectedly, I shut my mouth and let the conversation drift to the wonderful cigars that the Carlsberg brewery had provided us with our coffees. For propaganda reasons of course. To distract us from inflation, unemployment and expoitation.
Given the circumstances of the Soviet regime, I didn’t think that I would ever see the free world because of the great antipathy reigning between the regime and myself, of which we were both well aware.When this regime, even at the beginning of the 1980’s, seemed everlasting, then logically I believed that I would live and die behind the Iron Curtain. But the dream to see the free world was downright tormenting. So tormenting that I wasn’t permitted to see it even in my dreams. Whenever I started to have a wonderful dream of my trip abroad, reason would cut in and say: Because this cannot be true, it must be a dream. Wake up! And I would wake – never able to view my dream to its end!
This tale has a point that might be of interest to the reader. Namely, in 1989, when the Soviet regime was already irrevocably fracturing, I had the good fortune to cross the Soviet border. Amazingly, all by myself. I travelled to Finland and from there to Sweden. The first foreign glimpse I had was of Helsinki. I stood on the boat deck, not yet having set foot on free foreign land, gazed at nightime Helsinki, and thought in all seriousness: What if that’s not Helsinki? What if it’s Leningrad? Or if not Leningrad, then an incredibly massive façade? Maybe there really isn’t a capitalist world? There is only a myth spread by the communist propaganda machine in order to frighten and better control the people. No one has the strength to reveal this. All who travel to the façade come back and lie that they made it abroad.
When I awoke the next morning in a Finnish town Lahti, I was possessed by the absurd feeling that I had awoken and with that stumbled into a dream. I had trouble understanding that all was real and not staged, and that Finland really existed.
The next morning early as I sat down at the breakfast table, I asked the master of the household which day’s paper he was reading. He looked at me in amazement and replied that of course today’s. Politely he refrained from asking me in turn why he should read some old newspaper. I blushed in embarrassment: I had grown up in a state where in the best case the paper arrived by lunch-time and the freshest news in the paper was three days old. Now I was meeting the West, whose existence I still wasn’t able to fully believe.
Today I have begun to believe. And if Finland really exists, then probably so too does much more, maybe even America.
Absurdity born out of poverty, like all the other Soviet absurdities, was endless. We can never account for all the talents which remained unrealized because of it – for example, not a single playable violin was sent to and sold in the Perelogino region during a whole year and therefore young Sasha Matrjossov didn’t become a world famous violinist. Instead, he became a washing machine and refrigerator repairman who got drunk once a week and at the age of 40 drowned in the Katassovo river, leaving behind his painter wife Nastja Titovna and two under age children.
The question of to what extent to blame unrealized talent on a state’s poverty is almost philosophic. It is of course clear that developing all talents is impossible no matter how extensive a society’s wealth. On the other hand, if a boy or girl interested in natural science is unable to prepare specimens for the microscope because the needed glass slides have been unobtainable for years, then his weakening interest must be directly attributed to state poverty. The same must be asserted when a physically well-suited boy interested in hockey chooses long-distance running over hockey only because his home town wasn’t able to build an ice arena. Those talents wasted when a potential professor became, purely due to poverty, a burglar, or a potentially top hockey player a third-class runner, are impossible to count. We can only assume that there were many. And we must add to that number those talents wasted not by poverty but by the underlying absurd Communist ideology of the Communist regime.
III Absurdities born of Totalitarianism
3.1 Enemies, everywhere enemies
It’s no surprise that this state which treated its subjects as prisoners did not permit them to think independently – and even less – to express their thoughts. Folklore summarized the guidelines for a Soviet person to live by as follows:
1, Don’t think.
2.If you think, don’t talk.
3.If you talk, don’t write.
- If you write, don’t sign it.
- If you sign it, don’t be astonished about the cosnequences.
A Western person almost instinctively deems the lack of freedom of speech to be a major shortcoming, and rightly so. But usually he doesn’t know what lack of freedom of speech actually means. For a person born in the free world, it is as hard to imagine as to live without breathing. You can hold your breath for a moment, even hold it for a minute – but how to exist without breathing from morning to night, year to year, decade to decade? For your whole life, until death?
Was this even possible?
Well, forbidding thought and speech totally wasn’t possible, even for the Soviet regime.So although we were forbidden to breathe freely and deeply, we still knew how to breathe somehow differently, with half a lung and through our skins.
However, how much a person wanted to breathe at all is another matter. Some Soviet citizens felt no need; without freedom, they felt themselves as healthy as fish without air. But there existed people for who the lack of freedom – here I mean personal freedom of speech and opinion–was truly tormenting.
These people were internally free, they merely grew in a prison. To this day, the number of these people is underestimated in the West. Besides, to view the Soviet citizen as one specific type – deeply obedient to the Communist party, brainwashed intellectually and psychicly, in love with Big Brother – means that the ones thirsting for freedom and understanding this thirst and acknowledging its existence, at least to themselves, should not be classified as Soviet people at all. Yet classification is a question of viewpoint and in this book I have included as Soviet citizens all who lived in the Soviet Union and who had a Soviet pass in their pockets – from fanatic Communist to dissident. For the last, the pair of words “Soviet person” no doubt smacked of irony.
Thus the number of people who understood and yearned for freedom was by my observation larger than was generally conceivable in the West. In fact, a prisoner can remain free internally, altogether freer than a “free” person. When, in the 1950’s people who had been deported or sent to prison camps in the 1940’s began to return to the Baltic region, they were dismayed by the prevailing hypocrisy and Soviet way of speech. In the Mordova, Perm and other prison camps, these people for the most part had preserved a free person’s thought and speech patterns.They called each other mister and not comrade, they didn’t need to carefully choose their words when expressing their opinion of the Soviet regime. Finding themselves among “free” people, they had to learn to use the word “comrade” and to learn at least the second commandment: if you think, don’t talk. Because your every word can be used against you.
Is the familiar becoming apparent? These words are spoken to a person whose hands are just being slipped into irons. This is absurdity’s apogee: the emotions of a person “freed” from a Soviet prison camp were analagous (partly) to those felt by a Westerner at the moment of imprisonment…
Where then, really, was freedom in the Soviet Union and where was imprisonment?
A single answer is difficult to this question.
Of course the aforementioned isn’t meant to suggest that being in prison camp was better, or that prisoners didn’t crave leaving there for relative freedom. Even prison camp freedom of speech wasn’t total – there were informers among the prisoners and even in prison one could be harshly punished for speaking too much. However, somewhat greater freedom of speech there compared to “freedom” is a fact, because the stories of released prisoners tend to agree.
The fact that “freedom” was in some ways worse than prison in the Soviet Union is important to recall when today’s Russia constantly proclaims that the Soviet army, at the end of World War II, freed prisoners from German concentration camps and saved them from murder. From murder perhaps, but not from imprisonment. At least not those, who from then on had to live in the Soviet Union.
To a sound mind it is understandable that no authority likes thoughts, or expressions of those thoughts, directed against itself. Even the most democratic power is obliged to defend itself from anti-democratic ideas and movements, otherwise democracy could bring a Hitler to power.
But there is a huge difference in how a power defends itself. Whether with the use of strength subjugated to society’s interests as a whole and framed by the rule of law, or with brute force in service of merely a doctrine and its proclaimers.
As we know,the latter was in effect in the Soviet Union. But even a state established on those terms can be rational in its brutality: the regime destroys its enemies, favours its servants, and leaves the rest alone. But the Soviet Union was absurd, as we know. Destroyed were not only those who were actually enemies of Communists and their regime but also, in immense numbers, those hadn’t even thought about resistance.
Internally, the Soviet Union fought at least three battles: 1) against those who were against it, 2) against those who weren’t active enough in support of it, and 3) often against those who were its loyal and active supporters. A person brought up in the West can understand a battle against enemies (which doesn’t mean approval) but the second battle is to him fundamentally unacceptable and the third completely incomprehensible.
For a person brought up in democracy it is hard to believe that a state authority can be paranoid. But the Soviet regime was just that. Possible enemies were seen everywhere, resistance and/or hidden mockery in every word. Every deed which exceeded the strict robotic parameters of party guidelines was suspicious.
Many believe that this all pervading paranoia was the product of Stalin’s sick psyche, because Stalin himself was unarguably paranoid. Yet this explanation brings to mind a saying from Murphy’s sparkling collection: For all huge problems there exists a brilliantly simple wrong solution. To reduce Soviet paranoia, which drove the state from beginning to end, to Stalin’s personal deviations would be brilliantly simple and wrong. No, the tendency to paranoia was coded into the fundamental documents of Soviet state organization and in reality already into Marxism. Stalin only took 100% advantage of these opportunities, taking paranoia to unprecedented heights, changing it into an art. Stalin was a virtuoso paranoic.
For example, can you imagine that in Stalin’s Soviet Union repression caught up a man who played the violin at home in the evenings – because he played the violin at home in the evenings? He was discharged from work (he was an educated person); he came to the interest of the KGB and he was persecuted in various ways. Why? Because this kind of thing was suspicious. The KGB wasn’t suspicious of men who earned their daily bread by playing the violin, whether in the symphony, a bar or both. But to fiddle in the evenings at home? Alone? Perhaps longingly gazing into the distance? No, this kind of behaviour wasn’t suitable for a Soviet citizen. A Soviet citizen at home in the evenings should eat, have a shot of vodka with the meal, then read the newspaper “Pravda” (Truth) and before going to sleep help his children memorize some poetry by Majakovsky.
A situation somewhat similar to the violin existed with the tailcoat tuxedo. The tailcoat wasn’t explicitly forbidden in Soviet times. It was worn by actors staging “Silva” for example; it was worn sometimes by musicians; it was worn by waiters at especially exclusive restaurants.But extremely suspicious was the person who had a personal tailcoat at home. Of course he had nowhere to go wearing it, because if he had, for example, appeared wearing his tailcoat at the anniversary celebration of the October Revolution, the police would have arrested him for hooliganism and taken him away. Because the tailcoat was capitalistic clothing. Russian caricaturists the brothers Kukryniks had created a stereotype of the capitalist-imperialist: pinstriped pants, tailcoat, bow tie, top hat. Especially terrifying if a pot-belly and cigar were added. ( Simply put, Mr. Vanderbilt at an evening reception.) This stereotype remained for tens of years, actually until the end of the Soviet era, and rooted itself deeply in the Soviet person. The Soviet person was taught to believe that the tail-coat, bow tie and top hat signaled something vicious and specifically capitalist. He who dresses like that is surely an exploiter. Or wants to be.
While the violin and tail-coat were suspicious in certain cases, the saxophone was suspicious in all cases. Because the saxophone was an “imperialistic instrument of witchcraft”, invented by the capitalists to fool the working class and to tempt them away from class struggle. In addition to the saxophone, a lot of dances – the foxtrot, tango, samba, mambo, and slow fox – were proclaimed “ politically and idealogically unacceptable”. Dancing these dances meant grovelling before the West.
Nothing was protected from absudity. At the same time as the saxophone and foxtrot were put into disfavour, so too were the integral sign (∫ ) and sigma (Σ ). These are mathematical symbols and went into disfavour along with all of mathematics. True, mathematics as such didn’t get prohibited, but according to one of Stalin’s utterances – that natural sciences and social sciences must not be mixed up – it was felt inappropriate for social sciences to make use of mathematical, meaning scientific, methods. An example is economics which no doubt is a social science, but which without the use of mathematics became even more helpless than it already was as a pseudo-economics in forced servitude to the Soviets. Most absurd was the fact that statistics was proclaimed to be a social science and attempts were made to create a “mathematics-free” science of statistics. A statistics textbook was written that adhered to this guideline. This book contained not a single formula; all was expressed in words: this to be multiplied with that, that divided by this, and so on. As a result, that textbook became stupendously long and practically incomprehensible.
True, this attitude to the integral sign, the saxophone and the foxtrot wasn’t prevalent throughout the Soviet era, but only through Stalin’s last years. Still, this illustrates what idiocies were possible if only an evil genius could be found to demand them, and actually such idiocies never really disappeared. In later years rock music, for example, was persecuted in similar fashion.
Stalin’s war against the saxophone doesn’t take a back seat in its ignorance to the campaign to annihilate sparrows in China. In light of these, one shouldn’t be amazed that even the organ was an extremely suspicious instrument and that all organists were a priori potential enemies. This came from the organ’s association with the church. The church and religion were hostile phenomena.
The sufferings of organists and tailcoat wearers are striking examples of paranoia, but such occurences were not really massive in number. Completely opposite were the mass repressions set in motion in the 1920’s which became especially brutal and especially massive in the 1930’s. Stalin began by using methods very similar to those of Ivan the Terrible. That is to say, he began annihilating one social group after another, and then after a while sent even those who did the annihilating to the slaughter fields.All farmers who had a tendency to independednt thought were annihilated in order to frighten the rest into joining collective farms en masse. Deportation was used to annihilate whole races, like the Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars and the Chechens. The latter did return however… Tsarist era engineers were annihilated because they too often played the piano in the evenings and quoted Goethe; in other words, among them were too many people with well-rounded intelligence.
Evidence of how insignificant could be the grounds for setting in process a person’s annihilation is to be found even in the literature of the Soviet era.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn has shaped into a short story an episode wherein a young, paranoia infected Soviet bureaucrat, a station master, wrote a complaint to the state security organization about a likeable and interesting man with who he had had a long friendly conversation at the station. Unfortunately, his discussion partner made a fateful error – he stopped at the name of a city, muttering, “Well, it used to be Tsaritsyn – no way can I remember what it is now”…Unfortunately, Tsaritsyn had been rechristened Stalingrad. The station master was taken aback: how could anyone have forgotten a city named Stalingrad? Such a person had to be an enemy.
Even picking one’s teeth in a public place could result in the person being sent to the slaughter fields. This is not said figuratively, but must be taken literally. Imagine this situation: good and hardworking peasant Ivan stepped onto the threshold of his house and picked his teeth. A poor man passing by noticed this and concluded: he picks his teeth, therefore he must eat meat. The poor man went to the local party leader and announced: Ivan eats meat every day, therefore he is rich. The party leader deliberated further: therefore he is an exploiter, therefore an enemy. Therefore he must be annihilated.
An “enemy” could be betrayed by some mannerism suggesting good breeding or by some accidental act of courtesy. Even eyeglasses were dangerous. Eyeglasses betrayed an educated person, and an educated person was suspicious. Jewish-Russian writer Issak Babel has described a tale that happened to him during the Russian civil war (1918-1920). Babel was a member of the Red Army and he was sent to join a Red Army unit overnighting at a farm. His eyeglasses caused suspicion among the uneducated Red Army members, which in the civil war circumstances could have quickly led to lynch law. The situation was saved when Babel grabbed a goose from the farmyard, wrung its neck twice, threw it down in front of the farmer’s wife and shouted: “Make me supper from this!” This kind of brutal behaviour calmed the Red Army members – so what if he’s a specticle wearer, this man must be one of us.
A person could be accused if he knew some foreign language. Knows a foreign language – therefore is a spy. Therefore an enemy. People who, during the Second World War, didn’t evacuate from Moscow but stayed to help defend the capital – they too were guilty. Because why did they stay in Moscow? Surely because they hoped to fall under German control. Therefore traitors. Solzhenitsyn describes in his “GULAG Archipelago” how at a party meeting exaltations were shouted in praise of great Stalin and how endless applause followed. The applause lasted five minutes, ten minutes, twelve minutes… No one wanted to be the first to stop. With reason. The old man who from exhaustion finally stopped, did get sent to the concentration camp. Because this type of behaviour was close to mutiny.
There is hardly further need to write about some Estonian farmer who decorated his manure pile with Stalin’s portrait. The villagers laughed, but an informer complained and the whole family was sent to Siberia. The wife and children returned years later, but the farmer was buried there.
Very typical was to inform on a person in order to get his apartment. This type of character was included by Mikhail Bulgakov in his “Master and Margarita” One had only to find the most baseless pretext (such as above: that a person couldn’t remember the name of Stalingrad), write a complaint – and that person disappeared to Siberia, concentration camp, execution – no one asked. And his killer sat in his apartment listening to his portable record player.
In the same fashion as he killed entire peoples and social classes, Stalin killed his comrades at the top of the communist hierarchy. He allied with some against others, killed these others – then killed his allies. In alliance with Zinoviev and Kamenev, Stalin annihilated a key founder of the Soviet Union, second in rank to Lenin, Lev Trotsky. Following that he annihilated Zinoviev and Kamenev, similarly in concert with Communist Party stalwarts like Bukharin, Rykov, Radek, and others.
Most of them were tarred with the most absurd, unbelievable accusations – planning to kill Stalin, spying for Japan, planning to blow up the Dneprogess hydroelectric station, and so on. These accusations were thought up by justice system felons led by chief public prosecutor Vyshinsky. Psychological and physical torture led the accused to publicly own up to the accusations; even in the West there could be found people who believed these “confessions”.
Thousands of such fools could be found in the Soviet Union, and even Stalin himself may have believed some of the accusations. A paranoic’s reason works differently than a normal person’s.
Stalin consciously annihilated his rivals and competitors, but when Vishinsky informed him that some Central Committee member was a spy for Japan or even Greenland, then his sick psyche could very well believe it. In such a madhouse atmosphere nothing was impossible. Exactly similar to the 17th century, when in many European countries a witch hunting and killing psychosis broke out. Suddenly, all sorts of places were full of witches and the most absurd accusations were believed.
The Soviet witch trials didn’t end in the 1930’s but returned after the Second World War. Indirect evidence suggests that Stalin was preparing to let loose the Third World War and to do this he had to restore to his empire an atmosphere of total fear, which during the Second World War and after had partially crumbled by itself, partially been relaxed in order to sooth Stalin’s Western allies.
And so the atnosphere of total fear was restored. Just barely before his death in the 1950’s, Stalin set in motion a most monstrous situation – prosecution of the so-called doctor-plotters conspiracy. Namely, an evil group of doctors had established itself in Moscow which planned, in the guise of healing, to kill all the most important Soviet leaders. In the course of this “criminal proceeding” dozens of the Soviet Union’s most talented doctors, whose only crime was their Jewish heritage, were sentenced to be executed. Luckily for them, Stalin died in the spring of 1953, and Beria freed them.
As can be seen, the doctor-plotters conspiracy indictment was also a manifestation of hostility to Jews. Stalin, an Ossetian, hated the Jews, but more essential is that the Russian people traditionally had a negative attitude toward Jews. After the Second World War a belief has spread widely that since the Soviet Union crushed Germany and freed prisoners from concentration camps it was a Jew friendly people and regime. This is complete nonsense. Until the horrors of National Socialism (and after them) it was notably safer for Jews in Germany than in Russia. When Stalin began to hunt down the doctor-plotters, hostility to Jews erupted throughout Russia, consciously incited by the Communist Party organs. The Holocaust is widely talked about, but the above campaign isn’t even mentioned because this would throw into confusion a simple and comfortable world view: Hitler -bad, Stalin -good, Hitler – Jew killer, Stalin – Jew friend.
I repeat, this is nonsense.
The sustaining theme of Stalin’s paranoid politics of fear was that fear must be all-pervading – no one, truly without exception no one, could allow themselves to feel safe and secure. Everyone had to take into account that he certainly was guilty of something. Even if he didn’t know of anything he was guilty of. Paranoia produced and praised by the state leadership infects the most enthusiastic, aspiring and foolish subordinates first. Epidemic paranoia is one of the most productive sources of absurdity.
One had to fear the police, the KGB and of course the Party. Interesting here is that Party members themselves perhaps feared the Party the most. An Estonian Communist expressed his feelings about the Party thusly:
“I became a different person.(…) This person learned first of all to fear things not understandable to a European. Before all else, the Party, starting with the regional committee through to the Politbureau. Who feared the Party? Everyone, including Politbureau members.” **
In his commentary on the above, Uno Mereste remarked that such fear is not completely foreign to a European. Similar fear of their ideological and battle comrades is felt by members of criminal gangs.
“Mafia members fear their “family” members and first of all their “godfather” more than strangers. There are large Mafia families where “ours” have done away with more family members than strangers. The Soviet Communist Party was just such a Mafia-like party which, to imbue fear, regularly killed its most devoted members.”**
Exactly so. To create such an atmosphere of fear, it was absolutely necessary that repressions be incomprehensible, irrational. In other words, apparent irrationality is partly deliberate, rational. When Stalin had Trotsky or Bukharin killed, it was understandable – a typical Asian-like battle for power. But still too understandable. Therefore, these actions required the addition of the irrational – to have shot, in addition to others, one’s most trusted followers and supporters at the top of the power hierarchy as well as among the lower levels of the party. As a result, Soviet citizenry began to develop the vague opinion that guilt or innocence was not something that a simple person could ultimately decide; only the god named Stalin was capable of that decision.
Such a situation destroyed in people almost every sort of trust. Peer to peer intercourse common to civic society – with casual acquaintances, with co-workers, with people met on the street or in the store, social happenings, clubs, all but ceased. Have a friendly talk with a stranger, tomorrow you might discover that he’s religious, or the grandchild of a capitalist or has a tendency to be against the party (and so on) – and you’ve become “suspicious”. It was smarter not to relate to anyone. People withdrew into their own family circles, among strangers eye contact was avoided as was any discourse on even slightly questionable themes.Since in practice all themes were questionable, it was smarter to keep quiet. This was noted too by visitors from the West: if you unexpectedly spoke with a Soviet citizen, fear could be seen in his eyes and he would avert his gaze.
A person’s own relatives were significant agents of danger. When Soviet citizen Ivan Petrov committed some kind of error, then punishment was meted out to his brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, and if needed, even his more distant relatives. To be the son of an enemy of the people was at least as great a sin as to be an enemy of the people. Because of that, sometimes a person and his deeds were ignored while attention was paid only to his relatives and their deeds.This could lead to an absolutely absurd situation where a young Estonian or Latvian man, who had served in the Red Army during the Second World War, had his career ruined because his brother had served in the German army. But the career of the brother who had been in the German army went comparatively well – because his brother had been in the Red army! By the same logic, Southern Estonia is cold because it is influenced by cold Northern Latvia; Northern Latvia, on the other hand, is warm because it borders Southern Estonia.
When Stalin died, paranoia regressed to an extent. But it didn’t disappear, and now and again bloomed in the oddest of ways.
For example, the following event happened in Estonia in the 1970’s. An innocent poster announcing a Baltic regatta was printed and posted. The poster was conservatively designed, using only two colours – white and blue. All permits, endorsements, and accords were in place. But trouble still happened. Namely, the poster came to the attention of the Estonian Communist Party official whose job it was to attend all exhibitions and ensure that all was ideologically correct. The official saw the posters up in the city and informed his Party colleagues:
“A grievous blunder has been made! The poster is blue/white, but what kind of garment does an average man wear who stops to look at the poster? A suit! And what colour is a suit usually? Black! So! What colour combination do we get when a man in a black suit stands in front of a blue/white poster? Naturally blue/black/white! (The colours of the free Estonian flag. ed.)”
This colour combination was as totally forbidden as it is possible for any colour combination to be. The thought police hunted this colour combination with an idiotic, manic consistency everywhere – in paintings, book illustrations, poster drafts, on whatever product or thing’s packaging, fabric, ties, striped socks, and so on. They felt a panicked, sick fear over the blue/black/white. Just as Dracula fears the cross.
The poster wasn’t ripped down from all walls, but someone somewhere received a serious dressing down.
Or another example. The candy factory Kalev began preparing caramel candy packaged in a tin can and, due to some censor’s foulup, the can’s design was blue, black and white. Accidently, because the picture was of rowers in a boat, water, and clouds. When this was discovered, all the cans were ordered destroyed, but at the last moment, things were rethought. Since the Mongolian leader Tsedenbal was in Tallinn at the time, then, after the situation was explained to him, he agreed to buy all the cans of candy. In Mongolia, this colour combination was not anti-Soviet.
Similarly, in Lithuania yellow/green/red was an anti-Soviet colour combination as was dark red/white/dark red in Latvia. But there were also colour and design combinations that were anti-Soviet throughout the Soviet Union. The following story deals with that.
A photographic poster-calendar which my artist brother had prepared and already printed for the Viru hotel was sent straight from the printer to the shredding machine. As a model, he had used his very photogenic five-year old son. The boy was dressed as a dwarf, with tinfoil stars pasted to his blue coat, and wore red and white striped knickers. On his head was a dwarf’s cap, and in his hand he held a burning sparkler.
The printers liked the image so much that they mounted it in the printshop window. However, that same alert Party official happened to see it. He grew pale because for him the crime was obvious: the artist is attempting to … propagandize the USA flag. The artist was of course totally staggered by such an accusation.
Mockers who tried to have fun with the Soviet regime’s paranoia could be found. For example, two well-dressed young men met in front of that same Viru hotel, both carrying similar black suitcases – called diplomatic cases – which were in the 1970’s very fashionable. As if unnoticed, they exchanged the cases without a word and departed in opposite directions.
But foreigners were staying at the Viru, and thus the hotel and its surroundings teemed with KGB informers and officers. In addition, there were police who ensured that hucksters doing small business with the foreigners didn’t get too brazen and would pay them proper bribes. Viru was under many-layered guard.
Therefore it should come as no surprise that soon after exchanging the cases those two young men met again in a police or KGB room.
“What did you exchange?”, came the harsh question.
“Information”, answered one of the young men, as if reluctant.
The suitcases were opened. One contained a bundle of “Rahva Hääl” (People’s Voice), the voice of the Estonian Communist Party, the other a bundle of “Noorte Hääl” (Youth Voice) printed by the Estonian Communist Youth Society. Both were substance-free Soviet propaganda newspapers. Word on the street was that “Rahva Hääl” was so poisonous that it was great for killing flies – whack one with it and it won’t whine any more.
If you now believe that the policeman and the state security man began to laugh and let the young men leave, you are mistaken. This happens only in the movies. In fact, the boys were verbally abused, kicked out of university, and their lives ruined. The Soviet regime and its most brutal instrument, the KGB, were not forces acting with dignity; instead, the foundations for both were feelings of inferiority and desire for revenge.
State security workers kept watch over the Viru hotel for many reasons, but one of them was that during contacts with foreigners, a Soviet citizen tended to be generally more outspoken. This had to be monitored. It was said that the Viru hotel was built of microconcrete – 50% concrete and 50% microphones. It would have been the height of foolishness to discuss anything “suspicious” in a Viru hotel room with one’s cousin from Canada or Sweden. Some thought that if a water faucet was opened, this would block the listening device; whether this really worked or not, I don’t know. The bugging apparatus and the KGB listeners had special rooms provided for them. As well, the police had rooms.
But one could talk outside and even this was a big event. I have experienced this myself. In 1977, my relative from America visited Estonia. I spent quite a few days with her and later I felt as if I’d visited America myself. Because what makes America, America? The people of course. Communicating with my aunty Elsie I was suddenly free – I behaved, thought, and spoke as a free person in a free country. Such was my first trip abroad – a virtual one.
The thought police of course were well aware of this effect and therefore tried hard to prevent direct contact with foreigners. A Soviet diplomat was sent back home from Sweden because his wife enjoyed communicating with Swedes too much. Work related communication was of course obligatory, but everything beyond that – for example, to sit in a café and chatter with slightly familiar acquaintances – was ill-boding. A person who communicated too much could turn into an enemy. The outside world and foreigners – they were like a poison or the plague to which the Soviet citizen had to stay immune, meaning he had to maintain his guardedness, disbelief, and contempt.
3.2 The Maniacal Secrecy
In the 1960’s, when times were slightly freer, an Estonian ensemble created the song “Saboteur” to satirize the maniacal vigilance of the Soviet person. The song was copied from tape recorder to tape recorder. This wasn’t formally forbidden, but the song wasn’t broadcast from any official media source either.
The song was about an American saboteur who was sent to the Soviet Union in the guise of a tourist. The tourist took his movie camera and went prowling around `to gather information. Thus he reached the edge of town where he spotted a road roller.
The tourist’s eyes shone and his hands shook,
Technology as mighty as this is not found every day
So he crawled the highway ditch and filmed all day
And arrogantly thought that no one would see him here.
Fortunately he was spotted by a young Pioneer who immediately realized that an enemy was at hand.. The tourist was arrested but the roller can stand forever in peace at the side of the road. No one will threaten him, he securely remains where he is.
The irony in this song is many layered. First, the mania for secrecy is mocked. The Soviet Union had reached the point where young Pioneers were schooled to such fanaticism that they would believe that the filming of a road roller was an act of espionage. Secondly, there was the mockery surrounding the road roller itself, which “securely remains where he is”. For this was nothing more than the Soviet Union itself. Heavy, stupid and immobile.
There were lots of secrets in this heavy, immobile Soviet Union. For instance, it was forbidden to print or sell any exact and correct map. Such maps were certainly prepared, but could only be owned or used by the Soviet Army.
Maps that were permitted to be sold were first of all very general, showing only major towns and thoroughfares, and secondly they were deliberately distorted. To do this they didn’t arbitrarily shuffle towns around by ten or twenty kilometres – this would have been too obvious to the map user – instead they found a much more ingenious method. They printed an accurately proportioned map onto a rubber sheet, and stretched it in a special frame to be slightly wrong.. They weren’t too far off, just enough that if the imperialist enemy relied on these maps to guide their Intercontinental missiles, they would surely miss their mark. The stretched image was transferred back to paper and printed for circulation.
Unfortunately, man-made satellites invented in the 20th century and sent into earth orbit could photograph any part of the globe including the Soviet Union. Which meant that the Western imperialist had first of all, perfect photographs of the Soviet Union and secondly, store- bought copies of distorted maps. Comparison of these yielded a fairly clear picture of the Soviets’ secret and super secret sites; the greater the distortion, the greater the certainty that an army base, or better yet, a nuclear warhead was being hidden.
To the bitter end, the Soviet Union could not come to grips with the fact that for years the enemy had accurate and detailed maps of the workers’ paradise. Even not when the Americans presented them with an early morning satellite picture of Moscow. Included with it was a longer explanation, including: “An individual Russian can be seen on Red Square.” Instead of “freeing” cartography and reconciling themselves to the reality of the age of satellite photography, they plodded on with wildly distorted maps and impeded the release of accurate maps.
You were also not allowed to own an accurate map, even if it was printed in the West! And the same applied to other top secret information. Once, students at either the Tallinn or Leningrad Marine College – those who were already allowed on foreign trips and even allowed to debark there – discovered that they could buy valuable study aids complete with drawings of all ships, including naval, that plied the Baltic Sea, at newspaper kiosks in Hamburg, Germany. These drawings also contained technical information that the students were required to know for an impending examination.
The students of course bought this material. Not that this information wasn’t distributed officially. Of course it was. However, it was strictly secret. A book with technical details of Soviet ships could only be viewed in a private area of the Marine College library under the supervision of an official. It was forbidden to remove this information. The books that the cadets bought at the newspaper kiosks in Hamburg could be read and studied at their leisure, while on holiday, at lunch hour or in bed before lights out.
It didn’t dawn on the boys that they were guilty of a crime involving state secrets. When this reference material was found lying about in the students’ residence on someone’s night table, great scandal ensued: how could our state secrets be left lying on a student’s night table? The boys swore up and down that they bought the books from the imperialists, which meant that all of the secret information – ship draft, length, beam was long known to the West, and available on street corners, but this did not interest their superiors. The law is the law. If the law states that something is a state secret, then it will remain a state secret even if every clerk at the NATO headquarters knows it by heart.
In short, purchasing a book from a newspaper kiosk in Hamburg and leaving it lying around in the Soviet Union was an act of treason against state secrets and required that the courts of law mete out an appropriate punishment.
Along with maps, any kind of aerial photo was also forbidden. The risk with the aerial photo was that the enemy’s ultrasensitive microscopes could detect a solitary bush, in which lies the drunken sergeant-major Petrov, and count the stripes on his uniform. From that they will surmise that within a 10 mile radius of that bush, a medium range missile base must be hidden.
In Estonia the aerial photo absurdity reached such heights that it was forbidden to publish pre WWII aerial photos taken when Estonia was a free country. This meant that it was against the law in 1985 to publish a 1935 aerial photograph. The only exception was if the photo had been already published many times before the World War.
Why talk only of aerial photos when any kind of photography, even a land based shot, was “suspicious”. Who knows what might end up in a picture. Perhaps an angry face. And then that picture could end up in a hostile foreign newspaper. But a Soviet person is never angry. A Soviet person is joyful and eagerly capable and thus his face must always show that he is very, very happy. Anything else is a slander.
Sometime in the seventies my hometown was plagued with another deficit. This time we ran out of potatoes. When a truckload of potatoes arrived at our neighbourhood store, it was dumped right in the yard. As if by some telepathic telegram, people appeared carrying bags and boxes and suitcases to grab up those potatoes. When a bag was full they went in to the clerk who weighed their bag and took payment.
I was about ten years old at the time and I climbed onto a fence with my ”Smena” camera and took a picture of that colourful scene. Immediately, a Soviet person appeared—not a police officer or an undercover agent but a loyal Soviet man—and pulled me down from the fence. The anger on his face more than expressed his desire to crush the little son of a snake, that offspring of a spy. Luckily I wasn’t alone and my father saved my skin. However, that episode will be forever imprinted in my memory.
The Tallinn resident Mikhail Veller, a Russian Jew, has, in addition to many fine stories (for example the collection “Legends of Nevsky Prospect”) authored the tale of Papanin’s radioman. Papanin was a Soviet polar explorer who spent much time with his group on an ice floe in the Arctic Ocean and and thus accomplished an heroic-like feat. As a person, Papanin was narrow-minded and a malevolent, fanatical Stalinist.
Only one man in his group did not belong to the Communist Party. That was the radioman. When a Party meeting was to be held on the ice floe, the radioman had to leave the tent and walk around the tent in the frosty polar night until the meeting was over. Then he tapped out on the radio to Moscow the stenograph of the meeting. Because he was the radioman.
Or a third example. Whether in the newspapers, radio or television, it was forbidden to release any information about any larger accident or infection (this prohibition was lifted only with the Chernobyl catastrophe and even then the Kremlin at first did everything possible to cover it up). It was forbidden to release Soviet army unit numbers; it was forbidden to make any allusion to, for example, the fact that my birthplace, Tartu, had a large military airport. No matter that this was fully known in the West. The mania for secrecy extended to such a degree that local newspapers were prohibited from revealing in absolute numbers the rural district’s exceeding of its animal husbandry plan – overfilling of the plan could be expressed only in percents. Because absolute numbers allow foreign spy agencies to work out how large that district’s animal husbandry plan is and how many cattle, sheep, and goats exist in that district. Which would be even more momentously strategic information than a road roller at the side of a road.
After all this, it is hardly worth mentioning that each and every typewriter had to be registered and a print sample from each machine rested in the hands of the KGB. That is how it was. Naturally, this was to impede the spread of true information through typewritten copies. Soviet dissidents responded by typing underground documents through multiple sheets of copy paper and disposing of the first two or three. The remaining copies were hazy and could barely be read, but the originating typewriter could not be identified.
Every person who lived under the Soviet regime could tell stories about mindless secrecy and concealment. But these begin to become repetitive and thus we stop here.
Paradoxically, the more that was declared to be secret, the greater became the need for the remainder to be kept secret as well. For example, the KGB received worrying information that some Sovietophiles in the West were spending time taking notes from the official substance-free Soviet newspapers. Especially of interest were the personnel notes – which equipment mechanic was sent to which territory and where he went from there. With a sufficient amount of such information, conclusions could be drawn. For example, somewhere in a corner of the Soviet Union there might be a uranium mine starting up because many men have been sent to work there who previously worked in various trades in another uranium region.
Or that a certain sort of military works is being erected somewhere. It is quite probable that the Western great powers had whole departments in their
spy agencies analyzing such seemingly innocent facts. Thus was essential information distilled from even the Soviet pseudonewspapers.
What to do? Prohibit the printing of all sorts of newspapers, the distribution of any and all information and conceal the names of all even slightly prominent workers?
Still, the leaders of the country couldn’t leave their underlings completely without any information. The people of a region could not be kept from information such as Comrade Sapog Sapogovitch Sapozhnikov ”has been appointed the new first secretary of the region.” This had to be put into the papers, even as a short announcement. Going forward, everyone would notice anyway that a new local tsar had been sent, because it was precisely he who distributed fear as well as mercy..
However, you could never know what was going to happen with Comrade Sapozhnikov later, whether he became a hero or traitor. Because of this, it was good if all information, including the Party’s own propaganda, faded as quickly as possible from memory. After all, it was possible that one day Comrade Sapozhnikov’s name would have to be struck completely from history and then the Party could say in amazement, “Sapozhnikov who? Never heard of him”.
Winston, the main character in George Orwell’s “1984” continuously rewrote history. “1984” is a profound allegory, a surrealistic vision…and in some details, a direct copy of Soviet daily life.
Please try to get your hands on a copy of the 5th volume of the “Great Soviet Encyclopedia”, probably prepared in 1950, printed in 1951. I have a copy on my desk at this moment, writing these lines. Open it to page 21. There you’ll see six pictures of the Bering Sea. If you look at pages 21 to 24 closely you will note that the original pages have been cut out. New pages have been pasted (or left loose) in their stead. The thorough article about the Bering Sea continues, and then long articles on the physiologist Beritashvili, the Soviet chemist Berkenheim and the completely non-Soviet philosopher Berkley. All sorts of whatever, but nothing about the man who was for a short time the dictator of the Soviet Union, the man who radio and newpapers glorified and who was praised measurelessly at Party meetings. Of course it’s Marshal Lavrenti Beria.
Naturally, at the time when the 5th edition appeared, there was an extensive and in depth article on Beria where he was exalted as a hero of the nation, but by the end of 1953 Beria had been overthrown.. He had become (what a surprise!) an enemy of the state and people, a hardened criminal and so the Kremlin’s new masters (Khrushchev, Malenkov et al) had him taken out and shot.
But now what to do with the Encyclopedia’s fifth edition? Destroying it would have been hugely expensive. Instead, two new sheets were sent out to all who had ordered an encyclopedia, including libraries, institutions and private citizens, along with instructions on how to remove two “defective” pages and install replacements. The defective pages were to be destroyed.
So there you have it. According to the “Great Soviet Encyclopedia”, Beria has never existed! Even Hitler and Trotsky have existed, but not Beria.
Although the replacement of pages episode occurred after Stalin’s death, it is still a 100% pure example of Stalinism. The way that Stalin dealt with history is explained in the following anecdote. To understand this anecdote, you need to know that Lenin’s wife’s name was Nadezda Krupskaya and that she never took any of Lenin’s names, neither Uljanov nor Lenin.
It’s the start of the 1950’s, the peak of Stalin’s power. Stalin sits in the Kremlin drinking tea. In steps Feliks Dzershinsky. (It’s not important that Dzershinsky was by this time long dead) He asks:
“Comrade Stalin, do you remember Comrade Krupskaya?”
“Well, who doesn’t remember Comrade Krupskaya?” answers Stalin carelessly.
“But do you remember her husband?” enquires Dzershinsky cautiously.
Stalin furrows his brow, slurps his tea. Sits in silence. Finally his face clears.
“Well, who doesn’t remember Comrade Krupski!” he replies with relief.
(In Russian Krupskaya’s husband would be called Krupski, but in English the married couple would be Mr. and Mrs. Krupski. ed.)
In short, even an average Soviet person understood clearly that Stalin would have readily removed even Lenin from history so that all of history consists of Stalin and only Stalin. Trotsky, who was almost Lenin’s equal, was removed from both life and history by Stalin. To this very day, the majority of Soviet citizens do not know that the Soviet Union was founded not by one, but two evil geniuses: Lenin and Trotsky.
Still, the erasing of Lenin from history was beyond Stalin’s power. Or perhaps it should be said he just ran out of time.
There are some fine examples of the rewriting of history involving Yugoslavia’s dictator Josip Broz Tito. This man was a favourite target of Soviet propaganda. First he was seen as a bloody butcher and imperialist lap dog and then, unexpectedly, he became seen as an exemplary leader of the working class and a great friend of the Soviet Union. Not to speak of other friends/enemies such as Hitler and Mao. The sudden metamorphoses of their images made by Soviet propaganda could cause your head to spin. It was best if simple people didn’t poke about in history.
Simple folk were partly told what they were allowed to know and what they were not allowed to know; partly they had to figure things out for themselves. And, like the watchful citizen who pulled me down from the fence with my camera, they did figure. No one had directly told him that it was a state crime for a ten year old boy to photograph a potato crisis but he thought that it was. Or, another example. When a close friend entered into an argument on a train and cursed that he had no idea from either radio or newspaper what the Supreme Soviet discussed or decided, his opponent responded even more angrily with, “What do really want? Do you think that state secrets aren’t permitted in the Soviet Union?
Can you imagine? Soviet citizens believed that even formal parliamentary votes were…state secrets! And he didn’t stray far from the truth. The nation was actually ruled by the Communist Party Central Committee; in the Soviet republics partly as well the local Communist Party Central Committee. These central committees continuously sent government departments, such as a ministry, orders and directives, which often ended with the notation, This document must be returned to the sender.
This meant that the document had to be discussed and the orders therein followed but no trace of the directive could appear in the ministry’s archives. The document could not be copied, or referred to, nor could it be credited in the ministry edicts. The only reference could be to Central Committee decision number 48a, June 15, 1951 (for example) and that was all. If the central committee could get their hands on the document and destroy it, (as it was often the case) then the secrecy would be complete. Somebody decided, somebody was repressed, another shot, a decision was made to deport people, or to carry out mass confiscation of property (the so called expropriations). But who the decision maker was, or when that decision was made, or the underlying purpose or reason of the decision remains unknown. This is a great gift to those intellectuals, historians and politicians who try, for some misguided pathological reason, to whitewash not only Stalin, but also Brezhnev and the whole Soviet regime. There has been no terror, there has been no Russification, there has been no genocide and there has been no GULAG
Listen closely. That’s Stalin laughing from the bottom of his grave.
3.3 The Party is always right
With the preceding chapter we have arrived at one of the basic tenets of Soviet totalitarianism. This has a two part postulate
- The Party is always right.
- In the event that the Party is wrong, please refer to Condition 1.
In other words, the party is right even when it is wrong.
It was up to every individual to understand this postulate in his own way. This task is either extremely difficult or utterly impossible for any sane individual. The number of idiocies, crimes and absurdities carried out by the Soviet Communist Party had long ago grown too huge for a person to even slightly believe Communist theory or to praise its practice.
But outside of those who have use of their full faculties, there unfortunately exists a remarkable number whose faculties must be classified otherwise. This number can include all of those thousands of fanatic Stalinists who Stalin in his paranoia sentenced to death and who, a moment before being shot, shouted “Long Live Stalin”, but also a whole galaxy of Western intellectuals from Jean-Paul Sartre to Louis Althusser and onward. This is, by the way, proof that the germs of absurdity and even Soviet absurdity are hidden also in the free Western world, therefore, in human psychology as such. Just as tuberculosis germs can be found, to some extent, even in the healthiest organism. However, the West has been able to keep such people in marginal positions, at a time when due to a confluence of many conditions the Soviet Union experienced an explosive proliferation of these people. Almost like when in hot weather and stagnant water, toxic blue-green algae proliferates.
And so the Party was always right, because totalitarianism requires rock solid belief in the leader and his doctrine. The German dictator roared: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer! Soviet dictators proclaimed: The Party is our era’s honour, reason, and conscience. Of course, the party mentioned is the Communist Party. This not especially modest witticism had been coined by Lenin. Starting with Stalin, this maxim was in force as a universal indulgence, intended to forgive and justify any of the Communist Party’s collective crimes.
When the German arms magnate and fanatic Nazi Gustav Krupp ran out of arguments in a discussion about National Socialist politics, he lashed out: The Führer is always right! In the Soviet Union, which saw more führers, though their common breeding ground, the Communist Party, remained, the answer in the above instance was: The Party is always right!
Such embarrassing incidents as Tito or Beria – one was at first the devil, but later proclaimed an angel, the other the exact opposite – were nevertheless trifling. It was simply necessary to often enough and loudly enough shout into the ear of the Soviet person that Tito is a great leader of the people and that Beria is a great enemy of the people, and the Soviet person forgot what had previously been said about those men.
But there were more vital questions, where totalitarianism forced a person to testify absurdly that the party was right even when it was wrong.
An example is Stalin’s terrible crimes. Stalin died – what to do now? Continue in the old fashion or not? On one hand, all carrying out of mass murders and annihilation was Stalin’s direct fault. It meant, they could be stopped now. On the other hand, thousands of people had carried out these crimes, often with great enthusiasm and sadism; ending the killings would have logically meant acknowledging that not only Stalin but thousands of people had massively committed crimes.
Life required some kind of decision. It wasn’t possible to continue the massacres, this would have ended with killing the whole population. Thus, they had to be ended, at least on the previous scale. This however required a change of paradigm, which in turn presupposed taking a stand on the previous policies.
What was the new tsar to say to the people about the previous tsar and his actions?
Beginning in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev, who had risen step by step to power, decided that Stalin was to blame, with his vanity and selfishness, and especially his erroneous hypothesis that class struggle inevitably intensifies as socialism’s consolidation is approached It is true that Stalin at one time did make such a proposition and used this to justify cruel repressions against real or potential differently-minded. An example is a Tsar-era store or business owner. He’d long ago had his store or business confiscated, and the Soviet regime could have left him in peace. But no. Convinced that no matter how loyal a face the former store-owner or factory-owner presents, he is at heart still an enemy who has no thought of treating Stalin as god, Stalin demanded his extermination. Direct, physical execution either with a lead bullet or with the help of a Siberian prison camp. To find a pretext for the killing of this legally completely innocent person, the named hypothesis had to be presented. According to the hypothesis, this “old guard”(which could include almost anyone who had lived in the former era. ed.) was preparing to rise up against the Soviet regime. Of course they had to be stopped.
This was a fine, classic example of Soviet absurdity: you haven’t, to be sure, committed any wickedness, but you are certainly planning it. Therefore you are guilty; therefore you are being killed.
No doubt Stalin was a great criminal. However, he wasn’t alone at the top, and one example is Khrushchev himself, Stalin’s one-time active co-worker and diligent apple-polisher. Khrushchev couldn’t begin to condemn Stalin until he had destroyed the Moscow City Communist Party Committee’s archives, which contained too much proof of his own crimes. And even Khrushchev himself was only a part of the iceberg’s tip.
Therefore Khrushchev’s attempt to blame Stalin and his “erroneous hypothesis” was absurd from the start. To reduce blame for the annihilation of millions of people to one pipe puffing paranoic in the Kremlin was against all reason. Secondly, what was the Soviet citizen to think of the execution of thousands of loyal Communists? This phenomenon was explained by Khrushchev saying that Stalin violated “standards of Party life established by Lenin”. Or in other words, Stalin did something antagonistic to the Party. Or even more clearly: Stalin behaved incorrectly but the Party was right. The Party simply fell thrall to Stalin temporarily.
As proof of his explanation, Khrushchev ordered dug up one of Lenin’s articles which had been kept secret in Stalin’s time, the so-called Lenin’s testament or his deathbed letter to the Party’s XIII Congress (1924). In the letter, Lenin deliberates over his two possible successors, Stalin and Trotsky, and concludes that Trotsky would be better. His diagnosis of Stalin was principally correct: the man is careless, cruel and power-hungry. (The same faults applied to Lenin himself, but perhaps the nearness of death had in some way softened his psyche.)
Khrushchev’s absurd explanation (“violated Lenin’s standards”) was believed by thousands in the Soviet Union as well as the West with obvious gratitude.The guilty party had been found, the sanctity and purity of doctrine rescued. You see, it was said to oneself and others, if things had been done according to Lenin’s advice, nothing bad would have happened.
Thus the following absurdity: the making public of Lenin’s testament did not bring about Trotsky’s rehabilitation. On his death bed, Lenin recommended Lev Trotsky for dictator, but in spite of that official histories still treated Trotsky as the Party’s and Soviet Union’s most wicked enemy who would have spoiled almost everything. The Soviet public school or university student was required to know and believe Lenin’s testament but also believe that Trotsky was the Great Enemy. How a person was to come to grips with this, was again no one’s business.
Another example of professing two opposing truths touches on the Soviet Union’s non-Russian peoples. In Lenin’s theoretical legacy one had to become acquainted with his viewpoints about the building up of the Soviet Union as well as his sharp critique of Russian chauvinism. Lenin wrote that the Soviet Union should be built up of different peoples and languages on the principle of equality and that the Russian language should not be forced on anyone. Probably he assumed that the Russian language would over time become predominant anyway and he warned that forcing the process would create unnecessary tensions between comrades from different peoples.
Yet all that which Lenin felt was wrong, was done in the Soviet Union. The Russian race was more important than the others, being thanked by name even in the Soviet national anthem; the Russian language was forced more and more brutally upon all non-Russian peoples who were even forced to acknowledge Russian as their mother tongue. Ideologues and party careerists bereft of honour and conscience declared that when a person had two mother tongues (meaning when a non-Russian begins to think and speak in Russian) then it would be almost like having two mothers, and so. In spite of this, a Soviet person had to believe that all that is happening meets Lenin’s wishes and is thus right.
All this calls to mind too readily the story of the Eastern guru who was asked to serve as judge in a dispute between two men.
Having listened to the first man’s tale, the guru stated that the man was right. Having listened to the second man’s exactly opposite version, the guru stated that he was identically right. Now a third man stepped forward and said:
“But it’s not possible that two opposite assertions can both be right”
“And you too are right” replied the guru calmly.
Or perhaps this isn’t absurd. Perhaps it is some entirely higher philosophy, where A is A, but at the same time not A, without ceasing to be A? Furthermore: A is A just because it is at the same time not A!
Try to use this type of philosophy to lay the foundation of, say, your family life and see what happens.
It can be said that Khrushchev’s attempt to acknowledge a small amount of errors and blame them on Stalin was only partly successful. Yes, to a certain number of the Soviet Union’s underlings and to a handful of Communist sympathizing intellectuals in the West, this provided a welcome opportunity to believe that A is at the same time not A.
But all are not capable of such “elastic” reasoning.There were people for who the acknowledging of no matter what error was comparable to the shattering of illusions. No matter how diligently Krushchev and later also Brezhnev cultivated the theory that Stalin could err but the Party is manifestly errorless, the worm of doubt that ultimately the Party too is in error gnawed at many people’s souls. Even in the 1970’s, the committed Stalinist, Marshall Ustinov, was stating angrily that Stalin’s crimes are as nothing compared to the damage caused by Krushchev’s public acknowlegement of them.
This takes us back to the recent anecdote. Krushchev was right when he partly acknowledged Stalin’s errors because he simply couldn’t not do it.
But Ustinov too was right – when the correctness of a doctrine is doubted even for a second, then its trustworthiness can no longer be fully reestablished. And it is also true that they both couldn’t be right.
In addition to officially acknowledged errors, which explained nothing and the further investigation of which led to absurdity, there could be found many unacknowledged errors. Everyone could understand that one was dealing with errors, but since the Party said that all was right, then all was right and no error existed. Even though the error was evident to the eye.
The most blindingly obvious such error was collectivization. Everyone could see the wretchedness of Russian rural life and the poor supplies of food in the towns but had to believe that abundance reigned in the Soviet Union and that the establishment of kolkhozes had been the right move.
The way in which the destruction of the peasants was described to Soviet students was again doubly absurd. Namely, the doctrine stated that at the end of the 1920’s, “kulaks”, meaning rich and effective peasants, as a class, were liquidated To liquidate kulaks as a class meant taking farmland from them. A farmer who has no farm is no longer a farmer and can “exploit” no one. But something completely different was done in the Soviet Union. The kulaks were deprived not of their lands but their lives.By the hundreds of thousands, they were sent to prison camps to die. They weren’t liquidated as a class, but they were liquidated physically.
This truth the Soviet history textbooks did acknowledge. Stalin’s excesses, deportations, prison camps – all this was known. But in spite of all this, one had to believe and state during history examinations that the kulaks were liquidated as a class.
The centrally planned economy as a whole, which brought with it chronic deficits, is certainly another of the unacknowledged errors. However, a Soviet person had to believe that abundance reigned and that the Soviet Union would immediately and in every way surpass the USA.
- Army absurdity and railway absurdity
These two types of absurdity are in part specifically Soviet, but the tendency of the army and railway to absurdity is no doubt observable world-wide. Why? Clearly because in these domains the greatest common sense is blended with the greatest lack of common sense.
Every army in the world teaches both: blind obedience and the ability to make decisions individually. Thus in the army two completely different, elemental forces unavoidably collide, the impact of which must give birth to absurdity. Exactly the same applies to the railway where a precise schedule and such unplanned events like weather in the form, say, of a snowstorm come into conflict.
Yet in all the different parts of the world this conflict of order and elemental forces manifests itself somewhat differently and bears different fruit. If for example, in America the railway and postal system are generally reliable and for ever functional then in the Soviet Union it was said: Where the railway starts, there ends reason. (But I’m not really sure – lately the Americans are saying something similar about their railway.)
The army too is somewhat unique in each corner of the world. In some places, more emphasis is put on using one’s own head, in others robot-like obedience. In some places the weather effects railroad movements very seldom; in other places it seldom doesn’t effect. That is why it is completely justified to speak of Soviet style army absurdity and Soviet style railroad absurdity.
First, about the army. The Soviet army (until 1946 the Red Army) was created by Lev Trotsky and initially attempts were made for it to be of a new style. Officers were killed or they fled, rankings were abolished, and attempts were made to lead units in cooperation with the rank and file. In addition, a new army institution emerged – the political commissar, or politruk.
Generally, all these amateurish changes soon breathed their last. It is not possible to lead a military unit as a collective: even rankings and the idea of officer returned. Only now it had to be a “Soviet officer”. The main thing that distinguished the Soviet army from others was the institution of the politruk. The Party didn’t relinquish its “eye” even when Second World War experiences clearly showed that the politruk’s constant poking of his nose into a commander’s business and threatening him with Siberia only interfered with the conduct of war.
The politruk’s assignment was to ensure that rebellious thoughts wouldn’t develop among the soldiers; but also to guard that a soldierly, in the good sense – rational, concrete, and filled with a specific soldierly cynicism – turn of mind wouldn’t occur. This danger was manifested for example by the end of the Second World War, when there had developed a capable, competent, and sensible cadre of officers in the Soviet army. These officers easily found a common language with American and British colleagues, often also with German officers. Just as all German officers weren’t Nazis, so too all Soviet officers weren’t Communists.
Marshal Zhukov, well-versed in strategic planning, once dared to … throw Stalin out of a war room meeting. Someone called lieutenant Solzhenitsyn, in a letter to a friend, dared to raise completely inappropriate questions about what is right and what is not. Such indications of danger were numerous and because of that the Party could not in any way abandon its guiding and directing role in the army. The tendency towards the Soviet army becoming too rational had to be countered by maintaining absurdity, slavishness and fear; otherwise, things could have ended with an army coup in the name of democracy. When a society is based on absurdity, then its army cannot be based on reason.
The closer the Soviet Union came to collapse, the more absurd the army became. Externally, it strengthened and achieved unprecedented power. Internally, it was rotten. Bullying of servicemen by officers was rampant, as was pokazukha (pulling the wool over superiors’ eyes) , innumerable wasting of resources and dedovshtshina- the terrorizing, humiliating and torturing of young soldiers by older ones. A large number of officers were, in the Western sense, alcoholics.
The extent to which bullying of soldiers by officers could go is illustrated by the following event.
A young maple grew in the barracks yard and in the fall recruits had to rake up the leaves every morning from under the tree. Someone came up with the idea to shake the tree to get more leaves to rake and keep the yard clean longer. The officer who saw this blew up and ordered that all the shaken down leaves be glued back onto the branches.
Or another example. Two young soldiers were taken to a firing ground on a Central Asian steppe where a white plywood target stood.
“Paint it brown. Have it done by noon.” Announced the officer getting into his car to drive away.
“Just so, Comrade lieutenant!” answered the soldiers. “ Where are the paint and brushes?”
“This isn’t kindergarten!‘ roared the officer. “I repeat: Get the target painted by noon.” He got into his car and disappeared onto the steppe.
The two recruits looked at each other helplessly. To not follow the order meant heavy punishment. Yet, how to paint without paint and brushes. Suddenly one soldier’s face cleared because he noticed a cow in the distance.
“Where there’s a cow, there’s manure,’ he informed his friend.
The target was indeed painted with the manure, using grass as brushes. The officer, arriving for lunch, was very pleased with the result. How the boys had achieved the result, he didn’t ask. He did ask why the target was covered in a thick cloud of flies. To that the young soldiers only shrugged their shoulders.
Perhaps the officer intended not to bully the recruits, but to teach them the creativity necessary in war. And perhaps there was a grain of truth there. But the cancerously growing pokazukha didn’t strengthen the army in any way. A classic example of pokazukha was the painting green of grass before the arrival of higher superiors. Still, this is an innocent example which didn’t directly weaken the army.
Very different were the cases where army equipment, buildings and supplies looked perfectly fine on paper but were completely non-useable. Here Soviet absurdlity destroyed its own army.
A typical example. It was required of a tank commander that his tool set contain certain known tools for minor repairs. But these tools disappeared continually because the soldiers stole them and then sold them at the market. Then the commander came up with a good solution: he filled his tool set with ineffective tools. Tools whose defects would at first glance not be noticeable. As a result the thieves left his tools alone and it was possible to report to his superiors at any moment that all tools were present. That these tools in essence did not exist didn’t matter to the commander. Illusion was demanded of him and that he provided. It is important to note that this kind of behaviour wasn’t only at the tank commander level but reached the army commander level. And included all levels in between.
A notable category of pokazukha was the ignoring of facts. So for many years the whole Soviet officer corps pretended to have no knowledge of even quite brutal forms of sadistic bullying of young soldiers or dedovshtshina. Or even participated. However, on paper everything was in the best of shape: relationships between soldiers were great, comradely; so too were relationships between soldiers and officers. Only during Gorbachov’s era did mouths open and appalling tales emerge of torture, rape, pushing to suicide and so on. Even then, the army tried to organize repression of the journalists who were telling the truth.
One of the Soviet army’s most characteristic qualities was unbridled wastefulness.
During the Second World War the slogan “Everything for the sake of the front” was everywhere and at that time it was sensible – all countries involved in the battle sent their best items, both boots, bread as well as equipment, to the front. But in the Soviet Union this practice continued during deepest peacetime. Cement was in deficit, but the army could waste it by the thousands of tons. The Soviet electronics industry was at a low level. Televisions, radios and record players were of poor quality – yet the army had enough resources and people to build high-technology weapons. The Soviet Union couldn’t guarantee fresh butter for its citizens, but built the atomic bomb and maintained an enormous nuclear army.
All these circumstances do not automatically mean wasting; they are merely privileges. But constantly being in a privileged position affected army commanders’ psyches – they forgot that resources are finite and used them more and more carelessly. For example, it could happen in a strategically important air force unit that the alloted fuel limits couldn’t be used up. The alloted limit was either too high or the unit couldn’t be bothered to carry out the prescribed number of flights. But the fuel surplus had to be hidden. So the airplanes filled their tanks with fuel, rose to the height of a few kilometres – and dumped the fuel from the tanks. Leaving only enough to land with. Unnoticed, a very fine drizzle of petrol fell over the land. This happened in a state where, as mentioned, there wasn’t enough butter.
With its tanks and bombs the army churned up thousands of hectares of land. By dumping gasoline and petrol it polluted water sources; it relentlessly clear-cut wooded areas, destroyed archeological sites through digging trenches during training exercises, and caught massive amounts of spawning game fish in the rivers of the Far East. And so on. Such activities were the fruits of the Soviet Union’s essential absurdity and at the same time absurdity’s regenerators.
Many love railroads. There is something comforting about the railroad; it calls to mind times when the modern era was still young. But the Soviet railroad had much repulsive about it.
First of all, the Soviet railroad was associated primarily not with travel and romance but with empire, power and conquest. More than anywhere else, the railroad in the Soviet Union was a weapon. This was so already from traditional times, the Russia of the Tsars. The railroad was of incalculable worth in maintaining dominance over the lands of Great Siberia and Central Asia.
One of the most vivid episodes in the Soviet Union’s war related history originates in the Russian civil war. In 1918 a Czech-Slovak corps began a revolt against the Bolsheviks. This corps was made up of Czechs and Slovaks who fought for the Austrian army in the First World War and had fallen captive to Russian forces or had given themselves up, not wishing to fight their “Russian brothers”. These soldiers were formed into a 40.000 man corps who at war’s end were to be evacuated to France by way of the Far East. But the Czech-Slovaks came into conflict with the Bolsheviks and began a rebellion. The Czech-Slovaks occupied the enormously long Far-East railroad from the Ural mountains to the Pacific Ocean and, by controlling that, essentially ruled all of gigantic Siberia. Recapturing the railroad was enormously complicated. Because a railway is, in strategic terms, like a narrow corridor which one man can defend against a whole army.
Such bitter experiences were well remembered by Soviet powers and even into the 1980’s they treated the railroad with a First World War mentality as a secret strategic object to which ordinary people were permitted access only reluctantly. In 1976 I had occasion to cross a railroad bridge which was in former Finnish territory that the Soviet Union had conquered during the Second World War and annexed to the Leningrad region. An armed soldier was constantly on guard; it was permissible to cross the bridge on foot, but not to stop. Whether this requirement was to prevent the placing of a bomb between the ties, or photographing, or some third thing remained a secret to me. Of course this reminded me of Hasek’s Svejk who was felt to be a spy and plied with questions. Is the railway station difficult to photograph? To which Svejk in his affected simple-mindedness replied: No it isn’t, because the railway station doesn’t move.
Like the army, the railroad too was a state within a state. It was its own world, stretching from Vladivostok to the Czechoslovak border: one time zone was in force (Moscow time), one language (Russian), and one mentality (railroad mentality). The railroad mentality meant firmly believing that the most important and civilized thing in this world is the railroad; all that lies outside (localities, towns, villages, people, nature) is but barbarity. The mission of the railroad is to bring to this darkness and barbarity order, one time zone and culture.
In short: the Soviet railroad, born out of the Russian railroad, did not by definition already have to pay much attention to travellers. The railroad didn’t serve the people, the people served the railroad.
The results were analogous to those observed in and around the army. In collaboration with the Soviet Union’s dominating absurdity, the railroad’s privileged status started to produce new absurdity. For example, I have spent a whole day and night in Moscow’s Kazansky station waiting for a train delayed by a snow storm. Most of those long hours were spent sitting on my backpack leaning back against a gigantic poster of a train travelling through the darkness in a whirling snow storm, and these words: Use the Soviet railroad’s services! On time in any weather!
That such a poster was complete nonsense didn’t seem to occur to anyone. And perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed it either if I hadn’t had to sit bored for hours and hours under it.
A snow storm that interferes with the movement of a train is of course an understandable thing. But typical of the railroad was that no one could be bothered to prognosticate such tardiness. People could have been told that today’s train is off the schedule; departure has been moved forward a day.
I could have gone into the city for a walk. Instead, I had to crouch in the station, constantly in readiness to board a train that wasn’t there.
Similar indifference or lack of empathy for the traveller continued on the train. The passenger cars of the Soviet railroad were quite well constructed, having been built in the German Democratic Republic. If all that had been designed for the traveller, like ventilation knobs, had always functioned, then these would have been very fine railway cars. But Soviet absurdity interfered here. Windows could not be opened, the temperature in one’s compartment could not be regulated, the door between cars might be locked (even though it was supposed to be unlocked) and so on. Depending on the conductor’s taste, the car could be suffocatingly hot or kept frigid to save coal.
True, it could also happen that everything worked: knobs functioned, windows opened, the temperature was pleasant and the conductor was friendly and helpful. Of this, one of my experienced travel companions said:
In Russia all regresses to interpersonal relationships. This was especially easy to observe while travelling by train. For example, in the restaurant car I asked the waiter whether I could smoke there. He answered: We have banned smoking here. But by and large…go ahead and smoke. Obviously, I had somehow earned the waiter’s grace.
That phrase is a classic and is worth keeping in mind by everyone who even today travels in Russia. Things are generally as they appear to be. But sometimes they’re not. So you can never be sure. If you ask for a ticket from Taganrog to Orenburg and you are told that there are no tickets, then this can mean two things: 1) there are no tickets; 2) there still are tickets. Your task is to figure out a) are there really no tickets or there still are some, then b) what should be done to get one.
It can’t be kept a secret that travelling in Russia presents a certain intellectual challenge. Sometimes things can be solved simply – with the help of money. But not always. The Russian soul is much more interesting, the Russian soul needs understanding and correct treatment by means of proper communication. Are you capable of sweet talking the waiter into bringing you a bottle of cold beer even though there is no beer, not to speak of a cold one? Can you persuade the car conductor to open a window in a hot car, even though the windows allegedly don’t even open? Can you persuade the police officer who wants to put you in a prison cell to instead sell you a bottle of vodka? All the above is possible, though I wouldn’t recommend a Westerner trying this without previous training. As training it is best to accompany a traveller who knows Russia and the Russian soul.
However, we got slightly off track. Part of the Soviet railroad absurdity was the inseparably continual overcrowding. Like all else, so too were train tickets in deficit; in other words, there were more passengers generally than seats. Some had to stay back, others rode in overcrowded trains and alighted into railway stations stuffed full of people.
In addition to the previously discussed deficit hunters, there were thousands, perhaps millions of rootless people in motion on the Soviet railroads travelling from one side of the immense empire to the other, searching for a place that was better. The long distances, the many days spent sleeping in railway stations, and the week-long journeys once one got on a train, didn’t cause dismay. Rather, the opposite. Compared to a provincial outskirt town’s hostel, the train was a clean, well-lit, warm and pleasant place and the tickets comparatively cheap.
No more people than the standards allowed were stuffed into the I and II class railway cars (I class had compartments with 2 or 4 seats as well as berths; II class or platzcarts were common cars with sleeping berths.). Therefore the question with them was whether you got a ticket or didn’t. If you did, then you could travel quite respectably. In the III class, or common car, it could happen that you had to travel long hours standing on one foot because there wasn’t room to put down the other. You can imagine the heat and smell in these cars wedged full of people.
Here is a nice little example of absurdity. I made a journey of about 200 kilometres in a common car. It was appallingly overcrowded and I went to investigate whether the neighbouring car wasn’t emptier. That car was completely empty – but closed. It turned out that the conductor, who had been assigned two common cars, had made his life simpler: locked one car and stuffed two cars’ worth of travellers into one so that when the train was nearing the final destination he could begin cleaning one car. Thus he could leave work earlier at the final destination. As was to be expected, when I asked why he didn’t allow the unhappy travellers into the other car, I got a juicy earful of swear words.
On the same principle – to make their lives easier to the detriment of the travellers – many conductors kept one of the two toilets locked. As a result of course, people had to stand in long lineups in front of the only toilet. The conductor, though, had to clean only one privy
The railroad’s rebuffing relationship with travellers manifested even in how the ticket booths looked very much like prison cell doors, looking from the inside out. A narrow window, which was opened and closed from the inside, was set into a thick stone wall. The person wishing to travel had to force one’s way to the window like a rat into a burrow; the ticket seller might at his discretion slam the window shut and leave the lineup waiting for an unknown length of time. He had nothing to fear behind his thick stone wall; even the sounds of the lineup didn’t reach him.
Many anecdotes have been associated with the railroad from Tsarist Russia times on. As an example, the founder of the first section of rail track, Tsar Nicholas I, , flew into a rage as he gazed down the tracks into the distance:
You’re trying to kill me! Look, those tracks run together there in the distance!
Or another tale. In Tsarist times, an attempt was made to build a railroad on the island of Saaremaa, Estonia (where it was not at all needed) and a large number of embankments were laid, but then the endeavour was suddenly abandoned. Apparently the reason could be found in an error: the railroad was to be built on the other side of the massive empire, on Sakhalin island, but some bureaucrat had confused east with west. The still evident rail beds were abandoned and work was started in the right place.
IV Absurdity born from the command economy
4.1 Absurdity in industry
At the time they were establishing Soviet power, the Bolshevik leaders themselves didn’t know exactly what kind of economy they planned to institute.The only thing they knew for sure was that “exploiters” had to be deprived of their businesses and that the workers themselves had to begin to manage them. Naturally, bringing these measures to life caused chaos. An enterprise would be lucky if a Baltic fleet sailor was sent to lead it in the name of the people because sailors at least knew how to read and write.
The failure of War Communism (total nationalization with centralized management during the civil war 1918-1921. ed.) led to the NEP, or New Economic Policy which could have returned Russia to a normal economic model, if the Bolshevik leaders hadn’t been such stubborn doctrinaires. Having eliminated direct threat of starvation, they started to again eliminate the mechanisms of market economy. Not a thing, including therefore all production, was allowed to happen spontaneously in the form of local decisions. All had to be planned in a higher place; only the carrying out of the commands remained local.
And so the deity called Plan appeared into the Soviet state economy. The Soviet economy was to begin developing according to plans put together for five years. The length of the Plan, five years, led to the name pjatiletka. The first Plan was proclaimed in 1928. It had as a main emphasis the establishing of a great number of heavy industries. This goal could in no way be called irrational.
The world watched the Bolsheviks’ exertions with interest. And in ironic fashion, the year 1929 saw the free market world’s greatest economic crisis. (The Great Depression. ed.) This gave the Bolsheviks a trump card whose influence lasted for many years: a planned economy does not have crises!
It took half a century before the West began to understand that the Soviet planned economy has no crises because the Soviet planned economy is one permanent crisis. This crisis started with the coming to power of the Bolsheviks and ended long after their fall.
Here we need to clarify some terminology. There is planned economy and there is command economy. Nowadays, even the most free market countries plan their economies and in this sense a planned economy is not a priori something that is in dissonance with sane thought and economic laws. A plan is needed so that not too much or too little is produced, but more or less enough. To influence entrepreneurs to this end, economic mechanisms (mainly tax policy) are used, not direct orders or prohibitions, That which was established in the Soviet Union was planned economy taken to the point of absurdity, an extreme form which is better named command economy.
Thus, at the end of the 1920’s a system was set in motion where the economy was more and more subordinated to commands from higher up. At first the commands had to do with establishing this or that factory by some deadline; later, however, the Communist Party tried to regulate almost everything: how many clodhoppers must be produced in the Soviet Union, for what price they must be sold in all Soviet Union stores, and who must buy them.
Compared to the Western world, Russia was an economically backward country and thus the first Five Year Plans were essentially lists of tasks that absolutely had to be completed within a certain timeframe. Similarly, a person plans out his day: today I absolutely must meet with Mr. X, rough out the text of a contract, drop by the bank and buy my son new sport shoes. If more gets accomplished or if the listed tasks are finished in half the time, that’s great.
This pathos also drove the Soviet Union’s Five Year Plans. The more and faster, the better. Catch up to the West, pass the West! The Plan was not for fulfilling, but for exceeding.
Western planning is different. For example, a plan states that in a certain region three schools need to be established and this means establishing exactly three, not two or four schools. In contrast, the Soviet planned economy means that if the population requires 100 million pairs of boots, realistic production capabilities are calculated in the Plan to be 30 million pairs and if 33 million pairs can be produced, that is great. The Plan has been exceeded, crows the propaganda – even if the real need has not been met, and deficits and poverty pervade. The easing of poverty is done on paper. For example, slippers are declared to be a special sort of boot and thus 20 million extra pairs of boots are “achieved”. Or even safer – refrain from absolute numbers completely and talk of percents. These were always magnificent – for example announcing that 20% more of everything had been produced than in the last Five Year Plan and three times more than in 1913. Soviet propaganda never tired of comparing production indices to 1913 – even in the 1980’s! One might ask, why not compare to the last pre-Bolshevik year (1916)? The reason was simple: the World War considerably invigorated Russian industry; therefore, it wasn’t useful to compare oneself to the war years of 1914, 1915 or 1916. It was much more advantageous to compare to 1913, when manufacturing capacities were significantly lower.
Such extensive “miracles” were produced with statistics that a saying spread: there are three kinds of lies – unintentional lies, intentional lies, and statistical lies. This saying is not at all exaggerated. For example, a ministry would review some statistical report (made up of numbers and the conclusions drawn from those) and every year simply replace those numbers with new ones, leaving the conclusions the same. The result was an absurd text in which the story in no way fit the numbers on which basis the story apparently had been written. But this absurdity didn’t irrtiate anyone, at least for ten years.
As a result therefore, no one really read these reports. Economist Uno Mereste has written:
“How much useless work was done in those years on economics, that is to say the managing of plans, the formulating of plans and the controlling of plans’ fulfillment, is probably impossible to quantify. I have heard estimates that about 75 – 80% of all work done in central institutions was meaningless, even though it appeared frantically important and unavoidable. I lean to the belief that the above percent is plainly still too low. It would be good if about 10% of the work done in administrative institutions was really necessary. This means that 90% of work was meaningless.” **
The production of meaningless papers didn’t bother Soviet leaders, instead they hammered at an obsession: the Plan must be exceeded. Already during the first Plan, the Party put into operation the slogan; Five Year Plan in Four Years! Propaganda transformed work into battle, going to work was like going to the front and newspapers wrote of more and more “work victories”. To ensure that battle would continue to appear as battle, groups of “saboteurs” who had apparently crept in to the Soviet work sphere, disabled machinery, blown up factories and poisoned workers’ drinking water, were regularly discovered and rendered harmless. To keep up working people’s enthusiasm, socialistic competition was set in motion throughout the empire. Everyone competed with everyone and always won.
Such methods are not unknown in a market economy. They are employed during difficult times – during wartime, natural catastrophes, and other extraordinary times. Then the Western person also battles and achieves. But the Soviet leadership tried to maintain a permanent extraordinary situation, where the intoxication of battle and competition reigned along with hatred for the enemy. A situation similar to constant drunkenness.
The constant demand to produce (build, dig, melt, weld, etc.) more and faster of course influenced the quality of work catastrophically. Nobody cared about that. The wall could be crooked; the main thing was that it stand until it was entered into the report. Or the stepped up work pace brought along other nonsense. For example I remember from my youth the rare occasion when production met needs and exceeding the Plan became meaningless. Namely, there worked in my hometown armament factory a front-rank ironworker who made certain springs and was in their preparation already so far ahead of the Plan that in 1970 he was meeting the 1980 Plan. There was nothing to undertake with the finished springs, but the man was invariably praised as front-rank.
Luckily, the produced springs didn’t directly harm anything or anyone, but unfortunately the same can’t be said for the following incident, which could best be called nightmarish. This has to do with Soviet ocean fishing vessels. For some reason the meeting of Plan quotas for these fishing ships was set up in such a way that catch indicators were calculated not by the amount of fish transferred to dockside or to special transport ship but by the tonnes pulled out of the water. This was typical Soviet absurdity, one of thousands of specific cases of pokazukha, founded on the principle that most important is not the result, but the nice number in the report. This absurdity transformed into direct criminality because its impact was as follows: when the fishing ship’s holds were full of caught fish, but for some reason the transfer of the catch was delayed, the captain allowed more and more new catch to be netted. These nets, ballooning with silver, were lifted from the water, the catch weighed and entered into the reports, and then they were emptied back into the water. Only… the fish were now dead, smothered by their own weight. Essentially, Soviet fishing ships travelled the oceans and killed fish.
Economic absurdity’s motor, or main producer, can be deemed to be price mechanism. In the Soviet Union prices were set not on the basis of market demand and supply but established by order of the organization formed for that purpose. The destructive significance of this situation is perhaps underestimated. Even in the West there could be found people who while visiting the Soviet Union remarked appreciatively that a Soviet person receives bread and some other commodities like movie tickets at an unbelievably cheap price. And medical care is downright free. Left-wing philosophers loved to point these things out. Though even supporters of the command economy agreed that general abundance cannot be enacted by Party Congress resolutions, they also argued that the command economy allows especially necessary things to be made cheaper and less necessary things more expensive and thus greater social equality than in the West can be achieved.
In actuality, decreed prices along with decreed wages were the main reason why general wretchedness, as opposed to social equality, existed, and why the Soviet Union finally collapsed totally. More exactly: decreed prices were the main reason for the unbelievable ineffectiveness of the Soviet economy and why the state was able to stay afloat thanks only to natural resources, foremost the sale of oil. That this finally brought about the collapse of an empire that enslaved so many nations, was good. But that it destroyed many generations of hundreds of millions of people’s normal understanding of work and of the relationship between a person and the state was an off the scale crime. The consequences of this crime reverberate to a greater or lesser degree in all of today’s Central and Eastern Europe.
There is something childish about prices set from up high. Bread is too expensive? No problem, we’ll set a lower price. Everything now appears in order.
Unfortunately, it is not in order, because now a fatal chain reaction is set in motion. If bread, then why not footwear, clothing or apartment? Medical services, movie tickets, and transit? Yes, of course, because the working people need these things. And favourable prices only keep on being set.
One could ask – why not? Let the artificially low price remain; there are other things which can be given an artificially higher price to compensate. Unfortunately this hope is an illusion. The more goods and services there are on the market with prices set by a price committee, the harder it is to determine what is the real price of other goods and services. Decreed prices throw all accounting into turmoil and it is no longer possible for us to determine the actual price of, say, a shirt. The worker who produced the shirt eats bread at an artificially lowered price and earns a wage set from higher up. His medical care is free, but he is not allowed to travel abroad. The cotton grower, whose labour produces the cloth, is in the same situation. So, those previously made administrative decisions shaped the shirt’s price; the shirt’s price, however, begins in turn to influence the price of other products. In the end, all prices of goods, services and raw materials are tied to the Party’s wishes and not one market mechanism remains in operation.
All attempts to clarify one or another enterprise’s productivity under decreed price circumstances fell through. When attempts were made to measure productivity on the basis of the price of raw material, enterprises began to use as expensive as possible raw materials. To speak figuratively, they started to use gold to make toilets and thus achieved unprecedented productivity. Theoretically of course. When attempts were made to use fulfilment of Plan goals as a basis, the enterprise concentrated on the volume of products (on pieces, metres), letting quality drop below all standards. When attempts were made to measure productivity by the weight of products, the factory started to use the heaviest raw material; if by kilometer-hours, then raw material was brought in from the very farthest reaches of the Soviet Union, and so on.
There was no wholesale market. The director of the shirt factory couldn’t go to the director of the cloth factory and say: according to the Plan we need to produce a thousand shirts, sell us two thousand meters of cloth. Instead, the cloth producer had to hand over all his product to the disposal of the state, from where it began to be distributed downward. Downward moving, like to a Soviet Republic or to some town, designated quantities were called funds. For example a question might be: How large is our republic’s fund of woolen cloth?
In order to obtain something from such a fund, such as cement or cotton thread, an enterprise had to apply for a quota. When a fund and quota were at hand, then after thorough paperwork a certain quantity of cement or cotton thread was assigned to the enterprise. A thousand little old ladies filled millions of forms which identified who applies for how much and to who how much is assigned. Not sold, but assigned.
That wasn’t enough. Not only the output but also an enterprise’s (factory, state farm (sovkhoz)) profits were gathered into the funds. And so a factory produced certain things and received for them some estimated profit measured in rubles, but the profit also, in addition to the product, was put into the state fund. Profits could not be taken directly from collective farms (kolkhozes), because in the Soviet Union the illusion was maintained that kolkhozes were not state property but cooperative production units whose means of production and profit were owned by the members of the cooperative farm. But a kolkhoz’s rights to use its own money could be restricted.
In the 1960’s, one of the Soviet Union’s leaders, Aleksei Kosygin, tried to implement a new system of calculating factory and mill profits, where a factory’s work result would be judged not by the amount of produced goods (adding up the prices of the produced goods which, however, were decreed on the basis of some foggy indicators, not shaped by the market) but realistically by goods sold to a buyer. Exactly as any average sane person would suggest.
Until this attempt the following absurdity had been in force: it was of interest to the enterprise that its product’s cost price and consequently its selling price be potentially high and so quality was not at all important. Kosygin’s reform was an attempt to set up a system where such nonsense would disappear and the buyer could also have a say, leaving too expensive and/or very low quality goods unbought.
But since it contained a grain of actual rationality, then this reform simply could not be implemented in an economic milieu founded on absurdity.
Let’s read an economist’s memoir:
“Yet, after a while Kosygin’s reform faded and it was not spoken of much; rumours spread that the new boss – Brezhnev – had from the start been mistrustful of it. Brezhnev’s way of thinking held that economic methods to build socialism should not deviate very much from those which had been proven suitable in the realization of Stalin’s industrialization program. The raising of the importance of profit as a base in the assessment of enterprizes was said to be something which strongly smacked of capitalistic tendencies.” **
And so in the given situation the leadership of the Soviet Union didn’t just hide true information from the people, but also refused to see true information itself, preferring to lead the colossal state like a hedgehog in the fog (to cite the title of a very popular children’s film).
For a long time there was no problem with kolkhozes’ profits, because there was no profit. Because of absurdly low state purchasing prices, kolkhozes were utterly poor and, instead of profit, wrestled with continual debts – for tractors, for fertilizer, for fuel. But in the 1970’s some kolkhozes cropped up which began to accumulate money. And when the state couldn’t directly steal that money, it at least prohibited the free use of that money. A kolkhoz could have millions of rubles and some factory could have products (machines, building material, etc.) which the kolkhoz needed, but the kolkhoz chairman couldn’t go and buy. The product had to go to the fund, the kolkhoz chairman had to apply for a quota and go through all that same bureaucratic nonsense as a state owned factory or other establishment’s manager.
For example, the seniors’ residence needed tarred roofing felt to renovate the steadily deteriorating roofs of the sheds. To procure the tarpaper, certain bureaucrats had to be approached and given a few boxes of chocolates and a few bottles of cognac, and then begged to give a quota of, say, 20 rolls of tarpaper a month. Having received a resolution to the application, one had to go to the who knows how far away warehouse and bring back the tarpaper – if the warehouse still had tarpaper – transferring as well a certain amount of money, based on the decreed price.
It’s obvious that money was a more virtual than actual measurement of value. Obtaining tarpaper didn’t depend on money but rather on the ability to bargain for a quota. And of course on whether the fund even had tarpaper. It could easily happen that there wasn’t any. Not for any money. In a case like this, one travelled to Moscow. Again with boxes of candy and bottles of cognac. Sometimes one succeeded; sometimes not. So it goes.
It’s not hard to see that the fund economy was accompanied by the inevitable enormous wasting of resources. Because if money wasn’t essential but the quota was, then one had to in all cases take possession of one’s tarpaper, cast-iron pipes, oil, fertilizer, or any other goods, no matter if the goods were really needed or not. This, however, meant that much material and things, which were in great demand, sat unused in thousands of Soviet warehouses. The situation would have been eased if enterprizes were allowed to freely exchange their reserve stocks, but this was of course forbidden. Only the state and the state fund could be distributers. Many managers and kolkhoz chairmen quietly bypassed these laws.They became either Heros of Socialist Labour or were imprisoned. Many times first one, then the other.
When an institution like a school wished to build some additional classrooms, then it went like this. First, a design quota was applied for, because design was a resource in its own way which was also distributed by quota. That design quota was either in the Five year Plan for a particular town’s schools or not. If not, one could try to talk someone into it. But let’s say the school got the quota. But it could also happen that a quota for a garage or boiler-house was given instead. In that case, the design for a garage or boiler-house was officially begun, which in actuality was the needed wing of classrooms.
Then, over a year or two the design work was done. When it was finished, it might become clear that since building materials had become more expensive in the meantime, then the addition’s square meter cost would exceed… again, the corresponding quota. Therefore one had to bargain for an addition to the quota. Let’s say that it was permitted to spend 10 rubles per square meter, but calculations showed the addition would cost 11.2 rubles. And again let’s assume that the headmaster managed to talk the corresponding bureaucrat into the corresponding permit.
Now it was almost as if the building could start. Depending on the size of the addition, either the school itself or a special construction organization carried out the job. Usually the latter. But for this, it was first of all necessary that the addition be included in the construction organization’s Plan. It might need to be fitted into the next Five Year Plan. Let’s say that happened, and building was begun in the next pyatiletka. Even though the construction company carried out the work, the building period became a many year long torture rack for the headmaster, because he had to constantly monitor that the builders met quality standards to at least some degree. Construction delays were frequent. Sometimes they were waiting for cement, sometimes for some kinds of pipes, then there was no crane. The building which was to be completed by August 31, was completed by November 15, for example. It was a relief if it was in the same year, not some other year’s November 15.
In terms of the result, then in this regard I am reminded of a headmaster’s comment about his school building and its addition. The school building was from pre-Soviet times; the addition was from the Soviet era. The director noted: “The old school house stays warm in the winter and cool in the summer; the new building is opposite – cold in the winter and warm in the summer.”
Soviet era industry leaders can relate thousands of comical stories about how they obtained for their establishment some quota or item like a bus or car. I’ll cite only one example from Kaljo Ajaküla’s memoir.
The famous Kirov fishing kolkhoz near Tallinn had negotiated a quota to buy a small bus. The hope was to obtain the bus directly from the factory, which was located in Central Russia. The enterprize’s most clever man was dispatched from Tallinn. Unfortunately the factory was surrounded by a swarm of similar procurers, to who a factory bureaucrat every morning announced how many busses would be distributed that day. There were considerably less busses than all the supplicants equipped with forms; thus, the opportunity to obtain one was minimal.
The man from Tallinn solved his problem with ingenuity. At night, he went to the anteroom of the factory bureaucrat’s office, which at his request the cleaner had left unlocked. The next morning, when the other bus supplicants arrived, he opened the door slightly and loudly shouted: “No busses will be distributed today,” and slammed the door shut.
Used to such treatment, the supplicants dispersed, planning to return the next morning to try their luck again. When the bureaucrat arrived at work that morning, he was amazed to find only one man, the one from Tallinn, who had come to get a bus. The man’s request was satisfied.
It probably isn’t necessary to emphasize that such an economy was unbelievably ineffective. Economists have noted that the fact the Soviet Union’s resources, including people’s mental lives, for so long survived such an economy can be called the 20 century’s biggest wonder. The Soviet Union lasted mainly due to the support of oil sales and when the price of oil fell on world markets, mainly due to Ronald Reagan’s efforts, then this dealt a death blow to the Soviet Union.
However, before this, tens of years passed of wasting, wasting, wasting. Time, labour, talents, nerves, raw materials, and ideas were all wasted.
How the nationalization of a public sauna in Estonia in 1940 proceeded and what became clear during the process was later related by the sauna nationalizer, an ardent Communist.
“Before, the boss ran the sauna along with his wife and daughter. In addition to them, three or four, at the most five people were on the job. Together maybe eight people; in any case, not many more.
During the takeover of the sauna, the nationalization committee members were given instructions listing how many workers there must be in a sauna of that size in the Soviet Union. It became apparent that, according to Soviet standards, 35-45 people had to work in the sauna, meaning 5 times more than previously. I was pleasantly surprised by that, thinking that this meant work for a whole multitude of the unemployed.” **
Tens of years later he viewed the situation with a different attitude. A chronic labour shortage dominated, and as a result labour quality declined catastrophically. Bluntly, this meant that lazy-bones and drunks were kept at work, since better workmen were not be found. As well, naturally industrious people got used to not over-exerting themselves while working for the state. It was said that during the Soviet era one didn’t work, but went to work. Another comment, which I’ve referred to above: we pretend that we work, the state pretends to pay us a wage.
In addition to waste caused by utopian ideology and the fund economy, there was also other waste caused by the planned economy. For example, in the 1960’s and 1970’s it was common that men with power air hammers would show up on a freshly paved street, break up the asphalt, dig a hole and lay some pipe. Later, the dug up spot would be repaved, but sloppily. The normal street pavement had been ruined and it disintegrated in a few years. The person who had waited impatiently for his dusty gravel road to be paved had to watch this indignantly, unable to do anything.
Why were things done this way? The reason was simple: one organization paved, another laid pipes. Both had a plan to fulfill and neither was interested in anything else, even less any economic expediency. Whereas in every other country the hole would have been dug first, pipes laid, the hole filled in, and at the very end the road paved, then things went the opposite way for us: the pipe laying enterprize waited until the asphalt was laid, and then started to dig the hole, because it was easier to fulfill the plan by digging up a paved road. I heard of an unique record: the asphalt breakers arrived the next day after the pavers had left.
Put yourself in a parent’s shoes, whose child asks why things are done like that. You don’t want to lie to the child, but telling the truth could result in various repercussions. How would you answer?
To end this short overview of absurdity in industry let’s note one more important circumstance.
The basic idea of a planned economy is the wish to develop the economy harmoniously – achieve an optimal production level and structure on the basis of scientific prognoses, not on the outcomes of market regulation. Or more simply stated: in a free market economy the optimal number of boot factories develops based on need. As long as there is need, more are built; when there are too many, some go bankrupt. In a planned economy the correct number of boot factories are built right away.
Such a goal is undoubtedly noble, but even if we believe in its possibilty (I, for example, do not) we need to admit that to plan an economy very precise information about existing production capacities, market demand, the movement of people, the structure of their needs, and thousands more things, is necessary. Planners need to have as precise an overview of their land’s and its individual regions’ economies as possible.
Yet in the Soviet Union not one person had this overview at any time. Partly at least, this was impossible, because in the era before the Information Technology revolution the movement of information even in the most organized of circumstances was, compared to today, extremely slow and the obtaining of an overview of macroeconomic processes difficult. But the Soviet regime itself created plenty of additional confusion.
The source of this confusion – in addition to the stupidity of its leaders – was the size and structure of the Soviet Union. Namely, the empire was divided into Soviet Republics, which each had its capitol, administration and ministries. At the same time, The Soviet Union was an unitary state, where even a recipe for fish canned on the Pacific coast had to be approved in Moscow. As a result, it was like two economies existed – “republican” and “federal”. “Repubican” included factories, stores, and so on subordinate to the republic’s administration; “federal” was made up of factories, quarries, electric power stations and so on subordinate directly to Moscow.
In a Union Republic’s capitol, like Tallinn or Riga, no one had a precise overview of what and how much was produced by factories subordinate to federal administration but located in Estonia or Latvia. They simply “were”, received their raw material from somewhere in Russia and hauled their products to somewhere in Russia, polluted the local air and ground water, and built houses and even whole towns for their workers.
More than that, in Moscow too there was no especially precise overview of what or how much in summary that immense all-Union federal economy produced. Because the economy was subjected to an unbelievable number of different ministries which were somewhat independent and which pursued their own interests, not State economic harmony. The ferrous metallurgy ministry arranged production of ferrous metals, the non-ferrous metallurgy ministry arranged for production of non-ferrous metals, oil ministry of oil production, and so on. Struggles for existence occurred between ministries, not over market share, but over resources distributed by the state.
As an example, imagine the following situation: the ministry for production of mineral fertilizer is battling tooth and nail to open some phosphorus mines. A decision to establish these mines would open mighty money taps; unprecedented resources and money torrents would begin to flow through the hands of the ministry’s leadership. This would enlarge the ministry leadership’s power and prosperity, bring fame and honour, open new career possibilities. Even a pay raise for officials could be requested, the minister could hope for promotion either in administrative areas or in the Party. Of no importance whatsoever is whether the mine is even needed, or how it would effect the local environment and society.
Following the same logic, numerous hydro-electric power dams were constructed in the Soviet Union. Enormous resources were wasted on them and tens of thousands of square kilometers of fertile land and hundreds of settlements disappeared under the reservoirs, without economic benefits to speak of. But the hydro energy ministry bloomed, and it amassed enormous power for a while.
On the eve of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the much-praised planned economy had arrived at a point where no further sensible planning was occuring, at least not on the level of the Soviet Union as a whole. Shortages were everywhere, therefore any kind of factory could be established and any kind of product be produced. No benefit ensued anyway. When people asked their leaders when finally the long-time badly needed bridge or highway or refrigerated warehouse would be built, then this typical answer rang out:
It is not in the present Five Year Plan. Will it fit into the next Five Year Plan? I don’t know. But it will definitely be in the one after that.
This is how the Planned economy appeared to a simple citizen: work, praise the Party, and die. If not during the next, then in the pyatiletka after that.
4.2 Kolkhoz absurdity
The kolkhoz system was always absurd, right from its founding idea based on the opinion that collective domestic management is first of all possible and secondly more effective than the traditional farm system.
Actually, a mixed version of collective and individual management had existed in Russia for hundreds of years. To be sure, there were individual farms, but these formed a village based communal society whose members used certain lands in common and did much work jointly. That society supported its poorer members but didn’t permit anyone to get too rich. This was patriarchic village life, just as it had evolved in the distant past.
Marx and Engels were of the opinion that it was possible to go straight from a Russian village society to socialistic collective cultivation of land without going through an era of capitalistic individual farming. But before the Bolsheviks came to power, the old Russian village society was rent asunder because it had fallen heavily behind the times. This happened at the end of the Tsarist era, at the start of the twentieth century, with prime minister Stolypin’s reforms. The Russian village was placed on the road to slow reformation. In place of the united communal society, there were now independent farms. A layer of richer farmers began to form, who were later christened kulaks; the other part – generally the lazier and the stupider –became increasingly poor. This was a painful road; with the old patriarchic community disappearing, tensions arose between rich and poor in the villages.
In such a situation, the rural folks living through this stressful transition should have been treated with ultimate delicacy and the ongoing processes not disturbed, because these processes were revolutionary without any Bolshevik influence. As a result a Western type of owner would have emerged in the land – the independent peasant who “The Communist Party Manifesto” already had declared a priori reactionary and his lifestyle idiotic. Such a peasant would have fed Russia and half of Europe to be sure, but also nourished the almighty petit bourgeois and the mentality of ownership. The Russian village, which at the start of the twentieth century had still produced collectivism, would have started to produce individualism.
Even in the higher leadership of the Bolsheviks could be found individuals who believed that a revolution should serve the people, not the opposite. They (especially Bukharin) recommended leaving the rural people alone. Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin, however, understood that if the rural people were told “Enrich yourselves!” as recommended by Bukharin, this would mean deviating from the orthodox Marxism which they were bringing to life with fanatical singlemindedness and hatred.
In 1929 the Bolsheviks attacked the rural people with full strength. All the more prosperous and stronger farm-keepers (there were hundreds of thousands), along with their families, were sent to Siberia, their houses and wealth were plundered and given over to the control of the newly established kolkhozes. Going to a kolkhoz meant giving up one’s horses, cows, sheep and even chickens and geese. Farm implements and land were handed over as well. All of it went over to the kolkhoz’s control and was held “in common”. In thousands of places throughout Russia, peasants asked kolkhoz founders, either in jest or hopefully, whether wives too were being collectivized.
Peasants being forced into kolkhozes killed their animals at the last moment, left their lands untended, the hay uncut. Peasant resistance broke out in tens of locations, but these were all bloodily suppressed. Inexperienced individuals, often factory labourers sent from Moscow or Leningrad, were made leaders of the kolkhozes because the doctrine said: the proletariat is the governing and leading class. If they failed, it was the fault of the kolkhoz workers, the former peasants, not in any way of the Communist doctrinaires.
Naturally, this senseless reform brought about famine. After this, some concessions had to be made. For example, kolkhozniks were at least allowed to keep some personal chickens. Still later, limited numbers of goats and cows returned to the kolkhozniks’ cattle-sheds. Not horses, however, since they were deemed strategic resources and their ownership forbidden to an ordinary person. The kolkhoznik was also allowed to have a small kitchen garden. So-called machine-tractor stations were established, from which kolkhozes could, for a fairly hefty price, rent tractors. Depending on whether any were in working order. Later, after the Second World War, these machine-tractor stations were liquidated and kolkhozes were allowed to own their own tractors.
In addition to kolkhozes, many sovkhozes (sovetskoye hoziaistvo – soviet enterprise) or state estates were established. Their mode of life and work arrangements were not significantly different from those in the kolkhozes.
If the Soviet Union is examined in totality, it can be said that rural life never got its legs under it after collectivization. Party leaders who had the responsibility to look after agriculture either in some Union Republic or in the Soviet Union as a whole (like Mikhail Gorbachev before he became leader) were regarded with pity by other nomenklatura. Everyone knew that Soviet agriculture was hopeless. Oil dollars kept it barely alive and in some districts of the Soviet Union (like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) it slowly advanced, but facts remain facts: Russia, which during the Tsarist era had been one fo the world’s largest grain exporters, now had to constantly haul in grain from Australia, Canada, and the USA.
This truth was jealously guarded from the people, and when stories about the hauling in of grains did spread, then it was announced untruthfully that it was a one time purchase, caused by bad weather. The raising of grain wholesale prices would have eased the situation for rural people, but this couldn’t be done – the raising of bread and other food stuffs’ prices would have hit city dwellers, teetering on the edge of poverty, hard.
Tyrannical force wasn’t sufficient to keep grain and other agricultural products’ prices criminally low; statistics also had to be falsified. The following “statistical lie” was forced on economists and statisticians, namely a thesis proclaimed true by the Party, that agricultural products do not have independent price (as a sum of production costs). This thesis was in force until Krushchev’s time. The reasoning was simple: it was not possible to summarize production costs because kolkhozniks were not paid in money, their work was calculated in so-called norm days, whose value was clarified only in the spring and was different in every kolkhoz. Imagined “days” and other costs expressed in rubles were impossible to total up. The economist Mereste writes:
“This doctrine on the lack of cost price for kolkhoz output was, along with the logic and formulation errors it contained, assembled not simply due to incompetence or slow-wittedness but on ideological considerations.
It was used for years to hide the ruthless exhaustion of kolkhoz workers forced to work as slave labour without pay in a state which was propagandized as the world’s first workers’ and peasants’ state where the exploitation of working people had been ended. If the kolkhozniks’ wages had been calculated at only at the prevailing minimum wage rate and entered into the cost price of the kolkhoz’s output, then it would have been too clearly visible that kolkhozniks in actuality produced and gave their output to the state at a loss and this loss was covered continually by kolkhozniks who over many years received for a norm day in some places 5, others 15, in some top-rank kolkhozes perhaps 35 kopeks, not to speak of those kolkhozes where in some years no pay was received.” **
In Estonia one kolkhoz agronomist did try to calculate this into the cost price. He soon ran into serious trouble.
“He was accused of maliciously undermining kolkhoz discipline and of general militant hostility to the Soviet order. Later, however, interest was expressed about who had assigned him to make such calculations and if he hadn’t received money from some foreign power for that. His explanation that such kinds of calcualtions are made all over the world and that no farmer can produce for any extended period of time that for which he is paid less than it costs him to produce it, was of no use. It was made clear to him that if he continued in this manner, he’d be sent to the GULAG.” **
The rural population took from this unfair price politics what it could. For example, cheap bread – whose cheapness Soviet propaganda so loved to praise – was bought in enormous quantities, and fed to people’s personally owned cows. Concentrated fodder was stolen from kolkhoz barns, kolkhoz tractors and kolkhoz gasoline were used to plow their personal kitchen gardens. Whether consciously or not, the kolkhoznik acted on the principle that he who the state steals from has the right to steal from the state. In Stalin’s time, the pilfering of even one ear of grain could lead to being shot, but by Brezhnev’s time reciprocal thievery had become the norm and imprisonment seldom happened.
“Social relationships in the economic sphere had long ago degenerated to the point where even generally honest people took anything worth taking home from the workplace They didn’t feel this was a sin against anyone or anything. Enterprize leaders pretended not to notice or behaved as if this was an entirely normal phenomenon” **.
The above attitudes were prevalent not only among rural people, but exactly just as much among urban people.
The kolkhoz system arrived in Estonia 20 years after Russia, after the 1949 mass deportations. In Estonia too the first years of kolkhoz life were very wretched and brutal. By the 1970’s the wretchedness had been overcome and many kolkhozes had even become wealthy. For the first time, rural people, at least in places, were better off than townspeople.
But even this local progress was illusory. Even wealthy kolkhozes were hobbled by the command economy’s fetters of essential ignorance , whose most obvious manifestation was the fact that even when a kolkhoz had millions of rubles on account, if no quota was available, then not even a typewriter could be bought for those millions. The quota of course was pursued; higher ups were entertained, dined and wined to intoxication until they signed the needed papers – but all this was still abnormal and lacking common sense. Even withdrawing the money and distributing it to the members of the kolkhoz was not possible – this was forbidden by regulation.
By the way, later when the command economy collapsed and was replaced by a free market, successful kolkhozes were put to the test. They now lacked the cheap concentrated fodder and fuel they had gotten from Russia and had to begin to compete on the market with cheap and/or quality imported goods. Most of the “millionaire kolkhozes” were not equal to the competition and fell apart into various smaller enterprizes. Only a few endured and have evolved into normal Western style agricultural firms.
A predominant feature which made the superficially flourishing kolkhoz life abnormal was the lack of normal freedom to make decisions. Kolkhozes, like other enterprizes, had a rigid plan. This plan was not focussed on general results, like the production of so many tons of meat, potatoes, cereal grain, and so on, but was notably much more detailled – by which date sowing must be done, by which date the reaping, by which date the hay-making.
Everyone knows that no year is identical to the others and that such farm tasks depend on the weather and not the calendar. Everyone knows – but the Soviet regime didn’t know. For over sixty years this truth remained secret to it. Perhaps it was a secret already to Marx, who in his superior way wrote of the idiocy of rural life. Unfortunately, true idiocy was achieved only in the course of implementing Marx’s theory. For example, the plan demanded that spring sowing be completed by a certain date – but the snow had melted late, the ground was still wet, and the tractor got stuck on the field. This didn’t interest any of the urban bureaucrats. The kolkhoz chairman was warned that if the plan wasn’t fulfilled, things would go badly for him.
The same was repeated for hay-making, fallow ploughing, spring sowing, reaping, and so on. The leadership of kolkhozes was forced to think up inventive pokazukha tricks to ensure plans were fulfilled, but allow farm work to proceed in a more or less reasonable way. Some kolkhozes were better at this, some worse. If it had been possible to apply all this inventiveness and innovativeness to normal economic activity, then Russia could have been smothered in grain and meat. But this mental energy was applied to outwitting ignorant bureaucracy
The bravest kolkhoz chairmen kept secret fields. These fields were not to be found on any documents, were cultivated by especially trusted kolkhozniks and the product of these fields was nowhere documented. If such a secret field was discovered, the kolkhoz chairman could be shot.
All the same, it cannot be said that the state demanded honesty at all times. Outright official, state (self) deception occurred in an important matter, namely in the size of the cereal grain harvest. Before the time of kolkhozes, harvest per hectare was calculated by the weight of dried grain – this or that many quintals per hectare (1 quintal = 100 kilograms). This is called storage weight. In the time of kolkhozes the harvest began to be calculated by the weight of undried grain – as it came out of the combine. This was called bunker weight. Undried grain weighed 1.2 to 1.9 more than dried grain. This trick enabled Soviet propaganda to brag about how much the harvest per hectare had risen compared to 1913, or how much the Soviet harvest exceeds the American one.
Another deep wellspring of abnormality, in addition to the lack of decision making rights, was hidden in the lack of normal ownership connections to the land. Private ownership had been destroyed according to doctrine and this was confirmed in the constitution of the Soviet Union. There were two kinds of ownership – state and kolkhoz-cooperative. The land cultivated by kolkhozniks belonged from beginning to end to the state; the kolkhoz owned the buildings, tractors, and so on. But in addition there was also personal ownership – personal shovel, personal underwear, and personal cow. All these three forms of ownership converged in the kolkhoz. Doctrine could assert as much as it wanted that the kolkhoz’s property was the kolkhozniks’ joint property, but in actuality the kolkhoznik in no way felt himself to be, for example, the joint owner of the kolkhoz cow-shed. For him, what was really his was what was called personal – his house, his consumer goods, and a few animals. Essentially he was a hired labourer: in the morning he went to the office building and waited to be told by the team-leader where to work. In the evening, however, he bustled away on his own kitchen garden.
All this was very far from the original idea that peasants would begin to cultivate the land together. The kolkhoz had essentially become a manor farm led by a chairman sent from on high along with the head zootechnic (animal keeper) and head agronomist; the peasants had become farm-hands. In Russia, these farm-hands were so repressed that until the 1960’s they had no choice of where to move or where to live. This means they weren’t even farm-hands, but chattel-slaves, or serfs. To move, if even to the nearest town to live, required a pass. But passes were under lock and key in the kolkhoz office, because otherwise the troubled rural folk would have fled by the millions to the towns and caused general chaos.
As discussed previously, Nikita Khrushchev, dictator of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, tried to advance agriculture. But as is appropriate for absurd ideology, he tried to do this using absurd methods.
Already in the 1930’s a miracle cure for poverty was being sought in the Soviet Union. Famine caused by collectivization was to be solved by miracle wheat, which grows two spikes instead of one. The same amount of work is done as before, the same amount of sowing as before – but the harvest is two times larger. For some unknown reason, abundance still didn’t happen. (In actuality, it wasn’t possible to develop such wheat.) In the 1950’s Khrushchev proclaimed that the key to prosperity was hidden entirely in corn. Sow plenty of corn and all will be in order. But for the same mysterious reasons, abundance wasn’t achieved this time either.
Soviet Union leaders behaved like children, seeking a magic wand and hoping for a miracle, instead of eliminating poverty’s main cause – the command economy and the kolkhoz system. Suddenly newspapers and radio air waves were full of exaltations of corn, which was to provide both food and feed. Kolkhozes were given specific assignments as to how much to sow and how much corn to harvest. These assignments were distributed also in the Soviet Union’s northern areas, where corn grows just high enough for a frog to hop over. Again, no one was interested in this truth. A few isolated fields were found where the corn in some good year truly had grown to a man’s height, pictures were taken and printed in newspapers along with the proclamation that corn cultivation is proceeding with great success.
All this was but a circus and farmers began to understand this within a few years. The Soviet Union had certain regions where corn cultivation was possible and profitable and other regions where it was totally unsuitable and only wasted people’s time, labour, and tied up acreage without benefit.
Another trick, which was supposed to bring with it enormous expansion of the potato harvest, had to do with growing the potatoes in a new way – not in furrows as before, but in checkrows, in separate “clumps”, like a chess board pattern. This too proved to be a bluff. Specifically, potatoes could be grown in this fashion on small board-flat patches of field with good soil, but even there without any real effect.
Because of these experiments, the Soviet people almost en masse began to think of Nikita Krushchev as stupid, which was partly true. In fact, Khrushchev was cunning and purposeful but not broad-minded.
One aspect of kolkhoz absurdity was the same in industry and the economy as a whole – crying shortages went hand in hand with continuous waste. Kolkhoz fields were cultivated noticeably more carelessly than the former farm fields. Because there wasn’t enough of a workforce. Why? No one could understand. During kolkhoz times many more machines had been brought into the countryside where previously there had been none or very few – tractors, combines, and so on. With their help, the land should have been much more thoroughly worked than before. Actually, the opposite was true. When previously each square meter had belonged to someone who in some fashion or another cultivated and took care of it, now large chunks of land could remain untidied in spring or even grow into brush. Because some immovable power had interfered – drought, too much rain, a broken tractor, potato beetle, whatever. A striking picture of the ineffectiveness of kolkhoz work can be seen even in official Soviet statistics, where one can read that kolkhozniks and townsfolk in their little kitchen gardens produced almost half of the Soviet Union’s potato harvest. It was apparent even from the most lenient of calculations that the kitchen garden’s productiveness was at least twice as high as the kolkhoz fields’.
Is it worth adding that the Soviet powers couldn’t draw any conclusions from this?
Because this is how it really was. Instead of figuring out how to get kolkhoz fields to produce even close to the same amount of harvest as the tiny kitchen gardens, large scale opening up of virgin lands was untertaken. Once more the magic wand, once more Mao’s struggle with the sparrows. Thousands of enthusiastic youth were sent to the Kazakhstan steppes to open up virgin lands. The results were mighty. The virgin, never before plowed land yielded unprecedented harvests. It yielded so much that a large part of it couldn’t be transported and was left somewhere on the edges of the fields to rot.
The next year the grain grew almost as well, but then came the end. Soviet leaders, in their orthodox disdain for rural people, perhaps didn’t know that fields need to be fertilized and protected from erosion. The end came in Kazakhstan with the steppe soil worn out and the heat turning the soil to dust, which the wind carried away. Where once was a steppe suitable for pasturing herd animals, there is now a desert.
Soviet kolkhoz absurdity was such an extensive phenomenon that these few pages can only reflect a microscopic part of it. Those interested in more will need to find their own resources. Some information can be found in literature, but I warn that you won’t find the truth in Michail Sholokhov’s “Virgin Soil Upturned” (1935). Fyodor Abramov’s “The New Life: A Day on a Collective Farm” (1963) is considerably better.
4.3 Absurdity in commerce and service
Under this subtitle I will try to write as little as possible about commerce and service’s most vivid domain of absurdity, which is of course deficits, because this was already dealt with separately. Instead of deficits I want to concentrate on other aspects of absurdity that poisoned commerce and service, but if I am forced in the process to touch on deficits, then I hope the reader will forgive me.
As is generally known, commerce presupposes the presence of a market. I cannot say that a market was totally lacking in the Soviet Union. Certainly the largest part of commerce was in state hands, happened in state stores and the state set merchandise prices, but regardless of the displeasure of orthodox doctrinaires, the Soviet regime was forced to retain some free market remnants.
To begin with, there were open markets in all larger settled centres. There, a kolkhoznik was allowed to sell potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers and other produce grown in his kitchen garden. Even a towns person could have his own kitchen garden and it was not forbidden to sell its harvest. Some built greenhouses on their garden plots, bustled there on Sundays and evenings and by, for example, growing cucumbers became downright rich (in the Soviet sense of the word). Meat, eggs, butter and more was also available at the market. Generally, the goods for sale at the market were more expensive than store goods. Here a known and normal market regulation revealed itself: if the goods in the stores were of poor quality and, most importantly, were usually unavailable, then a higher price could be asked at the market.
In addition to the food market, there also existed a used merchandise or flea market, where personal objects could be sold. Sometimes flea markets were allowed, sometimes forbidden. The reason for their prohibition was that in addition to genuine used merchandise (previously worn clothing and footware, old bicycles, books, samovars, etc.) there appeared for sale objects clearly made for sale – wooden spoons, lace, socks and mittens and so on. This, however, tended to be too “capitalistic”. When some flea market was closed down, then the official reason given was that stolen goods were being sold there.
A Soviet citizen could also sell his used goods at a shop set up for that purpose, the commission store: you brought in your coat or wedding dress, it was put up for sale and then you would drop by the store from time to time, asking if it had been sold. Starting in the 1970’s, commission stores were the main places where foreign fashion goods, clothing and footwear could be had, though at expensive prices. These had been cadged from tourists (or bartered for something) or sent in packages from relatives abroad.
Until the 1950’s, there existed in the Soviet Union two official commerce networks – one was the ordinary one, the other the so-called commercial trade network. A person could buy at state prices from an ordinary store using coupons (a remnant of wartime), or from a commercial store, in which case the prices were much higher. This provided an opportunity for those few, who in some miraculous fashion had managed to earn more than the average, to spend their money legally. There were also commercial restaurants where everything was much tastier and much more expensive and where one didn’t have to stand in long lineups to enter.
“Commercial” trade – what an absurd term – disappeared along with coupon trade. From this time forward all goods in all stores throughout the Soviet Union had one and the same price: if a bottle of Zhiguli beer cost 33 kopeks in Estonia, then it cost 33 kopeks in Kamchatka as well. Not that it was the product of the one same brewery. No, Estonian Zhiguli was brewed in Estonia and Kamchatka Zhiguli was brewed in Kamchatka, but the recipe and brewing technology were “all-Union” and because of that the resulting product had to be at the same price. Shipping costs, water resource costs or other factors didn’t count – the price was 33 kopeks per bottle, period. Anyone could easily be convinced of this truth by taking a look at anything produced during Soviet times: the price was right on it. Not a price tag or sticker, but right in the surface of the product – for example, stamped into iron. And books had their prices printed onto the back cover.
This was of course an effective means of obstructing all normal market regulation. By the way, market regulation was called speculation and was harshly punished.
The extensiveness of the notion of “speculator” and the severity of his punishment is illustrated in Latvian writer Andris Kolberg’s book “A man who ran across the road” (1984. in Latvian and Estonian. No English translation). A tailor who worked at a large clothing factory discovered that if the cutting patterns were placed slightly differently a few centimeters of cloth could be saved in the production of each suit. As a law-abiding citizen, he informed the factory leadership of his discovery, but no one was interested. Why cause confusion? Why aspire to change the plan? No, better to leave things as they are.
Now the man took a risky step. He put his discovery into practice and the factory, without its knowledge, started producing more suits than was documented on paper. The documents showed that 100 suits are produced each day, but in actuality 102 were made. The material costs were the same; no one noticed the difference in labour costs. These extra suits were sold in the state store at state prices (with the store manager’s knowledge); the money however was kept in private hands and a few participants became extremely rich.
Purely by chance, the situation came to light. The organizers of the scheme were declared speculators and large scale plunderers of state wealth and were shot. No one punished the factory’s leadership who had shelved the tailor’s rationalization proposal.
When I said that different prices disappeared along with commercial stores, then a small reservation has to be added. Special stores remained where very deficit, mainly foreign, merchandise could be bought – not for ordinary rubles, but for special surrogate money. The two main kinds of surrogate money’s were certificates and bonuses. These were given to people who had in certain circumstances earned money abroad, like for example a ballerina who had been to Paris or an engineer who had built a power station in Angola. Their foreign currency was taken away – yes, simply taken away – but a bit of surrogate money was given in replacement. With this, a person could go to a special store and buy better than average quality merchandise. Such a system was set up to prevent foreign currency going into circulation on the black market. A Soviet person was forbidden to acquire or own any foreign currency. If someone received a dollar or two from his American aunt, there was nothing he could do with it. Foreign currency stores did exist, but only foreigners could shop there. To go to the store pretending to be a foreigner ended in certain failure, because a Soviet person simply did not know how to behave like a citizen of the free world. His body language and facial expressions were different.
Until the 1960’s, stores functioned in the ancient time honoured way : a person stepped up to the counter, pointed at or asked for the required merchandise, the salesperson put the merchandise on the counter, put the money in the till and the buyer left with his merchandise. Then so-called self-serve stores appeared, like today’s supermarkets where the buyer picks the merchandise from the shelf and then goes to the checkout aisle, where he pays.
But in Russia, especially in the bigger food stores in the bigger towns and cities, there was a third system in use which lacked any common sense. Namely, a person had to push through the crowd to get to the counter and then scan the shelves. Ahaa!, I want that, that and that. Also some of this, that, three of them. After that, one had to calculate how much it would all cost. Then go stand in the till lineup and when the cashier was reached, tell her “five rubles eighty-two kopeks”. The cashier received the money, put it in the till and gave back a slip of paper on which was printed 5.82. Now one had to go back to the counter with the slip of paper and stand through the meandering lineup there, give the paper to the salesperson and explain what he wanted for the money indicated. All went well if 1) the buyer had calculated correctly and if 2) the wished for merchandise hadn’t been sold out in the meantime.
During that visit to the same store a person had to perform these miracles of calculation skill and camel-like patience many times, because breads, buns and pies had their own department, milk products their own, and meat products similarly their own. A separate slip of paper was required in each department.
I confess that I wouldn’t believe this now if I hadn’t experienced it myself repeatedly.
With long, winding lineups stretched in front of store doors, it was natural for salespeople to lose any motivation to be polite and helpful to shoppers. There was of course no fear that the shoppers would disappear, no matter how rudely they were treated. The average Soviet salesperson was haughty, letting the shopper know at every opportunity that the shopper is disturbing and bothering him, and that it would be better if he didn’t exist. If the shopper dared to bashfully enquire whether, let’s say, the store had any fresh cream, he could get an earful of abuse instead of an answer: Where’s your senses? We get fresh cream once a month and even then for half an hour! Don’t ask stupid questions! Or sometihng in a similar vein.
Another unfriendly manifestation could be found in store hours. Stores, service shops ( barber, shoemaker, watchmaker, etc.) and other institutions (post office, heat office, local administrative offices, etc.) took a lunch break. Exactly at the same time as a working person had his lunch break. This meant that if a person had to drop by even a watchmaker or had to order a shipment of heating briquettes, then he had to do it during his working hours. The result: any typical Soviet Union town centre was full of people standing in various lineups from morning to evening to transact various tasks, all while the workday proceeded. Moreover, the plans were fulfilled. In response to this strange phenomenon Soviet economists didn’t know what else to say but evidently we still have some reserve capacity.
In addition to the lunch break a shop or institution could take breaks at other times, which sometimes were announced to people with a little sign, sometimes not. For example, gas stations especially liked to take frequent breaks. Every few hours there would be a break for all. The window was closed and the unlucky motorist had to simply wait. Half an hour, an hour, it all depended. To get to the window he would have had to wait in a long lineup anyway; it didn’t make sense to leave now. If he could see through the window, he could spend his hour or so watching how the station attendant read the newspaper or chattered with a friend. Break time.
And if all this wasn’t enough, shops and service establishments delighted their clients regularly with signs like “sanitation day”, “audit” or “emergency”. This meant that the business was closed that day. In the first case because the floors were being washed, in the second case because sugar bags and macaroni cartons were being counted, and in the third case because a waterpipe had burst.
As well, the basic arrangement of commerce was hostile to the consumer, though producer friendly. For example, there was no store called Repair Goods (a hardware store like Home Depot. ed.), where a person could buy a can of paint, hammer and nails, a few metres of electrical wire and a few pieces of board. No, to get the paint he had to go to the store named Chemical Goods, for the hammer and nails to the store named “Steel Goods”, for the wire to the store named “Electrical Goods” and for the pieces of board to some wood materials warehouse which also functioned as a store. All these stores were in different parts of town; they each had their own lunch breaks and sanitation days and, finally, the paint or the wire of the needed thickness might not even be available.
Thus one shouldn’t be surprised that not only the salespeople but also the customers were ill-natured.
Sometimes merchandise had to go through wondrous odysseys to arrive at the store. As an example, I’ll describe how a tin of smoked sprats made it to an Estonian person’s table. A fish processor in Tallinn prepared canned sprats from sprats/brislings caught in the Baltic Sea. Tallinn sprats were not as famous as Riga sprats though just as good and just as tasty, prepared to the same standardized recipe. By the way, this state-wide standard was named GOST (gossudarstvennõi standard) in the Soviet Union. During the last ten years of the Soviet Union, central institutions in Moscow started to think of these sprats as such exceptional delicacies that the entire output of sprats had to be given over to Moscow’s command, which then distributed it throughout the empire. The Tallinn fish processor exceeded its plan, but all this excess production went over to Moscow’s command. Now the government of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic requested that it be allowed to keep some part of the excess production and send it to Estonian stores. No,came the reply from Moscow. Sprats are such a precious delicacy that you do not know how to handle it. We will decide who receives it and how much. As a result, it could happen that while tins of sprats produced in Estonia were all hauled east, sprats (in small quantities) were brought from Vladivostok for sale in Estonia.
By the way, something similar happened with cement produced in Estonia. It was quite customary for Estonian kolkhoz chairmen to go to Russia to buy back Estonian cement.
At the same time, huge work victories were constantly reported – about how this or another enterprise had sold an enormous amount of merchandise to the state. (More precisely, the state didn’t just take the product from a factory for nothing; there was a well preserved fiction that the state bought. On its own conditions, of course.) By the way, the numbers showed that an enormous amount of sprats had been sold to the state. Estonian comedian Eino Baskin talked about this ironically on his show: “Had been sold to the state? You know, comrades, we should turn to the government and ask to which state then. Because it is apparently not to our state – otherwise they’d be for sale in our stores. Probably it is to some foreign state. And if the deal is with a state friendly to the Soviet Union, perhaps that state would agree to sell us back a few tins.”
Baskin wasn’t jailed for this because it was already the perestroika era and the censorship gentler.
True, it must be said that today’s free world doesn’t differ much from the Soviet Union in its senseless hauling around of merchandise. I continue to be amazed at the sight of Finnish tourists in Estonia buying up Finnish beer and taking it back to Finland. Does the taste of beer become more interesting when it crosses the sea twice? It must be stated again, as I already did earlier, that the spores of absurdity are also hidden in the Western man. The West looks down on this senseless run around of merchandise, but no one shouts: Listen, this is idiotic! Even the Europarliament moves senselessly back and forth between two cities, spending enormous sums on this permanent changing of lodgings. That is why I ask the reader to take from this book, not an after the fact mocking of Soviet absurdity, but first and foremost a warning. No society is immune to absurdity. We are all living on top of the volcano.
In the final years of the Soviet Union, one phenomenon, which can be added to commerce’s oddities, gained ground. Namely, people began to be given the opportunity to order so-called Brezhnev packages through their workplaces. Brezhnev packages (or Communism’s packages) comprised a fixed choice of food goods: for example, a kilo of oranges, a few jars of green peas, a few jars of mayonnaise and a chunk of smoked sausage plus something uninteresting, like a kilo of grits (buckwheat groats) or a box or two of the most robust fish in tomato sauce. Let’s say that this was choice A. There were also choices B and C, somewhat different, but all composed according to the same scheme: first something deficit, then something ordinary which was needed anyway and finally something boring, in other words such goods that had gotten stuck in warehouses and which no one would have bought otherwise.
And so a person ordered, for example, package and A and package C, paid his money and got his goods by the promised date all without having to stand in line for it.
OK, this made life a bit simpler, but let’s ask – in what kind of economic condition must a state be that is forced to use such methods to provision its citizens. In what shape must the commerce system and strategic reserves of such a state be? Take note how precise was the Soviet citizen’s irony in naming these packages Communism’s packages. The Communist party had, after all, promised Communism, meaning an era of plenty and well-being, by 1981. Instead, starvation loomed and foodstuffs were distributed at workplaces by trade-unions. A brown cardboard box with, at least to some Western eyes, entirely ordinary goods – that was the Communism that in fact had arrived by the 1980’s.
How to briefly describe the wretchedness of the Soviet so-called service sphere? I could write about how I went to the shoemaker to have new heel-pieces attached, first having to stand in a long lineup and then waiting to see whether my shoes would be accepted for repair or not. If they are taken, then can I get my shoes back on the same day or am I told to come back tomorrow. But this doesn’t show all that wretchedness – those dirty floors, those soiled walls, that musty air and, overall, that depressing atmosphere which accompanied every such chore, whether it was mailing a package, taking a broken washing machine for repair or making an ordinary visit to the barber. A more sensitive person could try to avoid contact with the service sphere, but complete avoidance was impossible. It could still happen, for example, that a pair of scissors needed sharpening.
For noteworthy, downright legendary unfriendliness hotel and restaurant doormen, as well as waiters and taxi drivers, stood out. In sum, all those who in Western eyes should have especially good communication skills, always smile and be in good humour. In the Soviet Union they were generally full to bursting of themselves, knowing clearly that power was in their hands.
The client had to beg a taxi driver to take him where he needed to go. The client had to beg the restaurant doorman to be allowed in – even though there were enough free seats. The client had to beg the waiter to bring him food – first that an agreeable dish, not something else be brought and then secondly beg that it be brought within a normal timeframe. By the way, I have happened upon a restaurant’s back room and seen waiters playing cards while the clients nervously waited for a second mug of beer or their bill.
A client could stumble upon a so-called full-course dinner in a restaurant. The menu showed, as an example: first course – seljanka (thick Russian soup); second course – beefsteak; third course – ice cream. In addition, the menu also listed many different dishes. Now, when the student had arrived with his sweetheart for their first evening together at a restaurant he did order the seljanka and the beefsteak, but asked for cake instead of ice cream because his date didn’t enjoy cold ice cream. The waiter answered spitefully: We have a full-course dinner! Take it or leave it. And all in all, if you don’t like it here, you can leave. Of course the student was shocked – the long lineup had been endured, now they might get thrown out. He became submissive and asked forgiveness for his question. And an hour later ate with his girlfriend the ice cream which neither actually enjoyed.
More typical was that the desired dish simply wasn’t available. When the Soviet person had gotten into the restaurant and his order was finally about to be taken, then the Soviet person slid his finger over the menu and didn’t say I’ll take that and that, but started out asking:
Is there any rib of beef ? – No, we just ran out, answered the waiter. – How about schnitzel? – No, today we’ve been totally out. – Ah, but perhaps you still have the Kiev cutlets? – Yes, but they’ll take 45 minutes.
Such an end result can be deemed fortunate. Yet it didn’t always go this well. It could also happen that after a third or fourth negative answer the customer asked in irritation: What then do you have? To which the waiter might reply that they had only ground meat sauce on macaroni.
And nothing else? Why did you even bother bringing me the menu? wondered the customer.
To that the waiter only shrugged his shoulders and left. In the best case, he brought you the ground meat sauce with macaroni, eventually.
The Soviet man had no almost business in hotels, for if one happened to be in another town for the night, then he tried to find a bed at an acquaintance’s, or spent the night in the railway station. When public school or university students went on excursions, no one thought to plan for hotel accommodations, but tound some school and arranged for permission to sleep on gymnastic mats in the gym.
Actually, there were few hotels and they were shabby. The exceptions were in larger or closer to the border towns and cities, where foreign tourists visited. So-called Intourist hotels were placed there, and they were like ambassadors from another world. Not that a free world atmosphere reigned in these hotels – certainly not – but because foreigners stayed there. To be the doorman at an Intourist hotel was to be at the tip of doormen’s hierarchy. To get a position like that one had to have very influential contacts. And of course such an individual treated the few Soviet persons appearing at the hotel door – if they weren’t a KGB worker or a prominent black marketer – with immeasurable arrogance.
As can be seen from the above, commerce and service were characterized by a general unfriendliness whose main cause was that the client wasn’t “king” but generally a person in need, which gave the attendant a certain power over him. Such power over one’s fellow citizen was like a poison which ate at interpersonal relationships and changed that Soviet person behaviourally into a predator of Soviet people. That same pleasant old gentleman with who you’d been having a pleasant conversation just a moment ago on the station platform, roughly pushed you aside at the ticket window and bought the last ticket. That’s how he had been brought up and he knew no other way.
It can perhaps be imagined how hard it would be to shape a civic society, where individuals help and support each other, from such people.
4.4 Absurdity in Intellectual and Creative activity
As an introduction to this section, I ask the reader’s forgiveness that, in dealing with different absurdities, I too often stray into neighbouring domains. For example, absurdity in intellectual and creative activities actually arose from both the planned economy as well as directly from doctrine. It is a matter of taste as to which section it should be placed in. Soviet absurdity was a large absurdity where one cause merged smoothly into another – doctrine into planned economy, planned economy into poverty and poverty back to doctrine. Thus, let’s treat this chapter as a bridge from absurdity born of the planned economy to absurdity born of doctrine.
Marx taught that all culture and along with it science and art serve the interests of the governing class. Thus the conclusion that science is partial, or biased – in a capitalistic society favouring either the bourgeoisie or the proletariat. In the Soviet Union as an arguably working class state, science had to be of course proletarian and the Communist Party guarded carefully against the slipping in of any bourgeois science elements or “grovelling before the West”. And so we could say that Soviet science was Party-determined.
Naturally, this thesis about the Party spirit of science and the “serving” of some class was absurd right from the start. Specifically stated, extremely demagogic. With great effort it was possible to, for example, stick a label of bourgeois-serving on the investigation of electromagnetic wave essence or of atomic structures, both of which were dealt with in the West. I refer here to the truth that the indirect fruits of tangible inventions (if even the atom bomb) that result from scientific investigations have always been taken under the control of, and utilized by, someone. However, Soviet historians were told that history can be written only from the viewpoint of some class; therefore, they must write proletarian history– even if the topic is, for example, stone-age commodities – and end their prattle about searching for some “objective truth”. There is no objective truth, there is feudal, bourgeois, or proletarian truth. And proletarian truth is the most correct, because Communism can’t be improved. Therefore, proletarian truth is final.
In fact, the utilization of a tangible invention in someone’s interests did not provide any foundation to argue that some scientific assertion or theory by itself was somehow Party-determined. Science is science to the extent that it can keep itself free of factors external to science, such as a leader(ship)’s wishes, and follow processes governed by its own laws. How science’s discoveries are later put into practice (or malpractice) are no longer scientific but political and economic questions. The formula E=mc2 is not and cannot be Party-determined.
But Soviet absurdity was so powerful that it was able to suffocate this unmistakable conclusion. For example, in the 1930’s after some hesitation, genetics was demolished. The main proponent of this annihilation was the scientific imposter Trofim Lysenko – the one and same man who had promised two eared wheat.
Genetics, successfully developed under the leadership of academician Vavilov, had two terrible faults. First, its pioneer had been the Catholic monk Mendel. “Catholic monk” sounded about as horrible to Communist ears as “Jewish rabbi” to SS ears. Or “Horst Wessel” to Jewish ears. “Catholic monk” stood for everything contemptible – being reactionary, ignorant, and fanatic.
The embarrassment that struck Communist ideologues at the thought that the father of the science of genetics was a priest is analogous to the embarrassment faced by Nazi ideologues at the thought that Christ was a Jew, at least on his mother’s side. Unfortunately, this priest didn’t have as strong a position in Russian cultural history as Christ in the German and Mendel was sternly banned. No matter that he had as much right in his narrow domain as Christ in all the rest.
By the way, Copernicus was in a stronger position than Mendel; it wasn’t possible to proclaim him unscientific. Otherwise, a Soviet person would have had to believe that the Sun orbits the Earth. Or even that the Earth is flat and rests on the backs of three elephants. Two options remained: either make Copernicus a secret and announce that the discoverer of the heliocentric world view was some Verho-Turje serf named Abramovits (someone of that name had discovered the bicycle, according to Soviet propaganda) or make secret the fact that Copernicus also was a Catholic priest. Soviet propaganda chose the latter. Copernicus’s priesthood was carefully hidden throughout the Soviet era.
Genetic’s second fault lay in that it threatened the foundations of Communist theory. That theory asserted that a person’s “social consciousness” or his opinions, habits, knowledge, character traits arise from his “social condition” – his living conditions, upbringing, experiences, his relations to the means of production. In order to change the person himself it suffices to change his conditions. Any talk of inherited qualities didn’t fit here at all. If one left aside skin, hair, and eye colour, height, build or other “secondary” features.
Unfortunately, genetics tended to affirm with increasing certainty that we inherit from our parents significantly more than eye or skin colour. But how much then? Communist theoreticians began to panic: what if some “capitalist gene” is discovered? Or it becomes clear that some proletarian is poor because he was born stupid, and this is, in fact, no fault of the exploiters?
The Soviets always started from the principle that if theory doesn’t fit with the facts, then the facts are at fault. Therefore, the bothersome fact-establishing science of genetics had to be prohibited. Academician Nikolai Vavilov was jailed and starved to death, his field of science destroyed. With this, all of biology was crippled.
What remained was the teaching of environmental conditions as the solely determinant influence on people. The extent of absurdity arrived at with this is shown in the following story. Sometime in the 1940’s the Estonian Academy of Sciences was given the assignment from Moscow to breed “by leaps and bounds” a cuckoo from a jaybird and thus to prove conclusively this determinant influence of society and environment.
“What to make of this?’ asked the perplexed Estonian scientists of each other. “Do we need to beat the jaybird with a soldier’s waist-belt until it admits that it is a cuckoo?”
With extreme effort, they managed to negotiate permission from Moscow to deal with something else and to leave such a trail-breaking topic to their Russian colleagues.
The extremism of Communist ideology – either total condemnation or excessive exaltation could be aimed at no matter how essential a phenomenon or an individual – was manifested in a slightly lesser fashion in the attitude to mathematical methods. As mentioned before, there was a period sometime in the 1950’s when the use of mathematical methods in social sciences was downright dangerous for a scholar and their use had to be (of necessity) hidden at all cost.
However, in the 1960’s mathematics came back into vogue for some reason, and now, in contrast, began to be regarded as some miracle cure which would help solve all problems. For example, it was hoped that mathematical methods and the development of the computer would be able to solve a problem central to Marxist economic theory – how to calculate surplus value. Marx came up with the idea of surplus value. This was apparently the value that a worker adds with his work during the production process and that the capitalist villainously steals from him. When presented in this way, Marx’s assertion is in all ways understandable and believable. But Marxist economic researchers and developers hid the fact that no one has succeeded in determining exactly the surplus value of any tangible product. The reasons were hidden in the theory – Marx had incorrectly worded his computation – but both Soviet Union and Western Marxists refused to admit it. To this day, not one product’s theoretical surplus value has been determined exactly.
In the administrative sense, Soviet science was forced into firm and very rigid boundaries. Science was done by science academies (each Union republic had an Academy of Sciences, and there was also an Academy of Sciences of the USSR) which branched into institutes. Science was seldom done elsewhere; even at universities scientific research was made difficult. This was a manifestation of the overall centralism: the institutes are for producing Marxist science; the universities are for pounding it into students’ heads. Exactly the same as in commerce: chemical goods were sold in chemical goods stores and steel goods in steel goods stores.
This system of science academies and institutes was necessary in order for science to be “directed in a Party-determined way”. This way it was easier to have an overview of what scientists were engaged in. More bluntly stated, the Party didn’t wait to see what the scientists were about to be engaged in, but handed out orders and established plans. Because in the Soviet Union scientific work too had to follow a firm plan An institute had to investigate within a pre-determined time frame themes confirmed from higher up and produce a scientific text of pre-determined size. Scientists went to work like all other wage earners: arrived at their work desks at the institute for eight o’clock, did science until five o’clock (lunch 12-13) and then returned home, buying on the way, after a long wait in line, a loaf of bread, liter of milk, and a piece of sausage.
Given these work arrangements, it’s astonishing then in how many domains, like mathematics, physics and chemistry, Soviet scientists had outstanding achievements. The humanities also cannot be totally tossed aside, not even history, though to read works written in that era requires almost special training to differentiate between serious academic work and the obligatory babble of words.
For example, every learned paper had to quote the classics of Marxist-Leninism, who were Marx, Engels, Stalin and Lenin; after 1956 only Marx, Engels, and Lenin. They and only they were the classics, whose work contained all the universe’s wisdom. By definition, therefore, it was not possible that even one excerpt from some work by some classic wouldn’t be good enough to quote, no matter what the topic. Even if the work dealt with the syntax of the Karakalpak language or the specific features of the Hotchkiss drive in movie projectors – the three bearded men had said something wise about it, some even a hundred years ago. Geniuses, what else can you say.
The study of these geniuses, the finding again and again in their writings of new and brilliant thoughts, was its own field of learning. Dozens of Marxist-Leninist institutes were at work in the Soviet Union; for dozens of years they grappled with that deep nonsense, producing thousands of volumes of balderdash that had no connection to reality. This in a state where there was a constant extreme shortage of paper.
In addition to the Marxist-Leninist institutes there were also separate institutes to study the history of the Communist Party; these did a bit of historical science and a lot of historical falsifying. Hundreds of charlatans and half-charlatans could be found who spent their entire lives studying and studying some third-rate revolutionary figure. No one could tell these people that they were parasites.
Another pseudoscientist whose damage done to science almost rose to the level of Lysenko’s was Nikolai Marr. Marr thought that his mission was to create a Marxist linguistics. He contended that he had discovered four “diffused exclamations”, or primeval syllables, from which all words in all languages had evolved. These syllables were sal, ber, yon and rosh. He also contended that there are no national languages, but that different classes have different languages – for example the peasants’ French language and the nobility’s French language. This last thesis was especially important and especially Marxist, because it arose from Marx’s teaching about the fact that in every nationality there are actually two nationalities – the oppressed and the oppressors. For example oppressed Frenchmen and oppressor Frenchmen. They have different cultures, therefore also different languages. The contention that in one nationality there are actually two nationalities is another absurdity, comparable to the contention that within the earth there is another earth which is larger than the external one.
Marr’s linguistic achievement reached a dominant position for a while, until Stalin personally intervened and discredited Marr’s “new teachings” as anti-scientific. Among other points, Stalin ridiculed Marr’s theory of two (class based) languages. This was in some ways surprising because, if there is only one national language, then the question of what happens to Marx’s idea of two nationalities in one nationality arises immediately. This last couldn’t be questioned; it would have meant revolt against Marx himself and resulted in prison camp.
Why Stalin brought down Marr as anti-scientific but proclaimed Lysenko’s work as the only truth remains a paradox of Soviet absurdity. The Soviet authority was absurd, and especially absurd was the fact that a few times, occasionally, it wasn’t absurd. We can call this meta-absurdity. In some ways it’s analagous to a meta-Murphy law: If Murphy’s law can come to nothing, then it will.
Soviet economics didn’t need Marr or Lysenko, it was absurd from the beginning, from Marx on. Marx’s “Capital” (Das Kapital) could be taken seriously as economics in places, especially where Marx examined free market society. However, the describing and elaborating of so-called socialistic society’s economics could be nothing other than pseudo-science, since its most important final conclusion was pre-ordained: socialist economics must be more effective than free market economics. Any scientist had to structure his work so as to again – behold the surprise! – come to that conclusion. This, however, meant the need to falsify and lie, because socialistic economics was not more effective than free market economics. Earlier I mentioned a typical falsification and fabrication trick in connection with kolkhoz absurdity – socialist undried grain was compared to capitalist dried grain and the conclusion was reached that harvests are bigger in Soviet times.
The most unfettered were scientists in the exact sciences, where for example the splitting of atoms was very difficult to deal with Marxistically or anti-Marxistically. But don’t think that attempts weren’t made to mix ideology into even these domains.
In such an intolerant society as the Soviet one, there could be no talk of free academic discussion. This doesn’t mean that there were no discussions. But they rather called to mind gladiator battles where the loser was killed. Especially in Stalin’s time. At the heart of discussions of that era were not scientific problems (such as whether the location of elementary particles can be determined or not) but rather the question of which debater was an honest Marxist and which the imperialists’ stooge and heretic. Since the debate was in the most direct sense a matter of life and death, then neither side held back in attempts to paint opponents as people’s enemies. This meant that the competition’s focus was on who could, in defence of their theory, present the most high-sounding quotations from Marxist-Leninist classics. If both sides managed to do this equally well, then Moscow’s judgement had to be awaited. The Party then decided – for example – that cybernetics is from beginning to end bourgeois pseudoscience and its cultivators must be dismissed.
The Party knew who or what is progressive and who or what is reactionary. Academicians had to take this into account in their work. For example, historians had to take into consideration that the Russian people have always played a progressive role in history. Therefore every historical Russian conquest was good for the conquered people, because the conquered people were able to live henceforth in the one and same state with the progressive Russian people. They were given a privilege to suffer together with the Russians, and under their leadership battle the capitalists and other oppressors. This was the way, the only way, to deal with the conquest of Estonia and Latvia by Peter I in the Northern War at the start of the 18th century. Similarly, it was the Central-Asian and Caucasian peoples’ great luck that Russia conquered them in the 18th and 19th centuries and made them subordinates of the empire.
It was even easier for the Party to dispense guiding rules and monitor their implementation in such domains as literature, fine arts, music, and so on. To put it more robustly, a run of the mill Party fool was unable to judge work in atomic physics, but he was able to give stern evaluations of operas, novels, and artwork. In these domains, all are experts.
Thus, “lathe operator Ivanov” was able to write in the newspaper that when some Shostakovich symphony began to play, he always turned the radio off. From this Shostakovich needed to conclude that his destiny and life were hanging by a hair – as they really were. And not because the lathe operator didn’t like his symphonies. Actually lathe operator Ivanov wasn’t in the picture at all, perhaps he didn’t even exist and the letter to the editor was purely fabricated on the orders of the Communist Party Central Committee.
There were progressive writers and there were reactionary ones. This division applied to dead as well as living writers. True, the longer someone had been dead the better his hopes to escape the title of reactionary. For example, no one banned Shakespeare or Cervantes. In the forewords to their works, distinguished professors of literature made clear to readers that Shakespeare expressed the feelings and thoughts of simple English working people, their hatred toward oppressors and aspirations for justice. The same relationship existed between Cervantes and simple Spanish working people’s feelings and thoughts as well as between Goethe and simple German working people’s feelings and thoughts. Some especially worked-up literature academician could go so far as to proclaim that Shakespeare, Cervantes, Goethe or even Sophocles were “elemental Marxists” – if they had read “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”, they surely would have applauded.
Nevertheless, the most important man in world literature history was not Shakespeare, Cervantes or Goethe, but Pushkin. Generally speaking, Russian writers were more progressxive than the average because they came from the midst of a progressive people. Still, there were no completely reactionary peoples; even Americans had their own progressive writers – those who, like John Steinbeck, expressed the thoughts and feelings of simple American workers. Steinbeck was very progressive until he stepped forward to defend the Vietnam war. After that he was no longer progressive. In contrast, Ernest Hemingway stayed progressive to the end.
As noted, dead writers were divided into “good” and “bad” relatively seldom and not very passionately. For example, Kipling’s ultra-patriotic (or English imperialism supportive) work didn’t interfere with the publication of his children’s stories in the Soviet Union. More problematic was the literature that was partly or completely religious, like Augustine or the Bible. Also bad were decadents like d’Annuncio.
But the real passions broke out over 20th century writers (artists, musicians). No grey areas existed here.The title of reactionary was automatically assigned to all creative individuals who had fled to the West from the Soviet powers – the novelist Vladimir Nabokov and the Novel Prize for Literature laureate Ivan Bunin, to mention but a few world-famous names.
This problem touched Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians perhaps even more acutely than Russians. The overwhelming majority of these peoples’ most talented and well-known creative individuals fled in 1944 when the Red Army marched in. It was forbidden to remember, publish, or quote these individuals. They were cut out of their peoples’ cultural history and assigned to oblivion. (Luckily this did not happen to the full extent, but still did partly.)
A second group that metamorphosed overnight into reactionaries were those who hadn’t fled (whether they didn’t want to or couldn’t) but whose works, unpublished in the Soviet Union, were published in the West. Such an offence was carried out by, for example, Novel Prize for Literature laureates Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
A third subdivision of the “bad” side involves those who didn’t flee to the West or publish their works there, but who, regardless of that, one fine day “proved to be” – reactionary, grovellers to the degenerate West, bourgeoisie justifiers or all of these together. As an example, in Moscow Nikita Khrushchev visited an art exhibition in the Manezh Exhibition Hall and came upon some avant garde art. Krushchev became enraged: This isn’t art, it’s smearing! This is taunting of a simple working person. – and thus the existence of an avant garde enemy of the people was revealed.
And so artists, writers, film directors and other creative individuals were constantly forced to feel like tightrope walkers. To make the kind of art that the Soviet Communist Party demanded was so tedious that it wouldn’t have been any kind of art. Instead of literature there would be the newspaper and instead of painting there would be the poster. For that reason the borders of permissible and forbidden had to be explored; one’s feeling and thoughts expressed allusively. As an example, Estonian writer Jaan Kross wrote the novel “The Tsar’s Madman” which relates the tale of a 19th century Baltic noble, Timotheus von Bock, who told the truth to Russian Tsar Alexander the First and who for that was tortured into an invalid in prison. Ideologically, all was in order – a free thinker standing up for people’s interests in conflict with the Tsar’s reactionary regime – but to a thoughtful reader it was seen as an allegory about subjugated peoples’ struggle against any kind of Russian tyranny, including the Soviet one.
It must be confessed that this tightrope walking was in some ways enjoyed by many creative individuals.The prescence of censorship forced the search for, and discovery of, new configurations and means of expression so that the supervisory powers wouldn’t have anything to grab on to, but still allow an intelligent reader (viewer, listener) to understand what was meant. It was pleasant to put one over on the vigilant bureaucrats, make them look stupid.
Yet this joy was but a small drop of honey into a barrel of tar. As a whole, the lack of creative freedom and the constant surveillance was still a pain. A good visual expression of this is Dmitri Shostakovich’s tormented, pained expression, which we can see in almost all photographs taken of him. No artist could ever know what sins or errors the vigilant bureaucrat might see in his work. For example, Estonian artist Olev Subbi painted a mighty mural – a landscape of Mulgimaa (a district of Estonia.ed). Within the landscape of forests, fields, farmhouses, and lakeviews could also be seen a tiny church spire. On the demand of the Minister of Culture for the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, the exhibiting of the mural was forbidden – it was deemed to be religious propaganda.
I have written already about the enthusiastic search for forbidden colour combinations. Literature watchmen read closely to ensure that the first letters of poetry lines didn’t add up to some anti-Soviet message or that a main character’s name read backwards didn’t mean something forbidden. Or that some outrageous print error hadn’t been left in, like Sralin (crapper) instead of Stalin.
During Stalin’s time, it was usual to have “nation-wide” discussions over some more important work of literature, like the manuscript of a capacious novel. “The people” presented reprimands and corrected errors. In this process it could become evident that the novel, in its relating of fishing village life, had not brought forward prominently enough the leading and directing part played by the urban proletariat. Naturally, the writer removed this error and wrote into his novel some proletarian who arrives from town and starts to direct the fisherfolk in their life and struggle.
In the same fashion, various committees discussed the works of painters and sculptors and made the necessary suggestions for improvement. By the way, in the matter of the recently discussed mural containing the church spire, the artist was first of all ordered to clean the spire out of the mural, meaning paint it over, but the artist happened to be stubborn and refused.
Generally the artists and writers did what was ordered because too much stubborness would have resulted in a ban on publication, which would have removed both the work as well as employment. Therefore, if told that he had painted Lenin with too long a nose, the artist made the nose shorter. If an actor was told that the German soldier he was portraying did not show a murderous enough character, the actor made him more murderous.
After Stalin’s death, this collective writing, painting and acting lessened to an extent; a work of art as a whole was proclaimed acceptable or unacceptable. Often, the focus was not on anything tangible, like a long nose or unacceptable expression; instead, the work of art was proclaimed “generally” unsuitable. Like the manner of expression was too Western. But both before and after Stalin’s death, an artist’s choice of subject could draw reproaches as well. And so, the stern question: Why does comrade K. paint only flowers? Our mighty work of building up socialism is proceeding, factories and hydroelectric stations are rising, red flags are waving and marching tunes are resounding – but he paints flowers. Is he yearning for the old bourgeois regime?
A similar accusation also struck some musicians. Why doesn’t comrade N. write patriotic Soviet songs? Exaltation songs for work? Cantatas about Lenin? Why does he forge little tunes about green growing meadows and blue skies? Doesn’t he want to take part in the establishing of Communism?
To be completely honest to the reader then I must confess that the petty Soviet official often … was right. The artist K. and composer N. really did long for a normal, humane society and they attempted, at least in their creative works, to flee the hate and snooper filled hell that surrounded them in the Soviet Union.
As stated, Party-determined and ideological directing of the arts was somewhat easier than the directing of science. However to that same extent, it was harder to force the arts and artists into the Prokrustes’ bed of the planned economy.
But generally, even this was managed. It couldn’t of course be permitted that while all Soviet people are arriving at eight o’clock at their lathes to do furious combat with imperialism, the artist or writer is still lazing in bed, staring at the ceiling and waiting for inspiration. To prevent this, it would have been best to put the creative types to work like the scientists: every morning the writers would arrive for work at the writers’ institute, sit behind their desks, start to write and write until five o’clock. And naturally they would have monthly, quarterly, yearly and five year plans.
The Soviet powers were unsuccessful in setting up such a situation, though they made serious attempts. (This is referenced in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” as the writers’ organization MASSOLIT, or Society of Soviet Literature for the Masses.) In spite of everything, those egotistical petit bourgeois types remained who, while the honest Soviet individual was at his tractor wheel raising his nose derisively to Truman, sat smoking in a coffeeshop cultivating thoughtless prattle or otherwise wasting time.
But the Soviet regime made their lives as difficult as possible. Help was found in the deficit. The artist needs paint and canvas? OK, but these are sold only to members of the artists’ union. And so, the mentioned union must be joined. But in order to join one must behave as required – paint a certain number of politically correct pictures and achieve their display at some exhibition.
And now, as member of the union, the artist had to take into account the union leadership’s reproofs about his life and activities. When the Party again shouted to the artists’ union (or writers’ union) that art has to become more down-to-earth, reflecting (for example) the advances of kolkhoz farmers and the victories of Soviet cosmology, then it could happen that the union began to pressure its artists-writers to adopt the “correct” topics.
An artist not in a union also had no hope of getting an apartment, studio or car purchase permit. All these were distributed – or not distributed – to artists by the respective creative unions. Outside of the creative union the artist was a nobody. These unions were the intermediaries between the artists and the state. Sometimes they would defend the artist from the state; sometimes they passed the state’s wishes, not to say orders, on to the artists.
The implementing of the planned economy was easier in such areas as film arts and theatre. There truthfully were no problems: under the watchful eye of Party organizations and keeping in mind their recommendations, the ministry confirmed the year’s programme and the theatre began to fulfill the plan. This many classics, this many new productions, this many from “Soviet playwrights”, meaning plays by playwrights from other Soviet Union peoples, and so on. To fulfill the plan, it wasn’t sufficient to just stage the planned production, it was also necessary that people would view them (there was also a financial plan – a certain number of tickets had to be sold). This responsibility sometimes created difficulties for the theatre manager, because the revolutionary or other propagandistic pieces in the repertoire did not interest the people.
V Absurdity Born of Doctrine
5.1 Brainwashing postulates
Allow me to start in an ironic key.
The imperialist West and the enemies hiding themselves within the Soviet Union – former oppressors and their henchmen – were never able to reconcile with the birth of the workers’ state. They laboured day and night to destroy it. Armed force was not sufficient for this; it was necessary also to sway the Soviet individual’s belief in the correctness of the path of Communist evolution. Therefore, all means were used in attempts to confuse the Soviet individual and deflect him from the correct path. In the process, the imperialists and hidden enemies appealed to some Soviet individuals’ preserved hangover for the past – the remnants of the bourgeois way of thinking and of the hierarchy of value, like the instinct for ownership, individualism and greed. Naturally, the Soviet individual decisively resisted all these attempts and laughed them off, but …one could never be sure. Just in case, his faith needed to be constantly reinforced.
What did this mean in reality? It meant that the Soviet individual’s brain was constantly washed, from morning to night. If we paraphrase one of Lenin’s more famous absurdities as trust, but check, then the Soviet regime related to its underlings on the principle don’t trust him in the least, but instead check on him constantly and shout into his ear all the time. The totalitarian regime would have happily controlled the person’s sleep time and left him without any possible opportunity to talk one to one, but then the hangovers from the past interfered again. After the first sexual revolution’s curiosities, the right of people to perform at least the sex act without the collective’s participation and commentary remained. The control of dreams – the monitoring of people’s dreams with some apparatus and leading them in the politically correct direction – was not known to even the KGB. The only means of forcing a way into a person’s subconscious was to torture him until he started to “see real-life dreams” and apathetically revealed all, but unfortunately this wasn’t possible to implement on a society wide basis.
Doctrine’s most sacred primary texts, led by “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”, already provided a whole list of brainwash topics. Perhaps “topic” is in its neutrality the wrong word and more appropriate would be “postulate” or even “sacrament”, because Soviet brainwashing didn’t consist of discussing some topic, but of the repeated pounding in of some long ago pounded in truth. We find in the primary texts the following postulates: the root of capitalist society’s evil lurks in capital, in other words in the private ownership of the means of production; the capitalist is the proletarian’s mortal enemy; the destruction of private ownership brings with it equality and happiness; the victory of the proletarian revolution is inevitable; wealth is a crime; the capitalist is a loafer who lives off other people’s labour; the proletarian has no fatherland: nationalistic feelings are a bourgeois hangover; the worker’s situation worsens steadily in capitalist conditions; bourgeois moral codes (justice, freedom, etc.) serve only the interests of the rich, they have to be replaced with proletarian ones; the dictatorship of the proletariat will end oppression and lay the foundations of a classless society. One postulate with the widest and most dreadful consequences was Marx’s phrase Religion is the opiate of the masses.
Regarding religion, attempts to extirpate it in the Soviet Union didn’t achieve noticeable success until the 1960’s and 1970’s. Or in other words, at about the same time as the younger generation in the West began to massively disavow religion and the church. In the Soviet Union, ministers of religion as well as the faithful were depicted as monstrosities. Clergymen were hypocrites – debaucherers, gluttons, and drunkards. Sometimes they sacrificed small children. Believers were either mentally abnormal or morbidly evil individuals who tortured their children with praying and kneeling, beat them and denied them food. Even though the constitution allowed freedom of religion, any student who showed himself to be religious was unceremoniously tossed out of university.
It was made impossible to be a passive or lukewarm believer. An example of this would be the individual who seldom attends church, but still attends, who also attends confirmation classes, marries in a church ceremony and lets his children be baptized. No, in the Soviet Union there were only two possibilities: either to be a loyal Soviet citizen and therefore a confirmed atheist, or to be a believer, in other words almost an enemy of the people, almost a nobody. A church marriage was, for example, precluded for anyone who wanted to rise in society above the level of the simplest worker (boiler stoker, unqualified construction worker, and so on). In order to openly attend church and take part in other religious ceremonies, an individual had to burn all his bridges and agree that he would afterwards be treated as the lowest being who had almost no rights. The only church ceremony which even a Party member could attend relatively fearlessly was a church funeral – if the dearly departed had firmly requested it.
What has been said applies to the years following the Second World War. Things were of course very different in those years when the Soviet regime was being established, when churches and monasteries in Russia were closed in mass and thousands of clergymen were shot or sent to die in prison camps.
Still, the Communist regime preserved the institution of the Orthodox church and some churches and monasteries also remained open. Even more, the Bolsheviks re-established the institution of Patriarch, which Peter the Great had abolished two centuries ago. But this was merely decoration. In fact, the Russian Patriarch and most of the other higher dignitaries of the Orthodoz church under the cover of their sparkling golden vestments were but KGB subordinates and the whole church organization faithfully served not God, but Russian chauvinism. This was an absurd, never before seen state church, which kissed the hand that was strangling it.
In the Soviet Union, a whole multitude of specific postulates were added to those postulates fomented earlier in Western Europe.
Sometimes, one or another of Lenin’s cyclical maxims was involved, which he spilled with tactical deliberation in some concrete situation, like of all the arts, the most important to us is film art, which however, as a result of the exertions of film makers, was shaped into an eternal truth intended to endure until the end of the universe. Or, that the trade unions are the school of Communism which said nothing to anyone. In the Soviet Union, trade unions were the Party’s slave-like command dischargers. Lenin took the secret of how and in in what way they were the school of Communism with him to the mausoleum.
Sometimes a Marxist classic was involved, which Lenin had in his own abusive style shaped into an even more absurd form. For example, Lenin took Marx’s postulate that “genuine” freedom arrives only when “bourgeois” freedom is destroyed, and worded it as follows:
Proletarian democracy is a million times more democratic than every bourgeois democracy; the Soviet authority is a million times more democratic than the most democratic bourgeois republic.
This wasn’t worth disputing. Middle of the night arrests, mass deportations, concentration camps for its own citizens – all this was a million times more democratic than life in England or America. Since even the Soviet individual held his life to be dear, then he didn’t hasten to ask, at least in a loud voice, why merely a million and why not for example two million.
An unbelievable amount of mindless balderdash was produced about this million times more democratic democracy. As an example, we can read from a school textbook published in 1974:
“At the present time the bourgeoisie has totally abrogated and trampled underfoot those ideals which once were its guiding principles. All attempts by large, well equipped ideological institutes and centres to find new ideals end in failure. Ever more wide reaching masses of people (in the West) are now convinced that genuine freedom, brotherhood and equality are guaranteed only by a socialist or communist system.”
If a student happened to inquire as to why individuals in the West have freedom of assembly but practically none in the Soviet Union, the teacher replied with affected amazement: In what way? Everyone in the Soviet Union has the freedom to organize demonstrations in praise of the regime and in support of the Communist Party. And only working people’s enemies wish to organize demonstrations with other goals. It is only natural to deny them that.
Therein lay the flaw: the Soviet Union nation was divided into 1) the people and 2) the people’s enemies. No “capitalist” society, not even the earliest and worst forms of it, had established such an inhumane division of human beings. Long held Christian moral codes, which commanded that even a criminal be considered a human being and therefore a member of the people, did not let this happen. But in the Soviet Union some of the people were not people. And if not people, therefore not human. Thus they were treated like animals. They were stuffed into cattle cars and transported to Siberia to die. “Genuine” democracy wasn’t for them, but for “the people”. The people were those who followed the orders of the Communist Party.
In the cases of more than one postulate, one was dealing with Lenin or Stalin’s original contribution to Marxist-Leninist theory. (Later, Brezhnev too made corrections and additions. Whether he was their actual author isn’t important.) To this group belong, for example, all those postulates which justified the rampant Russian chauvinism in the Soviet Union such as: the Russian people are progressive people; the Russian language is the Soviet Union people’s language of interpersonal communication; the Russian language is the natural language of intercommunication for the proletariat of the whole world.
The extolling of Russians reached such a level that in the Soviet Union it was asserted and believed as veracious that not Marconi but Popov invented the radio; the bicycle not a whole line of Western inventers beginning with Drais but someone called Abramovits; the steam engine not Newcomen or Watt, but Polzunov; the lightbulb not Edison but Jablotshkov and Lodygin, and so on.
Certainly Mikhail Lomonossov was, if not the greatest, then one of the greatest scientists in the history of the world; Krylov the greatest fabulist in world literature and Kulibin the greatest inventor in world history.
Undoubtedly, they were all talented and noteworthy men, in no way to be faulted for the fact that Soviet propaganda elevated them to an absurd realm.
After his own death and especially after Stalin’s death, Vladimir Ilich Lenin, the author of many postulates, himself became a postulate. He became an ultimate prophet around whom absolutely all was absolutely absolute: Lenin’s behaviour as a child was ideal; his activity as an adolescent was ideal; his actions in preparing for the revolution were gifted; he and he alone made the revolution; his actions in leading Soviet Russia and in establishing the Soviet Unon were again gifted. He made not one error, he loved children and music, he was caring, wise, and good,as stated in the children’s song which all children in the Soviet Union had to memorize. In addition to this, adults had to remember that Lenin was absolutely always absolutely right in all questions.
Not a word about Lenin’s immeasurable cynicism, cruelty, keeping of lovers, syphilis, and much more.
Already many years before Lenin’s 100 birthday anniversary in April of 1970, an immense campaign to extol Lenin started up. Even before, he had been extolled every day, his portrait everywhere in the Soviet person’s environment, but now everything was turned up many degrees. Newspapers, radio and television tormented people with endless news and announcements which were in one way or another tied to the approaching grand anniversary. Tractor operators and milkmaids solemnly committed to plow a certain extra number of hectares and milk an extra quantity of milk kilos in honour of Lenin’s birthday anniversary. Schools were ordered to furnish one classroom only with pictures, display stands, and objects that dealt with Lenin. As well, visual memorabilia reflecting on Lenin was to be displayed in school corridors. It was recommended that flower gardens devoted to Lenin be planted in front of the school and children had to learn songs dedicated to Lenin.
This campaign became completely idiotic and nightmarish. People searched for an escape in irony. Someone remarked that apparently Lenin had been born every day between the years 1860-1870. Someone else told the story of the clock factory that released a new model cuckoo clock: instead of a cuckoo, a small Lenin appears on the hour and repeats, “it’s my birthday!” – as many times as the small hand shows.
In addition to the postulates plucked directly from the classic texts there developed over time a large amount of secondary postulates, which with fatal inevitability drew conclusions from the primary ones. For example, all was the best in the Soviet Union. Or biggest. It simply had to be thus, because the government was the best and life the happiest, akin to the way things are now in Cuba or North-Korea. Excavators manufactured in the Soviet Union were the world’s best as well as the world’s biggest. The world’s longest railways, the world’s largest ships, and the world’s highest towers were built in the Soviet Union. When compact TV-sets began to be manufactured in the Soviet Union, then the mocking word on the street was: Soviet compact TV-sets are the world’s biggest!”
The pursuit of size led, among other things, to the situation where attempts were made to violently create large farm field expanses – even there where the geography didn’t permit. As an example, during the creation of some farm field expanses in Estonia, drainage ditches were filled in, resulting in land so wet that every spring some tractors submerged there.
Soviet science and technology were the most clever as well as the most front-rank, Soviet arts were at the highest level, Soviet sport the world’s most successful. In the achieving of all these aims, the Soviet people were honest, their Western rivals, however, sly and deceitful, trying always to cheat.
Because the theory stated that Soviet sport was the world’s best, then the proving of this at any cost had to be demanded from the athletes. Thus sport in the Soviet Union became politics. The USA, as the Soviet Union’s main rival on the “sport front”, went along with this rivalry to a degree. Thus, for example, the Olympic Games’ points chart, which hypocritically was named unofficial, became of more importance than it should have. After every Olympics then, a summary was pulled together and looked at to see who “won” the Games this time. Later, the German Democratic Republic intervened seriously in this calculation, outright “producing” athletes according to plan with the help of state financing and doping. The East Germans’ – or rather their leadership’s –morbid goal was finish ahead of West Germany. First place finishes in swimming, gymnastics, and track and field were to replace lack of freedom and create the illusion in East Germans that their lives were better than “over there”.
Hockey also held great propagandistic significance to the Soviet Union. Victories over Canadian and USA professionals tasted sweeter the more the economic situation became poorer. The same for figure skating. True, when the widespread corruption came to light – the KGB bought off the judges – then Soviet figure skating fell sharply to earth.
The reader can, by the way, be quite certain that the bribery payers did not feel themselves to be at fault. The Party winked and said, this is not deceit, but warcraft – after all, a worldwide war is ongoing between crumbling capitalism and trail blazing socialism. In such a battle all is permitted. Bribery, doping, falsifying of results, and whatever else. Because “they” are attacking us, we are only defending ourselves. And if they presently aren’t actually attacking, certainly they are planning to attack.
Every psychologist knows that this is a typical evil-doer’s psychology: I’m being treated badly, so I defend myself. As an example, I kill a person on the street, because he certainly is thinking ill of me.
A rich wellspring of new postulates was tapped for Soviet propaganda with the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany in the Second World War. From this a Soviet person was to remember that the Soviet soldier is the world’s best soldier; Soviet commanders are the world’s best commanders; Soviet war technology (especially the T-34 tank) is the world’s best war technology; all German soldiers were monsters; all Soviet soldiers embody and will embody in the future endless goodness. Western aid to the Soviet Union was unimportant and hypocritical; the Soviet Union freed the world of fascism; the whole world owed the Soviet Union eternal thanks. On the other hand, the Soviet Union owed nothing to anyone and to speak of lend-lease was either impolite (if from a foreigner) or anti-state (if from a Soviet person). In fact, a Soviet person wasn’t allowed to even know anything about lend-lease.
In addition to the numerous heroes of the front who gallantly trumped the fascists, there were also Soviet spies who trumped the fascists in everything else. The most famous was polkovnik (colonel) Issayev, who worked in the highest leadership of the Gestapo, under the name of Stirlitz. The cult film “Seventeen Spring Moments” was about Stirlitz.
Stirlitz was absolutely uncatchable. Once apparently, Stirlitz’s chief Müller had accidentally presented him to Hitler with the words: “Soviet agent Stirlitz, his real name I don’t know.”
“Soviet agent? Why don’t you arrest him?” Hilter was shocked.
“Ah, it would be no use,” Müller shrugged. “He’ll twist his way out anyway.”
Western readers may find interesting the truth that, from 1934, the Soviet Union applied the same term to German National Socialists as to Blackshirts (Italian) – fascists. This was deliberate, chosen to slide past the word “socialist” in NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers Party), which caused the Soviet person to ask whether they were friends or foes. Since no intermediate variant was allowed, then the “fascist” name was better suited – it was foreign, and lacked substance for the Soviet person. Therefore it could mean either friend or foe, depending on the Party’s and administration’s decision.
The Soviet administration did indeed make use of this opportunity: at first the Nazis were enemies, then in 1939-1941 a fiery friendship reigned, and then it became bitter enmity again. This was a natural course of events, since essentially the Soviet Unon and Hiltler’s Germany were not enemies, but rivals. The goal of both was world conquest. Enemies sign agreements only on fear of death, rivals can do it in the name of gaining advantage. Thus, the allying of the Soviet Union with the coalition against Hitler was based not on a wish to free anyone, but because two criminals got into a quarrel.
It is very painful to observe how the West to this day pretends that it believes the myth that Stalin “freed” Europe. And in Treptow park in Berlin the statue of the “Soldier-liberator” continues to stand, though its proper name should be “Soldier-rapist”.
The growing heatedness of the Cold War helped shape a very important postulate, which poisons the brains of hundreds of millions of people to this day: the USA is the incarnation of Evil. The loyal Soviet citizen sincerely believed this and to this was connected a whole chain of postulates: all the world’s evil comes from the USA; the USA fought in Vietnam against a harmonious and peace-loving Vietnamese people, killing and burning indiscriminately; the USA wants to rule the whole world; everything that the USA does, it does in the name of its own power and for the gain of capitalists.
The 1960’s “summer riots” in America, the killing of Martin Luther King as well as the murders of the Kennedys were a huge gift to Soviet propaganda. The Soviet person was given the impression that even walking on the sidewalk was dangerous, with bullets whizzing by everywhere, the Ku Klux Klan lurking in alleyways to hang little black girls, bars everywhere with unrestrained consumption of whiskey and striptease, children sifting through garbage cans for food.
Again, an anecdote about the influence of brainwashing, this time from a so-called Armenian radio series. (They had nothing to do with the real Armenian radio.) These jokes were always in question-answer format and the humour was found in the cunning or witty answer given by Armenian radio.
Armenian radio is asked:
“Why are there more passenger cars in America than here?”
Armenian radio is silent for an atypically long time. Then it answers:
“But Negroes are lynched in America.”
This phrase became a catchword to the circle of friends I moved in during my younger days. If, for example, you went to the store, but the sign “emergency” was hanging on the door, or when there was no hot water again in the university dormitory, or when the train again was so full that it couldn’t be boarded, then we looked at each other and said: But Negroes are lynched in America.
Perhaps I need to add that we didn’t mean this seriously, but as ironically as you can possibly imagine. This should be testimony to the fact that brainwashing hadn’t yet penetrated all lobes of everyone’s brains.
5.2 Brainwashing means and methods
Let’s start with a relevant anecdote.
Emperor Napoleon, in heaven, obtained a copy of the newspaper “Pravda”. Napoleon read it through and said approvingly:
“If I’d had such press, Parisians to this day wouldn’t know that I lost the battle of Waterloo.”
Soviet brainwashing was much more powerful, sly and cynical than Napoleon’s.
Therefore one shouldn’t underrate the influence of Soviet brainwashing. With it, three generations were crippled.
Since brainwashing penetrated into more or less all spheres of life (to leave out the bedroom after the light is turned off), it is difficult to decide where to start.
Let it then be the media – the press, radio and, starting in the 1960’s, television too. These were under the Party’s strict control; the upper right corner of all newspapers was emblazoned with the motto: “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” and each newspaper was some Party organization’s mouthpiece. “Pravda”, for example, was the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s organ and for that reason it would have been more correct for it to carry the name “Ultimate Truth” rather than just “Truth”. That which “Pravda” wrote was intended to be as exclusively right for a Soviet person as the Pope’s official stand for a devoted Catholic.
Newspapers were generally four pages (a bit thicker were “Pravda” and “Iskra” (Spark); the latter asserted itself to be the organ of the Central Committee of the Trade Unions) and without exception they were all extremely boring and depressing. The front page usually covered some new directive – for example with some endless wordfroth about potato planting. How madly important from the perspective of the well-being of the Soviet people as well of world history is the placement of the potato in the ground at the right time and in the right place. Or the imperialists had managed to achieve something ghastly and newspapers expressed the Soviet people’s unanimous anger and contempt for their course of action. During Brezhnev’s time, one could read tremendously long and pointless speeches about how everything in the Soviet Union is constantly improving and everything in the West constantly worsening.
One could read, but simple folk generally didn’t. The sole items of practical interest were on the paper’s last page – advertisements, announcements, sometimes too a humour section and crossword – and because of that people became accustomed to reading the newspaper from back to front. First the last page, then the two middle ones, and finally, absent-mindedly, the front.
Papers were printed on poor quality newsprint, which did have the positive quality of being very useful for starting fires, rolling your own cigarettes or using as toilet paper. Task-specific toilet paper was not produced for sale until the 1960’s and then quickly became deficit.
Radio and television were also full of propaganda. The number of neutral, educational and entertainment broadcasts that were able to fit in beside the propaganda depended on the specific Union Republic’s circumstances. In Estonia, for example, this or that Western-related item, including the Soviet Union’s first advertising clips, would occasionally trickle into the schedule.
Generally, the Soviet person had the choice of two programs – Union-wide Central Television or the local one. Thus, four pages of newspaper and two television channels. Radio was more problematic for the Soviet regime, because foreign stations inevitably penetrated to Soviet receivers; attempts were made to interfere with these signals.
However, this worry didn’t exist in the larger areas of Russia, where radio was listened to not through a radio receiver, but through a wire broadcasting system. Each kolkhoznik or worker had a “squawk-box” screwed into the wall and this carried but one program: it woke you in the morning, put you to sleep at night, and in between spoke of how beautiful life is in the land of the Soviets.
But naturally all this was but a fraction of the brainwashing that bombarded the Soviet person. For example, film’s importance can’t be underestimated as Lenin already knew. Gifted as he was. Movie ticket prices were kept artifically low, and to slightly simplify, movies, liquor and bread were the three things always available to the Soviet person. The movies provided comfort, allowed a few hours of reverie. In the sleepy countryside, where nothing happened and where one simply worked day after day to fulfill the plan, everyone watched all the movies, which were shown once a week in the kolkhoz centre. But then, several movies were usually shown at that time.
By the way, one needn’t take a smirkingly superior attitude to Soviet cinematography. Over the years in the Soviet Union many top-quality, professional level films were completed, whose creators, from Eisenstein to Tarkovsky, have entered world cimema history. As well, masses of poor quality films were produced, but the same can be said for Hollywood. The problem for Soviet film production was not the lack of professionalism, but the existence of propagandism. This was far from manifest in every film; even completely propaganda-free films were produced. But as a whole, film production was firmly in the service of brainwashing. Especially depressing was when some gifted filmmaker entered the service of totalitarianism. This resulted in an artistically effective and/or finely textured, but thematically (message-wise) primitive work (like Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin”).
It’s not worth spending a lot of time on fiction, because this topic area is too wide-reaching. Let me just add that the role of literature in brainwashing was noteworthy, especially when carried out together with school literature. The same effect happened here as in the cinema: a gifted writer’s deceitful work swept up and thus influenced even a critically-minded reader. A Soviet person read quite a lot. Book prices too were inexpensive, and the lineups in which to read them, endless.
Workplaces held regular “political days”. A specially invited speaker would deliver a lecture on “The international situation” or “The defeat of the Imperialists in Indo-China” after which questions would be asked and answers given. These political days – or to use George Orwell’s term, “Two Minute Hate” periods (from “Nineteen Eighty-Four’) – were at the same time good opportunities for the KGB to investigate people’s sentiments. Every establishment had its informer or informers, who forwarded the questions that were asked. Of course people didn’t dare ask all that interested or irritated them, but (hidden) sentiments could be inferred from even the most carefully worded questions.
Brainwashing didn’t let the Soviet man in peace even on his walk home from work. Red posters and slogans like “Long live the Communist Party”, “The Party and the people are one”, and so on, were fastened to the walls of houses; loudspeakers fastened to lamp posts broadcast lively Soviet “mass’songs”, such as “Large and wide is the country which is my home”. By Brezhnev’s era, these loudspeakers were no longer in daily use. The last time they started up full blast was, if I remember correctly, on Brezhnev’s death. Then, several days the loudpeakers played funeral music in order to suggest in the Soviet person an appropriate funeral mood, which was slow to develop.
The Soviet authorities assigned very great significance to such brainwashing instruments as architecture and monuments. Architecture always and everywhere reflects the governing ideology; in that, there is nothing new. But totalitarian architecture that exalts power and emphasizes the individual’s insignificance is still a phenomenon onto itself, into which can be grouped the respective accomplishments of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, and from more recent years, Kim Il Sung and Ceausescu. The specific Soviet “skyscraper” (a classic example is the Russian Foreign Ministry building in Moscow) belongs among this architectural style’s basic stock. The Soviet authority tried to also erect these Stalinist skyscrapers on conquered territories. One such still stands today in Warsaw.
Monuments were secondary to architecture. The loudest of them, in size about the same as Cheops’ pyramid, was to be erected in Moscow, in place of Moscow’s grandest and proudest church. The church was demolished, but the monument wasn’t built – it proved to be too expensive and complicated. A public swimming pool was built on the demolished church foundations. Today, the church has been re-constructed.
But instead, thousands of smaller monuments were erected, destroying at the same time almost all non-Soviet ones. Eevery town for sure had to have its own Lenin. There could be many, nobody forbade it, but there had to be one. Even if made of plaster of Paris and coated with gold or silver paint. Such Lenins remain by the thousands in Russia.
As far back as 1928, the classic Russian humourists Ilf and Petrov mocked the feverish erecting of monuments. The action in their story “A Noble Soul” takes place in the invented village of Pishtsheslav, where the horse-mounted figure of botanist Timirjazev towers. The villagers had erected this statue based on information that Timirjazev was some warrior, a civil war hero, and thus from the beginning he had a sabre in his hand. When it became clear that he was only a botanist, the sabre was replaced with a cast iron beet(root). But the menacing warrior grin couldn’t be changed.
Another tale spread by word of mouth. A new bronze sculpture of Lenin was being inaugurated in some small Russian town. As soon as the monument had been unveiled, the mayor shouted: But the cloth cap! You have forgotten to put his cloth cap on our leader’s head! The figure was quickly covered up again, the sculptor prepared a bronze cloth cap and welded it to Lenin’s head. Now the statue was inaugurated again, and all were very pleased, until it was noticed that Lenin now had two cloth caps: one on his head and the other crumpled up in his hand. No more changes were made. Apparently, that Lenin has two cloth caps to this day.
This story of a two capped Lenin might seem unbelievable, if I wasn’t able to affirm to you that I personally have on display in my home a pencil sketch of Leonid Brezhnev (not an original, but a store bought reproduction which was printed in a run of many thousands), where Brezhnev is ceremoniously presenting a Party membership card to a Soviet soldier, who already has a Party card. He is holding one and the additional one is being given by Brezhnev. Who knows about those cloth caps? Perhaps such a monument really does exist somewhere.
As well, all those threats and warnings which accompanied a Soviet person from cradle to grave must be classified as brainwashing. Bonds of accountability were used to make individuals responsible for each other. If a lathe operator said something against the state then his foreman was punished as well. If the foreman behaved in an anti-Soviet manner, then his workplace manager was punished, and so on. By this means, all persons in authority were (also) forced into roles as supervisors of ideology.
No one wanted to get into trouble because of someone else – this forced people to inform on each other and to admonish each other. And also to punish. For example, if a student managed to come up with some “anti-state” deed (like burning a textbook on the history of the Communist Party) then the principal had to immediately punish him most severely – or the the principal himself would be punished.
To this point, I have described the means of brainwashing. If we look now at the essential methods of brainwashing, these can be divided into two main kinds: 1) an outright lie and 2) a lie blended with truth, or demagoguery.
The resolve with which the Soviet Union cultivated the outright lie was outright heroic.
For example, the Soviet Union asserted to the whole world that those 20,000 Polish officers who in 1940 were murdered at Katyn on Beria’s orders were in fact murdered by the Germans. Just as cynically, the Soviet Union asserted to the whole world that no Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had ever been concluded. As if lying to the whole world wasn’t enough, old, pensioned off Molotov asserted the same without blushing to higher level Soviet bureaucrats when, beginning to doubt things in 1980, they came to question him. Molotov looked the questioner right in the eye and answered: on my honour, there was no pact.
Nevertheless there was, and this secret agreement’s reverberations continue to influence lines of force in the world to this day.
In addition, the Soviet Union asserted that the Baltic peoples joined the Soviet Union voluntarily and that the annexation of the Baltic states was lawful (recently, “democratic” Russia has again begun to repeat this mantra); that there are no political prisoners in the Soviet Union and political persecution is non-existent. During the Cuban missile crisis, Khrushchev at first cold-bloodedly asserted that there were no Soviet rockets in Cuba.
Each summary presented at the end of each Five Year Plan, showing that the Plan had been fulfilled and exceeded, must also be classified as an outright lie. During the entire period that Soviet Five Year Plans were put together and fulfilled with alleged success, probably not one person who wasn’t actually an expert was able to learn that, in actuality, not one of those Five Year Plans was fulfilled. Fulfilled in some individual spheres, but not in their entirety.
An enormous amount of outright lies were produced in the Soviet Union about Communist Party history. I already mentioned the systematic hushing up and running down of Trotsky. Especially passionate was the denying, of course, of such shameful affairs as the German financing of Lenin’s return to Russia from exile in 1917 to lead the revolution. Russia and Germany were on a war footing at the time so, by all rules of the civilized world, Lenin deserved to be shot as a traitor. The contributions of a large number of prominent Bolsheviks in the October Revolution and the years immediately following were hushed up and it was made to appear as if Lenin had organized the whole Revolution by himself. In summary, the whole official history of the Communist Party was one big lie.
Khrushchev’s previously mentioned promise that Communism, or the era of abundance, would be achieved by 1981 deserves its own unique chapter. The Party program ratified at the 1961 Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s XXII Congress stated clearly that Communism would arrive by 1981 The program even ended with the sentence: The Party solemnly proclaims: the present generation of Soviet persons will be able to live in the era of Communism!
By the way, the program also gave a definition of Communism, which contained the promise that everyone would be asked to contribute according to his abilities and everyone would receive according to his needs. By 1981, the Soviet Union would achieve a higher standard of living than any capitalist state, each family would have its own comfortably furnished apartment, municipal services (mass transit, sewage, water, and so on) would be free, and taxes would be abolished. Money, it appeared, would still remain in circulation, because the promise was made to lower prices.
But at the same time, Khrushchev paid little special attention to money. He took the position that nothing material is needed to back money. If needed, more money can always be printed. And this was done. The printing of unbacked money by the Soviet Union government meant that it was essentially releasing counterfeit money and stealing people’s deposits. The size of the theft became clear only upon the collapse of the ruble in 1990; until then, the Soviet people had been unaware. But Khrushchev wasn’t interested in such pedestrian things like economics or the basic tenets of monetary policy. He was convinced that the Soviet people had only to wish for something with all their might – and it would be achieved. Neither nature nor economics could resist the will of the Soviet people. Generally, a lot less attention was paid to economics in the Soviet Union than might be inferred from all the propaganda buzz around the Five Year Plans. There was much chattering about economics, thousands of “scholars” wrote scholarly works about socialist economic topics, but no one took care of the economy. Economics was to be advanced by the will of the Communist Party.
Does the reader remember the title of Leni Riefenstahl’s most stylish documentary, a classic of Nazi propaganda? It was “Triumph of the Will”.
When the year 1981 began to near, then it became clear that … the program of the Communist Party of the Soviet Unionwas being kept secret. More specifically stated, it could not be obtained from bookstores or libraries, from where it had been removed and obviously destroyed. To mention the program was considered “politically incorrect”; he who did that too actively risked getting titled enemy of the people. This is one of the Soviet era’s most mighty absurdities: the owning, reading, or citing of the ruling Party’s existing program is inadvisable if not outright forbidden.
Only in 1985 did the Communist Party manage to repair its program, more specifically replace it with a new one which, however, with another lie was called the “new edition”. This “new edition” announced in a non-guilty manner that time has proven the previous edition’s “basic theoretical and political positions’ correctness”. And so, if a program proclaims the arrival of Communism, and if this Communism doesn’t arrive, then this fact confirms the program’s correctness. Such an absurdity could drive even that Soviet person who had seen a lot and was used to a lot, into a rage. (Take note that at just that time the whole of Soviet citizenry began to collectively tire of lying, which by the way provides grounds to think that endless lying is fundamentally not possible – the person either renounces lying or renounces being human.) Having read the “new edition”, it was asked:
“Is this a conscious and cynical demagogery meant to play the people for fools, or does the Communist Party leadership truly contain such lunatics who believe that if a program can’t be achieved then that is the best confirmation of that program’s basic positions? If the program’s basic aims had been achieved, would this have meant that the program was erroneous?”**
But these questions proceeded from logic, though it is generally known that logic’s tooth can gain no purchase on absurdity. Absurdity is absurdity for just that reason, that it spits at logic. Some Soviet propagandists gave this spitting its own subtle terminology – it was called “dialectical logic”. This “dialectical logic” was Marx’s piece of bungled work which had no substance, but this was in fact good. When the Soviet person asked why the Party asserts that a person’s living conditions are only rising at the same time as stores are ever emptier of goods, then he could be answered with: According to formal logic the standard of living is perhaps falling, but formal logic is a bourgeois anachronism. On the other hand, according to progressive dialectical logic there is no contradiction between your rising living conditions and empty store shelves.
The lie blended with truth, or demagoguery, stood beside the outright lie as a worthy partner. Demagoguery’s main quality is that it is a lie, but it appears true. A whole arsenal of classic demagogic methods exists, starting with a single sentence or assertion taken out of context and extending to comparisons of uncomparable sizes. All these methods were put to use intensively in the Soviet Union. Here I can present only a partly incidental handful of the more curious examples, because a thorough and in depth survey of Soviet demagoguery would require a multi volume monograph.
To justify brutal Russification policies, propaganda channels announced at the end of the 1970’s that the Russian language is one of the world’s most important languages: just imagine, 85% of the whole world’s scholarly works are written in either English or Russian. I remember how this was mocked quite openly in Estonia. There, it was said that the Estonian language is also one of the world’s most important languages: 81% of the world’s scholarly works are written in either English or Estonian. Such an assembling of English and Russian was as unbelievable as using horsemeat and mousemeat in equal amounts: half a horse and half a mouse. The number of Russian scholarly works beside the English ones was of course trivial.
Or another example. Some nomenklaturist from Tula oblast (province) boasted that before the October Revolution there was only one writer in Tula province, but now in the fertile circumstances of Soviet authority, there are wholly 247 writers there – 24,600% more! The assertion was correct, but still demagogic because the one pre-revolutionary writer was… Lev Tolstoy. Of the 247, the world today knows not one.
I have already mentioned the wide-ranging statistical demagoguery (the comparing of all production indicators to 1913, and so on). More or less all Soviet bureaucrats were virtuosos at playing fast and loose with statistics; their work demanded it – pokazukha had to be constantly maintained in front of superiors. But this same skill was also utilized successfully in brainwashing. For example, when the production volumes of the Soviet Union and the USA couldn’t be compared for fear of revealing clearly how the Soviet Union was lagging behind, then growth percentages were used. As a comparison base, one year (let’s say 197X) was picked that was successful for USA and especially poor for the Soviet Union and then they trumpeted: in the two years since 197X the production of cast iron, iron, and steel in the USA fell 0.2%, but rose 5% in the Soviet Union! Especially effective was the presenting of such twaddle in graph form. The graph appeared shocking and almost no one thought about the essence of the matter: if a hippopotamus loses 0.2% of its weight and a donkey at the same time gains 5%, this does not change the donkey into the size of the hippopotamus. One is big as usual, the other small as usual.
In addition to such trickery, simple twisting of the truth , or tendentiousness, was widespread. This was used especially often when speaking or writing about foreign countries. Soviet writers, artists and others were allowed to go abroad from time to time. On their return, it was expected that they write newspaper articles or even a separate book about how horrible life is in “the jungles of a society without a future,” as the West was customarily called.
Don’t think that the West was depicted exclusively as an entrance hall to Hell. No, the descriptions were also allowed to contain a few words of praise, tinged with superior graciousness. For example, a travel article admitted that the Dutch are joyful and friendly, laughing a lot. In another, it was remarked that the Americans’ construction tempo and quality are impressive.
There were exactly enough grains of truth there to hold the lie together. And the lie was contained in the underlying message: in the West people are unhappy, their joy and laughter are phoney, they suffer under the oppression of exploiters and look longingly and jealously to the Soviet people, the only ones not exploited by capitalists. Western people lack a true perspective on the future, their life is insecure (their jobs can be terminated at any moment), their personal relationships are cold and calculated, based only on money and gain.
To create such an impression, specific people were described and their words quoted. Even in joyful Holland someone could be found who is discontented, who has been treated unfairly. At least in his opinion. Even in the world’s most beautiful city, Paris for example, can be found some unemptied garbage can or some squalid blind alley where a drunk is sleeping in the gutter.
Especially shocking was a Soviet Union diplomat’s wife’s description of life in London, published as a series in newspapers. It became clear that the English are so poor that if they invite friends for a visit, they cannot properly provide food or drink for their guests. Similarly interesting was to learn that in London it is impossible to get … shoes. The diplomat’s lady searched and searched but couldn’t find any that were suitable. The whole travel article was written in the same spirit. Crime, the rattle of weapons, the hordes of addicts, the unemployed in soup lines … The story had a happy ending: comrade diplomat’s wife returned to Moscow, invited friends to visit and arranged a boisterous party with lots of tasty food, lots of tasty drinks and lots of true Soviet friendship.
I’ll add another example of how a foreign country, in this case Sweden, appeared to a typical brainwashed Soviet diplomat’s eyes.
“Swedes always think that they are a nation on which a little bit might depend in Europe or even the world. This was comical and laugh inducing for me, as the representative of a real nation , to observe because on the basis of my impressions and experiences this was pure fallacy. Europe and the world depend on Sweden for nothing and Sweden can exist as a nation, or more correctly play at being a nation, only thanks to the magnanimity of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and only so long as that magnanimity lasts. (Bold by the author) If needed, this nation will simply be erased from the map of the world. Realistically thinking Swedes know that that is so, but there are not many of them. The largest number of Swedes live in some unrealistic fairy tale world which causes smirks in every observer who knows how things really are in the world.” **
This was the thinking of a country that declared itself the most reliable bulwark of world peace and whose senile leader Brezhnev considered himself the world’s most important “champion of peace”. The fact that the Soviet Union does not attack and destroy its peaceful neighbour is … magnanimity, or a good deed, for which the Soviet Union must be thanked.
By the way, the term “champion of peace” (or “combatant for peace”) is in itself nonsense. Peace and combat … the Soviet Union was so thoroughly absorbed with the ideology of struggle, the roots of which reach to “The Manifesto of the Communist Party”, that it could not express the pretence of favouring peace without use of words like struggle or combat. The Soviet Union was a profoundly aggressive state and when its aggressiveness diminished then it was only due to weakness and not ever due to principles.
Dear readers, that is how the world we live to this day was depicted for tens of years. It’s no surprise that a Western tourist in Russia is sometimes still watched with a scowl, because you never know – suddenly he pulls a pistol from his pocket and starts shooting. Because there is constant shooting in the West. Or he attempts right in the middle of the street to start exploiting a Russian with some trickery – because that’s how capitalists act. A person brought up immersed in Soviet ways of thinking was always ready at any moment to administer a rebuff or counter-blow.
It could also be that the Western tourist, if not clearly American, is regarded in Russia with some strange air of superiority, because all other nations other than the USA (and maybe China) exist, according to Russian chauvinism, only by the grace of Russia. As a sign of great courtesy, England, Germany and France may be called nations. The remaining peoples are garbage, a senseless rabble, who have no vigour, language or culture.
Soviet brainwashing was so insidious that it threatened to mentally cripple not only the uneducated and/or simple-minded but also the sensible, educated and intelligent. Orwell has described such a process. Very many sharp eyed observers noticed that joining the Party could be fatal to an intelligent person’s mental health. An individual who to that point had remained deaf to the Communist palaver on the radio and in agitators’ speeches and had retained a healthy mind, joined the Party to further his career. And after some time his family and friends noticed that he behaved as if he had “converted”. Uno Mereste, substantially more sharp-eyed than the average person, endured similar repeated and very tenacious attempts to force him to join the Party, though he resisted and did not join. He wrote the following.
“I could not deny that that Communist idea, disseminated by fear and love, had a certain, even fairly strong, infectiousness. And some in no ways foolish people were infected by it – it is lovely to think that we are building a society in which all people’s physical and spiritual needs are completely satisfied, where no one has to do without anything because of lack of money, since no money is needed, all is available without money; where all people are equal in property, since everyone has everything that they need and no one lacks for anything, and so on. As an economist I of course knew that such a society is inevitably impossible due to functioning natural and societal laws, but to think that as a Party functionary one would be obliged to spew, day after day, such trash from one’s mouth, something from that process could begin to attach itself unnoticed. At first a little bit, later a bit more – and one day the mind has in fact ”converted”. Or if it hasn’t, then your social circle believes that you have ”converted”, which actually is almost the same thing.” **
Brainwashing’s most extreme and brutal form was the lunatic asylum. The reader may remember the film and play “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” – during Brezhnev’s rule, dissidents were placed into similar circumstances. The Soviet Union leadership was very pleased with this idea. Until this time, the Kremlin leadership had been troubled by a little problem: in the Soviet Union it was officially not possible to punish politically different thinking and therefore also there were no political prisoners. Following from this, therefore, the conclusion was that differently thinkers had to be kept in jail, tortured, taunted, and persecuted under the authority of some other paragraph, which was possible, but uncomfortable.
On the other hand, mental illness was a magnificent solution. Political trials disappeared, the number of bothersome political prisoners decreased significantly. Some leading Moscow psychiatrists even discovered a helpful new form of schizophrenia, whose main symptom seemed to be the patient’s belief that human rights are being violated in the Soviet Union. An individual expressing such thoughts was classified not simply mentally ill, but dangerously mentally ill, who had to be isolated from society behind thick walls and bars. When he showed signs of restlessness, a sturdy orderly appeared with a syringe.
Such methods drove more than one completely sane person truly insane. From another angle, many in the final years of the Soviet Union were seized by the thought that the whole country was a huge lunatic asylum.
This is interesting from a psychological perspective: when in Stalin’s time it felt like living in a huge prison camp, then in Brezhnev’s time a feeling of living in a lunatic asylum started to develop.
“At the meeting, a discussion broke out over the deepening ethical crisis. People think one thing, say another, and act in an entirely different third way. The debaters arrived at the generalization that almost all people, not only the narrow upper stratum of Party and leading workers, are like that as a result of the way our society has evolved. It was no longer possible to decide, based on people’s words and actions, what they are thinking or how they are thinking. People themselves were not always able to understand what they were thinking about at any particular moment.” **
If this is not the beginnings of schizophrenia, then what is it?
5.3 The processing of children and youth
What was done to children and youth in the Soviet Union is perhaps the Soviet authority’s greatest crime and thus needs separate exposure.
There are examples from distant history of some ruler or another who selected a certain contingent of youngsters and had them raised as supporters of some fanatical idea (like the Turkish Janissaries). But to this time, not one society had attempted to do that with the whole population and all youth. To compare this action with Christian upbringing, which is also aimed at all, would be demagogic. Christian education proceeds from tradition, including the honouring of parents; Communist education set as its goal the breaking down of traditon and the shaping of a “new person”.
Even the very idea carried within it an essential internal contradiction. On the one hand, the desire was that all would be brought up changed and that all would be militant Communists; on the other hand, of course, militants needed opponents– “the new person” could be new only by comparison to the old. This meant that the whole population must join in combat with the people’s enemies.
There was about as much logic in this assertion as in the anecdote about the world’s oldest man, who feared no one other than his own father when that man was drunk.
But absurd aims and rhetoric were arrived at exactly in that way. For example, in the course of another of Stalin’s witch hunts, the Young Communists of Tartu University, under the leadership of the Communist Party, produced an open letter in which, among other things, it was said: All university students condemn the individualism and egoism apparent in some university students (…). Do you see? “All” university students condemned defects apparent in “some”. Those “some” therefore did not belong as university students, just as an enemy of the people did not belong to the people. He was inhuman, “a relic” and a parasite who had to be annihilated. There were people and there were non-people, there were persons and there were non-persons.
This ideology was carried to its logical end by Pol Pot, who had 2 million of his state’s 7 million inhabitants put to death and would have continued on that road if he hadn’t been stopped.
The aim of breeding some “new person” to who old ethical standards didn’t apply was from the very start absurd. In the best case, it was childishly naïve, though volens nolens (whether willing or unwilling ed.) criminal. All ideologies preaching the creation of a “new person” and new ethical standards have with fatal consistency led to mass murder and/or its justification. The Nazis established concentration camps on the shoulders of Nietzche’s teachings; as a proclaimer of the new person and new morality, Sartre sang hosiannas to Stalinism while well aware of the extent of his crimes. But obviously he liked how Stalin treated people.
The most hideous icon of this new person theme in brainwashing is probably Pavlik Morozov, a youngster who observed that his father was a counterrevolutionary. He went to the Chekists (fore-runners of the KGB ed.) and denounced his father, after which other counterrevolutionaries murdered him in hideous fashion. Pavlik Morozov was an historical figure, but it is far from clear what circumstances led to him being murdered. In the present case, it is also not important, but of importance is the story that was shaped from his act. And so Pavlik became a typical martyr, who was honoured appropriately.
Pictures of Pavlik hung in Red Corners, hundreds of Pioneer brigades bore the name of Pavlik Morozov, thousands of Pioneers worked to live and strive to act just like Pavlik Morozov. The most horrible was the belief instilled in children: such behaviour is good and correct. If ever the Communist system is in danger, then even your parents must be killed. Even if children weren’t able to grasp this word for word, then this message still influenced them in some fashion.
Having touched on the Pioneer organization many times, this is a fitting time to introduce the reader to child focussed brainwashing’s most essential forms of organization, composed of three intertwined youth organizations. These were Little Octobrists, the Pioneer Movement, and Young Communist League (Komsomol).
The Little Octobrists organization included children in grades 1 to 3, or ages 7 to 10. Then you were a Pioneer from the 4th to 8th grade (ages 10 – 15) and starting in the 8th grade you were pressured to join the Young Communist League, whose Russian abbreviation was VLKSM (All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth). A person could remain a Komsomol (translatable perhaps as Comyouth. ed.) until 30, but it was preferable that he join the Communist Party before reaching that age. This could be done from the age of 18, which in the Soviet Union was deemed the age of majority in all ways: one could join the Party, could marry, could buy alcohol from the store.
The practical activities of the Little Octobrists and the Pioneers (who had of course nothing in common with the military term “pioneers”) were similar in many ways to that of Scouts. They learned to hike, erect tents, build fires, orient in terrain, tie knots, identify plants and birds, and much more. Pioneers mentored Little Octobrists, just as Scouts mentor Cubs.
Similar too were the attributes – for example the neckerchief, which is yellow for Scouts, but red for Pioneers. Both Little Octobrists and Pioneers had badges, which had to be worn on school uniforms. Both badges bore an image of Lenin. As a whole, the activities of these organizations were not from beginning to end Communist or brainwashing – too much time was left for topics not tied to politics, like the romance of camping, sport, nature, etc. Of course, this applies especially to the Little Octobrists, who were only children and who couldn’t be molded using anything other than syrupy but false tales of the youth of Vladimir Ilich Lenin, or “little Volodia”. The Little Octobrist had to internalize the knowledge that the very best and dearest person in the world has been Lenin.
For all that, differences with Scouting were clear. While Scouting ideology is aimed at perfecting a person, at striving “to become better”, then Pioneers had to clearly undrstand that their “to become better” is inseparably bound to the struggle against enemies of the people, carried out in the name of the Communist Party’s great endeavour. A Pioneer had to endeavour to become not simply a good person, but a good Communist. On this road, saintly Pavlik’s example pointed the way.
“A curious affair happened once at a Komsomol meeting: a school-mate accidently let slip the assertion that, after all, that Pavlik couldn’t have been a normal youth if he betrayed his parents and lineage. The Komsomol secretary was on the brink of stroke, the teacher pale, and the school director’s chin quivered ominously. You can imagine for yourself, what kind of conduct mark adorned his report card after his blaspheming of the sacred Pavlik”.*
As can be seen in the above quotation, also forced to bow to Pavlik were the Komsomols, who as teenagers sometimes tended to relate critically to the world and also to Communist brainwashing. That much more devastating was to become a Komsomol and then live as a Komsomol. A young person’s manner of thought and value judgements were either in fact deformed, or he managed to avoid that albeit at the cost of developing a purposeful hypocrisy. In both cases, belonging to a Communist youth organization negatively influenced the young person’s normal sense of morality.
In earlier times (during Stalin’s rule) the Komsomol chose fanatical apple polishers, young people suffering from inferiority complexes, who as Comyouth were able to mete out revenge for their real or imagined humiliations.
In later times, especially in Brezhnev’s days, the Komsomol became a hotbed for cynical careerists. There, they did not become good Communists, but good liars, freed from any kind of belief in the possibility of serious ideals. The principled careerists’ only meaning in life was power and well-being and they learned to believe that the same craving impelled all people. The only difference is that some know how to realize these cravings better than others. In a few words, those who are like them are successful, those who are not, are losers. All Party leaders of that time began their careers in the Communist youth organizations.
Joining the Little Octobrists or the Pioneers was throughout the history of these organizations predominantly voluntary. After Stalinist outrages had frightened people, then becoming a Little Octobrist and Pioneer took shape as the norm. Since these organizations were only partially devoted to brainwashing and also had other purposes, then often even parents with an anti-Communist mindset didn’t argue when their child, following the example of his friends, expressed a wish to put on his chest the red pentagon with Lenin’s picture. For a child to want to belong to the same organization as his friends is natural and inevitable. The Soviet brainwashing machine made full use of this circumstance. It wasn’t possible for a child’s parent to start giving a political counter propagandist lecture to his 7 or 10 year old.
Why? For the very simple reason that the child would have gone to school the next day and said: “I cannot become a Pioneer because my parents said that…” After that, the parents would face a visit from the KGB representative, dismissal from work, and who knows what else.
A parent could only forbid the child without commentary. But this could have appalling consequences, since children’s spirit of collectivity is extraordinarily strong. For example, a terrible case occurred at the end of the 1960’s in Estonia: a girl, who had been forbidden by her parents to join the Pioneers, poisoned herself. The Communist propaganda machine made all that it possibly could from this event – the devastated parents were shown on television, they were jeered on the radio and in newspapers as well as at many meetings. One can only imagine what influence this had on other parents faced with a similar problem. They had to look on helplessly as their child became a Pioneer and thereafter a Comyouth and only look on as the most unadulterated lies about history and world politics were poured into his head.
If being a Little Octobrist and Pioneer was still largely games and the decision not to join either organization was in a sense tolerated by the Communist authority, then things were different with the Komsomol. That Communist youth organization was the forge for future Communists and Party leaders.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s only a small number of youth belonged to the Komsomol, but beginning in the 1960’s the picture changed. By the way, the 1960’s were also that short period of time when those youth who were not driven by inferiority complexes or by cynical careerism, but by a serious belief that perhaps there is a positive and humanitarian essence to the socialist idea, joined the Communist youth organzation in significant numbers. This was generally a hopeful era in the West as well, with a strong left-leaning inclination.
This mood changed in the 1970’s. Optimism and idealism dissipated, but that much more firmly the Communist regime demanded that all youth join the Komsomol. This association was officially voluntary, and this is what made the coercion especially repellent. The authorities demanded a wholly Orwellian submissiveness, compelling a person to swear: I am voluntarily becoming a member of this organization. This was the same as in Orwell’s book: “I love Big Brother.”
And so in the 1970’s and 1980’s it was no longer a matter of choosing idealistic youth or of “nurturing” them in the Comyouth organization, but of forcing an act of mental surrender: the powers that be demanded a young person profess his powerlessness to resist in any way the demands of the Communist regime. To join the Komsomol meant to profess: I am powerless in the face of power, I will carry out its orders, and I declare as well that I am doing this voluntarily.
To push a young person to this stage, many different methods were employed, from gentle persuasion to sadistic intimidation.
“One spring day in 1977, our class teacher appeared in front of us with a solemn message: “Today, dear young people, is the moment when you will write your application to become a member of the All-Union Leninist Communist League of Youth!”
The teacher distributed the partially completed applications. They were such rags, printed on poor quality paper. All that remained for us, the students, was to write our name, date, and signature. I did something which even to myself seemed unbelievable – I left the form unfilled.
The next day I was called in to the teachers’ room for interrogation. The class teacher along with the director of studies began: “Who forbade you to join the Komsomol? Who have you discussed your action with?”
I stayed silent because I genuinely didn’t know why I had acted that way. Both pedagogues threatened: “If you don’t sign the application, your school career will be shortened, you will not be accepted to high school, you will not be able to go to university…” And so on.
Frightened, with tears in my eyes, I signed that damned application. I remember how that dear old school house, within whose walls I had spent seven childhood years gathering school wisdom, where I had spent my carefree childhood, suddenly seemed strange to me.” *
It is worth separate mention that even in such circumstances, there remained a certain percentage of obstiante youth who did not join the Komsomol. In some cases this did impair their life’s subsequent course (like the road to university being cut off), in some cases it didn’t. Even in this matter, the Communist regime was inconsistent to the end.
The concluding sentence of the above quotation is important: Communist brainwashing and especially the forcible pushing into the Komsomol ruined the memories of school days and teachers for many generations. The ruining of a young person’s memory of school, the removing of the opportunity to remember his teachers with respect – that too is one of the many crimes of the Communist regime. This broke the necessary bond between generations, of respect for older people, in every community.
It was hard to respect a teacher who, slavishly passing on the regime’s orders, devastated his students. Even when he didn’t do it willingly, but reluctantly, he was seen by students in a bad light. However, those who served the Communist regime with enthusiasm, and there were enough of them, created especially bad memories. For example, there were teachers who entirely voluntarily spent Christmas Eve at the church doors, observing who entered. When they saw one of their school’s students, they made note of the name and notified the KGB. Or they stepped up to the student and tried to persuade and threaten him to not go to the church service. There were occurences where children were forcibly torn from their parents’ side – let the parents go if they’re that ignorant, but the Soviet school does not permit such “opium” to poison children!
Anti-religious propaganda, which permeated almost all school subjects and which was propagated at more or less every possible opportunity, was in fact the second significant trait that cooled interpersonal relations between pedagogues and their students. There could be found students who were impartial on religious matters, and there could be found students who gladly went along with atheistic brainwashing – because this gave them a legal opportunity to belittle people older than them –, but for many the constant mocking of religion and the religious was repellent. Unfortunately, they lacked the opportunity to stand up against this, since such an act would have immediately earned them the label of “enemy”.
The state of affairs was even harder for those who were deep and convinced believers. For the most part, they were made universal laughing-stocks, with the mocking comments of regime-true teachers personally setting the example. A young believer who didn’t hide his faith could, if lucky, finish high school, but university was closed to him.
Officially, freedom of religion existed, but “religious propaganda” was forbidden by law. Unfortunately, any religious activity outside of church – such as saying grace in a public dining establishment – was classified as religious propaganda. That was a criminal offence.
As already mentioned, in addition to through the Communist youth organizations, Communist brainwashing occurred directly through instruction at school.
To do that, first of all there were special school subjects, like for example Study of Society. This was open and official brainwashing. For example, a Study of Society textbook published in 1974 gave students the following assignment:
According to some reactionary ideologies, a revolution is a particular social illness which causes great harm to a community because it tears an individual from his everyday activities, brings about human sacrifice, ruins the operation of governing organizations. On the basis of historical facts, try to refute this slander of revolution.
Within the framework of Study of Society, students were introduced to the following disciplines: dialectical materialism (this was Marxist (materialistic, atheistic) philosophy in the broader sense; it could also be said, Hegel as processed by Marx), historical materialism (Marx and Lenin’s works of genius about the so-called succession of social formations, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the inevitable destruction of capitalism and of the arrival of Communism) and political economics (primarily socialism’s political economy, which was intended to prove socialism’s, or in other words the command economy’s, complete superiority to capitalism).
While learning about dialectical materialism, a student could pick up some useful knowledge about the history of philosophy, if the teacher happened to be good.
Historical materialism was a thoroughly developed fantasy, which appeared on paper to be irreproachable. But that was its only strong point and besides, this irreproachability didn’t include the future – the so-called Communist society. Not one text or teacher knew how to describe it, no one could explain how the transition process from socialism to Communism starts and then progresses. The only thing that teachers and ideologues knew to repeat with ignorant certainty was the thesis that socialism’s principle of he who does no work also does not have to get food would be replaced by Communism’s principle from everyone according to their abilities, to everyone according to their needs.
When Nikita Khrushchev’s son tried to find out from his father what, after all, is this Communism, he never got a clear answer. Finally the son realized that his father himself didn’t know exactly. However, this didn’t deter the superpower dictator from announcing with great aplomb in 1961 that the Soviet Union would achieve Communism by 1981.
By the way, a few attempts were made in the 1940’s to describe more precisely what life would be like in the Communism era. This project involved many pseudo-scientific institutions.
“A dispute broke out among some scholarly collectives. How will delivery of goods to people occur in a Communist society if there is no commerce and paying money for goods no longer exists. They were more or less in agreement that the delivery of goods to consumers must happen by means of pipe transport – by means of a special consumer goods pipeline. However, differences of opinion occurred over how many such pipelines were necessary.
Some thought that goods would start to be delivered in package form by way of a large pipe to houses where people live. People would make known what they need and all the wished for is sent home to them by way of the pipe. Others felt that one pipe would not suffice, two are needed: one for food goods and another for manufactured goods. A third group felt three pipes were needed. During Communism’s first phase, only very large things like furniture, pianos, refrigerators and washing machines would need to be transported in the usual way, by truck, at no charge to all who wanted them.” **
If the reader now is of the opinion that it is impossible to think up any greater foolishness, then he is mistaken.
“A scholarly collective had been working for a long time already on an automatic machine to prepare egg sandwiches. They started from the premise that the living standard in a Communist society is very high and people surely want to eat abundant amounts of egg sandwiches, and therefore very many need to be prepared. The automatic machine had to boil the eggs, peel them, slice them, and spread them on the bread slices, all without a person having to touch anything. All that is needed is to place the buttered bread slices into the correct spot in the machine. An improved version of the machine was to also slice the bread and spread butter in the right thickness on the slices. Such an improved machine would only need to be stocked with bread loaves, packages of butter, and fresh eggs. A person wouldn’t need to lift a hand, the sandwich would appear on a conveyer belt.” **
Unbelievable as it may be, but socialist political economics was even more ridiculous than the fantasies about a society where everyone gets everything, as much as needed. It was a pitiful attempt to put a positive spin on things and persuade students that a donkey is bigger than a hippopotamus. During which both the donkey and the hippopatamus are right in front of the students’ eyes, available for them to reach out and touch them. Because of that, socialist political economy was the most boring subject to students and thus the teacher teaching it must have truly felt badly. A young person had to hammer into his head a countless number of deceitful statistics like, in the years 1970 to 1975 productivity in industry rose by 36-40%, in kolkhozes and sovkhozes 37-40% and in construction 36-40%. At the same time, production of consumer goods had increased by 80% , the total output of machinery construction by 70% and the total output of light industry by 35-40%. Between the years 1966 and 1975 the food grain yield had risen from 167.5 million tonnes to 195 million tonnes a year, milk production from 80.5 million tonnes to 92.3 million tonnes a year, but meat production from 11.6 million tonnes to 14.3 million tonnes.
These were all meaningless accounts, based only on the need for pokazukha. A sharper student, by the way, could see that if he compared even those overblown accounts of food grain, milk, and meat output to population growth in the Soviet Union, then there was no real growth and likely even a regression. The most reliable proof of this was the emptying store shelves, and also the fact that, about 60 years after the Great Socialist October Revolution, which Lenin thought would create Communism, or general abundance, in 15 years, the Communist Party had to announce a so-called food program. Essentially, the food program was an attempt to head off threatening starvation. Incidentally, one comic aspect of the food program was the weekly fish day. This meant that on Thursdays not one cafeteria or restaurant was allowed to prepare meals using pork or beef, but to use only fish, which the Soviet Union with its plunderous methods scooped from its own internal waters, and from its territorial seas as well as from the oceans.
But enough of this nonsensical school subject, which to its misfortune was situated at Communism’s most sensitive spot – there, where practice and theory were to meet. They did meet, but only to prove that one of the two is wrong.
Secondly, all the remaining school subjects were steeped in Communist ideology and/or Russian chauvinism. It is clear that this was harder to do, for example, in mathematics than in history or biology. But, let’s repeat, no one escaped ideology. Even an arithmetic problem was composed so that the child would know how horrible life is in the United States and how fortunate in the Soviet Union. If a subject didn’t immediately allow for any way to graft on Communism, then Russian chauvinism could be grafted on – some Russian scientist could always be found, the emphasizing of who left the impression that it is precisely the Russian people have made the most weighty contributions to the development of that particular branch of knowledge. Chemistry had been founded Mendelejev, Butlerov, biology by Pavlov and Mitshurin, mathematics by Lobatchevski, history’s greatest poet was Pushkin, the greatest prose writer Tolstoy, and so on. Generally, one was dealing with genuinely outstanding scientists and writers, but their achievements were exaggerated enormously.
If no one else could be found, then good old Mikhail Lomonossov (1700’s) who dealt with everything, always served to help out – therefore he was the father of absolutely all branches of knowledge.
The idealism of a Soviet youth was put to the test with the high school graduation essay. All of a Union Republic’s youth wrote the essay on one and the same day; the essay topics were given by radio on the morning of the day, with the youth already congregated in school halls. There were 3 to 5 topics and they generally were based on the required texts. The most widely disseminated were topics associated with Maxim Gorky’s novel “Mother”, Lev Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and Mikhail Sholokov’s “Virgin Soil Upturned”. The first and third were history falsifying works of propaganda; Tolstoy’s great novel certainly belongs with the great accomplishments of world literature, but even here students were expected to glorify a revolutionary attitude to life and the Russian people.
A so-called open topic, one that didn’t require knowledge of any required text, was always available, but even this topic was, as a rule, propagandistic – as an example, “The friendship and cooperation of peoples is one of the foundations of activity in the Soviet homeland” or “The Komsomol is present where blazing hearts and brave deeds are needed”. In short, a Soviet youth had to demonstrate that he is capable of proving some given dogma using seemingly logical arguments. At the same time he had to demonstrate that he is subordinate to training and can produce a piece of writing loyal to Communism without regard to what he thinks or means in his conscience.
When the young person had nicely managed that, he was deemed “mature”; he received his high school graduation certificate and was permitted to assume his position in the permanent Communist struggle against internal enemies, external enemies, poor weather conditions, and international imperialism.
VI Absurdity Born of Absurdity
6.1 Absurd humour’s baselines.
How can we possibly do without absurdity? How can we bear the weight of the world when faith in God or redemption is no longer able to help, nor is the hope that science will solve all problems or that all will be right if only a strongly progressive income tax is implemented. Thinking about global warming, information overload, population explosion and pollution, the average John Smith could die from melancholy. Or turn to drug addiction or alcoholism.
This is exactly where absurdity comes to our aid. Absurdity is like a present-day indulgence, a get out of jail free card from all – global, social, family, and personal – problems. Imagine a man who has just been fired, his lover has cheated on him, and his son has been expelled from school. And to top it all, it was announced on the news that the Gulf Stream is presently changing its direction and therefore his cottage will be under 5 meters of water within a year. He takes his worries to a bar and there he meets a former classmate, who complains to him that he’s just been fired, his lover has cheated on him, and his son has been expelled from school. And to top it all, the daily news has just announced that the Gulf Stream is changing its direction and his cottage will be under 25 meters of water within a year. What dos the first man do? Of course he bursts out laughing.
The Soviet person protected himself in exactly the same way – with desperate, tear-streaming laughter. More specifically, I’m speaking of that Soviet person who hadn’t yet completely lost aspirations for a rational way of living.
It is noteworthy that certain sorts of absurd jokes, which traditionally have captivated mainly a narrow intellectual circle, became in the final years of the Soviet Union popular in the general population as well. Absurdity was no longer a Glass Bead Game of the elite, but a reflection of everyday life, understandable to all.
Now, with that era over, it could be said that the whole history of Soviet power was in a way summarized in absurd jokes. It was as if the act of telling jokes became the wording of the epitaph for that perpetually failed experiment in which we were the guinea pigs.
Deliberate absurdity appeared in Western culture at the end of the 19th century. Naturally, this happened in England, where that specific, often dark humour developed which, perhaps because of the influence of stoic upbringing, had for a long time already dangled at the edge of absurdity. Quite a few famous sayings pull in that direction, among them the Duke of Wellington’s, voiced at the battle of Waterloo’s most critical moment when his deputy came to ask for the commander-in-chief’s strategic plan in case the commander-in-chief be killed in battle. As we know, Wellington looked his deputy in the face with amazement and said: The plan is to crush the French.
However, black humour is not yet absurdity. In the 19th century, a step forward led to genuine absurdity. An important pioneer here was undoubtedly Lewis Carroll with his tales of Alice. In some ways, the adventures of Alice are successors to and elaborations of the Peter Pan tales, but as absurd humour Alice is completely innovative and new. The tales of Alice are today just as absurd as when they appeared over one hundred years ago. They are classics.
But this was only the beginning. In 1914 mankind, or at least its one part, Western civilisation, began the most absurd undertaking in its known history, the First World War.
It is hard to overestimate the fertilizing influence of the First World War on the spread of the noticing of absurdity and of absurd humour. The war, begun in hope and gallantry, soon metamorphosed into a horribleness of muddy defensive trenches. As an indirect consequence of the World War, many peoples won themselves freedom and there was nothing absurd in that, though they waged their own wars of independence. Those wars had meaning. But after the first two years no one understood the meaning of the First World War and it has remained incomprehensible to this day.
Numerous giants of thought appeared after the war. For example, the 1920’s saw the emergence of the trend in art and literature called Surrealism, with the Spaniard Salvador Dali as its figurehead. True, Surrealism is not the same as absurd(humour). Surrealism tried to be more ambitious than Lewis Carroll. While Alice’s dreams were nevertheless still dreams for Carroll, Surrealism, inspired by Sigmund Freud, searched for some mysterious “truth” in a person’s subconscious. The connection with such an absurd school of thought as psychoanalysis gave Surrealism an inevitably absurd tinge. It is important to note that Surrealism in turn has manifested an influence on the further development of Marxism in the 20th century. The absurd is drawn to the absurd.
Having come into being during the World War and thus a bit earlier than Surrealism, so-called Dadaism was more overtly absurd. For example, at an art exhibit Dadaists might have put on display an upside down piss pot. “What is that supposed to mean?” asked exhibit visitors. “Not anything”, answered the artists. A meaningless thing is usually called nonsense, but if it is as deliberate as the Dadaists’ piss pot, then one is dealing with the absurd. True, not with an absurd joke, because a few Dadaists thought that their overturned piss pot was putting forward some profound message. A proper absurd(joke) doesn’t stoop that low.
A distant echo of the First World War is seen in the works of the great existentialist – we can also say great classic absurdist – Franz Kafka. His first masterpiece, “The Metamorphosis”, appeared during the World War (1915). Later came “The Castle”, “The Trial” (posthumously in 1925) and others.
But Kafka wasn’t a humourist. He perceived absurdity and reflected it in his works, but no humour can be found in them. Instead, abundant humour can be found in the works of Kafka’s congenial fellow townsman – they both lived in Prague – Jaroslav Hašek, especially of course in Hašek’s top work “The Good Soldier Švejk”.
It is truly strange that two classic absurdists lived and went about their business at one and the same time and in the same city, One was a Jew, the other a Czech. Their creative works differ like night and day, but absurdity – Kafka’s making your heart ache, Hašek’s making you laugh – unites them.
Let’s leave without further explanation the question of if or in what way the emergence of this duo, on the one hand similar and on the other hand completely dissimlar, is connected to both men’s common everyday life in the disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire during an incomprehensible World War. There is probably some connection. Hašek would say, perhaps ironically, that great times require great individuals, suggesting at the same time that silly times give birth to silly jokes.
For example, it is true that the state where Kafka and Hašek lived and worked was led by a decrepit old Emperor about whose inadequacies anecdotes were told. This very much brings to mind the situation in another disintegrating empire under the leadership of another senile “emperor” – Brezhnev’s Soviet Union in the 1970’s and the start of the 1980’s. Based on my own experiences, I can affirm that such a situation is very favourable to the spread of the perception of absurdity and absurd humour.
Hašek’s absurd humour is in places outright Monty Pythonesque; at the same time, it sprang from his observing the absurdity of everyday life, which was sometimes similar to the late-Soviet life. Therefore, Hašek’s text was an ideal fit with Soviet absurdity, offering the person languishing in the latter’s hands the comforting knowledge that nothing in this world is new. But at the same time it could be noted that Monty Python’s jokes had exactly the same effect on the Soviet person, though their circle of admirers was somewhat smaller than Hašek’s.
These facts should admonish us to caution: we shouldn’t draw overly direct connections between the perception of absurdity and the absurdity of the dominant way of life. Monty Python’s jokes were made in the West which, regardless of its generally known absurdity, was still free and because of that perceptibly more rational than the Soviet Union or some other Communist dictatorship. But for all that, Monty Python’s jokes (as many as could penetrate the Iron Curtain by means of Finnish TV) were laughed at quite loudly in 1960’s Estonia and they were also imitated quite wittily.
On the other hand, jokes made behind the Iron Curtain did not spread very successfully in the West. Hašek and his Svejk are to this day little known in the West. The Austro-Hungarian army workday was consequently more similar to a workday in the Soviet army than, for example, one in the Royal Navy.
After the Second World War, two realities developed in absurd humour – that in the free world and that behind the Iron Curtain. Absurdity was cultivated and understood in both , but since the second reality was in every way noticeably more absurd, then the perception of absurdity and the corresponding humour there were noticeably broader and more multi-faceted, not every facet of which the Western person was able to understand.
6.2 Absurdity in Russian and Soviet literature as well as anecdotes.
Russian absurdity has from late Peter I times found expression in literature and art. These expressions took shape as amusements for the educated class, partly as a means of laughing at themselves as Russians, partly as means of living out that internal tragedy or melancholia, incomprehensible to the Western mind, which is prevalent in Russian culture. It is as if Russian people search for suffering in order to ennoble themselves. Fyodor Dostoevsky even has one of his characters, the titular councillor Marmeladov announce: I drink because I want to suffer twice as much!
The noticing of Russian life’s numerous absurdities and the suffering because of them – often to the accompaniment of self-irony – is one of the most interesting aspects of Russian cultural creativity.
For example, the buying and selling of serfs inspired Nikolai Gogol to write his immortal novel “Dead Souls”, where, incidentally, we find one of the most brilliant examples of Russian absurdity: Only one honest man lives in this town, he is Mr. District Chief, and even he is, to tell the truth, a big pig.
Many have described the enormous machinery of state. One product of this machinery was the so-called little person, usually a lower level government employee, about who Dostoevsky (in a gloomy tone), Chekhov and Gogol (laughing through tears) and many other Russian authors have written. Reading the works of these writers, Kafka (for example his “The Castle”) comes to mind. Kafka’s work could easily have been born in Russia too.
One of Chekov’s well-known short stories “The Death of a Government Clerk” tells the story of a clerk (tshinovnik), who while attending the theatre accidentally sneezes on the head of the general sitting in front of him. Naturally, he begs forgiveness in the most grovelling fashion, to which the general only laughs and forgives him. But the clerk feels that he still hasn’t done everything necessary, and again and again begs forgiveness, becoming more amd more aggravating until the general wearies of this and finally flies into a rage. This is such a shock to the clerk that he goes home and dies.
Absurd? Or social satire? Perhaps satire of society with absurdity coded in.
The theme of alcohol permeates Russian culture so strongly that no relatively important text or survey of customs can ignore it. Consequently neither can literature. Alcohol is important, though not central, in such a masterpiece of absurd(humour) as Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” (written in the 1930’s, first published in 1967). “The Master and Margarita” is not absurdist literature from beginning to end, but an abundance of magnificent absurdity can be found. Take for example the statement uttered by the cat Behemoth, a member of Satan’s retinue: The only thing that will help a mortally wounded cat is a gulp of gasoline.
On the other hand, Venedikt Erofeev’s cult narrative “Moscow-Petushki” is from the start about people tormented by alcohol and alcoholism. It can be called the Bible of alcoholism, the most perfect literary expression of an intellectual drunkard’s inner feelings and manner of thought. “Moscow-Petushki” is an apologia for Russian “liquor culture” and at the same time its toxic, even delirious satire:
“To drink liquor, even if straight from the bottle, is a lost cause and soul consuming. To mix liquor with eau de cologne, now that has a certain intrigue, but any kind of pathos is missing. However, to drink a glassful of “Canaan’s balsam”- that already has intrigue, an idea, and pathos, as well as a hint of the metaphysical.
Which components of “Canaan’s balsam” do we value the most? Of course it is the denatured alcohol. But denatured alcohol only creates the preconditions for emotion, being without nobility itself. What then do we value the most over all in the case of denatured alcohol? The flavour qualities, of course. And what even more? Perhaps that miasma which emanates from it. But to accentuate that miasma, even a hint of aroma is stll needed. For that, we mix into the denatured alcohol at a ratio of 1:2:1 some dark beer – preferably “Ostankino” or “Senator” – and purified furniture polish.
I am not going to start reminding you how furniture polish is purefied, every child knows how. For some reason, no one in Russia knows what Pushkin died of, but everyone knows how to purefy furniture polish.”
And on in the same spirit until the ghastly Kafkaesque end. The narrative was finished in 1969, and naturally not published, but it spread with enormous success. Clearly, one is dealing with the absolute apex of “liquor culture” (to avoid saying liquor worship), which has later been repeated – for example in the comedic film “Peculiarities of the National Hunt” – but never surpassed. Erofeev’s self-destructive alcoholism is as far from Colas Breugnon’s joyful wine glutton as the earth from the sky. Colas Breugnon is the title character of Romain Rolland’s famous 1919 novel. ed.) Nothing similar will ever be found in Western literature, to leave aside a few pages from Hašek. But Hašek, as already noted, wavers at the East-West border and is far from as popular in the West as he is among the peoples of the former Soviet Union. Erofeev, once again, is a connecting link between Hašek and Kafka.
Drinking itself is absurd, and the drunkard’s manner of thought is absurd. A drunkard can in all seriousness declare: The more you drink, the less you drink. I have seen such a slogan with my own eyes at some students’ project. True, this was a conscious absurdity.
Andrei Platonov wrote splendid pagefuls about the absurdity governing an average person’s mode of life. His satirical novel “The Town of Gradov” appeared during the Soviet era (1926) but it doesn’t satirize enemies of the Soviet regime as much as every sort of traditional Russian absurdity, among whose torchbearers we can find both the servants of the Soviet regime and it’s opponents. Platonov’s Gradov is a symbol of a Russian jerkwater town’s obtuseness:
“A passing man of science informed the powers that be that Gradov is located on a riverside terrace, which was made known to all by means of a circular. (…) There were no heroes in that town, international resolutions were agreed to unanimously and without grumbling. Perhaps there had been heroes in Grabov, but these were got the better of with precise lawfulness and the appropriate means. (…) In addition, eight gliders were built arbitrarily to transport mail and hay as well as one perpetuum mobile which ran using wet sand.”
While Platonov, Bulgakov, Chekov and many others still based their creative works on actual conditions and actual, existing characters, taking them from time to time to the level of absurdity, then Daniil Kharms arrived at a genuine, pure absurd fiction which does not take a back seat in absurdity to Lewis Carroll or Monty Python. His main strength was short stories. Read, for example, “Incident with Petrakov”
“Once Petrakov wanted to go to bed, but threw himself past the bed. He hit himself so hard that he now lay there and could not rise.
Petrakov gathered his remainiing strength and got onto all fours.
But his strength faded and he fell again on his stomach. And lay there.
Petrakov loafed on the floor for five hours. At first he just rested, later he fell asleep.
The nap gave Petrakov renewed strength. He awoke fully healed, rose, walked about the room and carefully threw himself into bed. “Ah. Now I’m finally going to sleep,” he thought.
But sleep would no longer come. Petrakov tossed from side to side, but couldn’t fall asleep.
And actually that’s all.”
It is conceivable that this story was written either before the Communists came to power or then at the latest in the 1920’s, at the same time as Majakovsky’s most extravagant works. If not, it is written in 1936, when the post-revolutionary time of experimentation and searching was already over and Kharms’ creative work was practically not published. His already published work had found itself a devoted readership. Kharms’ popularity survived the Stalin and Khrushchev regimes and, a long time after Kharms’ death (1942), anecdotes began to be turned out in his style. This is a very noteworthy detail: in this fashion Russian traditional absurdity extends a direct hand to late Soviet absurdity, whose golden age arrived in the 1970’s, during Brezhnev’s last and especially absurd years in power.
I’ll quote one example of that so-called pseudoKharmsist humour (jokes created in Kharms’ style in the 1970’s).
“Pushkin once wrote a letter to Rabindranath Tagore. “Dear far-away friend,” read the letter,“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me. I would like to become acquainted with you. Sasha.”
When the letter arrived Tagore had just settled into meditation. So deeply that one couldn’t even imagine it. His wife cuffed him again and again, stuck the letter in his hand – Tagore saw nothing. True, he also didn’t know how to read Russian.
So they didn’t become acquainted.”
This tale has been documented by chance from popular discourse and put into print. But thousands of similar and just as absurd tales remained forever oral.
With that, we have arrived at one of the Soviet era’s main communication channels and at the same time one of its main forms of resistance, which is “oral literature” or folklore.
6.3 Crocheting elephants and flying horses
It is probably not necessary to explain why it was impossible to express the overwhelming majority of Soviet absurd humour in books or newspapers and thus why it spread orally, mainly in the form of jokes or stories. This folk-lore, or stories of the people, essentially mocking and destructive of the Soviet regime, could not in any way pass the Soviet censor’s, or Glavlit’s, gates; no paper or ink quota would be found for it.
True, too much use of the mouth was dangerous as well (you remember rule nr. 2: If you think, then don’t speak!). The Communist regime tried everything to destroy any and all trustworthy relationships between people (the horizontal networks). Just as in production, where the product went to a state fund from where it was distributed on a quota basis, so too communication was to be vertical – from the bottom up, obedience, from the top down, command. And so, ideally, before communicating with his neighbour, a person would ask permission from a higher up and once the permission was given, would be allowed to visit his heighbour to drink tea, during which the conversation topics and replies of each side would have been pre-approved at higher levels.
In actual life the regime didn’t get that far. True, distrust among people was endlessly seeded and the volume of horizontal networking diminshed steeply. There is nothing unusual in that, when a single word slip in the kitchen of a communal flat could cause a chain reaction which led the person to complete ruin in Stalin’s meat grinder. However, people’s desire for communication is instinctive and therefore extraordinarily strong. Because of that, the regime of terror wasn’t able to ever completely eradicate it.
But communication doesn’t mean only the exchanging of information, it also means getting to know one another. Just as animals watch each other, so too do people watch each other’s reactions. And here we arrive again at jokes, and directly or indirectly at expressions of critical thought. People who were against Communism or who had at least a reserved attitude to it retained an unsurpassed need to try out their attitudes on other people. One way to do this was to tell a politically flavoured joke. The joke could be innocent, half-innocent , half-criminal, or openly criminal (from the Soviet “justice administration” viewpoint of course) – it depended on the circumstances. The speaker’s boldness, the trustworthiness of the listener(s), the amount of alcohol consumed, the mood, and so on all came into play.
The spreading of jokes and thoughts hostile to the Communist regime was in many cases like an extreme sport, engaged in by adrenalin junkies. That kind can always be found. It was interesting to first test the listeners (do they laugh? from the heart or weakly? do they go and inform KGB?), secondly the state authority itself, making fun of Communism with the calculated knowledge that the information would reach the KGB. What will they do? Will they call you in for a “chat”? Will a warning message be sent? Or will they order your dismissal from work?
What made the game thrilling was that even among Communist potentates there could be found humour minded individuals. Sometimes they stomached an even quite critical joke. Sometimes not. It depended on circumstances, the nomenclaturist’s mood, and the alignment of the stars.
The so-called official comedians also played with fire. The Soviet authority tolerated and even demanded the cultivation of so-called satire. (A joke critical of society was named satire, while humour on the other hand was an innocent joke – a joke without the critical aspect.) A quite witty satire aimed at Soviet bureaucracy could often be found in plays, films, as well as literature. This amusement was intended to somewhat lessen the stress of a Soviet person and create the illusion that freedom of speech rules in the Soviet Union and that the regime is open to criticism.
However, even the crafter of permitted jokes (an actor, playwright, scriptwriter) didn’t know for sure whether he would be praised or jailed for his crisper than the average artifice/ploy. As a result, a really quite subtle joke culture developed – the ability to speak between the lines and to read between the lines: this meant the ability to express things in such a way that nothing specific could be seized on, yet everyone could understand what was meant. However, even in this case the final result depended, as already stated, on the alignment of the stars.
An example of this was when the morose and humourless Estonian top Communist Leonid Lentsmann visited a kolkhoz and issued a reprimand: “Why don’t you have a portrait of Comrade Khrushchev on your wall?” The chairman of the kolkhoz answered with dead seriousness: “We have a community hall close by; we go there to view him.” Perhaps I need to add for today’s reader that this was a brave joke. Even in the Soviet Union, one didn’t become so stupid as to go view the Red Tsar’s picture in a neighbouring house. The kolkhoz chairman was mocking the top Communist and the latter understood. But the risk proved warranted. Morose Lentsmann muttered something incomprensible (perhaps hiding a smile) and the topic was dropped.
Or another tale. Some time in the 1970’s an Estonian caricaturist caricaturist Andres Ader presented a number of his works to an exhibition of caricatures and they were in fact put on display. Still, two works were rejected. One of them had the caption, “In light of the decisions of the Communist Party XXIV Congress” under an image of a man sitting in front of a fireplace burning some papers. The other picture’s caption was “Icebreaker ‘Lenin’” (this atomic icebreaker was one of the Soviet Union’s technological marvels, which Soviet propaganda was very proud of). The picture showed some bearded man breaking ice with an ax. The pictures were not displayed, but the artist was also not punished. It could even be surmised that those officials who rejected his works commented on them that same evening to their wives and laughed loudly.
But things could go differently.
History students once took it upon themselves to mock one of the Lenin’s many absurd maxims, namely: Communism – it is the Soviets’ power plus the electrification of the whole country. At an evening party given over to the initiation of new students, the first year students were presented the following question: “What is Soviet power?” Many different answers were presented, but all of them were deemed incorrect, because the correct answer was: Soviet power – it is Communism minus the electrification of the whole country. Naturally, another insight was also arrived at during the party; namely, it was established that electrification is Communism without Soviet power. Loud peals of laughter accompanied these discoveries, but the story ends badly – one of the individuals present informed the right people and the evening’s organizers had to deal with the KGB.
An informer could be tripped over even while the joker was interacting with foreigners. As an example, a guide was walking with a group of Finnish tourists in a park, and one of the Finns asked why the local squirrels have a shorter and scantier coat of fur than those in Finland – are they a different sub-species? The guide decided to make a joke and answered that clearly this is because these squirrels were born and raised in socialist circumstances. But the Finn proved to be a scoundrel who informed the KGB of the answer, asserting as well that the guide had disparaged Soviet power, mocked Russians and yearned for a bourgeois system. The unfortunate guide faced serious troubles.
The most secure situation was to make jokes in the safe circle of good, trustworthy friends. At the end of the 1970’s, two middle-aged, respectable ladies met on a street in a small Soviet town. One had over her shoulder a string of toilet paper rolls (because this is how they were sold – on a string). Toilet paper was a known deficit and of course the second lady asked where it was being sold. The first answered, but added as well that the product was already sold out; she was one of the last to get some. The second lady sighed sadly, but then thought for a moment and said: “But nowadays there’s nothing more to do with that paper anyway.” And both burst into laughter like two schoolgirls.
Did you understand the joke? As a hint, let me add that this was the time when Communist propaganda was frothing over the food program, meaning that food was starting to disappear in the Soviet Union.
A few words about jokes. In all peoples, they have a tendency to gather into thematic blocks. Thus, for example, I discovered that many stories that are told about the Chukchi were known to an American as “Polish jokes”. (ie. How many Poles/Chukchi are needed to turn in a ceiling lightbulb?) Somewhat the same jokes were told in the Soviet Union about the police, later many have moved fom this topic to the so-called blond joke cluster. (ie, why did the policeman/blond smile during a lightning storm? Because they thought they were being photographed.)
Naturally, many types of jokes known to all peoples of Western civilization also spread through the Soviet Union, like the story about the married man arriving home unexpectedly, the man’s relationship with his mother in law, stories involving cannibals, stories about a cowboy and his inner voice, stories of Holmes and Watson, stories about the representatives of three different races/peoples/religions who fall into some strange situation, and much more.
There was much material in the series about the Bolshevik war hero Tshapayev and the Soviet spy Stirlitz (colonel Issajev). While Tshapayev jokes generally represented coarse humour and were often obscene, then the Stirlitz ones, where the other main character was often Gestapo chief Müller, were more refined and often approached the absurd. Like this one:
Müller is walking past a forest. Someone is knocking on wood.
“Woodpecker,” thinks Müller.
“You’re a woodpecker yourself,” thinks Stirlitz and resumes knocking.
Or another example:
Stirlitz rings the door bell. No one opens the door. Stirlitz knocks. The door remains closed. Stirlitz hammers on the door with his fists – nothing. Stirlitz hammers with his boots. Nothing moves. Stirlitz smashes his head into the door.
“No one is home,” thinks Stirlitz.
The closer the end of the Soviet Union appeared, the more stories directly mocking Soviet authority spread.
What are Soviet agriculture’s five greatest enemies?
Answer: spring, summer, fall, winter and international imperialism.
What is the most enduring phenomenon in the Soviet Union?
Answer: temporary difficulties.
Or a completely clear and unambiguously understandable story:
Once Nixon, Pompidou and Brezhnev went to see God. Nixon asked God when America would become happy. God answered that it would in 50 years. Nixon started to weep:
“Then my eyes won’t see that era.”
Now Pompidou asked the same about France. God answered that it would be in 100 years. Pompidou started to weep:
“Then my eyes won’t see that era.”
Finally Brezhnev asked when The Soviet Union would become happy.
God started to weep:
“My eyes won’t see that era.”
However, let’s return to Brezhnev and his time. There were also many non-absurd jokes about Brezhnev himself, mocking his terrible diction (which left the impression that he was drunk), his vanity and his deepening senility. In 1980, the year the Olympics took place in Moscow, a story spread about how Brezhnev had taken a piece of paper and begun a speech: “Ooo!” He’d looked down at the paper in surprise and repeated: “Oo!” Then an aide had whispered in his ear: “ Honoured Leonid Ilich, those are the Olympic rings. The text of your speech begins below them.”
Or then such a text as this, to be performed in Brezhnev’s voice:
Comrades! Some hostile elements have alleged that it is as if a gramophone is presenting my speeches. I hereby resolutely declare that false (crackle!) declare that false (crackle!) declare that false (crackle!) declare that false …
There were finally so many stories about Brezhnev that even this situation occurred. A story teller first asked his audience: “Do you know the story about when Brezhnev floated in the Moscow River, completely dead with a knife in his chest?” “No we don’t.” replied the audience. “I don’t either,” said the story teller regretfully, “but what a gruesomely good start, isn’t it?”
Sometimes nothing needed to be thought up – Brezhnev himself really did behave like a character in a comedy film. For example, he read out the same speech three times – because he had accidently been given three copies of the one and same speech. Or he started a speech in some Central-Asian Soviet Republic with the words: “Dear saksauls!” The saksaul, as is generally known, is a tree that grows in the desert and the audience was very surprised to be addressed in this way. Brezhnev however had wanted to say “aksakall”, which means honourable (old) man.
Brezhnev’s activity as a writer comprises its own chapter in this list of the ridiculous. In 1978 his first thin memoir, “The Little Land”, which held forth about his heroic deeds in the Second World War, appeared, followed by two other books. These held forth about his heroic deeds after the war.
All even slightly critically minded people strongly doubted that Brezhnev wrote these himself. Because from a literary viewpoint these books weren’t bad. However, Brezhnev’s ineptitude at composing text was generally known. As well, suspicions spread that “The Little Land”, at least, is from beginning to end fantasy and that as a political commissar Brezhnev didn’t get to the front lines.
Regardless of these doubts, a mighty propaganda campaign was set in motion, exalting Brezhnev as a great writer. To crown this absurd song of praise, he was awarded the Lenin Prize for Literature, which was the Soviet Union’s “people’s Nobel”. More specifically, Brezhnev awarded himself: this prize was decided by the Soviet Union Communist Party Central Committee, whose Head Secretary was Brezhnev.
In regards to this topic, Soviet absurdity survived even the death of the Soviet Union, namely in this way.
In 2003, the actual author of Brezhnev’s memoirs, Leonid Zamyatin (former Central Committee Foreign Relations Department chairman) told the newspaper “Izvestija” that Brezhnev did not write those books. But he is their author, because they are written on the basis of his words and processed in written form by people who knew how to write. Brezhnev himself was not a writer.**
This means that the Lenin Prize for Literature was given to a man who “was not a writer.” This is certainly an extraordinary occurrence in world literature.
One of the most genuine absurd jokes ever made derives from the 1970’s. It spread like wildfire in the Soviet Union.
Three elephants sit in a tree, crocheting. A horse flies over. “Look, a horse is flying,” says one elephant. They continue crocheting. A second horse flies over. “Look, a horse is flying, aye,” notes the second elephant. They continue crocheting. A third horse flies over. “They must have a nest somewhere around here,” opines the third elephant.
Nowadays this story no longer jolts people, since both the post-Soviet as well as the nonpost-Soviet world have become older and more resigned; few things remain that can still surprise people. But in the 1970’s, Soviet people laughed – those same people who according to the Kremlin doctrinaires should have been building Communism, singing songs of exaltation to the Party and, brows furrowed, battling imperialism – over this story with tears in their eyes. This was a liberated, but at the same time somehow desperate laughter, and that laughter will resonate in my ears until my death.
Another example of the same sort.
A crow is perched on top of a spruce and sees a cow under the tree, trying to climb up.
“Listen, cow, why are you trying to climb the tree? Cows don’t climb trees?” he asks.
“I’d like to eat some apples…”
“But this is a spruce, not an apple tree!”
“No matter, I brought the apples!”
There was a dainty paradox hidden in Brezhnev era absurd humour. On the one hand, a characteristic of this kind of joke was that it was totally free of message. It wasn’t possible to ask the maker of an absurd joke what he meant to say with it. Or where is the joke? There was no desire to say anything and the joke was in the fact there was no joke. But at the same time the message was singular: a meaningless joke mocked a meaningless way of life. So it was as if there was no message, but that is where the message was hidden. The joke sneered from a distance, figuratively, metaphorically – but fully, clearly. At the same time it did it in such a way that nothing could be seized on. There was no way for the KGB to punish a person for spreading the story about the crocheting elephants. If it had tried, it would have made itself look foolish. The only thing the Soviet authority could do was not permit much absurd humour to be printed, broadcast on radio or television or staged. It said that absurd humour is decadent gibberish; a Soviet person makes positive, progressive jokes. Here is a concrete example of that attitude.
One summer during the final years of the Soviet Union, at a university students’ evening gathered around a campfire, amusing sketches were presented. “The evening’s greatest applause was earned by a dialogue in a bathroom, where the stage set was composed of only one object – a toilet bowl. The short performance was made up without exception of absurdities, conceptually unrelated retorts which the characters exchanged sometimes shouting, sometimes tenderly, sometimes in whispers, ending with one character flushing and the other blowing a condom full of air and tossing it like a balloon into the onlookers.” **
However, among the onlookers were also some individuals faithful to the Soviet authority who informed the known “organs”. They demanded investigation of the situation and punishment of the guilty. The situation began to be investigated.
“The investigation was made complicated since the phrases uttered by the characters to each other had really been completely absurd, did not connect idea-wise with each other nor did they mean anything. And even the flushing of water hadn’t seemed to allude to anything, just as the blowing up of a contraceptive didn’t mean anything.” **
Unfortunately, Party supervisors and KGB had over dozens of years become accustomed to clarifying what a person “actually” thought, what he “actually” meant to say with this or that. Even in the situation at hand the representatives of Soviet authority were deeply convinced that the sketch contained a hidden message and, if already hidden, then certainly anti-Soviet. They were enraged that they couldn’t guess the message. Therefore the sketch had to be proclaimed generally empty of ideas and morals, which was of course similarly a crime and the university students were punished.
This taking offence from any not fully comprehended wink or phrase characterizes people suffering from inferiority complexes. At the same time, this characterization often also includes criminals. The Soviet authority, by flying into a rage over genuine absurdity, confirmed once again that here was an authority that was criminal and suffering from an inferiority complex.
In essence close to the stories of crocheting elephants and apple loving cows, though in some ways more realistic, is the story of the rabbit that went to a pub.
The rabbit went to the pub, ordered a glass of liquor and a glass of sour cream. He drank the liquor, poured the sour cream over his head, started to giggle and said:
“I am so stupid, so stupid, when I get drunk”
Or this story, which was presented as a skit on television.
A man is selling sunflower seeds at market. His measuring unit is a tea glass. On the table are two tea glasses, both with exactly the same amount and quality of seeds, taken from one and the same bag. But one glass has a sign “Glassful 10 kopecks”, the second glass “Glassful 20 kopecks”.
A buyer is amazed:
“Listen, if you have this available for 10 kopecks, then who will buy that for 20 kopecks?”
The seller looks at him in amazement.
“What do you mean, who? Well, those who don’t want it for 10 kopecks, must pay 20 kopecks.”
Or another TV skit by an Estonian author Priit Aimla:
A man is selling pierogies at the market, shouting:
A buyer comes by and asks what type of pierogies the man is selling and is told cabbage pierogies and meat pierogies.
“But how do you know which pierogie is a cabbage pierogie and which is a meat pierogie? From the outside they look exactly the same?”
The seller answers:
“Well, the meat pierogie contains meat and the cabbage pierogie contains cabbage.”
“Of course,” answers the buyer, “but how do you find that out?”
“Are you ever stupid!” answers the seller angrily, “I just told you! The meat pierogie has meat in it and the cabbage pierogie has cabbage in it!”
And so on.
Such jokes as the last two are actually an unique hybrid of the so-called social humour and classic absurd humour. In classic absurd humour all is from the beginning absurd and the dialogue would develop kind of like this:
“Excuse me, what time is it?”
“Unfortunately I understand nothing about ornithology.”
“No problem, yesterday I left my wife anyway.” And so on.
In the above examples the external form (situation, dialogue) remains realistic, which may be why their internal absurdity is perhaps even more unexpected than in classical absurdity.
Brief absurdities also spread widely:
Two sparrows sat on a wire, especially right-wing.
One bus turned left, the other was blue.
A different kind of brief absurdity was the putting together of two mutually exclusive characteristics:
A virgin grandmother.
A Negro tanning.
In regards to the last line, that unique union of social criticism and absurdity is again illustrated. At the same time, one can only admire how concisely and precisely Soviet folklore was able to nail down the Empire’s entire justice system.
When in 2004 journalist Enno Tammer announced the compiling of reminiscences of the Soviet era, Arno, a man born in 1964, sent him a poem which started in this way:
I remember a state where lying, evasiveness and ignorance were rampant.
I remember a state where half were drunk by noon and where insensitive theft by the state flourished everywhere.
I remember a state where the line producing left foot boots was in socialist competition with the line producing right foot boots.
I remember a state where houses began to crumble even before they were completed.
I remember a state where restaurants stank of dish washing rags.
I remember a state where no warm water was available in the summer months, where the majority of convenience goods were in constant deficit and the merchandise on sale was unusable rejects.
Indeed, I too remember that state. All of us, who consider ourselves to be normal people, can cheer the fact that state no longer exists.
But it would be very short-sighted to believe that this book is written only to “bark at the dead lion”. No, why battle the dead. Living, not dead, evil must be fought.
And that is precisely the lesson of the Soviet Union, exactly the same by the way, as that of Nazi Germany: evil is immortal and a person must constantly be on guard against it. Let’s leave aside the philosophical question of whether evil is in some way necessary and limit ourselves to noting that it is real. There is no place in the world that is not threatened by evil, because evil is concealed within ourselves. I dare say in all of us, though to very different degrees. In some people there is a grain of evil, in others there is a grain of good. Sometimes those with evil predominant achieve dominance; sometimes those with good predominant. In most cases, the latter prevails, because evil is not sustainable.
A society in which evil gains power inevitably perishes, like any organism in which parasites have gained control. But this perishing can take a very long time – the Bolsheviks were in power for 74 years in Russia -, can demand enormous numbers of victims both from its own population as well as others and bequeath to the world a morally crippled mass of people with a prisoner mindset, longing for prison and its everyday bowl of prison soup.
For that reason it is sensible to forestall, if at all possible, the coming to power of evil.
History has shown that totalitarian regimes tend to come into power in poor countries with a low level of education, lacking the tradition of democracy. However, the democratic and free-market West, which has achieved unprecedented economic prosperity and level of education, must not believe that such danger does not threaten it. As stated, evil is found in everyone and our humanistic-Christian cultural stratum is much thinner than we have come to believe. It took only a few years for the civilized German people to become a National-Socialist mass. A cultured person can very easily become a barbarian.
Not only is the cultural stratum thin, but so also is humanity as a whole. A major natural catastrophe would suffice to change a cultured person with democratic ideals not only into a barbarian but a wild animal fighting for its life.
And so the West, which has become accustomed to view North Korea and other similarly monstrous societies as almost from another planet, is itself in no way far removed from the establishment of a similar regime. The West has given birth to John Locke, Thomas Jefferson and universal suffrage, but the West has also given birth to Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre and Louis Althusser. All these most highly gifted people – and hundreds more world famous names can be added – have justified mass murder, massive persecution, destruction of all freedoms. They have attacked all those values and all that social organization that allowed them to develop themselves, express their thoughts and artistic talents and win fame, wealth and respect. Not a single one of them gave up his personal well-being to go live in the Soviet Union; instead, they preferred to praise that state from their villas, in the midst of their freedom and fame.
Only one onclusion can be drawn from this: the democratic way of life, and all those Western values which the West itself takes such pride in, do not preclude the rising to prominence of those people who… love Big Brother. Unlike Orwell’s main character Winston, no one forces them, they simply love him and, either passively or actively, join in forcing others to do the same.
And there are others. In addition to those who love Big Brother, there can be found even more who nurse an unsatisfied need for recognition and are therefore very quick to believe that “capitalistic” society treats them badly, oppresses and exploits them. This idea is suggested to people by hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands of pseudo left-leaners, whose opinion it is that the greater part of humanity’s wisdom is contained in the theories of such degenerate thinkers as Michel Foucault.
These theories are in their essence theories of hatred, which view democratic free market society and the whole world not as a cooperative forum, but as a combat arena. According to these theories, the only force motivating the various strata of society is the lust for power (less often some other base, eg. aggressive urge).
From this arises the conclusion that no matter what anyone does, he does with the aim of enslaving, humiliating, or using the other. The Salvation Army is an agent of exploitation, freedom of speech is an agent of exploitation, the church is an agent of exploitation, medical aid is an agent of exploitation, and so on. Marxist in its origins, this absurdity is repeated by numerous columnists and every sort of “thinker”. To think this way seems refined and modern, but in reality this fashionable way of thinking means that the key pillars of the Western Christian system of morality are shaky. When even charity work is treated as a satanic trick of the “ruling class”, as a means to further exploit the “working class”, and such a viewpoint receives public acknowledgement, then society is seriously ill.
When the number of such people, such thoughts and such urges achieves a critical mass, the last step is taken and people begin to be divided into the people and the people’s enemies. An immense chain reaction is set in motion whose conclusion looms many generations in the distance; in between rages an ocean of blood. And at that moment nothing more can be said but
even gods are helpless against absurdity.
This book has been written in the hope of assisting, even if only a little, efforts to prevent such a moment from ever arriving.