17 November 2010

85. The Soviet Union

The Soviet Union - Gail B. Stewart

I read this book because it was written in 1990. I recall the parades in 1989 where things were obviously changing. I know the union broke up in 1991. I know who Gorbachev is and what Perestroika and Glasnost were. I remember all this because I was alive and well and paying attention pretty closely at that time. I read this book because I wanted to see what it was like INSIDE the Soviet Union in 1990...at least from an outsiders perspective, and therefore not the whole truth anyway, but whatever.

This book touched on  many historical aspects of Russia and it's neighbors as it lead up to "Revolution Day" (7 November) 1989. That was the official state holiday where they celebrated the overthrow of the government that took place in 1917. It is much like our 4th of July.

1989 was the first year where there were actually two parades in Moscow. One was the official state parade with all the missles and tanks plowing theorugh Red Square. The other was quite different. It was about 10,000 people with signs. Signs reading things like "The 1917 Revolution was a TRAGEDY!" and "Democracy is what we want!". In 1989 these people did not end up in Gulags or disappear. That was a huge change.

Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985. He was a loyal communist, yet he was well aware of problems within his country and a need for change. His problem was a balance between changing too slowly and causing another Revolution or moving too quickly and everything falling apart. His plan had two aspects. Perestroika and Glasnost.

Perestroika: "restructuring". Gorbachev wanted to reshape the Soviet economy. He had already started that by allowing some private businesses, such as hospitals. He encouraged farmers to set aside some land for their own use. The private farm plots worked great. They made up only 2 percent of the farmland but yielded more than 30 percent of the fruits and vegetables sold in Russia.

Glasnost: "openness". Mainly meaning the government should be honest with it's people and not report propaganda as news, and things like that. One problem this created for Gorbachev was it gave a green light to citizens to speak up. They could now start their own newspapers and discuss issues freely. They were now permitted to criticize the government. That had never been allowed in the history of the Soviet Union. That, to me, sounds a lot like freedom of speech and freedom of the press!

So, this openness created a lot of problems for the Soviet government because the people were now able to voice dissatisfaction with the status-quo.

What were some of the problems within the Soviet Union that Gorbachev had to deal with?

1.The country could not feed itself for one. It's agricultural entity had taken a back seat to the industrial complex since Stalin took power. The workers on the collective farms (kolkhoz and sovkhoz) didn't have any incentive and therefore the farm suffered tremendously. The book equated it with farming "in a prison". What they got was a lot of sour milk and spoiled fruits and vegetables.
 2. There was also a lack of consumer goods. Even for those people who did make a decent living and could afford to purchase something at a store, there was nothing to buy. They would stand in lines for hours to purchase the rarely found clothing, appliances or shoes.
 3. Medical care was a mess. Those who could afford to bribe a nurse or a doctor got cared for. Those who could not pay the "fee" to have the nurse change a dressing did not get new bandages. The pharmacy was always empty too. Even if you could afford to see a doctor and get a prescription, there was no medecine to purchase.

I found all that very interesting. Mostly because I know that a year after this book was published the Soviet Union shattered. We always say it was the arms race that did this. We and the Soviets built so much junk to fight each other that they could not afford to do anything else, while we could. I think that is partially true, but not totally in the way that is commonly spoken. Why couldn't the Soviet Union afford the same things we could? They had more land. They had more people. They had fertile farms. They had a ton of resources. They had much more direct access to both Asia and Europe than we had. The answer for me comes down to the basic differences in our countries. Within the USA it was people prospering. Within the USSR it was a government prospering. In the long run (which wasn't really that long) Communism got it's ass handed to it because of it's own shortfalls.

What is really disturbing is that the causes for the failures of the Soviet Union are still very much ingrained in the cultures of Eastern European countries. I hope those countries can grow. I hope they can let go of the chains that were binding them for so long.

A personal note: I have a fond memory or Mikhail Gorbachev. I was in the Air Force stationed at Andrews Air Force Base. This was probably 1988. Our base was having a sports day. No flying and lots of sports competitions, games and berbeques to let loose a bit. Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa were coming to visit then President Reagan and his wife Nancy. The Presidential entourage drove by the front of our squadron with these worlds leaders in the cars. At that moment we were having an egg toss. That is when you toss an egg to a partner and the team who can toss the furthest distance without the egg breaking wins. When I saw those cars all I could think was what it must be like to have people throwing eggs in a field in America while your own people are home standing in lines for hours in hopes of getting some bread! That thought has never left me and has defined my view of how spoiled and luxurious our lives are compared to the rest of the world.

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