The Soviet Union is back in fashion. A recent book, entitled “Hammer and Tickle”, gave us an insight into how Communism was full of jokes, mostly based around the difficult living conditions and absurd politics. Another timely tome, called “Cars for Comrades”, showed how the Soviet auto industry was also full of unintentional humour (the Volga sedan was so poorly built that petrol fumes routinely entered the passenger compartment – get it?).
But perhaps the most obvious sign of the Soviet Union’s resurgence as a style icon was a t-shirt that one of my younger work colleagues recently wore: he probably wasn’t aware of its significance, but at the centre of its design was a hammer and sickle. Truly, we are in the process of forgetting what the Soviet Union was; it’s now more silly or chic than sinister.
It is fitting, then, that we should get a sharp reminder from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His death, of course, is a great loss, but at the same time it is an antidote to amnesia.
The Soviet Union began with a lot of noble ideals about equality, prosperity and brotherhood; there was a belief that underpinned the average Bolsheviks’ hopes that they were building a better future for humanity by their example. It didn’t take long for their hopes to be crushed by ambitions at the top, and by Stalin’s dictatorial aspirations in particular. Communism quickly became an economic, social and environmental disaster. Millions were killed in the gulag, others had their lives ruined because they fit into the wrong social class (e.g. kulaks or “rich peasant”) or merely because they had been accused of being one of the vragi naroda (“enemies of the people”) or in connection with some arcane (and fictional) plot to kill Leningrad Party Boss, Sergei Kirov in 1934.
The famine in the Ukraine, created by forced collectivisation of agriculture, killed millions more. While the more brutal aspects of the regime faded after Stalin’s death in 1953, it destroyed much of the land through its botched economic planning: ridiculous targets for cotton production, for example, left much of Uzbekistan’s land poisoned from over-use of nitrates. Safety standards were ignored in the dash for nuclear power: Chernobyl is now a synonym for disaster, and the consequences of that meltdown in 1986 are still being felt today. According to Greenpeace, between 1990 and 2004, there were 200,000 additional deaths in Belarus, the Ukraine and Russia due to cancers and other diseases directly attributable to the debacle.
Social consequences are more difficult to measure, but if there was one theme that unifies the Soviet experience, it was the distance between rhetoric and reality. This has distorted Russian culture in such a way that, for example, the Russian government may say it is committed to joint ventures with foreigners, but in practice, it kicks the chairman of an Anglo-Russian joint venture out of the country. Putin may say that he is committed to human rights and democracy, however, he has managed to continue his rule with only a figleaf of democratic propriety in place.
Yet, we’re laughing about the USSR, wearing its symbols, and forgetting these obvious lessons. Even the British government is guilty of post-Soviet amnesia: constant surveillance didn’t make the Soviet Union a happier place, yet there are more CCTV cameras here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. Targets in industry didn’t make anyone want to buy Soviet-made products, yet the British government fixes “production goals” in medicine and education which are every bit as aggressive and insensitive.
Solzhenitsyn, a grumpy, cumudgeonly writer, had memory at the core of his life’s work. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” is an eternal memorial to the suffering of prisoners in the Gulag. “The Gulag Archipelago” is an astonishingly accurate portrait of the system, how it functioned, and how it utilised slave labour to push the Soviet economy on, albeit to no particular good end. His life, and his expulsion by the Brezhnev regime and into an uneasy exile in the United States (he denounced its extravagance and consumerism), was a testament to the inhumanity at the base of the Communist system. If he had one lesson to teach us, albeit imperfectly, it was as follows: any system that truly advances humanity, has to have human rights at its core. This is not only the right to free speech, but also the right not to be robbed, raped or brutalised by one’s own state.
It is fashionable for progressives to speak of the Soviet Union as a “failed experiment”. This does not nearly go far enough: if we adhere to the idea that human rights have to be at the core of human progress, then Stalinist Communism should be denounced as the brutal, repressive failure that it was. This principle applies also to current regimes which are looked on kindly by some progressives: we may laud Chavez’s assistance to the poor, but his moves to squelch democracy in Venezuela should offend, and the repudiation of those moves by the Venezuelan people should be cause for celebration.
Furthermore, there should be no “romance” about what has happened and is happening in Cuba. Because of Che Guevara’s appeal as a symbol of revolution, and Fidel Castro’s willingness to poke a certain Texan President in the eye, there is often a detectable, if grudging admiration for the regime in Havana. Yet, this is the same regime that in the 1960’s sent homosexuals to re-education camps, and in the 1980’s tried to quarantine those infected with AIDS. The regime still does not recognise the right to freedom of speech or assembly, nor does it hold free elections.
There is a tendency to believe the “enemy of my enemy is my friend”; many Americans certainly believed that about militant Islam in Afghanistan during the late 70’s and 80’s, when the enemy was the Soviet Union. The consequence of this policy was the rise of the Taliban. Backing regimes that do things which are morally repugnant, merely because they oppose the bugbear of the day has the same suicidal consequence for the credibility of the progressive argument, in particular for its stated care for the rights of the individual. Solzhenitsyn has long been required reading on the Right; he should be required reading for everyone.
No doubt the brief reminders provided by the obituary columns will fade away. Putin described Solzhenitsyn’s death as a “great loss”, as he was obliged to do. This doesn’t mean he will be backtracking on his efforts at a Soviet revival: he has recently brought back Red Army celebrations, and even resurrected the use of the Soviet national anthem, albeit with different lyrics. The best tribute to Solzhenitsyn’s life and work is to be disturbed by this, to continue to blow on the embers of memory, and to hope that the flickering glow continues on to those that follow.