27 December 2022 — Orinoco Tribune
Monument to V. I. Lenin at pavilion No. 1 (“Central”) at VDNKh in Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti/Alexei Filippov.
By Victoria Nikiforova – Dec 5, 2022
The following essay is written and published by a columnist at Russia’s main state media outlet, RIA Novosti. The essay provides an overview of the achievements and the lasting legacy of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for today’s Russia and for the world. It is not a comprehensive history of the USSR; that is for historians to continue to write and debate. The essay’s most salient feature is the insight into the thinking of the people of the Russian Federation at this very turbulent turning point in their history.
The essay voices the wholesale loss of positive expectations of the Russian Federation people for the Western imperialist countries as the latter escalate their drive to isolate and weaken their country and its government. Many other such writings are appearing in Russian media. Altogether, they reflect a deepening understanding in Russian society that world imperialism—headed by the United States and including the major powers of Europe and Japan–is very much alive, dangerous, and, quite literally, out to get them. There is a profound upheaval taking place in the political thinking and the aspirations of the many peoples of the Russian Federation.
December 2022 marks 100 years since the founding of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. There are no nationwide celebrations of this event in the Russia Federation. And yet, this is the anniversary of a fantastic victory for its people.
One hundred years ago, our country became the most free, democratic and progressive state on the planet. The rights and opportunities that were won for the ordinary citizen of the USSR were simply unthinkable for the people of that time.
For the first time in Russian history, millions of people, both men and women, won the opportunity to vote and to be elected to office once they reached the age of 18. In Western countries during those years, such rights were strictly limited, subject to all kinds of conditions such as ownership of property, age and other qualifications.
Women in our country received the right to higher education and equal wages with men. In Great Britain, the stronghold of democracy, so to speak, it was half a century later before women were allowed to study at Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Citizens of the USSR won the right to work and decent pay. These were not just words: for 70 years, Soviet people did not know what unemployment was, except what they viewed in international news reports.
Let’s not forget how much the unbelievably generous social package of the USSR supplemented the salaries of its citizens: paid holidays, free medical care, free housing, plus transport and other communal expenses that were minimized by state subsidies. Add to that all sorts of benefits freely available to citizens—travel vouchers, tickets to the theater, gifts from trade union committees and many other pleasant trifles. Today, not even every top manager of an enterprise can boast of such a package.
Education became absolutely free, and everything for children was arranged with special style. Luxurious palaces of the wealthy classes were used to house youth ‘pioneer’ brigades.
All this and more were symbols of Soviet power. Nothing of the kind, not even a hint of it, existed at that time in the world’s most advanced countries.
Moreover, nowhere else was there such a powerful grassroots democracy as existed in the USSR. The Soviets of Workers’ and Peasants’ Deputies [the central governmental power of the USSR] ensured the widest possible representation not of economic elites and business clans but of real working-class people.
Western countries, out of fright, broke off diplomatic relations with the young Soviet state. ‘God forbid,’ their elites thought, ‘that our people might want the same for themselves.’ But gradually, the social achievements of the USSR came perforce to be adopted more widely. For decades, the social policies of the USSR became the gold standard for the entire civilized world.
Under the pressure of protesting workers and under the threat of revolutions, voting rights and paid holidays ‘somehow’ began to appear in other countries. Gradually, but not earlier than the 1970s and not in every respect, Europe pulled itself up to our level of social security and observance of the rights of citizens. Throughout these years, the powers in western Europe never ceased to nag us about “human rights”.
In the United States, our achievement many decades ago of paid maternity leave has yet to be equalled. [Railroad workers in the United States to this day do not have paid sick days. A threatened strike to achieve this was refused and declared illegal by the U.S. Senate on December 1.] And what about free healthcare or turning the palaces of the wealthy into social centers for young people? Or the guaranteed right to vote? ‘Sorry, we’re not quite there yet.’
All of this, as Marx would say, describes the social superstructure of human society. What about society’s social base? In the late 1980s, a meme about the inefficiency of socialist management began to be actively introduced into our public consciousness. But to put it mildly, this was entirely untrue.
Dry statistics tell us that the Soviet economy grew at a rate exceeding ten percent per year for 30 years in a row. There is not a single country in the modern world that even comes close to this achievement. Moreover, the Soviet Union did all this while under extremely heavy sanctions and while enduring repeated armed conflicts and devoting enormous resources to winning the Second World War.
Many will say that the rapid achievements of the Soviet Union were due to its low starting point, compared to the wealthier countries of the day. But prior to 1917, the tsarist government made various stumbling attempts to improve social conditions and proved unable to do so. The Soviet government succeeded in double-quick time.
Alexander Galushka, the author of the remarkable book The Crystal of Growth: Toward a Russian Economic Miracle (co-authored with Artur Niyazmetov and Maxim Okulov), was recently nominated for Russia’s Knowledge Society Prize. His book describes in detail how the idea of a planned economy arose and became the foundation of the Soviet economic miracle.
The book describes how German social scientists made the first calculations demonstrating that the planning of economic processes on a national scale greatly increases the efficiency of an economy. But in the late 19th century there was no one to put this idea into practice. The rusted-out mechanisms of the European monarchies could not be repurposed to this end, while in the countries of savage capitalism such as Britain and the United States, it not just the economy but all of life that was held hostage in the eternal class war of all-against-all. People in these countries simply could not conceive of trying to build a modern state on foundations of social justice.
The Bolsheviks in 1917 set out to do so, and they succeeded. Hundreds of new cities were built on our land. These consisted not of unremarkable residential areas but of houses of culture, libraries, drama theaters, health care clinics, and kindergartens and schools. Public transport was highly developed. In a word, what was created were progressive metropolises with comprehensive social infrastructure.
This description is typically followed by critics with a ritual lament: ‘Yes, but at what cost? There were repressions, the GULAG… the corpses piled up….’ But no matter how many noughts are added to the numbers of those who died in the labor camps, this lie is refuted by simple demography. Even despite the terrible war that took millions of lives, from 1929 to 1955, the population of the USSR increased by 46 million. Average life expectancy increased by 26 years.
The sad truth is that as soon as the USSR collapsed, the upshot was the beginning of the demographic troubles with which our country is still dealing. The social and demographic conditions of the ‘unspeakable 1990s’ killed far more humans than the notorious GULAGs.
By the early 1920s, we had survived the horrible Civil War. The second act of this tragedy was the political purges of the 1930s by the Soviet leadership of the day. But hardships have proven to be the price for any social revolution. Other peoples have paid a much worse price than the Soviet people, but this does not prevent them from being proud of their revolutions and drawing inspiration from them centuries later.
The Great French Revolution of 1789 saw many bloody massacres, but it infused the country with creative energy for generations to come. The revolutionary slogan ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ still adorns all administrative buildings in France. The national anthem of the country, La Marseillaise still sounds: ‘To arms, citizens! Form your battalions!’.
In the same way, the pragmatic Chinese managed to draw inspiration from Comrade Mao. “Seventy percent achievement, thirty percent mistakes,” is how they sum up his achievements, and discussion closes with that. Monuments to Comrade Mao adorn the thoroughly capitalist landscapes of Chinese cities today and by no means do they prevent the cities from flourishing and getting rich.
The example of the USSR looks especially inspiring today. Despite the harsh economic sanctions wielded against it (yes, they were wielded against us even then) and despite the rabid anti-Soviet propaganda of the day- arguably as intense as today’s Russophobia – the USSR created new industries, modernized agriculture, built the military-industrial complex, traded with the world, and prospered.
From the beginning of the 1930s, the Soviet government regularly reduced prices for various categories of goods – and did so generously, sometimes by tens of percent. The famous Stalinist price cuts in 1947-1953 were the high point. Salaries grew and the ruble strengthened, while its dependence on foreign currencies grew weaker.
When we look in amazement at the feat of our ancestors in the Great Patriotic War, we should not forget that they fought not just for their land. They also fought for their rights, for their freedoms, for their well-being. All this was far too precious to hand over to the enemy.
The rapid growth of the Soviet economy did not proceed by itself. In an atmosphere of social experimentation, people became liberated, believed in themselves and achieved the impossible. Moscow became an artistic mecca. Films by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Dovzhenko are still shown in all film schools in the world. Mayakovsky and Pasternak created modern poetry. Prokofiev and Shostakovich created contemporary music. The theatre of the entire world was shaped by the scripts drawn from the pockets of Vsevolod Meyerhold ‘s overcoat.
Our grandparents did not know the expression ‘social advancement’, but for decades a powerful social elevator operated. Any peasant could board it from a young age and in the natural course of events grow up to be a philosopher, an army general, a professor, a lead physician or a government minister. They could grow up and become a head of state. The Soviet Union was governed by people from the bottom of the social order. They knew poverty, hunger and war firsthand. And they thought anxiously about how to secure the future for us, the future generations.
It is a striking fact that today on the fields of the special military operation in Ukraine, our army still uses equipment and shells produced during the time of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. They are simple, cheap and indestructible weapons, and there are supplies for years to come. It was customary to laugh at Leonid Ilyich over the production of tens of thousands of tanks which he oversaw. Why bother with that? The Secretary General lived through the Great Patriotic War from start to finish, taking care of his descendants. How will we cope with the NATO aggressor? We are coping well, Leonid Ilyich. Thank you.
This year’s centenary of the USSR is our family holiday, so to speak. Our grandparents built an absolutely amazing and unique country for us. They built it with their bare hands in the truest sense of this expression. They gave us a rich inheritance. We live in the cities built by them, and in the civilization that they built for future centuries.
For those who like to sneer at Soviet officialdom, I would advise you to turn off the electricity and see how you like it. Electricity was brought to you by those damned Bolsheviks. Decrees on this topic were signed personally by Lenin and by – fearful though it is to say it – Stalin. It is also worth turning off the water in the bathroom and then reflect, because it was the Bolsheviks who came up with the idea of building apartment blocks for working people with modern amenities that earlier had been only for the privileged. They provided dwellings inside them free of charge. Meanwhile, don’t forget to turn off the central heating: the “accursed Soviet officials” also messed that up… by creating it. This is not to mention the subway, public transport, the education system, healthcare and sports. This legacy saved us during the 1990s and has been a powerful springboard for our growth in recent years.
On the spiritual level, Soviet civilization revealed the best that existed in the Russian world: its primordial kindness, modesty and love for people. The Soviet people did not need to learn from elsewhere about tolerance – there was a genuine friendship of peoples among us. In the 1990s, this fundamental humanism allowed us to avoid a slide into civil war such as occurred in the long-suffering Yugoslavia. It also ensured the emergence in today’s Russia of a completely unprecedented democracy and diversity of thinking. Unlike in other countries, our freedom of speech has not yet been trampled down by censorship.
The USSR also provided us with a proverbial “soft power” for the century that lies ahead. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin is still a world-class superstar. The ideals of socialism remain an inspiration for billions of people in many countries. This intangible legacy of the USSR is now providing us with enormous help on the world stage. This is something we can now counterpose to rabid Russophobia.
One year ago, President Putin noted that the capitalist model of development had exhausted itself. Today this idea is even more relevant, because the outmoded capitalism has grabbed us by the throat and is trying to drag us down into its grave. We are all awaiting the economic crisis, the global “perfect storm” that is about to break upon us in the near future. We have to prepare for that.
It turns out we are the heirs to a unique experiment in building socialism. The centenary of the USSR is a good occasion to ponder this.