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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Was it better in Soviet days?
This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the failed coup against the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, an event which led to the demise of the Soviet Union.
Fifteen independent countries were born as the Soviet Union collapsed. Most former soviet citizens hoped for a life of greater freedom and prosperity.
But 10 years on, many are getting nostalgic about those Soviet days. For a great number of people, freedom has meant poverty and uncertainty.
Several countries have seen the Soviet regime replaced by an equally authoritarian homegrown version.
Was life better in Soviet days? Did it all go badly wrong, or is the region still in a transition state?
This issue was debated on Europe Today on World Service radio. Johannes Dell brought together Vitaly Shykov, formerly on the Russian General Staff, and Gennady Gerasimov, who was spokesman for former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Russia used to be a feared and respected superpower, whatever her internal problems (and they were many). I feel it is highly unlikely that she will regain that former status and "compete" with the US. So why bother trying? The world is facing an energy crisis and the Kyoto protocol has been reduced in effectiveness. Russia has vast unpopulated wildernesses on which she could build windfarms. Imagine the new power to be gained by being the supplier of environmentally friendly electricity to the whole of Europe!
Chicago is one of the places where every ethnic group looking for opportunity ends up. I can only relate the Eastern European experience to the migration from the farms all over this country and other struggling ethnic groups who have come here. For most it takes two to three generations to become fully part of the new society and to build a support network. You are looking at 50 to 100 years of change if they "keep their eye on the ball".
We in the West have to take a lot of the blame for what has happened. We insisted that Russia convert overnight to a market economy with "shock" economic plans which left ordinary people destitute and created a handful of overnight billionaires when surely the correct path was a gradual pace of change.
It should however be remembered with concern that the President Putin is exercising increasingly centralised control over government with press freedoms being limited (there is now no independent TV network) and has shown little interest in tackling the Robber Barons who benefited from privatisation!
It seems to me that Russia is undergoing a rather turbulent evolution, but at least evolution is a more peaceful process than revolution. Every country in the world can look back nostalgically on the "good old days", but doing so won't bring them back. The best chance of future success is to face up to the future with confidence and determination, rather than dwell on the past.
At least the Cold War is over and the threat of WWIII is less of a threat, although the potential to blow ourselves up remains. Remember Threads? Spine chilling stuff, if you remember this film, then you will remember the fear that was around in the 80's.
The discussion about the passed away Soviet Union is, largely, a conflict between collective and individualistic components of our psychology. The USSR was a unique large-scale experiment where the collective part of human consciousness had superiority over another natural part of human nature - individualism - without any outcome for the latter. So, the contest between individualism and collectivism is absolute rubbish because it is a no-win game. History confirmed once more that only social formation with self-adjusting systems can survive. Fortunately or unfortunately capitalism is the only one of that sort.
Diran Mardirian, Lebanon
I would rather make half the world hate me to live with decency, than read so many sympathising comments about how pitiful my country's present is compared to its Soviet past - although it is true that Russian mentality (culture and spirituality) has major problems fitting in with the money-driven world. Thanks, everyone.
This culminated in the proclamation of the supremacy of Russian law over Soviet law in the 1991 Declaration of Independence. Given this blueprint for a new Union Treaty, the conservatives' reaction (the putsch) is not surprising.
Competition with the United States led to Sputnik, Apollo 11, satellites upon satellites, unheard of technological advances and the most rapid evolution of human technological and industrial achievement ever assembled. Without the challenges the USSR presented, we would not have half the technology we have today. A recent article in Time magazine referred to the USSR as "the only nation the United States was ever afraid of, and its not often lamented competitor." The development of atomic weapons aside, look at how far we have developed since the end of World War II. Most of it would not exist if it were not for Russia.
In the USSR, every language was official in its respective territorial unit alongside Russian, the nationwide language. In many "republics" there were three-four languages, and in Daghestan a whole thirty. Ukraine even witnessed a fierce Ukrainisation in the 1920s--Ukrainian was imposed even on all areas that just happened to be under the jurisdiction of the UkrSSR (such as Odessa), often with comical consequences.
It is also hard to agree that the USSR served the ethnic Russians - most RSFSR territories had the lowest living standards and the least consumer goods. Trips to Moscow, Leningrad and the other 14 republics were used by ordinary Russians for shopping. Meanwhile, the Soviet government gave aid to any third-world country that applied.
Russians felt they were being milked by the rest of the eastern Bloc (which I think is true), and this discontent resulted in the June 12, 1991 Declaration of Sovereignty (which made Russia financially independent), which in turn fuelled the August coup and the Soviet collapse altogether.
Why do people need so-called freedom if their stomachs are empty and their children are sick because they can't buy them cheapest antibiotic? For those who live in the land of freedom here is a little food for thought. Do you know that US jail over two million people every year? That is more people than were jailed in "bad", nasty, ugly USSR in Stalin's time.
Those who say that people of Ukraine are happy because they can speak Ukrainian again. You probably don't know that about 60% of the people in Ukraine speak Russian as their first language. That all Eastern, Southern majority of Northern and Central Ukraine speak Russian. You don't know that a lot of people at the EAST would gladly be under Russian "yoke" then be "free" of it.
And if you think that I am 60 years old and have psychiatric disorder please note that I am just 25 and I am really sorry that USSR broke up.
Without there having been the "Soviet" times, I think the people of the world both in the East and the West would have been much worse off. All the social security, benefits and decent salaries enjoyed by general public in the rich capitalist countries were created to compete with the socialist model and indeed to prevent a popular uprising. However terrible the regime was, the human cost of communist rule (which I personally benefited from) is incomparable to the cost of capitalism: slavery of Africans, commerce driven imperialism, both world wars - I'm sure you get the idea. I think it is shallow to debate whether life was "better" during the communist era or not. It was better for some and terrible for others, just like it always will be everywhere in the world. What particular con the people in power are justifying themselves with is quite irrelevant. At the end of the day, it's about what are you willing to make of your situation.
The Gross Domestic Product of Ukraine has declined to approximately 20 percent of its value ten years ago. On top of that, the economic structure is in ruins and today the country is very largely operating on a black market economy. If you don't believe this, you only have to think about the average monthly income for professionals. School teachers and university lecturers, for example, have an official monthly income of around $30 US, and even that often fails to appear for several months at a time. They need at least $100 per month to live even decently. The people in these jobs somehow survive too. How is that achieved? The black market. The country runs on a black market economy.
Those of you who write in to say how wonderful it is to have the freedom to travel abroad, enjoy your untethered business enterprises, etc., should be glad indeed. You are in the extreme minority. For the rest of the people life is hard - harder than it ever was under the Soviet Union, but the trouble is that most people do not have the resources to publicise this fact.
I had lived under USSR boot for 16 years in Poland. Was it a good life? Absolutely not! However, I believe in a Russian nation. One can say that this is a first shot at their real freedom. Since its inception Russian folk has been under Tartars, Mongols, Tzars and the Communist boot. A regular Russian does not understand word "freedom", but he will. I used to hate Russians for what they did to my country, Poland. However, now I see them as me, good people who want to enjoy life and freedom as I want. A country of Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. How can you not love them? Too much beauty to just spit and discard Russia as nothing because it is poor.
For the people lucky to have a job, incomes are very low and employees often go for months without pay. When they are paid, it may be only a small proportion of what they have earned. Families are split by poverty and alcoholism. The wife often has to find 2 or 3 jobs to support a child, drunken husband and her parents all living in perhaps a two-room apartment.
Go to visit a Russian or Ukrainian family and despite their poverty and hunger, they will feed you their last loaf of bread. Their kindness is the one ray of light in a destroyed, corrupt country.
The only way for the Soviet system to have survived and provided its citizens with anything near the living standards that Westeners rely on to sustain democratic institutions would have been to emulate China. Doing so may have maintained and built upon the existing structures, which as anyone who has been to the Third World will tell you could have been a lot worse.
Change to a Western style economy means worship of profit. The haves get more and the have nots get less.
Freedom here is total illusion.
More and more Americans are coming to this understanding.
I had been living in Russia for 28 years. It was different, difficult sometime. I did like Gorbachov's point of view - there was no need to change everything so dramatically and so fast, especially after one revolution, two wars, and Stalin's genocide.
This great country and these great people will recover. They just need some time, they had been through a lot of difficulties in their history.
I liked the comment about the Russian soul, it is true, anyone that has dealt with Russians would know about the Russian soul, I only hope that the western market free policies do not destroy it. The change was too sudden, no preparation, nothing, Gorbachev, has a lot to answer for, he was hypnotised by Margaret Thatcher who changed the UK, but it took many years to get the UK to a point that resembles little America, with many people like in America right on the poverty line. I am not socialist, I just travel and see.
But for as long as there are people like the Russians I met, that give money to people (even few roubles) just because they say they need them more than themselves, there is still hope that the Russian soul will survive against the free market onslaught.
Russians will climb back, Russians are good survivors like cats, and you can see how many there are in Moscow.
The USSR served only Russia.
The communists imposed the Russian language to Belarusians, Ukrainians and all others while the local languages were outlawed.
Plus the Russians spread themselves to all countries in order to turn all the USSR into a bigger Russia.
All non-Russians should be glad the USSR is no more.
Let's not put the Soviet Union and the Third Reich out of historical context. Authoritarian regimes have always existed, though these two were the last in the Western world (forgive me for classifying my savage country as Western). These regimes are rarely established without blood (later on it's more relaxed - we Soviets remember wearing wide jeans and long hair after the 50s: we faced some trouble, but not jail!), but that doesn't mean that everyone suffered and every law-abiding citizen of that regime was responsible for the atrocities. Hence (this may sound wild, but I believe I'm being objective), I don't see the need for Germans or the Soviets to denounce their respective ex-regimes altogether - it's not their fault they were born and lived there. For example, the Americans aren't renouncing the United States altogether with slavery and segregation in the past!
I am amazed at the patronising remarks of you Americans saying the Russians are in transition to democracy. You live in a country where the president got into power because the election was fiddled in the state where his brother was governor. What do you know about democracy? Wake up and smell the coffee. If you're lucky it'll be Cuban!
"Democracy", "Open or Market Economy" and "Freedom" are sugar-coated pills of poison which only make the "Doctors" rich and cause the "Patients" to perish.
Soviet people were poor but they lived with dignity with basic needs met. Their quality of life was much higher and the people were happy. The strong deep-rooted culture and the technological advances even over the US were the evidence of the healthy atmosphere that prevailed. Today, the majority become beggars while a handful of rich enjoy the wealth and praise the newly achieved "freedom". From a crime free society during the Socialist time, it rose to a mafia era where lives are so cheap and the law of the jungle has replaced the rule of law. It was the West (US) who won but not the Soviet people.
Was life better in the Soviet days? Emphatically NO. There are some who pine for the continuity of those times, but these tend to be the least able parts of society to adapt to changes. And the Soviet system was only occasionally able to provide for its citizens (actually, subjects). When I worked for PAP in Poland in 1990, we (as government workers) were issued tea, soap and toilet paper along with our salaries - so we wouldn't have to stand in line for these scarce items. Ironically these "benefits" were obsolete by 1990 because the collapse of the Soviet-supported system the year before had flooded Polish supermarkets with all the items that had been unavailable for the previous two decades. Remember, the Soviet system was not defeated by the West, it imploded of its own dead weight. That continuity was an illusion.
The majority of the societies liberated from the Soviet yolk are far better places to live now - not perfect, but they offer freedom and the ability to make a decent living. Only in places like Russia and Romania where gangster-style capitalism (replacing gangster-style communism) has taken root have the living standards declined over the past decade. The Soviet empire was one of the most barbaric and unjust creations of humanity, so its passing is not to be missed!
Pete Morgan-Lucas, Wiltshire, UK
I can't wait until Russia joins the European Union. That
is the only way that they will get back on their feet.
I doubt those who populated the Gulags and now rest in their cemeteries would understand the nostalgia for the Soviet system. It is a fact that no communist country has ever resisted the urge to lapse into authoritarianism so it's apparent that it is an inherently-flawed system. A little tweak here and there would not have made the Soviet Union more cuddly. It will take time and home-grown leadership for the trust in capitalism, democracy, and the rule of law to develop. If the leadership is lacking then we may be having the same debate 50 years from now.
I have just got back from Siberia where I asked whether life had improved since Soviet times. My hosts simply pointed to the abundance of food on the table - not to mention the freedom to express their opinions without fear. Westerners are fed a constant media diet of gloom about Russia, so they are far too ready to swallow the old myths about the absence of poverty in Soviet times etc. In contrast, most intelligent Russians recognise that any economic system is better than the blinkard stupidity of Soviet central planning. Few people realise that today Russia and the Ukraine are now the fastest-growing economies in Europe.
Fred Kasich, Austin, TX, USA
People say Russia is now run by the Mafia. Well, when WASN'T it run by a mafia of some sort? First it was the tsars, then the Communist Party and now the current ruling elite. Feudalism, then communism, then capitalism were all imposed from above and the Russians accepted them - or else! Perhaps it's not communism that people are nostalgic for, but tsarism. They're alike in many ways.
You said that you feel it is better for the 'people to decide.' This is a good point. However, it disregards the fact that there is a force in society today that is capable of strongly influencing the general population. I am, of course, talking about the media. The growth of the media machine is exemplified by the Murdoch take-over of the UK airwaves, and to suggest that people's opinions are formed rationally and outside the pervasive influence of the media seems to me to be a bit naive.
Aurelien Waite, UK
'The Russian people have a long and difficult path to thread before they reach their goal: there will be much more agony and bloody sweat but I am confident that from this young, mighty people new life will come'.
This quote is from a book written in 1920 by a visitor to the new Soviet Union. Little did he realise that the process of change would take 100 years! A 'right way' for Russia (or any other country we care to mention) doesn't exist at the moment because we are living through a period of 'interesting times'. We'll all have to see what the next few decades bring...
For my folks it was better during the 'good' old days of the ex-USSR even though financially they are considerably better off now. They miss the certainty and feeling of security, and who can blame them?
I personally do not miss the communist system even a bit, but I think the whole transition thing could have been handled in a much better manner.
Lee Churchman, Canada
Ten years after the collapse of communism, the Russians seem to have more freedom from both the state and party-politics. However, this new found 'economic liberalism' needs to be used wisely. Personal freedom without due consideration for fellow human beings and the environment is chaos. In the long run, chaos only leads to tyranny.
I went to the Former Soviet Union in August 1991, barely after the Coup and lived there for a good part of the 90s witnessing most of the transition. I think that for the majority, life was better in the soviet Union, the change to democracy came about without any safety nets thus leaving a people without the knowledge, skills or capital to survive in a capitalist system.
I have lived in Ukraine for 3 years and I have to say that, despite the fact that people are often much worse off financially, the most important effect has been mental. Peoples' outlook on life appears to be extremely different, if a little insecure. Unfortunately, thanks to the influx of American propaganda, Ukrainians are never allowed to let their turbulent past rest. Clinton came and talked about Democracy - and then the Ukrainians laugh at the most undemocratic Presidential election in the history of modern democracy!
Yes, life was more stable and life standards dropped significantly for most Russians. And when the Russians are hit hard, they eventually bounce back even harder. Check their history. Soviet nostalgia coupled with hard lessons from recent years is what will only expedite their recovery. Politically Russia is no longer in transition, but economically they have lots of catching up to do. Wise contries are seizing the moment and make friends with this great contry while it goes through difficult times. The benefits will be more than Soviet Union could ever offer.
I cannot understand why the only two options for the Soviet peoples are supposed to have been "remaining communist" or becoming "hard core capitalists". Gorbachev tried to find a middle solution --a Soviet nation ruled by the people (rather than by elite dictators) and still being able to compete with the West when it came to political and social freedoms. He and his political allies were not allowed to complete their efforts --not by the people, but by the cold warriors of the KGB.
Neil, St. Louis, USA
Russians have had
to deal with a drastic increase in preventable diseases, a
precipitous decline in living standards and have been reduced
to paupers looking for cheap jobs in the West. The collapse
of the totalitarian Party was a good thing - no one wants to
return to that. But the collapse of the system that took good
care of babies born in the hospitals and made sure that people
had adequate nutrition has brought untold misery.
Everyone I ever met while living in Russia wishes that the Soviet
Union were still around - but without the Party.
I have to take issue with one statement I have read. It is NOT the state that makes democracy work - it IS the people. Take a look at recent elections in the UK and the USA where the percentage of people voting has dropped considerably. That is damaging to democracy. Democracy works best when everyone takes part.
Carl , UK
The problem isn't the move from communism to democracy but rather how it happened. The transition was simply too quick, so the old structures collapsed before new ones were in place. We should welcome Russia back into the European fold and offer them all the resources and expertise we can to help the country. The Russians are a great people - resourceful, courageous and innovative.
Sherwin Lo, Hong Kong
For any nation genuine democracy is very difficult to obtain and equally as hard to hold onto. However, what can be better than "rule by the people?" With the Soviet system the Party decides what is best for the people. Don't the people themselves know what is best? I hope the US will do all it can to help Russia and the CIS during this transition to democracy and to aid in the process of building up their economies.
How many people on this list have ever even been to Russia?
How can you possibly comment on this subject? I wouldn't even try, except to say hats off to Andrei Kiselev who spotted that westerners are far more likely to believe their own propaganda.
Dmitriy P., US/Russia
Just because communism in the USSR was corrupt the first time around, is that a good enough reason to entirely scrap socialism in favour of capitalism? The best thing for the people of Russia and for the general good of the evolution of humanity would be to re-attempt the socialist state but without the corruption of dictators, without the censorship or the cover-ups or the murders.
Life was VERY difficult mostly because of the lack of freedom and, also very important, lack of opportunity for the bright and industrious without the proper connections with the "nomenklatura". It is not so easy nowadays but the chances are much better for many people. There is only one deficit in Russia - money. This is much better than to spend hours queuing to by some basic goods of inferior quality.
David Gatenby BA(Hons) Russian, Germany
To those who say they miss the fondness of patriotic fervour, I say that is a state of mind that can be changed within your own mind and heart. Being able to live a free life (travel, engage in political debate or religious exercises, build a personal business) is something not to be taken lightly and should be protected. Love your country, but most importantly, love (and guard) your freedom.
My great-grandparents left Russia to escape the oppression of the Tsar. The oppression of the Tsar was replaced by the Soviet Union. The problem, I believe, is not that people yearn for the old days but that the change was too sudden and abrupt. To declare democracy in a country where people have forever lived under an autocratic government--be it communist or monarchy--is too drastic to do in one swoop.
I have a grandmother who is not political.
She tells me that in her young days
she felt more patriotic and proud of her
country, and that the country could be depended
on to look after you like a father.
She tells me now that she has lost
that feeling of security in the state
government and I think I can see why.
I'm currently on a long holiday in Ukraine. Ukrainians tell me that their communist bosses just 'changed jackets' to suit the new 'democracy', so nothing has changed, with the ex-communists in total control, even of the prime minister, via the Mafia. Tax is so high that the only way to do business, so I'm told, is to cheat the taxman. The Ukrainians I have spoken to are despairing of change for the better in their lifetime due to the corruption and believe it will take several generations for light to appear at the end of their tunnel.
It is clear that living standards for the vast majority of people in the former Soviet Union have declined since its demise. It is also debatable how much more political freedom they have. This is not to hold up the USSR as a model system, but the issue is hardly black and white. I would ask advocates of our current system, where they would rather be a poor peasant, in communist Eastern Europe or in one of the 'triumphs of the free market' like Guatemala, Salvador, Bolivia or Honduras?
The Russians born in 30 years time will think that it was worthwhile transferring from a Soviet to a capitalist society. It is those who should be considered, not those who like to look back in fondness of a time where everyone in Russia was socially dead.
P. Martin, N. Ireland
Freedom has its price. Perhaps uncertainty is part of that. The state is not an entity in itself, separate from the population. The state is made up of people and it is they who make democracy work.
It constantly amazes me how Westerners hark back with nostalgia to the old Soviet days. We should note that the Russian people look back on Communism only with relief that it is over and with hope for the future.
In response to Steven James - Why does the west have to help? No one is helping Britain with asylum seekers, the breakdown of our national railway, the appalling service that is the NHS, the rise in violence and drug related crime etc. It is not our responsibility to assist another countries' governments in implementing policy and it would be extremely ironic if we did as this government does nothing to help its own people. I wish the eastern block well in its development but it is a path that they have to take alone and learn from their own errors, not be mollycoddled by a country that can't even give its own citizens decent transportation.
To Mark M. Newdick, who thinks that we have 'seen the light': I'd prefer to have my job, and let him see the light. Another thing: I can think for myself, and that is not the reason I'm without a job. Go and tell your laid-off workers in the US and UK that they are without jobs because they cannot think for themselves, and see what they tell you.
I moved to the UK about a week before the coup in 1991. I never went back there. But I have heard so many stories about it now. Lots of real life programmes were made about the lifestyle there now and how people are oblivious to, say, a shooting - I think it's very scary. I was going to do Russian with economics at university this year, which would involve taking a year out in Moscow. But now I am changing it to just economics, I just want to give Russia time to recover.
I.G. Novak, Oxford, UK
I am glad the Soviet Union collapsed. After the Iron Curtain was removed, I have received a chance to study abroad and get the education which neither my parents nor my grandparents dared to dream about. The life during Soviet times was good only for those people who liked the government to "think" instead of them - knowing definitely what was best for them to study, to know and to do. As a result, many of them find themselves now with needless specialities and without profitable skills to support their living. They are upset now because they still believe it is someone's responsibility to solve their problems.
Just read Anthony Bullock's post, it is absolutely bizarre. Stalin was responsible for as many if not more deaths than Hitler! He starved people to death, built government schemes with slave labour and ran a system of death camps. How can you possibly think that the average person was treated fairly well?
Mimi Anayannis, USA
Since the changes happened recently the ex-Soviet region is in a state of transition. People are suffering a great deal because the country is changing to the free market and democracy. I would like to see much more generous economic aid for Russia from countries like the UK and USA to help them through the very difficult period of change that they are facing.
Gavin Jelic-Masterton, Switzerland (formerly UK)
Russia has been appallingly neglected by the West and it is no surprise that many of its citizens yearn for Soviet days. Fundamental changes need to be made in Russia before it becomes a full democracy but the country and its long-suffering people need Western support.
Yes it was better in Soviet days. I was in the British military living in Germany to keep the Russians out. Tax-free booze and cars, it was great. Emm is that what you mean?
I am a firm believer in Stalin's policies - in his native Georgia he is still revered and treated as a hero, which has to tell us something. There is a substantial body of evidence that most Soviets were well-treated under his regime.
I think that the automatic assumption that "capitalism is good" may be true in some cases, but not all. China does not seem to be doing too badly at the moment (rising prosperity of the people, host of the Olympic Games etc).
Steve J, England
It depends I suppose on how you define freedom. Freedom for the rich to exploit the poor? Freedom for the gangsters to terrorise the weak? Freedom to starve to death? Freedom for the corrupt to plunder and extort? Welcome to the wonderful world of capitalism.
Unfortunately the people who are in power today in the various former Soviet republics are the same people who were in power ten years ago and are not genuine democrats or reformers. With these people in power who still have a communist mentality and are corrupt and authoritarian, is there any realistic chance that things could change?
After all those years of leaving it to the state to do the thinking and planning (if that's what they called it), it is obviously going to take a long time to get people to think for themselves. Russia deserves our support and respect for seeing the light ... nobody said it was going to be easy!
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