By Patricia H Kushlis
It wasn't long after I began to work as an Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy in Moscow during Brezhnev's later years, that I learned the realities of Soviet life. As it turned out, only one Soviet who I met during my two year stint in that workers' paradise was a true believer. Most everyone else in the official bureaucracy mouthed the Communist rhetoric but in reality had long given up hope of life in a functional – let alone humane - system. Many Soviets sought an exit, or at least a chance to see the non-Soviet world firsthand, or even just talk with someone from the West. Very few of those people who come to mind now were dissidents.
The Kremlin’s three legged stool
Television propaganda and fear of the omnipresent security services kept the population in check. An economy of scarcity fueling massive bribery was the third leg of the stool that propped up the fractured system. Ruble millionaires frequented night clubs. A copy of Amerika Magazine secured an excellent table at a top restaurant – a terrific way to jump to the front of the line. Four years at Tashkent University cost about the same as Harvard. A new car was the entry price to its equivalent in Yerevan. Even Communist Party hospitals for the elite had scarcities of basic antibiotics and even lacked sheets.
Yet the nightly news was filled with lengthy reports of Soviet achievements followed by shots of sad homeless American blacks sprawled seated on freezing or sweltering Harlem curbsides. That depended upon the time of year.
But nobody - including the woman who cleaned the bathrooms at the Hotel Rossiya on Red Square - believed the newscasts: many Soviets had short wave sets and tuned in regularly to foreign broadcasts from VOA, BBC, Deutche Welle often late at night - turning their dials to escape the buzz of Soviet jammers. Estonians who lived along the republic’s north coast – and in signal distance of Finland – aimed their television antennas northward giving them access to Finnish Broadcasting even if they were forbidden from visiting the country.
That Russian cleaning lady knew that Russians were poor and Americans rich: she told me so - I still remember her exact words. She also knew that Soviet young men were being killed in Afghanistan, just as Russian soldiers are dying in Eastern Ukraine today, but that part of the story, like today’s, never appeared in the Soviet media. Soldiers’ graves and burials were then, as now, kept secret. Everyone, it seems, knew anyway.
Mothers tried to protect their sons from the draft. Bribes helped keep young men from the perils of hazing by their own counterparts or bullets from Afghan rifles. Yet, somehow everyone knew. And this was well before the Internet Age or even access to copying machines which in those days were kept under lock and key: the person-to-person rumor mill was amazingly effective.
Only good stories about the Soviet Union were deemed fit for Soviet eyes and ears. The world outside those borders was painted as a dangerous place filled with the horrors of rapacious capitalism designed to tear the Soviet Union apart. Racism was rampant: little blond boys were especially prized by Russian grandmothers.
Corruption was ubiquitous because everyone had to engage in it to live. Even trading in the most innocent of goods - from bananas to jeans - was illegal. They would have had to been grown or produced in the Soviet Union. Bananas don’t grow well in northern climates and jeans – I suppose – were either beyond the country’s manufacturing capabilities or seen as a symbol of hated capitalism. Anyway the latter cost about $150 on the black market. Yet, jeans suits were the in-clothes at the Bolshoi Theater whose tickets were only available to the elite - or the well connected.
Cans of caviar, spirited abroad in the guise of tuna fish tins, were exported to and sold in Europe where the labels were changed. The officials involved in this sleight-of-can scam stashed their proceeds in secret bank accounts abroad – until they were caught.
Elections were held, but what’s an election when voters have no choices among candidates. To be absolutely sure of fealty and obedience, ballots were marked in public.
The Achilles heel of oil
The paternalistic, geriatric Kremlin of the late 1970s, naturally, knew best. Meanwhile, oil prices plummeted on the world market. The Soviet Union - which had floated on oil, gas and its population kept lubricated by vodka - was becoming poorer by the day; workers and pensioners suffered the most but almost no one escaped. By the late 1980s, inflation ran rampant. The military ate up at least 20% of the state budget. Likely far more.
Surreal or just the modern version?
As I read Peter Pomerantsev's recent book The Surreal Heart of the New Russia: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible about his nine years as a producer of documentaries for Russian television after the end of the Cold War, I thought back on my own experiences in the country and wondered how much had actually changed.
After the Soviet Union broke up, I never expected to see a truly democratic country rise from the rubble: Russians had had no experience with democracy and it is rare for a country with no democratic history to learn and practice such governance overnight.
But I did think that capitalism - perhaps with a strange socialist authoritarian twist - would take hold and in a way it has. But sadly the twist is a sick version of crony capitalist paternalism dictated from the top – an alliance between the political leadership of KGB officials and the Russian mafia – a blatant convergence of power and dirty money.
The black market had thrived under the Communists and this is where, I would argue today’s sickness began: there were ruble millionaires and they didn’t make those rubles on a worker’s salary. Without the black market, the Communist system would have collapsed under its own weight years or decades before.
But the rise of a Kremlin-centered kleptocracy - as Karen Dawisha so carefully documents in Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? - held together by the good-news only myths manufactured by today’s Kremlin through controlled only happy broadcasts for the masses - was beyond my worst nightmares of things to come. Yet that is exactly what Pomerantsev relentlessly documents in his stories of the New Russia. Given my previous experiences in the country, I have no reason to doubt him. This is just another manifestation of a twisted – theater of the absurd - system that jumped the rails long ago.
Yes, of course, there are differences between 1978 and 2014 beyond different names and faces and the passage of time. Russia’s new elite - too often the black marketers of yesteryear - and their families live extraordinarily well - as long as they toe the Kremlin line.
True, an urban middle class has emerged: but the Soviet Union always had an educated elite (yes, even though the society was supposedly classless): I wonder how much parts of today’s middle class differ from the intelligentsia of the past?
Travel abroad is no longer restricted to the very few. Moscow streets are filled with traffic that did not exist in 1978 because few people then had cars. Yet in 1980 as now, owners were and are shaken down by greedy police for questionable violations. Commerce is legal - but laws governing property rights remain weak and hence subject to vast corruption. Critics of the regime are murdered, jailed or intimidated. Investigative journalists seem particularly vulnerable.
The regime seeks enemies and designated scapegoats as a way to frighten the population into submission. Just as it did when miniscule sized demonstrations were smashed on Red Square and the three participants carried away in paddy wagons and jailed, when broadcasts were manufactured by the state, when Soviet border guards searched train compartments for bananas, bibles and stowaways, and when travel to capitalist countries – even to Eastern Europe – was forbidden except, of course, for the privileged few.
Wizard of Oz leadership – fewer differences than you might think
Behind the late 1970s authoritarian veneer, was a Wizard of Oz leadership whose grip was faltering day by day. Times had changed: the leadership hadn’t and by the time Gorbachev took over in 1986, it was too late.
Yes, there are differences between then and now but fewer than you might think.
Peter Pomerantsev, The Surreal Heart of the New Russia: Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, New York, Public Affairs, 2014.
Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy, Who Owns Russia? New York, Simon and Schuster, 2014.