A daughter, a wife, football, building communism
November 26, 2017 6:55 PM   Subscribe

 
‘We are certain that you, our descendants, will complete the revolutionary transformation of the world.’ Awkward pause. ‘We even confess to being a little envious of you, who will live to see with your own eyes the fruits of our labours. We took the first step into space; you will fly to other planets...
posted by doctornemo at 6:34 AM on November 27 [2 favorites]


Thanks, an excellent read (as the LRB Diary generally is); it even includes a nice succinct description of how Yeltsin's privatization worked.

> We are certain that you, our descendants, will complete the revolutionary transformation of the world.’ Awkward pause. ‘We even confess to being a little envious of you, who will live to see with your own eyes the fruits of our labours. We took the first step into space; you will fly to other planets...

I don't envy Soviet citizens of the '50s and '60s their actual living conditions, but I envy them their faith in the shining future. We in the West (at least in the US) were tense with worry about the Soviets overtaking and/or bombing us; we claimed to be sure of the superiority of our way of life (democracy! capitalism!), but we didn't act as if we were sure. As far as I can tell, outside of tiny dissident circles most Soviets really believed that their system was going to win out, and the future would be communist, with everyone equal and happy on earth and mankind making great strides into the cosmos (and bringing socialism to benighted alien races). It was a dream, but a happy one.
posted by languagehat at 6:46 AM on November 27 [6 favorites]


Why wouldn't you envy the living conditions of Soviet citizens in the '50s and '60s? They had guaranteed housing, food, work, education and healthcare -- better than I have in the US in 2017!

Materially speaking, Soviets in the mid-20th century only had it worse than westerners if you take a lot of questionable assumptions as given. You have to only compare them to the white, suburban, middle-class Amrican ideal, i.e. not count Black people, migrant farm laborers, homeless people, miners, people in the service industry, people in Latin America and other non-superpowers etc. etc. as the westerners you're comparing them to.
You also have to take capitalist commodity fetishism as the standard for "good living conditions": sure, those leave-it-to-Beaver middle class suburbanites had access to the latest model toaster and pillowy toilet paper, but they were one illness or injury or layoff away from destitution. Speaking as someone who has been homeless and sick with no access to services, the comfort I get from my current middle-class income and savings has a lot more to do with securing my basic needs than it does with access to gadgets. A mid-century Soviet citizen didn't need to luck into a high-paying job for that; no matter what their role was in society, they knew that they would never, ever have to worry about where their next meal would come from or what would happen if they got sick. Why wouldn't they be optimistic about their system?

There are plenty of criticisms to be made around abstract notions of "freedom" and more concrete criticisms of the Soviet criminal justice system etc., but living conditions? Half a century later, anyone who has it better than them is in the vanishingly thin upper crust of global income.
posted by Krawczak at 2:15 PM on November 27 [3 favorites]


I think (he said gently) that you may be taking the propaganda for the fact. You might want to ask former Soviet citizens who were adults in that period about how that "guaranteed housing, food, work, education and healthcare" worked out in practice.
posted by languagehat at 2:19 PM on November 27 [5 favorites]


I have, personally, and I am echoing the reports of every one I have spoken to -- even those who left because of their criticisms of the state. But that's anecdata; how about statistics?
Looks like a majority of those in the former USSR wish it would return
And the older a person is (aka the more time they actually lived under socialism) the more positive their feelings for it are.
So since you're dismissing the statistics and records scholars like J. Arch Getty have pulled from the Soviet government archives as "propaganda," and are instead asking for the subjective memories of those who lived in the USSR, there are the links.
posted by Krawczak at 3:01 PM on November 27 [1 favorite]


Of course people are nostalgic, they always are. But if you're quoting J. Arch Getty as an authority, you apparently have an ideological orientation yourself, and there's not much point our discussing it.
posted by languagehat at 5:28 PM on November 27


Maybe we should do Red Plenty in Fanfare. OTOH, Crooked Timber has already covered the waterfront.
posted by whuppy at 8:07 AM on November 28


how about statistics?

According to the Maddison project, GDP per capita was $11,328 in the USA vs $3,945 in the USSR in 1960 (in something approximating 1990 dollars). That's a 3x ratio, which is a significant difference in economic welfare (and income measurements usually include transfers, e.g. state welfare). But this, of course, says nothing about inequality within either society, and inequality data for the USSR is harder to come by...

But if you're quoting J. Arch Getty as an authority, you apparently have an ideological orientation yourself, and there's not much point our discussing it.

What's wrong with J. Arch Getty? Or having an ideological orientation, for that matter (not that it's really possible to not have one...)?
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 8:20 PM on November 29


> What's wrong with J. Arch Getty?

There's a spectrum of scholars ranged by attitudes towards communism and the USSR. On one end, the "communism is evil and the USSR was a totalitarian state controlled by an evil dictator who killed with abandon" extreme, you have people like Robert Conquest. On the other (setting aside actual communists, obviously), the "communism is a viable theory and the USSR was a state that tried to put it into practice even if it got things wrong sometimes" extreme, you have J. Arch Getty. I mean, there was a whole school of "revisionists" taking the latter approach in the '70s-'80s, the best known of whom is probably Sheila Fitzpatrick, and I have problems with the whole school because as far as I can see it was basically a careerist move ("Hey, everybody's been talking about evil and totalitarianism, there's clearly a place in the market for a different approach") with a cynical approach to morality ("I'm a historian, Jim, not a priest!"), but Fitzpatrick in particular backed off the extreme "social mobility is a good thing!" approach once she got fame and tenure and has produced superb scholarship—I have and gladly recommend several of her books. J. Arch Getty, as far as I can tell, is still an unapologetic revisionist, and frankly I don't see why revisionists of Soviet communism are any more admirable than the Germans who tried to rehabilitate Nazism (aside from the bad stuff, of course!) and got slapped down by pretty much everyone.

Anyway, I'm not saying Getty is evil and nobody should read him, I'm saying if someone cites him as their go-to source for analysis of things Soviet, I'm not going to take them particularly seriously.
posted by languagehat at 9:01 AM on November 30


I don't interpret the revisionist school as necessarily pro-USSR or pro-Stalin or pro-whatever (instead, merely anti-existing historiography), but if we're imputing motivations to Russian history scholars, it seems an equally if not more careerist perspective for a Western scholar to take the Cold War perspective on things. I suppose we'll have to part ways on the role of morality in historiography; I think while of course it has a place, using it as the prism through which one views history is often seriously misleading.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:17 PM on November 30


> it seems an equally if not more careerist perspective for a Western scholar to take the Cold War perspective on things

Oh, absolutely, and I would be just as dubious about somebody who used Robert Conquest as their go-to source for analysis of things Soviet. I respect Conquest a lot, as having been right about the Terror when a lot of people were wrong, but he's still an extremist who should be used only in conjunction with more balanced sources. And I don't mean that morality should be used as the prism through which one views history ("this ruler bad! that ruler good!"), just that I don't want to get the sense that the scholar really doesn't give a shit about the deaths of millions. It's perfectly possible to write about these things with both historical objectivity and a sense of morality (as is common in writing about the Third Reich these days); Timothy Snyder is a good example. But anyone who thinks social mobility somehow balances out the Terror can go fuck themselves as far as I'm concerned.
posted by languagehat at 5:56 PM on November 30


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