Ten days that shook my world
- Nic Borain
- 10 May 2013 (South Africa)
I wrote what follows in July 1990 immediately after returning from a two-week trip to Moscow. I was part of a group with the now sadly departed Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa). The original was published in Democracy In Action, the institute’s monthly newsletter. I had looked for a copy for years and Paul Graham, the last executive director of Idasa, and a man for whom I have the highest regard, went to considerable trouble to find the article for me as he was closing up shop. I am republishing it here exactly as it originally appeared, although I have to sit on my hands to stop myself stripping out much of the the sentiment and youthful taking-of-oneself-too-seriously – and thereby cutting two thirds of the length. (I would also quite like not to admit to some of the things I once believed which I admit to in the article … and I would love to add a bit of irony … but it is all too late for that now.)
Why am I bothering? – I am aware that this was not exactly seminal. No special reason, except my desire that it form ‘part of the record’. I wanted it ‘out there’ in the electronic universe to remind myself of the precise moment I stopped being a confused socialist and carried on with being just confused, an altogether less satisfying state than I had experienced previously. It was bitter-sweet for me, this moment, and I have never entirely resolved the conflicted feelings that it evokes in me. I don’t promise that what follows will be madly interesting to anyone but myself and perhaps some others directly involved in the events I describe. So, if for no other reasons than the much vaunted record, complete and unexpurgated, it is.
Standing on the Leningradsky Prospect – the “straight way” to Leningrad – just outside Moscow I was filled with an unhappy mixture of dismay and despair.
I had reached an unbearably poignant shrine. In heroic proportions and cut deep into huge blocks of concrete was the visage of the Soviet version of the Unknown Soldier. The young interpreter translated the script alongside that haunting face in hushed tones. “It says that ‘the defenders of Moscow defend here forever’. Here they fought an important battle in the Great Patriotic War. Many people died. But for us this is very sad.”
Twenty million Soviet citizens died in that war. More than all the other deaths put together. The German army failed to take Moscow or Leningrad and eventually broke its back on a bitterly defended Stalingrad and the even more bitter Soviet winter.
Standing at that memorial I felt dismay at the enormity of suffering the people of this country had experienced in the last 100 years. I felt despair because by that stage of the trip I already sensed than another tragedy was befalling this oft punished country.
How do you record a credible impression of a country with 290 million inhabitants and more mutually unintelligible languages than anywhere else in the world after a brief two weeks spent in one city – albeit Moscow?
The answer is you probably can’t.
It was sunny mid-June and I was part of an Idasa delegation of “young researchers” on a fact-finding mission hosted by a group called the Committee of Youth Organisations. For me personally the visit was of particular importance.
The Soviet Union was the land of milk and honey for many of us who grew up politically in the student movement in the late 70s and early 80s. This was the flagship of a growing fleet that would rid our world of the uncaring and greedy imperative of profiteering capitalism and the misery it had brought our country.
We could quote chapter and verse of statistics that demonstrated the availability of basic goods and services to all Soviet people. We could parade the achievements of Eastern bloc socialism – in the production of iron and steel, in the eradication of illiteracy, in culture, the arts and in sports.
In response to perestroika and glasnost we had all reformulated our ideas and I wanted to discover two things: the soul of the Soviet people and whether the red flag was still flying. We were not able to answer any of these questions conclusively and were left with a series of often unconnected impressions.
I was quite unprepared for what I found in Moscow.
We sat in a meeting with the editor of the Moscow Communist Youth Organisation (Komsomol) daily newspaper. The paper has a subscriber list of one and a half million and is delivered daily. This man was a political appointee, yet he harangued us for over an hour about the evils and absolute unworkability of socialism.
We didn’t understand. Here was a powerful and influential communist, picking up a glass on the table and asking, “Who does this belong to? To the state, or the people, or some vague body? I don’t care about this glass,” and he made as if to throw it out of the window.
In an intense and growing fury he took a Parker pen from the inside pocket of his coat. “This is my pen! If this man (pointing at his second in command) breaks this pen, I will beat him,” he said, shaking his fist angrily.
Reaching some kind of climax, the editor rose to his feet and shouted pointing out of the window at the inevitable queue at a shop across the road: “Those people are queuing for children’s slippers. This is not how people should live! This is not even how animals should live!”
The sentiments behind these ragings were expressed by everyone we met – more cautiously only by the most senior members of the Communist Party.
The economy has clearly failed to meet the requirements of the population and the list of reasons they give reads like a tirade from the New Right.
Here is a selection of rough quotes as I jotted them down in my notebook or remember them now:
“The authoritarian, bureaucratic, administrative command system has created impossibly skewed production priorities.”
“Why work hard, or with any care and attention to detail if you are going to get your 300 roubles a month no matter what and anyway, you are not going to be able to buy anything with it? We have created workers who don’t know how to work.”
“Goods are expensive and if they are made here they are of inferior quality. It is very difficult to get imported goods and usually these are impossibly expensive.”
“I have lived here all my life. Now it is worse than anyone can remember. There are just no goods in the shops and for the first time we are really worried about hunger.”
Almost without exception the people we spoke to blamed socialism for their ills. When those of us with deep philosophical and political roots in the South African socialist movement protested that it wasn’t socialism per se that was the problem, but rather the errors committed in the building of the society and economy of the Soviet Union specifically, we were laughed out of court.
“It is the ideas themselves. 1917 was a disaster for us. We need the market economy,” was the refrain we heard time and again.
There seems no doubt that there is a developing consensus amongst the intelligentsia in Moscow at any rate, that the “free market” is the panacea to many of their ills. It would have been impossible, and extremely presumptuous of us to lecture them on the evils of rampant capitalism. They want it and they want it now.
When Germany and Japan start buying up state enterprises for a pittance and fill the shops with goods that only a few can afford; when unemployment and lack of housing becomes a problem for the previously protected underclass and when access to a whole lot of goods and services becomes determined by income, they may change their minds, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.
The citizens of Moscow (a relatively wealthy city) are struggling, increasingly despairingly, to survive. At first I was tempted to argue that they are better off than the unemployed in the First World, but it just doesn’t appear to be true, especially as far as countries with social welfare systems are concerned.
The problem, of course, is that the capitalism that will be built in the Soviet Union will be a mean and half-starved animal.
The Soviet people look at the highly developed capitalist economies of the West for a vision of their own future. The truth is that they can expect only the vicious and exploitative versions of the system that exist on the periphery in the Third World. The creation of that system is going to be extremely painful.
The other element of the unfolding drama in the Soviet Union is the collapse of the political entity itself.
The republics are finally starting to be flung off the edges of the vortex of rapid political change. Long repressed nationalism, often highly chauvinistic, is emerging everywhere and Gorbachev is finding it almost impossible to hold the show on the road.
The dark spectre of the Soviet Union’s collapse into 15 disgruntled, warring, potentially economically unviable Third World states with terrifying military resources at their disposal is starting to haunt the wold.
And what about the Russian people?
We were all astounded at the depth of education and cultural and philosophical literacy in the wide cross-section of people we met. A deep abhorrence of war and commitment to peaceful change was the characteristic feature. In response to the question “what do you want, or see as an alternative?”, the most common phrase was, “respect for universal human values”.
We asked many young people if they were proud of any of their national achievements – the beautiful, cheap and efficient Moscow underground, the low price and ready availability of books and records and the level of literacy and education.
We were told (variously): “The Soviet Union is not a country, we have no national achievements”; “How can we be proud if it takes all our effort and time just to buy a loaf of bread in a shop?”
Almost every young person we met had a burning desire to leave the country. The most popular movie on the circuit is a “documentary” comparison of life in the Soviet Union versus life in the West.
Apparently this films looks at the worst of Soviet life compared to the best in the West. It sounds like the worst kind of anti-communist, American ultra-right chauvinism - except it was made by a Soviet film producer. What is more, the public swallow every last detail in an orgy of masochistic self-hatred.
One thing we found interesting and encouraging was freedom and vibrancy of the media.
Organised political opposition to the Communist Party is weak (outside of the national movements in the republics) and many of the new parties have no real experience at mobilising the population. However, the press and television are filled with debate and exploration of new ideas and harsh examinations of social problems ranging from alcoholism through to child abuse.
By the end of the 10 days, the six of us were punch-drunk and exhausted. We spoke together for hours, trying, unsuccessfully, to draw out the essence of the experience. We all had the sense of being in an important place at an important time. This was the exact point where a grand enterprise had come off the rails.
The resounding shock waves of that catastrophe have changed the whole world, not least of all our own country. We struggled with the enormity of it and the sense of hopelessness we were left with.
As the last day of the visit dawned, I spoke to a wise and gentle man about my confusion and disappointment. He said: “Yes, this is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, but you are wrong to say our people are hopeless or despairing. They have spirit and humanity. We will win through in some way.”
(I was accompanied on that trip by Ian Liebenberg, Hermien Kotze, Zorah Ebrahim, Khehla Shubane and Mark Swilling – and I wish them well wherever they may be.) DM
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