The Soviet Union is a state that is very often vilified in the Western world. This is easy to understand. Since its emergence in 1923 after a bloody civil war, it was a primary antagonist to Western capitalism and imperialism.
But this was not just a state opposed to Western capitalism, it was also anti-democratic and abusive to its people. Very often it is paired with Nazi Germany as one of the primary examples of an abusive and repressive state in modern times. Therefore, the subsequent Cold War and military contest with the USSR was also framed as a battle of freedom against communist dictatorship.
Before continuing, it must be said that despite the rhetoric, this cannot be taken as a true motivation for the West in opposing the USSR. The United States and the rest of NATO backed immensely repressive regimes during the Cold War including Nicaragua, Iran, South Vietnam and Indonesia. Therefore, the democracy argument fails to account for the West’s actual stances and actions against the Soviet Union.
Furthermore, the framing of the Soviet Union as a dictatorship fails to investigate the true mechanisms of the Soviet government and shows a refusal to resist traditional narratives. This goes for other ideas assumed about the Soviet Union including the idea that people were often hungry or starving, the society was economically backward and that the Soviets cared for nothing but world domination. These are the main misconceptions I hope to clear up.
How did the Soviet government function? If left to popular understanding it functioned by top down decree and no decision could be questioned or amended. This is a falsehood. The Soviet government had, much like the United States, a representative form of government.
Soviets were worker councils, sort of like unions but with administrative control over localities. These existed before the revolution in 1917. The process involved Soviets at local levels electing representatives to the district level who would then elect representatives at the national level. All of these representatives were subject to recall at any time and anyone could run for a position. These positions were not for life and there was a system of checks and balances in place for the different organs of government.
Lastly, one did not need to be a Communist Party member to run. Yes. That is correct. For example, in the 1937 elections, nearly ¼ of those elected were not members of the Communist Party. While the system had flaws and there were cases where democratic mechanisms were not developed to the utmost, to say that there was none at all is equally false.
To end off, I need only show an official CIA document from after the death of Stalin where they admit that to see the Soviet Union as a totalitarian dictatorship is not true. They say that while Stalin’s powers were wide, they were not total and that he was merely a, “captain of a team.”
The question of hunger and poverty in the Soviet Union is another commonly held belief. It is said that food was not guaranteed and that the people lived in poor conditions compared to the West and that basic goods that were taken for granted in the West were luxuries in the Soviet Union. While this idea contains some truth, namely that the USSR was lacking in some of the comforts of life compared to the West, it is still not the whole story.
In 1917, Russia was a 90% peasant country where wooden plows were common in agriculture, most of the country had no electricity and famine had been endemic for centuries. Forty years later, the Soviet Union was a modern and industrial society using modern equipment for agriculture, had a fully electrified society, had not had a famine for 25 years and was sending satellites into space. The true comparison that should be made is two countries who started in a similar position to the USSR.
Imagine comparing United States to India and then using the United States’ advancements in certain areas to make broad claims. Was the comparison even fair? When comparisons are made between the USSR and nations that started with a similar level of development, the ability of Soviet socialism to provide a better quality of life is made clear.
This trend is not just true of the USSR. In a 1986 economic study S. Cereseto and H. Waitzkin concluded that when starting from a similar level of development, socialist countries tended to provide a better quality of life than their capitalist counterparts. Education, housing, healthcare, public transportation, etc. were all free. Once again, I will cite a different CIA document, this one from 1983 where they say that Soviet nutrition may actually have been better than the average US citizen.
With all of this being said, if one had to choose between living in the Soviet Union or a randomly selected capitalist country and your goal was to have the best quality of life, you would likely choose the Soviet Union.
Lastly, the world domination idea. It is alleged that the Soviet leadership and government only cared about extending its reach over the entire globe and sought to turn the world into its slaves. This is utterly ridiculous. The Soviet Union sought to spread communism. That much is true. Yet, its final aim was not to dominate the communist movement. In 1920, Lenin argued that the position of Russian leadership of the movement was because of circumstance and not design. The other revolutions in Finland, Germany and Hungary were crushed. Russia was the only state where the revolution had succeeded. This obviously granted them a level of authority as someone in power obviously has more power than someone who is not.
A communist party not in power was not going to lead the movement when there was a communist party in power. Furthermore, Lenin states that if revolution was to happen in a more advanced country (Germany, France, UK, US, etc.), Russia would no longer be the leader of the communist movement. This truth escapes the notion that the Russian communists wanted worldwide domination over all as their ultimate prize.
Furthermore, one cannot ignore the Soviets’ support of progressive struggles all over the world, even if they were not communist in nature. For example, the communist Ho Chi Minh who would eventually lead the Vietnamese independence struggle, was a COMINTERN (Communist International) agent since the 1930’s. He got training in Moscow (along with revolutionaries from other nations) to organize resistance in their home countries. Keep in mind, this was decades before the subject of Vietnamese independence was in sight? How did supporting the independence of the colonies of the world at all immediately benefit the USSR? If global domination of all was their goal, would they not have tried to overthrow the most powerful governments in the world first?
Secondly, not all of the movements they supported were communist ones. They supported the FLN in Algeria, the Palestinian independence struggle and numerous independence movements in Africa. Without the massive military, technical and financial support they gave, it is unclear whether these movements would have been able to succeed. All over the world from Angola to Algeria and from Vietnam to Chile, movements that supported the improvement of the lives of their own people regardless of ideology were supported.
One last thought I want to leave you with is this: How many times has the traditional narrative of history not been what you were taught? From Columbus to the Founding Fathers to Civil Rights and beyond, how often has the narrative we were taught in school been proven to be untrue or severely slanted in America’s favor? Then, ask yourself another question. If a country is not honest about its own history, why would it be honest about a country that opposed it?
USA bad, communism good. Am I cool yet?
A very well written article. The Soviet Union is passing far enough into the past that it is now possible to try and cultivate a serious, academic discussion on it’s legacy – without being jumped by sword-rattlers. It’s very difficult to find material that tries to make a genuine, honest, and serious attempt at analyzing what Soviet politics and society was actually like. There’s undoubtedly going to be backlash from those with a cold war mentality, content to believe outlandish myths, unwilling to think about this critically. Sovietology is a fascinating area of study, and it’s nice to see someone else think so too.
Exhibit A. What a *thought* provoking comment, lmao.