Considering the Soviet experience: Thoughts from an American
The lights inside buildings along Moscow's Kalinin Prospekt spell out the Russian initials CCCP, or USSR, in the 1960s. | Victor Akhlomov / Moscow Multimedia Art Museum

The People’s World series on the Russian Revolution certainly has people talking. I’ve appreciated the articles and the comments from readers, and like many Americans, I’m fascinated by “Russia.” So I thought I should speak up and take my turn.

First, full disclosure: Was I ever in the Soviet Union? Yes, once, for three weeks in August 1964. I was with a group of about 25 souls of various ages and backgrounds who were part of a group sponsored by the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE). It included some prominent experienced Russia hands (journalist George Seldes was one), some academics and their families, and some curious novices. I was one of the youngest at 21.

We visited five cities: Leningrad, Kiev, Odessa, Yalta, and Moscow. I should say a couple of things about my overall impressions. First, while much of our time was planned and structured, we did have time to go out and explore on our own. These times are what I seem to recall most vividly. Was I being “watched”? I don’t think so. Here is why: on at least three occasions, I was approached by strangers, generally young men, wanting to do “business.” And at least once, truth be told, I did. I sold a sweater with a zipper front to a guy who said he got his Moscow apartment because of his skill as a hockey player. Anyway, he took me to his apartment, within sight of the Kremlin, and paid me $13 U.S dollars for the sweater, which was not new.

On another day, I met a more serious young man who was studying to be a diplomat and wanted to practice his English. We arranged to meet the next day in the park, and he brought along his girlfriend. We sat at an outdoor café and talked.

During such encounters as these, I heard a variety of views on the Soviet system, on Communists, and on life in general. The hockey player thought Communists were “crazy.” The aspiring diplomat, on the other hand, had a more nuanced view. When asked about Communists and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), he felt that was like asking, “How do you feel about life or about the human race?” He did not approve of everything in the CPSU program; for instance, he did not favor the emphasis on “socialist realism” in art, but he thought that most of the program was moving in a good direction.

Another unplanned encounter was in Kiev. A small group of us found a taxi driver who was willing to take us to Babi Yar. It was not on the schedule, and at that time, there was no marker or memorial to the victims of the mass slaughter that had occurred there barely two decades earlier. It was an empty field.

What about the oppressive, violent “police state”? In the Kiev subway, I saw a uniformed police officer (unarmed if memory serves) wrestle an unruly drunk man until he was under control without slamming him to the ground, using a billy club, or calling for help from other officers.

On the other hand, our planned activities included some memorable moments. One, for example, was the visit to the mounds of mass graves in Leningrad. Another was the visit to the Hermitage museum which, I understood, was a rare opportunity at the time.

I would say there were two takeaways for me from that trip of half-a-century ago. First, the people I encountered, especially the youth, were so ready to talk, ask questions, and share their own thoughts. And they moved in a milieu that was crowded, bustling, and anonymous—hardly rigid, regimented, or intimidating. So, I would say it was very possible to put our unstructured time to good use, and those times provided some of the trip’s most interesting moments.

The second was how much everyone we met wanted to talk about peace. Wherever we met Soviet citizens, in whatever circumstances, as we were parting we would hear the phrase mir i druzhba (or just mir druzhba) which translates as “peace and friendship.” Whether it was at the factory where they still used United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Adminsitration (UNRRA)-supplied Singer sewing machines, or at the collective farm in the Ukraine, or any of the encounters mentioned above, that was a sentiment so often expressed to Americans.

So there you have a few memories from my limited first hand experience. A somewhat pretentious youth with scattered, ill-formed, mildly liberal political ideas got a chance to go and glimpse life in the USSR and found it more open than he expected. This kid did not come back and join the Communist Party USA right away. That only happened eight years later as a result of my experiences and conversations with people I met here in my own country.

But since that time in 1964, I have continued to read, now and then, about the Soviet Union and the Soviet experience. Certain of my relatives have spent time there. My sister and brother-in-law, both Russian speakers, have worked as journalists there. My wife traveled to the USSR in September 1986 on a tour to visit child care facilities that included central Asian cities such as Alma Ata and Tashkent. They all have their own ideas about the USSR.

The Soviet Union was indeed a fascinating place. Americans, including Communists, need the opportunity to get a full and nuanced view of this amazing historical phenomenon, one of the defining features of the 20th century. Did some things go wrong? Did Communists make mistakes? Were “crimes” committed? We are regularly reminded that the answer to these questions is “yes, certainly.” But if that part of the story is all we learn, we risk losing other valuable parts of the last century’s record. The fact is that the 74 year experience of the USSR was a constant struggle against daunting opposition with only the roughest of road maps.

So what would I recommend that curious Americans read about the Soviet Union? There are some worthwhile books by American (and in a few cases British) authors that provide interesting insights that are, unfortunately, all too rare in our commercial media. One theme that ties them together is this: they caution us in the West against making hasty judgments about the Soviet experience.

Here are a few:

On the early years of the USSR through the 1930s and World War II:

Anna Louise Strong, The Stalin Era (1956). Strong was the founder and editor of the English language Moscow News, which was published all through the interwar years. Her book includes personal memories as well as more general observations. It is worth recalling a quote from her introduction.

Wendy Goldman, Women at the Gates: Gender and Industry in Stalin’s Russia (2002). This is a densely researched account of efforts to bring women into the labor force. She writes that, while in many countries the evidence on women workers is “skimpy” and hard to find, this is not the case with the USSR.

J. Arch Getty, Origins of the Great Purges (1985). The author, then a professor of History at the University of California, Riverside, argues that the purges of the late 30s were not a centrally planned monolithic process of eliminating political enemies, but rather were chaotic and unplanned, with local officials having considerable autonomy in what often resembled civil war-like conditions.

On the USSR in World War II, the classic is: Alexander Werth, Russia at War 1941-1945 (1964). Werth was a Russian-born British journalist who spent the war years in the USSR.

On the immediate post World War II years: John Fischer, Why They Behave Like Russians (1946). Fischer traveled as a member of a United Nations (UNRRA) delegation to the Soviet Union, especially in the Ukraine, when the tasks of rebuilding the war ravaged country had only begun. He described workers, including many women, rebuilding dams and factories destroyed by the Nazis.

On Soviet education and growing up in the USSR: Yuri Bronfenbrenner, Two Worlds of Childhood (1970) 

On women in the USSR: William Mandel, Soviet Women (1975)

On the collapse of the Soviet Union: Michael Parenti, Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the overthrow of Communism (1993)  


CONTRIBUTOR

Ben Sears
Ben Sears

Union and community activist Ben Sears taught for the Philadelphia School District. He lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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