In 1931, a venturesome 20-year-old American named John Scott graduated from the University of Wisconsin, pondered his possibilities -- and headed for the Soviet Union.
It was not an irrational choice. The United States was in the grip of a deep depression that seemed to betray a fundamental flaw in capitalism. Millions were out of work, and plants were closing every day.
Scott was intrigued by what he heard of the Bolshevik experiment. In once-backward Russia, plants were opening, not closing. The proletariat, led by the great Josef V. Stalin, was powering a breakneck industrialization unprecedented in history. There was talk of a "new Soviet man," Homo sovieticus, motivated by communist ideals and not base self-interest.
Soviet factories were owned by the workers -- and not subject to the whims of absentee, coupon-clipping capitalists. In the Soviet Union, there was no unemployment. The economy was not rocked by mysterious and terrifying cycles of boom and bust. It was ruled by the Plan, a scientific blueprint that would tell managers how much to produce and what to sell it for.
Scott "came to the conclusion that the Bolsheviks had found answers to at least some of the questions Americans were asking each other," as he wrote later in his book "Behind the Urals." "I decided to go to Russia to work, study and to lend a hand in the construction of a society which seemed to be at least one step ahead of the American." He embarked for the Ural Mountains to join thousands of workers building the world's biggest steel plant at Magnitogorsk.
The Soviet Union, after a lingering illness at the age of 74, has now slipped into history. The utopian promise that caught John Scott's imagination had long ago been shattered by terror and poverty, though its grandiose rhetoric lived on.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics died in such penury, political chaos and universal disgrace that it was hard to remember the more vigorous days of its youth and middle age. The Soviet Union had, to a considerable degree, shaped the century's American politics, from the allied intervention in the Russian civil war, to the anti-Hitler coalition, to the Red scares and basement bomb shelters of the Cold War. U.S. soldiers called their war-game adversary "Ivan." U.S. athletes fell every four years to stronger Soviet teams in such a potent symbol of peaceful international competition as the Olympics.
At the end, it was hard to remember that for most of the Soviet Union's seven decades, it was far from a foregone conclusion that Soviet communism would perish while American capitalism survived, and not the other way around.
Take 1943, when Wendell Willkie, the businessman and Republican presidential candidate, made a wartime tour of the Soviet Union, which was bearing the brunt of defeating Hitler and paying for it with 27 million lives. "There is hardly a resident of Russia today whose lot is not as good as or better than his parents' lot was prior to the revolution," Willkie wrote. "Russia is a dynamic country, a vital new society, a force that cannot be bypassed in any future world."
Stalin made a particularly positive impression. "Mr. Willkie, you know I grew up a Georgian peasant," the generalissimo told him. "I am unschooled in pretty talk. All I can say is I like you very much."
Take 1957, long after the cheery vision of Willkie's book, "One World," had been --ed by the Cold War. One October day, the Soviet Union shook the United States from complacency by launching the world's first satellite.
Sputnik I seemed proof that, far from being the inefficient, second-rate power of U.S. propaganda, the U.S.S.R. was a disciplined society able to compete and win on the cutting edge of technology.
Take the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1967. In "The Soviet Achievement," the British historian J. P. Nettl concluded that the achievement was impressive indeed. He saw bright prospects: "The Soviet consumer will undoubtedly continue to be substantially better off. His rate of betterment will appear . . . extremely favorable in comparison to Western countries, for the industrial basis of a high expansion rate of consumer goods exists."
Or take, even, December of 1979, when Westerners' Christmas was interrupted by the news that Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan. U.S. officials argued over how vehemently to respond, but no one doubted that the Soviet Union was a superpower that would ruthlessly pursue its geopolitical interests.
There was objective basis for both respect and fear. Where central control and planned application of resources worked, the Soviet Union worked, as anyone who ever rode Moscow's fast, clean, reliable, even elegant subway can attest. The Bolsheviks made a peasant empire literate, extended the benefits of basic public health to the cities, built a mammoth transportation and energy system and hammered heavy industry into the No. 1 spot in world production of concrete and steel.
The Soviet Union matched the military power of the economically stronger United States and in some respects outpaced it in space exploration.
But from the beginning, Soviet myth-making embellished reality, and many Westerners were taken in. The Soviet Union, after all, was born in legend: The real Russian revolution was the popular rising in February 1917, which ended the Romanov monarchy, while the Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 in a nearly bloodless coup.
Language was key
Lenin, their leader, was in fact Vladimir Ulyanov, the son of a czarist school inspector, who took his pseudonym from the Siberian river Lena; Stalin was Josef Dzhugashvili, a one-time Georgian theology student who took his name from the Russian word for steel, stal. The Bolshevik penchant for using grand language to disguise imperfection and failure was an early clue to what would go wrong.
In 1936, when the French writer Andre Gide visited the country he had been praising effusively from afar, it was language that set him on a course to deep disillusion. Touring the southern resorts of Stalin's native Georgia in a luxury train car, he did not know much about the government-created famine that had taken perhaps 7 million lives a few years before, or of the beginnings of the great terror that would take several million more.
But when he tried to send a telegram of thanks to Stalin, his translator objected to his reference to the leader as "you" ("in the course of our wonderful journey, I feel the need to send you my most cordial . . ."). Gide watched, amazed, as his squad of official companions argued what phrase should be added: "You, the leader of the workers," "You, master of the peoples," or
something still more grandiloquent.
John Scott, the University of Wisconsin graduate, saw his idealism tarnished not by words, but by reality. He discovered workers laboring and living in squalor, with scant attention to such concerns of Western labor unions as job safety. Worse, he found that many of his co-workers were not enthusiastic socialists but prisoners, often arrested on patently false charges and and sentenced to slave labor, or successful farmers kicked off their land during the brutal collectivization of agriculture.
Several thousand Magnitogorsk residents actually died of starvation during the famine of 1932-1933, something Scott had not witnessed even in Depression America.
Stalin, Wendell Willkie's modest Georgian peasant, who ruled from 1924 to 1953, was building the workers' paradise from the blood and bones of the workers. Between famine, terror and war, some demographers estimate that the Soviet Union may have lost 60 million people between 1917 and 1945. Historians still argue whether Stalinism was an inevitable consequence of Leninism or an avoidable deviation. What is unmistakable is that Stalin hewed a totalitarian politics and economics that would survive in spirit well into the 1980s.
Ironically, the mass annihilation of human lives under Stalin was inseparable from the country's utopian mission. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Gulag's victim and chronicler, wrote: "The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. . . . Thanks to ideology, the 20th century was fated to experience evildoing on a scale calculated in the millions."
Nikita Khrushchev, himself schooled in Stalinist brutality, made a valiant attempt to refashion this legacy. His denunciation of Stalin in the "secret speech" of 1956 promised a break with the past. Sputnik and the cultural thaw added to the promise, and Khrushchev rashly prophesied that the U.S.S.R. would pass the United States circa 1980 and enter the bright future of communism shortly thereafter.
He underestimated the reactionary resilience of the Stalinist legacy. A majority of his colleagues, led by Leonid I. Brezhnev, seized power in 1964 in a palace coup, sent him to his dacha to contemplate human treachery and put de-Stalinization in the deep freeze for two decades.
Saved by oil
Brezhnev's "era of stagnation" would have been an era of sharp decline except for one thing: oil. By a stroke of luck, the discovery of a vast quantity of oil and natural gas in Western Siberia essentially coincided with Brezhnev's consolidation of power. By pumping it inefficiently but rapidly into Soviet cities for domestic use and into oil tankers for export, the Brezhnev regime took the country on a 15-year joy ride that disguised economic decline as "developed socialism."
The underlying economic reality can be traced in the growing Soviet dependence on grain imports, surely an ominous trend in a country with huge agricultural potential. Appearing in the early 1960s as a "temporary" and small-scale measure, grain imports grew to as much as 46 million tons in 1981, the year before Brezhnev's death.
Ironically, the world oil price peaked in that year, and Soviet oil production began to level off. The oil-for-grain trade-off that had propped up the Soviet economy began to give way. By the end of the 1980s, oil production was falling sharply, and there were no petrodollars left to pay for grain imports.
The grinding inefficiency of the centralized, planned economy might eventually have toppled the Soviet Union on its own. But just as important were changes in the outside world. The Stalinist economy was able to make a credible performance as long as natural resources and industrial muscle were the keys to development. But by the 1980s, for the developed West, Japan and an increasing number of Asian boom countries, living dTC standards were being determined by participation in global markets driven by the flow of information by high-technology electronics. The river of trade left the Soviet Union in perpetual drought.
By 1987, the U.S.S.R. was far ahead of the United States in production of oil, concrete and steel, but it had 200,000 personal computers compared to the U.S. total of 25 million. Photocopiers were illegal in private hands. Telephone connections were unreliable even between Moscow and its suburbs. Carbon paper and the abacus were foundations of economic life. There was not a whisper of the information revolution that was transforming not only the United States, but nations like South Korea, Singapore and Thailand as well.
Yuri Andropov, in his brief rule, and his protege, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, understood that the Soviet Union was headed for economic catastrophe. Without the oil cushion, it would be impossible to compete with the United States militarily and maintain even the paltry living standard achieved in the 1970s.
And while the Kremlin autocrats could ignore living standards, they could not ignore high-technology weaponry that made Soviet tanks increasingly irrelevant and threatened the survival of the U.S.S.R. as a superpower.
So it was that Mr. Gorbachev sought to modernize the Soviet system, mainly by easing controls on information. Eventually he learned that there was no way to modernize the system -- that there would have to be a choice between modernization and the system. After increasingly dramatic confrontations between the loosed forces of democracy and the market on one side and the old order on the other, culminating in the August coup, the revolution swept aside the Communist Party and the Soviet empire.
A scene in the Lithuanian port city of Klaipeda last February seemed to capture the ignominious end of the utopian dream of a better way to live. The newly elected City Council had voted to remove two obnoxious symbols of Soviet power -- the inevitable statue of Lenin, and a war monument consisting of a cannon sitting atop a pillar. Moscow responded by placing both objects under armed guard. The picture of the giant Lenin guarded by a freezing, Kalashnikov-toting soldier and flanked by two armored personnel carriers seemed to be the political situation reduced to its essentials: the army defending a bankrupt ideology from the people.
Who is exploited now?
One last reason Soviet citizens were so quick to abandon their socialist ideology was that the capitalist West had already adopted some of the values trumpeted by Moscow as quintessentially Soviet. Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation, federal bank insurance, the Federal Reserve system, farm price supports, Medicaid, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, public housing, as well as subtler subsidies to the middle class represented by mortgage interest deductions -- innumerable interventions of the state -- tempered the operation of the free market.
The consequence was that life in the capitalist countries resembled less and less the ruthless, profit-driven exploitation that Marx and Engels saw in 19th-century England. Andrei Fyodorov, one of Moscow's first successful private restaurateurs, returned from his first U.S. trip in 1988 and declared, "The United States is a more socialist country than the U.S.S.R. Everything there is done for people." He gushed about wheelchair ramps for handicapped people, stores jammed with goods and restaurants that served meals at all hours in a wide variety of price ranges.
His first impressions were obviously naive and incomplete. But he had discovered that seven decades after the revolution, the impoverished, humiliated Soviet worker resembled the exploited laborer of Marxist theory far more than his U.S. counterpart.
As the Soviet Union tumbles onto the ash heap of history, Americans have a stubborn recession to make them appreciate the Bolsheviks' struggle for a better way to organize economic life. American plants are closing again, but there is no more Bolshevik utopia to beckon to the John Scotts of the 1990s.