I grew up in the Soviet Union and experienced it firsthand. The system was founded on the dream of a worker’s paradise where all would share and every need would be met. So why did it fail?
On Dec. 26, 1991, I woke up in a state of disbelief. On the previous day, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and final leader of the Soviet Union, resigned and handed over power to Russian President Boris Yeltsin. That evening at 7:32 p.m., the Soviet flag was lowered from the Kremlin for the last time and replaced with the pre-revolutionary Russian flag.
For the first time in 69 years—since Dec. 30, 1922—there was no more Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). I suppose the shock would be like waking up one morning to find that the 50 states had declared independence from the United States and separated.
No more country? Our whole country, our life and our culture was based on Marxist socialism. It began with the Russian Revolution of 1917 and subsequent five-year Russian Civil War.
A revolution that changed world history
The Bolshevik Party under Vladimir Lenin dominated the coalitions of workers’ and soldiers’ committees (known as soviets) that called for the establishment of a socialist state in the former Russian Empire. In the USSR, all levels of government were controlled by the Communist Party. And the party’s Politburo, with its increasingly powerful general secretary, effectively ruled the country. Soviet industry was owned and managed by the state, and agricultural land was divided into state-run collective farms.
The 1917 October Revolution had a huge impact on world history, particularly on the social and economic development of the world. And the influence was twofold:
First, the revolution brought about a new socialist state, the Russian Soviet Republic, and after the Civil War the Soviet Union emerged. Before that, there were no socialist states.
With the revolution came the one-party system and the introduction of a planned economy. By 1917, the Russian economy had been devastated. The harsh conditions of World War I and the lack of attempts by the czar, Nicholas II, to change the situation in favor of the people, led to revolt.
The power base of the Bolsheviks were workers in large industrial centers. The first decree was “On Peace,” which pulled Russia out of the war. The second decree, “On Land,” transferred land plots into the hands of those who cultivated them—the peasants.
So from the first, the Bolsheviks won over the hearts of the masses. The Russian Revolution was regarded as a triumph for those of the poor working class over their wealthy masters. The USSR initiated an eight-hour work day, gave women the vote, instituted free medical care, pensions and care for the elderly, and set a goal of eliminating illiteracy.
A second major effect of the revolution and the formation of the USSR was that the emergence of this system strongly influenced social and economic development in Western countries and indirectly led to the emergence of social welfare states.
How? The European bourgeoisie realized that if they did not make concessions to the workers’ movement, an explosion similar to what occurred in Russia might happen in their own countries. In turn, many European socialists, seeing the consequences of the October Revolution, began a struggle for workers’ rights. Ultimately this workers’ struggle led to the emergence of the kind of welfare state model that now dominates Europe.
Started with the aim of providing for all
It was said that the Soviet Union was creating a paradise for workers. Everyone was to be treated equally, and the wealth was to be shared. The trouble is that when people regard everything as theirs, they can justify theft because, after all, it all belongs to the people. Also there is no incentive to work hard. Those who work hard get more work, and those who don’t work hard get less work.
Also, the centrally planned economy was not built on competition or efficiency in providing what people actually wanted, but instead was a system of deception. Those in charge wanted only positive economic reports. Therefore production was always up. Figures were modified to put any institutions, factories, farms or the military in a good light. It didn’t matter if you used 30 workers to build a product that needed only one.
And, of course, workplace theft was a common way to supplement meager incomes. Shortages of many basic products led to a huge black market. With the lack of availability, average people were forced to live very simply. While they were not caught up in the materialism of those in the West’s “consumer society,” this was not by free choice but by totalitarian government restriction.
The “workers’ paradise” contrasted and came into conflict with another ideal: The good of the whole country was to come before that of the individual.
People were more than proud of their country; they truly loved their country. Stalin was able to justify his cruel dictatorship as merely a means of furthering the revolution and helping the workers. The rise of the KGB, the state security and intelligence agency, included massive propaganda efforts to control information and justify Stalin’s actions.
Again, a culture of deception became ingrained in the system. The truth was changed or hidden if it showed failure. Even if someone on a lower level gave a negative report, as it was passed up the chain of command, it was doctored and modified to make it acceptable. An unacceptable report could mean a trip to cold and distant Siberia or your disappearance. Especially during the time of Stalin, the closer you got to the top, the more vulnerable you became to his paranoia.
Life in the Soviet Union
Of course, the experiences of everyone in this vast empire were not the same. I lived in the Soviet Union for 41 years, and my memories of life there are mostly very good. I grew up in a very nice family that was loving and intelligent. We lived near the city center of Gomel in Belarus (“White Russia”), which borders Poland and Ukraine.
Our neighbors were friendly and family-oriented. Children played at each other’s houses, and parents watched out for them. I never saw anyone drunk or ill-mannered. Later in life I learned that people who grew up in factory neighborhoods faced these problems, but I never saw them.
I had a very happy childhood, and since my mother was a housewife and my father was a retired air force pilot, they spent a lot of time with me. They gave me their time and their love. Almost every day we went to visit museums, parks, the river and forests. We also had a little dacha, a small cottage (with no electricity) with a garden plot. We canned fruit and vegetables for the winter. As a little child, I remember sitting under a tree and eating an entire two-gallon bucket of cherries. The taste was heavenly!
My father taught himself how to garden by reading books. He was a voracious reader. We grew up with large volumes of art, science and especially geography. He was also a news addict. We would listen to the radio several times a day. Of course, the news was always good—good crop reports, good progress in industry and space technology, good everything.
The only bad news was about what happened in the West. The United States was our enemy, and news was propaganda. I could never imagine moving to the West. We were insulated from the outside and convinced that we lived in the best country with the best of everything.
Growing up in the USSR did not include any belief in God. We never read the Bible, never said a prayer. In fact, one of the favorite songs declared that we succeeded not because of heroes or God, but through the power of the people alone.
Still, I grew up under a strong moral system. Looking back, I think this was a legacy from the Russian Orthodox Church, not totally godless underpinnings. From grade school on we were taught moral values. We joined youth groups, somewhat like the Cub Scouts, which stressed the need to make good grades, be clean and well dressed, show respect for the elderly and love the country.
We engaged in community projects like cleaning school classrooms or decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. Later, around 11 years of age, we joined the Young Pioneers, and again good moral conduct and love of country were stressed.
Badges of honor and pride in national achievements
In the Young Pioneers we all wore red ties to school. We were very proud of this. At home every day we ironed the ties—they were silk—to make them look beautiful and tidy. All my classmates were solemnly received into Pioneers in the Palace of the Pioneers, which was formerly the palace of Prince Paskevich, one of Russia’s most famous military commanders of the 19th century.
One boy from our class wasn’t a good student and was not accepted into the Pioneers at the same time the rest of us were. It was a shame, and he was very upset. I even remember a moment when someone first put the tie on me and how happy and excited I was to finally become a Young Pioneer.
Later I was among the first five or six students from 110 pupils of the same age group chosen for the Komsomol or Young Communist League. The regional committee conducted a special examination for admission. A commission of several people took turns asking each of us questions. We were asked about our studies and behavior (although they had documentation on each of us), the history of the USSR, the history of the Second World War, politics in the world, and so on. We were all worried we would not be accepted.
But then we all were handed the badge bearing the likeness of Vladimir Lenin. From that point forward we stopped wearing Pioneer ties and only wore the Komsomol badge. The next day I went to school very happy and proud that I was worthy of being a Komsomol member.
We all were very proud of our country—of Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, our ballet, our theaters and cinema, ?ur achievements in world sports, the great contribution of our country in the victory of the Second World War, and much more.
A lot of stress was put on education. Tutoring was provided by teachers after school at no direct charge to pupils, and special attention was given to the brightest and to those who were struggling to pass. All education, including university, had no tuition, and dorms were affordable. If you passed exams, you were given a stipend to live on. The better you did academically, the more money you were given. My brother, who studied to be a Ph.D. in economics, made all As and received the Lenin Stipend, which was equal to what an engineer made.
Nostalgia over lifetime security and provision
One reason that many who lived under the Soviet Union look back on it with nostalgia is because everyone—the sick, the elderly, the poor—had cradle-to-grave security to the extent that state budgetary constraints were able to provide. Unlike the West, you didn’t have to worry about not having a job, a certain level of rationed health care, your education, the cost of basics like food and clothing, certain items like televisions and radios, your retirement, your pension. Those who look back with nostalgia see a life without economic stress.
It’s hard for people in a free market society like ours in today’s West to understand the underlying morals of communism. The state was the employer. You could have a plot of land and grow food for your own use or to sell. But it was seen as immoral to acquire something someone else made and resell it for profit. Quality was not emphasized. Quantity was the issue. Everyone had clothing, factory goods and the necessities for subsistence.
Over the 69 years of the Soviet Union, the people became strongly bonded together and commonly tried to help each other and do good things for the country. We felt a brotherhood.
My father was born in 1916. He was the oldest of three children in a family living in a small village. When he was five, his father died of pneumonia. It was a difficult time, but the Soviet system paid for the three children’s educations. Two became air force pilots, and one a teacher. All three children in my family received university educations.
The sad reality
At the same time, the government hid information or lied to us and caused a lot of harm. For instance, I lived 60 miles from Chernobyl when the nuclear reactor there blew up. We only found out about it two weeks later because Western scientists were alarmed by the rising radiation rates in their countries.
The prevailing winds blew radioactive particles all over us. My three-year-old son and I ate contaminated food and drank contaminated milk. The rate of thyroid cancer there was and still is astronomical.
The government of Belarus still denies the continued danger. Heavy concentrations of radiation remain in the forests of Chernobyl. Every time there is a forest fire, the wind blows radioactive ash over my home city of Gomel and beyond. In the region of Gomel, with a population of 1.4 million, deaths by cancer increase by 1,000 people each year. That is to say, if 5,000 die this year, 6,000 will die next year, and 7,000 the year after that.
Today, even though I still have some nostalgia for my life in the USSR, if anyone asks me if I want to go back, the answer is no.
Why did communism fail when it aimed to provide abundantly for everyone? A friend, a chemistry professor who grew up in the Soviet Union, offered this explanation:
The Bolshevik Revolution was based on the ideal of social justice. It began with a lot of people who were romantic revolutionaries and dreamers. But after a short time, the pragmatic revolutionaries took over and killed off the dreamers. They took power and introduced their own concept of social justice. When the rulers fight for power, they must give some lip service to social justice or people will not support them. But in the end, the pragmatists always take power from the dreamers.
My friend noted that after revolution a society returns to a normal state of order and that revolutionaries then use brutal force to hold on to power.
Yet it should be realized that even what the dreamers of communism dreamed up in the first place was fundamentally wrong. It was not wrong to long for a world that ensures that everyone is adequately helped and provided for. But to call for achieving this through state takeover of wealth and redistribution, as communist thinkers did, was a call to break God’s commandments against stealing and covetousness on a massive scale. Any such venture is doomed to failure from the start.
Thankfully a world is coming where all people will receive security and care through obedience to God’s laws rather than trying in vain to find utopia by living in violation of them.