Reverie: Back in the USSR
"I'm back in the USSR
You don't know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the USSR."
~the Beatles, Back in the USSR
One viewing videos and reports of the protests going on in Moscow over the parliamentary elections most likely could not help but notice various red and gold flags of the former USSR in the crowds. The main headline on the Drudge Report today featured Russian protesters in Moscow with a Soviet flag raised with what appeared to be St. Basil's Cathedral in the background.
Where I was fairly young and in elementary school when the Soviet Union fell, it can be difficult at times for younger Americans to appreciate the gravity of the Cold War and the meaning behind the Soviet Union. For me personally, the Soviet Union always had a somewhat mystical tone to it; you couldn't look at a globe or a map without noticing this great landmass with the symbols "USSR". By the time I was conscious of the fact that the Soviet Union was such a superpower, the Soviet Union had already fallen. I even later discovered that I had relatives living in the Soviet Union.
Where the Soviet Union was once such a dominant superpower, what remains in its wake appears far from what it once was. Even today, many Russians are nostalgic for the USSR. Reuters reported on Thursday that Soviet nostalgia binds nations that were once in the USSR. One retired police lieutenant-colonel reminisced, "My heart is still aching, and the pain doesn't go away." It is significant to note that Russia's current national anthem has the same epic melody as the USSR's national anthem. While the world struggles during this global financial crisis, it makes some sense that individuals would like to return to a past time when maybe life was simpler.
Perhaps it is merely owing to the use of a red and gold banner, but Russian nostalgia for the USSR reminds me of St. Augustine of Hippo's comments on the fall of the Roman Empire. Some Romans felt that the emergence of Christianity and the failure to worship to Roman gods had brought about the end of the Empire. Though many Romans lamented the fall of the empire, Augustine sought to console them in that Rome had suffered calamities before and that blessings & pains happen to both good & bad individuals. That being the case, Augustine noted that there is something to be said for some aspects of misfortune being the result of the corruption of the human soul. Some might contend that the fate of the USSR is a testament to what happens when the human soul becomes corrupted by greed, jealousy, militarism, a lack of ethics, and the desire for power.
The rise and fall of empires: Such is the course of human history. But even further from theological or spiritual considerations, when one thinks of the USSR, even if one may be nostalgic of some past "glorious" time period, one must consider the socio-economic consequences of the Soviet ideology. Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek had long criticized the Soviet Union and Marxist ideology, long before the fall of the USSR. Even Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, could have mounted a philosophical assault against Marxism.
The bottom line is that, at least for this time period in history, central planning and communism do not work. Because the government distorts the market, communism in practice leads to shortages and surpluses of goods. The market can "think" more efficiently than the government. Even further, human freedom is limited by government policy thereby reducing incentives, and incentives are what make an economy work. The economic system that was supposed to cure the worker of alienation led to a situation where workers were dehumanized and treated as robotic servants of the state. As I have written previously, if you have two nations that are equal in population, resources, calamities, etc., and the only difference between the two is that one is free and one is not free, the free nation will supercede the not-free nation owing to growth, incentive, and the drive for prosperity.
As with anything, it is easier to become nostalgic or reminisce when a place, a person, an event, or a time period is in the rear-view mirror and distant in the past. We tend to remember the good things and block out the bad. In this way, Russians toting Soviet flags may miss a feeling of camaraderie or military pride, but they may forget those long lines for cheese, milk, and other consumer goods...or waiting an hour and a half to take a dingy train to work.
As sweet-tasting and as hopeful as the thought of some glorious workers' paradise may be to those who are toiling day after day for low wages in harsh working conditions, the economic reality of communism (at least in this time period) does not match the reverie. As was discussed by Adam Fishwick's article on Marxism in the book, "30-Second Economics": "The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union are seen by many to have wholly discredited Marxism... [But if] we look beyond the legacy of dictatorship offered by the Soviet years, Marx's critique of capitalism can provide one starting point for understanding the inequities still persist." Even so, many are familiar with George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and other various historical tales of the woes, injustices, and inhumane behavior that Marxist ideology brings.
It is important to recognize that communalism can work and has worked in various realms in human history, but it did not work on a national scale in the form of the USSR. From kibbutzim in Israel to Bruderhof communities in the US, individuals participate in communalistic settings today by virtue of their own free will. The crux of a communalist society is thus related to the voluntariness of the participants. God may very well have good reason to laugh at Marx in that though Marx advocated the destruction of religion for communism to work, communalism has worked the best in those environments that retain a strong sense of religious devotion.
To say the least, the USSR did have such a historical mystique about it -- from its colorful artistic propaganda posters to its military parades to its competition in athletics. (Those Soviet rubles looked quite interesting as well.) Heck, the first man in space was a Soviet. When Marxism was in its infancy, its theoretical underpinnings heralded a new age for mankind...there was a sort of messianism to Marxism. Communism was supposed to signal a new age of glory for humanity...an age of liberation of the worker. Lenin promised Russians, "peace, land, and bread". The evolution of communism when put into practice revealed quite a contrary state of affairs -- from Russia to Cuba to Cambodia to Vietnam. With concepts like "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" and "Religion is the opiate of the masses", communism did well to shake the world from its foundations. Unfortunately, like so many other utopian dreams and hopes, reality seems to fall short of theory.
That being the case, one cannot help but feel that the advent of Marxism was a critical point in human history. It was an important time period in human history...a significant chapter in the course of humanity. And as powerful as the Soviet Union was, the nation was only around for about 70 years. And even over 20 years later, we are seeing the aftermath of the USSR's collapse in Europe. It may surprise some that the Communist Party is still present in the Russian State Duma. And even today, some in Russia still miss the existence of the Soviet Union and proudly wave the defunct nation's flag in the streets.
Where some Americans of the extreme leftist political persuasion may desire that the US look more like the former USSR, one has to wonder what the consequences of such a situation would be; various science fiction authors and video games have already explored possible scenarios. Though the concept of having a guaranteed job, guaranteed housing, and guaranteed food may sound appealing at first, the reality of the market is that more government intervention in the market distorts the market and works to no one's advantage. And let's face it, we like being able to go to restaurants when we want and being able to shop at stores of our choosing. We like being able to go to see movies freely; we like being able to go to amusement parks and listen to music that does not require state approval; we like being able to buy and read books without the government looking over our shoulder. We enjoy wearing clothes that we choose, not the government; we enjoy buying appliances and devices that we choose, not the government; we enjoy eating and drinking things that we choose, not the government; we enjoy worshiping what we choose to worship, not what the government would have us worship.
On that topic, though the Soviet Union may be thought of as being one of the most fervent atheistic anti-religion governments in history, in reality the Soviet Union's ideology was a "state religion". Though the Soviet Union appeared to be against religion, the USSR's god was Marxist communism itself. And while the USSR did offer history some of the most notorious villains from the perspective of religion and human freedom, one must keep in mind the words of one of the most infamous fictional villains in history, Lex Luthor: "There comes a time when even gods must die."
At the end of the day, whether Russians appreciate it or not, even with the crimson mystique and superficial glory, I believe that the world is better without the Soviet Union. In this way, given the injustices, murders, pains, and sufferings of those around the world in the name of communism, perhaps the USSR is better left to remain solely in the history books. And verily, if we do not learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
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