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Friday, February 3, 2017


My sister's son, Professor Joshua Searle-White, teaches at a college in Meadville, PA.  Yesterday he published this guest column in the local paper.  I think you will find it interesting.

COLUMN: A Soviet experience for America?
By Joshua Searle-White
 Feb 2, 2017
 In the fall of 1980, as a college student, I traveled to study for a semester in the Soviet Union. I lived in a dorm room with two Russians, went to a Soviet University and learned as much as I could.
Much of the experience was positive. I loved the ice cream and champagne cafes scattered around the city — what a great idea! The Peter the Great-era architecture was beautiful. I met some interesting people, including my roommates, who, even though they were required to keep tabs on me and report on my actions to the KGB, taught me some excellent Russian slang.
Yet it was also a difficult place to be. The Soviet Union was a totalitarian state, after all. The weight of its political system felt oppressive even to those of us who were there for a short time.
Here are few of the features of Soviet life that weighed on me:
The government lied. All the time. It lied about everything from participation rates in elections to how many people came to rallies to support them to what they would accomplish in the next five-year plan. The people knew, of course, that they were being lied to. But because there was nothing they could do about it, they developed a pervasive mistrust of their government and, indeed of anyone in authority.
The government enriched itself at the expense of the working class. As I walked around Leningrad I often saw the Zil and Chaika limousines favored by the Communist Party bigwigs zooming by while the rest of the citizens stood in long lines for basic necessities. The gap of wealth and prestige between the elite and the workers (even though the USSR was supposed to be a “workers’ state”) was huge. As a result, the workers learned that it was OK to cheat. As one friend put it, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”
The government muzzled the press. They had their own news outlets and would not let anyone challenge their version of the truth. In fact, the main newspaper was called “Truth” (Pravda)! The other main newspaper was “Izvestia” (“News”), and the standard joke among the people was that there was no pravda in Izvestia and no izvestia in Pravda.
The government demanded obedience and slavish patriotism from its citizens. Everyone, from government functionaries down to the Russians I lived with, felt pressure to line up in lockstep behind their leadership and parrot whatever was being said at the top. Anyone who spoke against the party line was seen as unpatriotic. And we know what happened to dissidents.
The government loved blame. When they were forced to admit that something had gone wrong, like a bad economic outcome or a plane crash, they always managed to find someone to point fingers at. The Americans, the Jews, dissidents, NATO — anyone would do. They taught their citizens that the way to deal with difficulty is to evade responsibility and look for an enemy to blame their problems on.
The government would not tolerate diversity — especially religious diversity. The Jews I met while I was there risked their jobs just by talking with me. Muslims and Christians were met with similar suspicion, as was anyone who looked or sounded different (except for Europeans, who were seen as safe).
The government fanatically controlled travel and borders. The Soviet leadership’s primary motivation was fear. That’s understandable, since they had been invaded more than once in their history. But their attempts to control who came in and out of the country bordered on the paranoid. They wouldn’t let in anyone they thought was potentially a threat. They restricted the movements of those of us they did let in. Even I, an American college student who posed no threat at all, couldn’t travel more than 40 kilometers from the center of the city I was living in.
I remember my time in Leningrad fondly. I met many warm, interesting and intelligent people there, and I find Russia’s language and long history fascinating. But I would never, ever, ever want to live there or, for that matter, in any totalitarian society. I am so grateful that my country, the United States of America, would never be like that. We would never tolerate the limits on free speech, free expression and freedom to build our own future that were so pervasive in the Soviet Union. We are better than that, aren’t we?

Joshua Searle-White is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Allegheny College. He can be reached at


s. wallerstein said...

I tend to be completely allergic to cold war propaganda.

Was the Soviet Union a totalitarian state in 1980?

Generally, from what I've read, it is considered to have been a totalitarian state under Stalin (until his death in 1953) and after that, to have been an authoritarian dictatorship.

Warren Goldfarb said...

It strikes me that any regime that controls the use of typewriters, and, in 1980, copy machines, so as to regulate what information can be seen and what can be produced by the populace is closer to totalitarian. But perhaps this distinction is splitting hairs.

In the last years of the USSR, despite Gorbachev, the populace was still not allowed access to copy machines. In 1991 after the coup attempt, when Yeltsin issued his broadside, my young mathematician friends had to print up multiple copies on the computer in their math institute (the general population was not allowed to have computers), and then post them in public places all around Moscow.

s. wallerstein said...

If we talk about the USSR under Stalin, millions sent to the gulag or shot, the forced collectivization of the kulags, the differences in 1980 call for a new term.

But it's cold war anti-communist moral superiority which irritates me.

In 1979, I arrived in Chile, where the degree of repression was certainly more savage than that of the USSR in 1980. Although there were copy machines, the chances of a dissident being disappeared and having their throat cut were a lot more likely in than in the USSR of 1980. Yet Chile was "our" ally, a member of the free world and in some sense, "we", the land of the free and the home of the brave, were responsible for what went on here in Chile. Yet the writer seems totally unaware of the history of the land of the free and the home of the brave in backing some of the world's most repressive and nasty little dictatorships.

Chomsky often pointed to murders and torture carried out by U.S. backed death squads in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala and commented that if the same crime had been carried out in Poland or Hungary or the USSR during the cold war,
the U.S. press would have screamed about it, but there was little comment about in it the U.S. media.

Jean Paul Sartre: "tout anti-communiste est un chien". I think that everyone understands that French.

David Palmeter said...

S. Wallerstein:

The fact that in 1979 the degree of repression somewhere else was more savage than that in the USSR in 1980 does not alter the fact that repression was the order of the day in the USSR until the day it folded. That’s enough to condemn the USSR in my book.

The fact that the United States has done despicable things from its inception—slavery, the treatment of Native Americans, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, as well as its support for Pinochet and many another dictators, particularly in Latin America—is irrelevant to the case against the Soviet Union. Well after Stalin was gone, writers and artists were repressed if not persecuted in the USSR. The kinds of discussions that we’re having on this blog would have been impossible there.

Was Prof Searle-White wrong in his description of his life in the Soviet Union in 1980?

My worry is his worry—that what he saw in the Soviet Union of 1980 could be what’s in store for us.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

Actually, Professor Wolff had one of his usually lucid posts a while ago about his experience in his South Africa, where he pointed out how life was for white South Africans, that they had complete freedom of speech, that they read all the right leftie books, and that that might be what occurs in the U.S. under Trump. That is, the life of middle class white intellectuals will be more or less the same, unless they make a lot of trouble, and heavy repression will come down against Muslims, immigrants and African-Americans. I think that analogy is worth pursuing, a lot more so than the analogy to the Soviet Union.

Besides that, if I beat my lover and the guy next door beats his wife, I have every right in the world to moralize about him beating his wife, but somehow it seems in bad taste. So too with anti-communism, given the U.S.'s record of atrocities throughout the world.

David Palmeter said...

S. Wallerstein,

It may turn out that what occurred i S. Africa is what occurs here under Trump, but that is hardly an argument against free speech. So far, that isn't how it has worked out here. Freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press and rule of law, were what allowed people in the US to overcome many of the injustices of the past. Abolitionists weren't sent to Siberia. Freedom of speech is what allows us to discuss these issues on this blog. It is fundamental to the fight against Trumpism. The fact that it may not succeed is hardly a reason to dismiss it.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

Maybe I'm misreading you or maybe you're misreading me, but when have I dismissed free speech?

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

I read the first sentences of your post, dealing with the ineffectiveness of freedom of speech in S. Africa, as dismissing it when applied to the US.

s. wallerstein said...

I believe that free speech is important not only for utilitarian reasons (it can be a tool in the struggle against injustice and oppression, it sorts out truth and error), but also because in itself it's one of the things that makes life worth living.

However, as in the case of South Africa, it may well be that a repressive government in the United States may allow white middle class intellectuals free speech, while repressing Muslims, immigrants and African-Americans.