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 firstname.lastname@example.org.