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Book Review: The Awakening of the Soviet Union

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The eyes of the world have been riveted on events in Eastern Europe. With what seemed like spectacular speed, the Communists who had ruled these countries since shortly after the end of the Second World War were replaced in most cases by non-Communists. These new leaders have declared their intention of respecting the individual rights of their citizens, reinstituting private property and establishing a legal framework for an open society and a market economy.

After more than forty years of Marxist propaganda and totalitarian thought-control, these societies are rapidly returning to normal. For many in the West this may seem surprising. Did not the Collectivist State try to remake society from the ground up? Was not every form of private institution — from the family to the church to the workplace — undermined and destroyed by the State and replaced by the “planned society”?

The answer is both yes and no. The attempt was made to control, manipulate and intrude into the life of each member of the “People’s Republic.” A most powerful weapon in this attempt was the State educational system — a system in which each new member of the “Worker’s Paradise” was introduced to, and indoctrinated in, the proper “class analysis” of social relationships. The State created and imposed a new language of Marxist and “class” jargon, with which people found it necessary to think and act so as to understand what was happening around them politically; and which people used as protection when interacting both with the State and with others whose “views” were unknown and with whom a person had to “play it safe.” But the State failed in its attempt to destroy “pre-socialist” society. The State merely drove it underground. The structures of civil society — traditional, free and spontaneous social relationships of family, faith, friendship and free exchange, and the voluntary association of professional and like-minded people — remained fundamentally intact. They merely resided in a twilight zone of official nonexistence and illegality.

Once the external controls of the Communist State were removed, the natural and spontaneous order of free men began to reappear from the shadows in which it had survived and sustained most people during the years of totalitarian collectivism.

What is true for much of eastern Europe is true, as well, for the Soviet Union. Here, too, civil society is reemerging — despite almost three-quarters of a century of Marxist rule, including the twenty-five years of Stalin’s terror.

What this underground civil society is like and how it is being brought about is the theme of Geoffrey Hosking’s new book, The Awakening of the Soviet Union.

Professor Hosking explains that the rebirth of Russian civil society began with the return of the slave laborers from the Gulag in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Cut off from normal social relationships for years, in some cases for decades, and isolated from family, friends and all knowledge of what had happened to so many others under Stalin’s reign of terror, these victims of collectivism began to share stories of their lives with each other.

They met in each other’s homes to talk; they listened to Western news broadcasts on short-wave radios; and they started to publish accounts of their years in the Gulag and what they saw as its meaning for Russia then and now. There emerged the unofficial literature and social commentary of Samizdat — the underground publication of books and essays, typewritten out in multiple copies and passed hand to hand among those who could be trusted.

While the mass terror and torture of Stalin’s period was no longer the norm for political control, the Soviet State was unwilling to permit these voices “from under the rubble” (the title of a book of dissident essays edited by Alexander Solzhenitsyn) to be heard. Arrests were made, trials held, and men and women of conscience and courage were sent to prison.

Hosking quotes one participant from these days in the 1960s who said, “To denounce the trial[s] privately was to give oneself an identity badge that like-minded people could identify….[I]t was the ethical gauge by which young intellectuals chose one another’s association.”

And from this, Hosking says, “the pattern was set for the gradual emergence of an alternative public opinion, a crucially important process for understanding what is taking place now. Its center of gravity was initially human rights, but this concept expanded in due course to embrace issues of nationality, religion, culture, the environment — issues which people gradually articulated more clearly to themselves and to each other as they acquired ever more diverse information, exchanged opinions, and gained a sense of mutual solidarity.”

The victims of the Gulag and their young supporters were joined by the Russian intelligentsia — scientists, scholars and writers crucial to the Soviet system — who because of their importance could get away with saying things in private and public that others could not, at least not without paying a severe price. People like Andrei Sakharov were among the leaders.

Under Gorbachev, Hosking explains, these underground associations, groups and causes have risen to the surface. Religion, never stamped out by the Soviet State, is having a rebirth out in the open. Voluntary organizations work to preserve and maintain the Russian artistic and architectural heritage, much of which has been destroyed by the steamroller of central planning. Movements for national independence and individual freedom have blossomed in the “captive nations” within the Soviet Union. Groups throughout the country have protested and sometimes succeeded in stopping the destruction of the environment by the central planners.

In this revival of civil society, Hosking believes, is the future of the Russian people and the other national groups controlled by the Soviet system. One should not, however, jump to the conclusion that the mere removal of the Communist State will assure an immediate return to normal society in Russia. Marxist control has left its mark on the country. As the French scholar Francois Thom argues in her recent book, The Gorbachev Phenomenon: A History of Perestroika, a psychology of indifference, callousness and cruelty has been embedded in many Russians by the Soviet system. Alcoholism is rampant; broken marriages and homes are almost the norm; youth gangs increasingly terrorize cities; corruption and the mentality of privilege is everywhere; several generations have been affected by malnutrition.

But the Russian people do have a chance and a future — once Communism is finally relegated to the “dustbin of history.”

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the recently appointed BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).