Fear and Loathing in the Soviet Union

March 17, 1982 • Commentary
This article orginally appeared in Update in 1982.

It has always struck me as ironic that so many conservatives view libertarians as being “soft on communism” — particularly with regard to the Soviet Union. For it is arguable that the political system in the Soviet Union has more in common with contemporary American conservatism than with libertarianism. Nationalism, government enforced morality, and use of state‐​run schools to mold young people into “proper” citizens are just a few examples where libertarians find themselves on the opposite side of the fence from conservatives and the Soviets.

All of which is to say that, communism and libertarianism being in essence ideological opposites, it should come as no surprise that my recent visit to the Soviet Union left me with a distinctly negative impression of that society. It is one thing, however, to understand that central economic planning cannot work and that totalitarianism is inconsistent with the nature of human beings. It is quite another thing to experience it in all its glory, albeit briefly, as I did last September.

My week in the Soviet Union came about when three libertarian friends and I decided to extend our trip to Stockholm (where we were attending a Mont Pelerin Society meeting) by taking a boat to Helsinki and a train from there to Leningrad. One doesn’t, of course, just up and go to Russia. All this was preceded by getting approval from various governments to allow us to travel to and from the countries involved. Obtaining the Russian visa was the major hurdle, and once that was achieved we all prepared for our adventure by reading Hedrick Smith’s excellent book, The Russians. In it Smith describes an incredibly backward and oppressive society. As it turned out, he greatly understated the case.

The first thing you notice when you get on the Russian‐​run train to Leningrad is an almost overwhelming stench. It is an odor that seems to permeate every building and everybody in the Soviet Union. The phrase “the unwashed masses” is not a mere cliche in Russia. As with so many elements of our visit, you had to be there to believe it.

The train ride itself — along the very route Lenin took on his triumphant return to Petrograd — took on the trappings of a grade‐​B World War II movie. Clacking along tracks greatly in need of repair (Ayn could have warned us), huddled in two tiny “deluxe” cabins and trying to converse without breathing the foul air, we determined the best course of action would be to open a bottle of Stolichnaya and prepare for whatever lay ahead. It was a strategy we would frequently employ.

When we reached the Finnish‐​Soviet border, the train groaned to a halt and a half dozen Soviet military thugs clamored on board and began checking everyone’s papers. Their modus operandi was almost comical as they threw open doors, slammed them shut, ordered us to “stand!” or “sit!” and vigorously searched our luggage, all the while eyeing us suspiciously as though the next suitcase they opened would contain arms and ammunition or, worse, a copy of The Russians. Two of us had brought along our copies of the book, and when my colleague’s was confiscated and mine was not, my friends accused me of collaborating with the enemy.

We had been informed prior to the trip that the KGB would likely assign an agent to us on the train to find out, among other things, why we would be visiting the USSR. (It was a question, we were to discover, with considerable merit.) Sure enough, fifteen minutes into the trip a Swede, who claimed to be going to Leningrad to visit his Russian wife, befriended us. One by one he would ingratiate himself with us and we would cheerfully answer his laundry list of questions. Perhaps he related all of this to his “wife” whom he greeted at the Leningrad train station with a formal handshake.

Leningrad is a sprawling city that appears little changed from what it must have been like in the 19th century. There are virtually no new buildings (for reasons of “historical preservation,” we were told) other than some sagging highrise apartments on the outskirts of the city. Not only has nothing new been built since Leningrad was Petrograd, nothing has been repaired there either. Everything in the USSR, in fact, seems to be in a state of chronic disrepair. I have seen socialism up close and it doesn’t work.

We were provided with an Intourist guide and a car and driver. The driver raced through the streets of Leningrad with reckless abandon, which created little concern on our part since it appeared that we had the only car in the city. Indeed, such a curiosity was our beat‐​up limo (which looked somthing like a 1954 Packard) that whenever it came to a stop crowds of people would gather around it to peer in the windows with awestruck faces. But cars are not the only item in short supply in the Soviet Union.

What we are talking about here is definitely not a consumer‐​oriented society. The largest department store in Leningrad — some two square city blocks wide and two stories high –was virtually empty. Hundreds of people milled around dozens of compartments within the store simply because they had nothing better to do. There was, you see, nothing on the shelves. Occasionally there would be a display of, say, shoelaces or rubber boots, but really not much else. An “electronics” department displayed a few radios and what appeared to be vacuum‐​tube televisions. They were not for sale but you could order one if you had the rubles.

Socialist Economics

A word about rubles. The Soviets, in an almost childlike way, have set the official exchange rate at .8 ruble per dollar. That way a ruble is absolutely more valuable than a dollar, see? Except for the fact that one could readily unload a dollar for four rubles in the black market. Because our merry group wore clothes that were neither frayed nor frumpy we were easily spotted as visitors and not inmates. On numerous occasions people would sidle up to us, disclaim employment by the KGB, and ask to exchange their rubles for our dollars. Other than a surreptitious purchase of a jar of black market caviar, however, we avoided numerous opportunities to commit crimes against the state.

The Soviet Union is a backward nation with no rational division of labor, no price system, and a command economy that clearly doesn’t work. There is hardly any food to eat — even in the “best” hotels. Potatoes, cucumbers, and bread were in reasonable supply, but what little meat there was turned out to be inedible. We hear reports in the U.S. from business groups from time to time pointing out how much greater our GNP is than Russia’s or how many more hours a Russian peasant has to work in order to buy what his American counterpart does. But that kind of analysis rather leaves the impression that if a Soviet worker was industrious and saved money, then one day, perhaps at a later stage in life than in the U.S., but one day, he could have a decent standard of living. The truth is that there is no way for Soviet workers to have a decent living. The appearances are that people have to work hard just to survive, and that the economy is in a perpetual state of stagnant decline.

But if it is hard to describe the economic wasteland of Russia to someone who hasn’t been there, it is even harder to describe what their totalitarian system has done to the human spirit of 260 million people. It isn’t just the drabness and grayness one sees everywhere. Or the rudeness and surliness one encounters so often. It’s that you virtually never see people laughing, smiling or just seeming to enjoy themselves. People seem to walk slightly bent over, their eyes always averting a stranger. There is an overwhelming sense of oppression and depression. It is no wonder that alcoholism is a major problem in the Soviet Union.

When we occasionally had opportunities to talk to people in parks or on the street, there was a phrase that kept recurring. We’d ask them if they had ever been outside the USSR, if they would ever own a car, if they could switch jobs if they wanted. The answer, with a shrug of the shoulders, was often an emotionless “It’s impossible.” Whereas in our society one frequently encounters a sense of outrage at injustice or a determination to achieve a goal against all odds, in the Soviet Union one just shrugs. It’s impossible.

Ideology in Russia is on the wane. The bright young university graduates who guided us around Leningrad and Moscow sounded like robots when speaking of Lenin and the Revolution. They never asked us what’ life was like in the United States. They couldn’t answer the simplest criticism of socialism without employing some Leninist cliché. One got the distinct impression that they didn’t really believe what they were saying. There are no billboards or signs in Russia other than massive banners with giant red letters proclaiming the glories of the revolution in general and Lenin in particular. Our guides seemed embarrassed to read them to us. In the few places one could purchase books there was nothing but the works of Marx and Engels. (One comedian in our group kept pestering our guides with a deadpan, “Why aren’t there any books by Stalin in the stores?”) The “non‐​official” people we talked to, however, never discussed ideology or attempted to defend socialism. Their political concerns seem to center on U.S. militarism, and they were pleasantly surprised to find that our group shared those concerns. Our rejoinders regarding Afghanistan and Poland were met with only mild resistance. One young man told us that he’d willingly defend his homeland but that “I don’t want to die in Poland.”

I was surprised to find tremendous reverence for the Czars and Czarist Russia among the people. If Nicholas was criticized it was because he was “too weak.” Numerous palaces and museums damaged in World War II are being painstakingly (if clumsily) restored at tremendous cost to an economy that can ill afford it. It is as though the Soviets feel the artistic and architectural achievements of eighteenth and nineteenth century Russia dwarf any post‐​revolutionary accomplishments. That does, indeed, seem to be the case.

Our flight from Leningrad to Moscow on an Aeroflot jet was an experience none of us would ever want to repeat. We arrived at the airport early and went to the “food” counter in a section that looked down on the massive ground floor where passengers stood in long lines. About two dozen pigeons shared the area with a few people, flying from table to table and generally doing the things that pigeons do. No one seemed to mind. We had to walk a quarter of a mile out on the runway to board our plane, on which we sat for an hour waiting for it to fill up (very efficient that way, you see). I do not recommend sitting in a plane (knees to chest — efficiency again) crowded with 200 teeming Russians and lacking air conditioning and oxygen. It seems impossible, I suppose, but you can hold your breath for three hours. A greasy‐​haired naval officer in the seat ahead of me slept with his head on the shoulder of a nervous citizen next to him throughout the flight while a flock of contented flies circled above.

When we landed in Moscow, we waited for our luggage with our fellow passengers for about an hour. I, having gulped some air and happy to be alive, was entertaining our troupe with my famous quarter trick. The dour‐​faced Russians looked at us incredulously as we laughed and joked about the airport. Soldiers (who are everywhere) scowled. The reason for the delay in getting our luggage was evident when it arrived with clothing sticking out of the sides — everyone’s having been searched.

Moscow looks more like a modern city than Leningrad. There are more cars and some tall office buildings. But the food and product shortage had been, in good communist style, generously shared with this city as well. Women still swept the streets with bound‐​twig brooms. Everything was still gray and depressing. One of our group lost his papers, reported it to the hotel authorities, and was subjected to a two‐​hour interrogation in a padded room decorated only by a large picture of Brezhnev in full military garb. We celebrated his release with another bottle of Stolichnaya.

We stayed at what was billed as one of the premier hotels in Moscow: the Hotel Intourist. Architecturally, it combined all of the worst of schlock 1950s design. In the lobby a “gift” shop offered dozens of pins, buttons, medals, busts and photos in honor of the gangsters past and present who rule the Soviet Union. Since you can’t exchange rubles back into dollars when you leave the USSR, I purchased several handsome red lapel buttons bearing a likeness of Lenin (who else?) with the last of my rubles.

By the time of our departure to London we felt as though we were escaping the country. The oppressiveness of a police state is something that affects even a short‐​term visitor very quickly, At the Moscow airport one of us discovered that the restrooms had no toilet paper. To get some one must track down a surly female custodian who then grudgingly issues a few sheets from a roll on a broom. If toilet paper were in the restrooms, we were told, it would be stolen by locals as it, like everything else, is in short supply.

There was a spontaneous cheer that went up when our British Airways pilot informed us we were leaving Soviet air space.

From a libertarian standpoint, my visit to the Soviet Union served to reinforce the wisdom and necessity of a non‐​interventionist military and foreign policy for the U.S. War is quite literally the only thing that could “save” the USSR. It is a society that appears to be crumbling from within. If we can avoid confrontation with the Soviets over the next twenty years, their system should collapse of its own bureaucratic weight. It is a society in deeper trouble than the much‐​publicized Polish situation. In my view, if the cracks that are appearing in the Eastern bloc nations reach the USSR, they will spread rapidly throughout the country. We were exposed only to the ethnic Russian minority that controls their society. If it represents fertile ground for revolution — and it does — think how the rest of the USSR would react to an opportunity for change.

The Soviet Union is not just an oppressive nation. It is a weak society. One is left with a sense of pity rather than fear. People survive at a subsistence level, beaten down by their oppressors and generally unaware of how people live on the outside. The fear that we should have is that the “leaders” in the U.S. will precipitate an incident that could trigger World War III. For it is time this corrupt and failing Soviet system cease being an excuse for building our military‐​industrial complex.

Someone in our group suggested it would be interesting if there were a “Sovietland” section at Disneyland so that Americans could see what society is really like there. The problem, we agreed, was that, with all the propaganda spewed forth from those with a vested interest in the arms race, no one would believe it. In a sense, Americans are as ignorant of what life is like in the USSR as the Soviets are of life here. And that is dangerous.

I wish more political activists on both the left and the right could spend a few days in the Soviet Union. Leftists could see firsthand how thoroughly corrupt and unworkable socialism is. Conservatives could see how absurd it is to view the Soviet system as a threat to the West or attractive to the Third World. Peace and free trade. That is the answer to the Soviet “threat.”

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