Back in the USSR

 

We are coming up on 33 years from the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 25th, 1991. That specific event merits an anniversary of sorts, even as it was the culmination of a long, drawn out denouement and thus the date would be entirely arbitrary as a landmark.  Decay and rot had accelerated through the decades leading to the 1990s, known in Russian parlance as the period of stagnation (zastoi).  Change thus occurred in the two ways well described by Mike Campbell in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: both gradually and then suddenly.

Some two decades earlier the dissident Andrei Amalrik had pondered whether the Soviet Union could survive until 1984.  His answer became known as the Amalrik paradox: “In order for the Soviet Union to survive it will need to change; but if it changes, it will no longer survive.”

While there were a few dissidents and observers who foresaw the Soviet implosion, most Western experts believed the notion of collapse to be hysterical nonsense.  Even during the last months of the Soviet Union, for example, some of the leading doyens of “Sovietology” (another pseudoscience of misunderstanding) could not see the forest for the trees.  Some of those experts remained convinced as late as November 1991 that Gorbachev was still winning a three-dimensional chess game of political intrigue, long after it was apparent to the less informed that he was yesterday’s man. Regardless of such learned and over-educated prognostication, the collapse was complete by the end of 1991, even as it took numerous years for the dust to even begin to settle.

With the Soviet implosion as a frame of reference, it is worth making a contemporary comparison.  A persuasive case can be made that we are witnessing the death throes of the American republic.  I wish that were not the case.  As a northern neighbor, I have always been intrigued by the American experiment, even more so than by the many misdevelopments of the Dominion of Canada.  My affinity for the USA is partially a consequence of my paternal roots:  my father was a dual citizen born in Canada, with nine generations linking back to the Mayflower.  His affinity for American history and politics rubbed off on me, slowly at first, and multiplied further in graduate school and later when I began teaching such subjects in university.  What a marvelous mixture of ideas, beliefs, practices and personalities are found in your United States of America!

The understanding that the Republic was unlikely to be permanent was understood at its very outset.  Speaking at its birth, Benjamin Franklin expressed no small trepidation and doubt concerning the details and principles agreed to in the Constitution.  “It is therefore that, the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others.”  He continued:

In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, if they are such; because I think a General Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and believe farther, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government. 

Franklin’s sentiment was more succinctly expressed in his response to an interrogative reportedly from Philadelphia socialite Elizabeth Willing Powel, wife of the mayor of Philadelphia.  She inquired what the Constitutional Convention had achieved: “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin’s oft-quoted response: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

If at birth there were legitimate questions among its founders concerning the republic’s longevity, it cannot be beyond the pale to question some 237 years later if the United States of America can endure much longer.  That it has lasted this long is surely a testament to the prudence and sagacity of its founders and the stamina of republican virtues.  I concede (and even hope) that the republic might yet recover and that concerns over its demise will prove to be greatly exaggerated.  But I believe the prospects for recovery now pale against the prospects for collapse.  Having come of age during the Cold War, when the world of 1980 seemed so permanent, having studied in the Soviet Union and then returned to Russia in the aftermath of 1991, I understand well that assumptions of political permanence are misplaced.

I therefore think it both logical and natural to make comparisons between two worlds I have experienced first hand: the late Soviet decay of yesterday and today’s paroxysms of the American republic.

I recognize it is unfair to limit attention exclusively to the Soviet Union and the United States.  Surely the West as a whole would be the more accurate subject to study and chronicle decline.  Why not draw also from Germany, France, UK, Canada, or any number of other examples where mendacity and rot prevail?

I decided to limit the comparisons that follow to Russia and the US in order to make the conclusions that follow more clear. And just as one of my heroes, Alexis de Tocqueville, made a point of comparing America and Russia almost two hundred years ago, I hope the exercise will find sufficient resonance to invite additional reflection from others.  The intent here is not towards criticism and condemnation, but to illustrate a way out.

So here in point form are 22 comparisons between a stagnating and decaying Soviet Union in its closing decades and the pathologies of contemporary America.  I witnessed them in full toxic bloom in the 1980s in the Soviet Union and thought then that they were in stark contrast to life in the USA.  Little did I think then that they would ever become integral parts of American life.  I acknowledge that the comparisons are hardly perfect in kind and degree.  But the overlap between the two is far larger than might have been imagined.

(I would be grateful if readers would see this list as a work in progress and feel invited to suggest additions.  I am confident I will think of a few more as soon as I post.  I expect I will provide additional details to these points in subsequent posts.)

  1. A bureaucratic apparatus administers the machinery of state with an abject lack of accountability, fronted by a geriatric sock puppet of a leader.   The result is stagnation.  Such an apparatus, or “deep state,” prefers sock puppets, which allow it to administer (not govern) with impunity; pursuing private ideological interests and the rewards of nepotism, cronyism and rent-seeking. The result is a sclerotic bureaucracy that may occasionally change nameplates on the table but rarely introduces or alters policies in effective ways.  This is why it seems to matter little who gets elected to Congress and why misgovernment seems to accelerate rather than change course.
  2. Irresponsible debt accumulation: the very notion of balanced budgets is anathema to a sclerocracy, which is addicted to T+1 thinking (merely adding funding to failed policies). Budget increases are expected, and any mention of budget cuts rings out like a foreign language.  Instead we find fake innovation such as quantitative easing and a new monetary policy, which have failed through history and are designed to perpetuate the status quo.  This T+1 thinking was a key feature of the Soviet economy.
  3. The Command Economy: the anti-market which flows from the tragic misconception that government must interfere and guide economic decision making in order to protect the public interest. It is also a consequence of the hubris of an administrative state that believes the allocation of goods requires the heavy hand of regulation and promotion of state priorities believed to be aligned with the public interest.  The demonization of individual agency, profit and capital follows, which leads to growing shortages, logjams and failures in supply chains; perpetuating a vicious circle of additional regulation and state intervention.
  4. Fraudulent economic reports: The administrative state attempts to hide economic bad news. Instead, we find lies, propaganda, and elastic data to protect the sclerocracy and its preferred dogma.
  5. Illegality of civil society: The administrative state becomes intolerant of dissent, and even the potential for dissent from alternative institutions.  Such institutions are perceived as competing with state influence.  Social organizations such as churches, associations or clubs that might be at odds with state power are first discouraged and then undermined.  The world of politics becomes monochromatic and alternatives to the state are viewed as heresy and trespass.  Social organizations become transmission belts for the state.
  6. Breakdown of the Family as an institution central to society: Not only are all alternative choices given equal footing, but the state assumes many of the roles of the traditional family.  Birthrates decline, and this is characterized as progress.
  7. The ubiquity of Politics: Everything becomes political.  From school curricula to health care, from sports to the generation of electricity, all issues and discussions are swallowed by the interests of the state and justify the engagement of, and supervision by, the state.
  8. A revolutionary culture assumes progress is linear and anything new is, ipso facto, an improvement. State and society become incapable of considering the merits of traditions and conventions. These are persistently perceived and characterized as obstacles to progress.
  9. Press and propaganda seek to silence any narratives that run counter to the interests of the state. This is pursued by both commission and omission.  Criticism of the sclerocracy is heresy.
  10. Lysenkoism and science/research funding: Anti-science begins to replace scientific inquiry and methods; politics and approved consensus become a holy science that cannot tolerate dissent. So-called scientists become little more than trained seals, barking assent to political positions approved and funded by the state.  (The reference is to Trofim Lysenko.)
  11. Erosion of religious freedom: Both by administrative practice and policies, and by public choices and behavior, religious institutions lose influence. The civil religion mutates from a generic religious belief to a new belief that venerates the state.   New heroes, symbols, anthems and texts are celebrated, while traditional heroes, symbols and texts are denigrated and replaced.
  12. The Rule of Law is replaced with the rule by law, through which laws become instruments for the expansion — and abuse — of power. Instead of due process and equal treatment under law, we find the politicization of the judiciary, prosecutorial abuse, and show trials. The Constitution becomes infinitely elastic and bends to the interests of those in power rather than limiting that power.
  13. Free Speech is redefined: hate speech is ill-defined yet criminalized, and disagreement becomes risky and problematic.
  14. The corruption of Elections: This may start with gerrymandering and limited choices between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, but expands into vote rigging and fraud. Once undermined, any element of trust in the electoral process is diminished.  Concerns over declining trust are characterized as unpatriotic, illegal, and deranged conspiracy theories.
  15. Fear and the monopoly over the legal use of coercion: Government agencies are militarized and increasingly unpredictable in terms of their practices. They pursue shock-and-awe-behavior to compensate for declining legitimacy.
  16. Liberty is redefined and becomes subservient to equality and justice, both bastardized.
  17. The ubiquity of theft: Politicians and public officers pretend to care about public order but willfully ignore the increase in crime. They redefine terms and reporting procedures and then claim that crime rates are in decline. As politicians are typically the ones who plunder the public purse for private interests, there is little wonder that they choose to look the other way when theft becomes an acceptable part of the fabric of society.
  18. Culture as propaganda: The role of art and entertainment is either to promote the nonsensical narratives of the regime or to distract the public from their loss of liberty and independence. Anyone at odds with these two purposes is repudiated by the industry and culture becomes monist and predictable, neither illuminating nor entertaining.
  19. Higher education is more intent on indoctrination and compliance than innovation and independent thought. The prevailing dogmas are regurgitated and embraced, not just in the arts, but increasingly in the sciences as well.
  20. Internationalism offers an alternative reality with rival priorities and crises in order to overshadow national and local interests and concerns. Local interests are characterized as parochial, and at odds with nebulous yet lofty meta-interests.
  21. Collective memory is revised and rearticulated, monuments are demolished, and new alternative histories are publicly funded and celebrated.
  22. Truth is abandoned and redefined as relative. The ubiquity of lies becomes acceptable, conveniently dismissed as preference or perspective. Gaslighting by state and cultural institutions is universal.

 

I am reminded of a dated anecdote that I first heard while studying in Moscow at the advent of perestroika.  It tells the story of the Soviet journey to Communism and the advent of stagnation, using railroad as a metaphor..  At the outset, Comrade Lenin reportedly persuaded the people in the land that together they could build their own railway and travel by train to the promised land.  And so track was manufactured and laid, the engine was fueled, and everyone boarded the train.

After a time the train stopped.  It had reached the end of the track, but Communism was nowhere in sight.  So Stalin took it upon himself to get the train rolling forward.  He stepped out of the train and coerced all the passengers under threat of death to make and lay more track.   Those who complained were shot.  Within a short period of time, the train started to roll forward and the journey continued.

Alas, after some time progress came to another halt.  Again, they had run out of track and Communism was nowhere in sight.  This time Comrade Khrushchev stepped out of the train and convinced everyone to remove the track from behind the train and lay it in front.  In this manner, the long train was able to resume its journey and everyone jumped on board.

Predictably, the train quickly came to halt, now with no track in front and only a short track behind.  What to do?  This time Comrade Brezhnev came up with the solution.  He told everyone to stay on the train, draw the blinds and rock back and forth to pretend the train was moving. Such was the reality of the Soviet journey to the promised land.

And what of the American republic?  It was born to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It now seems to have mutated away from its original purpose and has been captured by other interests.  A much younger me viewed America as a worthy contrast to the fraud and incompetence of the USSR.  Yet here we are, with far more similarity than I then thought possible.  The Amalrik paradox noted correctly that in order to survive, the Soviet Union had to change, but that if it changed it would no longer survive.  And herein lies a fundamental difference with the American republic:  In order to survive, the republic must seek a restoration of its purpose and principles.  If those should continue to change, the republic will not survive.

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There are 11 comments.

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  1. Doctor Robert Member
    Doctor Robert
    @DoctorRobert

    Wonderfully thought-out and analyzed.

    • #1
  2. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    RogerBurke:   A much younger me viewed America as a worthy contrast to the fraud and incompetence of the USSR.  Yet here we are with far more similarity than I then thought possible.  The Amalrik paradox noted correctly that in order to survive, the Soviet Union had to change, but that if it changed it would no longer survive.  And herein lies a fundamental difference with the American republic:  In order to survive, the republic must seek a restoration of its purpose and principles.  If those should continue to change, the republic will not survive.

    That is it in a nutshell.

    Great article covering most of where we are.

    It is not all that difficult to see the major steps that got us here, concentrated around Woodrow Wilson’s Administration, in my view.

    EDIT: After making such an encompassing statement as that last, I should explain that I was deceived by TPTB in my early years, as well. I never thought what we are seeing could be. After 9/11 and its aftermath (The Patriot Act and other events) I grew doubtful. Obama’s elections multiplied that and Trump’s election produced the Great Reveal and brought clarity to my doubts. That’s where we are now. @rogerburke

    • #2
  3. MikeMcCarthy Coolidge
    MikeMcCarthy
    @MikeMcCarthy

    Depressingly clear.

    I’m told that the citizens of the USSR used vodka to block out reality, I assume that dope will do just as well.

    • #3
  4. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    Scary,  sobering,  accurate,  clear, rational,  and devastating analysis. 

    You have identified and articulated the commonalities between the fallen USSR and our present USA.

    These are all items and issues that I have railed against, and watch them continue to progress, seemingly helpless to affect.

    Every election,  we hear it proclaimed: “the most important of our lifetime”. “all is lost if we are not victorious”

    Maybe this election those proclamations will prove to be true. 

    • #4
  5. Chuck Coolidge
    Chuck
    @Chuckles

    Benjamin Franklin was correct: How very depressing. 

    We lose.

    • #5
  6. Bob Thompson Member
    Bob Thompson
    @BobThompson

    Chuck (View Comment):

    Benjamin Franklin was correct: How very depressing.

    We lose.

    I think the loss of story-telling within the family setting has maybe had an effect since that is missing in the schools as well and Church and Sunday School attendance is almost nothing with young people. So the young people have no clue what has been achieved and why it is worth preserving.

    • #6
  7. RogerBurke Coolidge
    RogerBurke
    @RogerBurke

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Chuck (View Comment):

    Benjamin Franklin was correct: How very depressing.

    We lose.

    I think the loss of story-telling within the family setting has maybe had an effect since that is missing in the schools as well and Church and Sunday School attendance is almost nothing with young people. So the young people have no clue what has been achieved and why it is worth preserving.

    That is the core of the matter.  Someone else used this meme

    • #7
  8. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    RogerBurke (View Comment):

    Bob Thompson (View Comment):

    Chuck (View Comment):

    Benjamin Franklin was correct: How very depressing.

    We lose.

    I think the loss of story-telling within the family setting has maybe had an effect since that is missing in the schools as well and Church and Sunday School attendance is almost nothing with young people. So the young people have no clue what has been achieved and why it is worth preserving.

    That is the core of the matter. Someone else used this meme

     

    Better.

    • #8
  9. Susan Quinn Member
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Well done, Roger. There wasn’t one of your points that I disagreed with. I only wish I could see the solutions that we need to implement, the changes that must be made and are even possible. 

    • #9
  10. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist
    @WesternChauvinist

    This is just excellent work! I don’t know enough about the Soviet Union to say if all 22 points apply, but I can say they’re definitely at work in the US, and I’ve been around long enough to notice the change from 50 years ago.

    I hope your post receives wider distribution than R>. Maybe someone can get it linked at Instapundit?

    • #10
  11. GPentelie Coolidge
    GPentelie
    @GPentelie

    Superb post.

    I was born and grew up behind the Iron Curtain, and truly believed I had left all that behind when I emigrated to the U. S. of A.. “That would never happen here!”, I used to tell myself and others. No more. Sigh. And … Argh!!!

     

     

    • #11
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