Bernie and Jane Sanders’ enthusiastic 10-day 1988 Russian honeymoon obviously missed views of deplorably depressing economic and social conditions I witnessed during and following that same time.
As noted in last week’s column, that was the year I became one of the first Americans invited to visit Russia on numerous occasions and to meet with top-tier academicians, engineers and cosmonauts of their marvelously successful space program.
The prestigious Soviet Academy of Aeronautics and Cosmonautics also charitably awarded me with two of its highest honors, the Yuri Gagarin Diploma, and the Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Gold Medal (named after the “Russian father of space rocketry.”) In addition, my own name was placed in large letters, along with those of four others, on the Soviet rocket that launched the first International Space Station crew.
Few with opportunities — as I have — to know the warm and generous nature of such people, to witness their deservedly proud history of accomplishments, and to experience their rich culture, can help but come away unmoved by the qualities of the Russian soul.
These are communities whose ancestors built the trans-Siberian railroad in an incredibly short seven years; who dammed the mighty Danube, the fourth-largest river in Europe; who engineered the channel between the Moscow and Volga rivers; and who valiantly halted the German army 18 miles from Moscow.
These are populations, after all, who brought the world such great classical composers as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergi Rachmaninoff, Sergi Prokofiev, Alexander Borodin, Dmitri Shostakovich, Igor Stravinsky, and Alexander Scriabin.
Theirs is a literary and artistic culture that introduced great writers such as Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoevsky; created the Hermitage, Russian Museum and Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburgh, and the Bolshoi Theater and Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow; and inspired the architectures of churches, cathedrals and monasteries constructed over centuries that reflect Russia’s spirituality.
Yet tragically, Russia is also a land of people who have borne unrelenting burdens: civil wars, sacrificial labor, and Cold War economic and social stresses. Throughout this troubled history, Marxists have implemented dismally failed attempts to make a command economy work, and in social and political affairs, to impose austere, sometimes brutal, adherence to the doctrines of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
Socialist repression reached draconian levels under Joseph Stalin who succeeded Vladimir Lenin from the mid-1920s until 1953. Few families during that period avoided murderous losses of loved ones.
Stalin’s reign of terror established an enormous bureaucracy of loyal apparatchiks, enterprise managers and civil personnel to run the economy, terrorize people, censor artists, and gag intellectuals. Although overt oppression ceased for a decade under his successor Nikita Khrushchev, state organs of control such as the secret police and forced-labor camps continued to operate.
Beginning in 1964, Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year-long neo-Stalinist reign introduced disastrously disruptive central government-directed Gosplan industrial policies. Widespread joblessness increased, most particularly, due to an oversupply of well-educated professionals and highly-skilled technicians. Where full employment occurred, it was typically achieved through over employment and inefficient production.
Brezhnev’s Marxist command economy operated on the principle of a “limited fund of wages” that allocated each enterprise a definite sum of money to pay its workers for a given total output. Employees quickly learned to limit their own work because if they exceeded the output quota, the administration would cheapen the value (wages) of their work.
Hence, a then-frequent rejoinder: “They (the management) pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”
Many of those more fortunate workers who found employment resented their roles in producing useless, poor-quality products nobody wanted, including antiquated appliances and clothing styles such as overcoats that even the makers wouldn’t wear.
Consumer product shortages and commercial economic imbalances created by Gosplan inevitably fueled corruption. Factory managers, in collusion with workers, enlarged their incomes by producing or trading on black markets.
In 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated a “New Economic Policy Plan” (NEP) aimed at addressing the stagnant economic Brezhnev era legacy. The intent was to develop and open a relatively untapped Soviet market utilizing Western know-how and management skills, and most important, to attract foreign capital in Western currency, U.S. dollars in particular.
NEP — or “market socialism” — inherited a fatal Bolshevik-era system of “nomenklatura capitalism,” a power structure formed from elements of the old party elite-turned businessmen in collusion with mafia enterprises.
Business investors typically found it necessary to buy costly “protection” for their physical equipment and personnel safety. Many were also forced to obtain goods and services needed to conduct their operations from cartels who bled off profits.
Meanwhile, the general populace experienced worsening economic decline, inflation, scarcities of foodstuffs and other consumer goods, and deteriorating public services such as medical care.
When I arrived no one could possibly avoid seeing countless impoverished souls selling their humble remaining possessions on street corners.
On the other hand, perhaps we should cut Bernie some slack if he missed all that. After all, being then on his honeymoon, maybe he didn’t get outside all that much.