In the last installment of this series, we took a look at the rise of socialism in Venezuela. For the full analysis, CLICK HERE.
In 1982, the Time Magazine “Person of the Year” was the Computer. Michael Jackson released his mega-hit album, Thriller, and E.T. dominated at the box office: Times were good in America.
At the same time, on the other side of the world, in a small cell in Russia’s Vladimir Prison, a political prisoner lay withering in his bed. His chest and head ached; he was extremely dizzy and nauseated, and he was desperately weak. His gaze was fixed on a few photos on a small table. The photos were of his wife and parents. The prisoner was not allowed to write or receive mail from his family. In protest, he had committed himself to a hunger strike. The prisoner, Natan Sharansky, was convicted of committing “treason in the form of aid to capitalist states in carrying out hostile activity against the Soviet Union.”
Suddenly, the door to his cell was thrown open. In walked a doctor, a nurse, and several officers. The officers handcuffed him to the bed and held him down. Pincers were pressed on his cheeks to keep his mouth open. A metal plate was inserted between his teeth, and a feeding tube was forced down his throat. Prison authorities had decided to forcibly break Sharansky’s hunger strike, and as the guards restrained him, the medical personnel poured liquid food down the tube.
When the doctors had finished, the feeding tube was roughly removed, splattering food paste and saliva all over the room, staining the precious pictures of Sharansky’s family. Then, without another word, they exited the cell as quickly as they had entered, leaving the broken prisoner alone once again.
Similar scenes played out over the span of the 110 days Natan Sharansky spent in prison in 1982. But these kinds of experiences were not limited to just him. Countless others suffered similar abuse at the hands of the government.
Such was the horror of the Gulag system in the Soviet Union.
The Gulag forced labor camps epitomized life under the socialist system in the Soviet Union. But being interned in the Gulag wasn’t a prerequisite for suffering under the weight of the totalitarian socialist regime. Hunger, terror, and death were a way of life known to tens of millions of Soviet citizens. In order to understand these events, we must first understand the events that caused them to occur.
Origins of Soviet Socialism
In 1917, Vladimir Lenin, an exiled revolutionary returned to Russia. His journey home took him eight days by rail. He arrived at the Finland Station in St. Petersburg to an adoring crowd of hundreds of workers, soldiers, and sailors. The course of Russian and world history was about to change—for the worse. Lenin climbed to the top of an armored car and spoke to the crowd, rallied his supporters by saying: “We must fight for the social revolution—Till the complete victory of the proletariat. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution.” Historian Alexander Margolis stated: “If they had arrested Lenin at the Finland Station, it would have saved everyone a lot of trouble.”
Lenin was influenced by Marx and Engels, and is largely responsible for saving them from historical obscurity. Their writings served as a template for his vision of the coming Russian Revolution. Lenin wrote, “Attention must be devoted principally to raising the workers to the level of revolutionaries – It is not at all our task to descend to the level of the working masses.”
Lenin’s plan was to unite the working and poorer classes in a coalition. Together, they would defeat the bourgeoisie (wealthy and privileged class) and institute the rule of the proletariat (the poorer and less privileged class).
The Czar, Nicholas II, eventually abdicated his throne, only to be murdered alongside his wife and children in cold blood. Documents have been discovered showing that Lenin likely gave the order to have them executed. A provisional government was appointed, but it soon fell. This power vacuum set off a bloody civil-\ war, resulting in the eventual victory of the Bolshevic party. (The term bolshevism is derived from the Russian word meaning “majority,” a term that modern-day Democratic Socialists mirror with their advocacy for socialism. If the majority of society favors socialism, it should be implemented: i.e. Bernie Sanders)
Over the course of the three year Civil War between the “reds” and the “whites”, Lenin called for “mass terror” to “crush resistance”. His orders led to the execution of tens of thousands of peasants, rebels, and criminals.
Lenin would die three years later. Joseph Stalin succeeded him.
Russia Under Stalin
Under Stalin, the theories of Marx would be implemented on a large scale. Stalin went to work collectivizing industry and abolishing private property rights. Citizens who lived in the countryside were forced to work on large collective farms run by the Communist Party. The food produced went to workers at factories, which were also run by the Communist Party. However, these farmers lacked incentives to work hard, so production dropped. This lack of production led to a nationwide famine, resulting in the deaths of six million people, and the banishment and murders of thousands more between 1928-1933.
The Soviet economy was planned by the government. Prices, wages, and quotas were all dictated by the government planning agency called Gosplan. These plans were often overruled by Stalin and the Politburo, causing uncertainty amongst economic producers. Stalin used the five-year plans as a political weapon to wield against his enemies and favor those who were loyal to him. The hope for a “worker paradise”—turned into Stalin’s paradise—was made possible by the collectivization of the economy following the Russian Revolution. In the lead-up to the Revolution, it was stated that the upper classes (Proletariat) were oppressing the lower classes. After the Revolution, the lower classes were even more oppressed, no longer by the capitalists, but rather the socialist regime in Moscow.
Lacking incentives to produce, the workers failed to produce at the levels of those who worked in a market economy. In a free-market economy, prices are largely dictated by the value producers and consumers place on goods and services. In a socialist planned economy, prices are dictated by government planners.
Stalin at first allowed workers no wage income. However, eventually, he had to reverse his decision and allowed workers to be paid, even going so far as to allow bonuses. But these bonuses were tied to production quotas which could be easily manipulated by the producers. Further, this system provided no incentive to use resources for research and development, which could have grown the economy long term. (It’s no coincidence that major innovations such as computers, cell phones, modern appliances, and many other goods were not invented in the Soviet Union.)
Frustrated with the lack of worker productivity, the Soviet Government charged poor-performing workers with crimes.
From 1940-1955, one-third of the population was charged with criminal offenses; 15 million were sent to prison, and 250,000 were killed.
Terror Of The Gulags
The Gulag was the most notorious form of penal justice. The Gulag represented a vast system of forced labor camps, psychiatric hospitals, and special laboratories. At its peak, the Gulag held 2.5 million inmates. To keep the camps a secret, many of the labor camps were located in isolated regions with harsh climates. These camps (such as the one in which Natan Sharansky was held captive) caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Not only did these camps rob innocent people of their lives, but they also stole valuable productive laborers from the nation as a whole. The senseless loss of life and talent weakened the country’s labor productivity while serving as punishment for political crimes by the regime.
The end of the Soviet Union came in 1991, but its end started many years before. A centrally-planned collectivist economy proved unsustainable in the long run. A country untethered to market prices is doomed to fail. Labor and capital are inefficiently allocated, and innovations in production and consumer goods lead to a lack of economic growth.
The most disastrous consequence was the waste of life. Millions were killed due to famines and murders; countless others were forced to live an existence of hopelessness and terror. All this was done in the name of Socialism.
A system that was supposed to “liberate the masses” instead bound them in chains from which there was no escape. The only class to benefit were those favored by the Soviet Government. Their power was used to inflict punishment and terror on millions.
Socialism Vs Capitalism
The differences between the economies of the Soviet Union and the United States can be summarized in the form of one entity: a grocery store.
In 1989, Boris Yeltsin (soon to become the first leader of Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union) was visiting Houston, Texas. On the trip, he made a surprise appearance at a local grocery chain in the area. What he saw there changed the course of history.
Yeltsin was amazed by the varieties and abundance of food in the store. The organization of the products and even the checkout lanes amazed him. Something Americans take for granted was a revelation to Yeltsin.
Upon visiting the supermarket, Yeltsin remarked: “What have they done to our poor people ?—even the Politburo doesn’t have this choice. Not even Mr. Gorbachev.” In his autobiography, Yeltsin wrote: “When I saw those shelves crammed with hundreds, thousands of cans, cartons, and goods of every possible sort, for the first time I felt quite frankly sick with despair for the Soviet people.” Two years later Yeltsin left the Communist Party and helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union, relegating the socialist system to the “ash heap of history.”
His words should serve as a striking reminder to those in this country that seem eager to adopt socialism. Be grateful for what we have, or else run the risk of losing it forever.
Stay tuned to FreedomWire tomorrow for Part 3, when we’ll examine the most densely-populated nation in the world: China.
(Sharansky, Natan, “Fear No Evil”, Random House, 1988, p. 12,340-342)