Russia


Cameron Sawyer mentioned Gorbachev. Randy Black says: "As long as he brings up Gorby, why is it that Americans love the guy, but Russians would like to string him up? Is Russia's hatred toward Gorby due to the fact that the system collapsed on his watch? Russians in America who are in my circle are completely puzzled by his popularity in the USA". RH: We discussed this in connection with a speech Gorby gave in Miami. Bill Ratliff was also a featured but less controversial speaker. I think the answer is simple: Russians are angry that he brought about the collapse of the system. but Americans were delighted.

Gorbachev is despised in Russia, loved in the US. From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer says: "This has been discussed before in this forum. I dont think that Ronald is quite right that Russians main grudge against him has to do with the collapse of the Soviet system. The great majority of Russians today are happy to have been freed from this slavery. In fact, Gorbachev is hated by liberals simply because he was a Communist. He is hated by Communists because he ruined Communism. He is loved by Americans because he put a human face on our old enemy".

Randy Black says: "You are correct about Omsk. The city began to grow about 1757, courtesy of one of the Tzar's exploring officers, a Col. Buchholz. Today, at 1.3 million, it is larger than Dallas and is Russia's sixth largest city. I was there throughout 1993; I was told that I was the first American to actually live there, more or less, permanently. Initially, it was quite a challenge to get used to the climate for this Texas used to the rather mild North Texas winters.

Other Americans had passed through, mainly religious types (televangelists, etc.), but none had stayed, as I had, for 12 months. My "salary" as a visiting lecturer was about $20 a month! My teaching assistant earned $12, and I remember the day that he had to take up a collection in the teachers lounge in order to gather the $20 it took to bury his grandmother. When I tried to provide the entire $20, he explained that his granny would not have liked charity of such a grandiose nature, but that he could accept one dollar, at most, from me. The other teachers chipped in half a buck, or less (in rubles) until he had the necessary funds for a casket and the rest.

In Omsk, the tallest building is 19 stories, and generally the elevators did not work on the many occasions that I visited it. In the trading center ("sort of a poor man's shopping mall") across the park from that building, the escalators had not worked since the day the place opened in the 70s. Luckily, it had only three levels.

The city is home to at least five universities, law and medical schools, and several military installations. Pilot, the city's largest employer, made ICBMs, jet engines, and bombers BEFORE the collapse of the USSR, and today, makes principally washing machines. The Pedagogical University has a huge language department. When I arrived in January 1993, there were at least 15 professors and teaching assistants teaching British English, another dozen teaching Chinese, including six from central China, about a half dozen teaching German and perhaps a half dozen teaching French.

Overall, it was a life changing year in my life".

RH: Washing machines instead of ICBMs? "They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks". Isaiah congratulates Omsk.

Randy Black says the Pilot plant in Omsk was now making washing machines instead of ICBMs: "I used to play tennis at Pilot's indoor facility, in winter, and sauna with one of their directors, a fellow named K. Kozin, afterwards. I remember his claim in 1993 that he had unveiled the first washing machine that used "hot" water in its cycle. My wife and I eventually had one of his machines in Moscow a year later. It was on rollers, and you had to hook it to the kitchen sink, and provide an electrical outlet. Then you had to monitor its operation and switch to the various cycles as it was not automatic. The damn thing must have weighed 200 lbs. You could only run about one third of a US machine's load. Still, it was better than nothing. You dry your clothes on the radiators in Russia. No such thing as a dryer. Pilot was sort of the Northrup Gromman/General Dynamics of Russia. VERY respected organization. Its location was related to Stalin's goal in WWII (the great patriotic war) of moving heavy industry beyond the range of Nazi bombers... Thus Omsk at 1,500 miles east of Moscow fit the criteria". RH: I hope Cameron Sawyer can reassure us that good washing machines/dryers are now being made in Russia.

Randy Black described the horror of his washing machine in Russia, and said he was sure that they had not improved. Cameron Sawyer from Moscow disputes this: "First of all, the Omsk plant is Polet starting making (primitive) washing machines 50 years ago, so strictly speaking this is not a case of conversion of military manufacturing capacity.

Russia has a multi-billion dollar market for home appliances, and a great deal of manufacturing capacity has been created in this field in the last few years. Some of the domestic appliances are quite good; I have Russian refrigerators at home and they are indistinguishable from their German competitors. Naturally, there are good washing machines, and dryers, too. The best Russian washing machine is the Vyatka, made by the Vesta company (http://www.vesta-oao.ru/index.php):

David (aka Bert) Westbrook writes: "A footnote to Cameron Sawyer's comments: Tocqueville pointed out the cultural/geographic affinity between the U.S. and Russia". RH: Someone should write a history of the comparison. It really goes back to the argument of Montesquieu that large countries like Russia tend to be autocracies. It could be argued that the US, with its imperial presidency, is really an autocracy. However, Canada and Australia are about the same size, yet they are parliamentary democracies. The present primary circus has convinced me of the superiority of the parliamentary system, but it is too late for the US to adopt it now.

As I suspected, Randy Black's story about his Russian in laws suffering under the Nazis referred to West Russia, not Omsk and Siberia. He says of his wife: "Her family lived in Western Russia, west of the Urals prior to WWII. They moved to Omsk in the early 60s when the military offered my father-in-law housing, due to his rank, in any of several cities. He chose Omsk due to kin already living there.

It is difficult to get my mother-in-law to speak of that era for the same reasons it's hard to get WWII American veterans to speak of the war. They just don't want to talk about it. She told me the "eating grass and tree bark" story once, when I was living in Moscow, and the Germans were making a stink about some of the art works that the Russians were still holding on to. In 1995. Russia repatriated hundreds of thousands of "objects d'art" from WWII TO Germany, while holding onto a few dozen impressionist paintings. That collection opened at the Pushkin Museum in 1995 to rave reviews EXCEPT from the German Ambassador to Russia, who demanded the return of the Matisse, Cezanne, Renoirs and other paintings. I recall that there were 64 paintings that had been kept hidden in St. Petersburg since the war. My mother-in-law volunteered, "My parents and I ate grass and boiled tree bark to avoid starvation because of the Germans. I think we can keep a few paintings as payment." And then words to the effect, "Screw 'em!"

From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer comments on the article by Fiona Hill, co-author of The Siberian Curse: "There is much truth in this article, but I have to comment on these points:

“Communism dragged Russia kicking and screaming into the modern world. It brought electricity, full literacy, some of the world's largest industrial enterprises and ultimately a nuclear arsenal and space program comparable to America's.”

Communism did NOT drag Russia into the modern world; Communism slowed development enormously. Anyone who traveled in Russia during the late Communist period will recall the sense of having been sent back in time. Russia had the fastest growing economy in Europe during much of the period from 1890 until the tragic outbreak of WWI in 1914. If it had not been for Communism, Russia would not only still be a great power militarily, but would have a population of at least 250 million and would likely be the richest country in Europe. Communist central planning beggared the country for the sake of a relatively few priority sectors – defense, heavy industry, electrical power. The only real achievement of Communism in Russia is probably education, standards of which inarguably improved after the Bolshevik coup.

“The industrialization of Siberia was the apogee of Communism. The Soviet Union conquered the frozen wastes and built things that outside observers thought impossible in the places they were built. Workers came to Siberia to earn higher wages and special privileges for their families. They also went there for the opportunity to be pioneers in a grand endeavor — the construction of Communism in the permafrost.”

We have discussed in these pages the predicament of many of these cities built on permafrost, which are all dying now that Russia no longer subsidizes them. Outside observers thought it impossible to build in such places because only fools would have done so, or, at least, Communist central planners who don’t care (and in fact, don’t even know how to measure) whether such settlements are economically viable or not.

But still, the idea that Russia with her wide open spaces and frontier mentality has something in common with the U.S. is undoubtedly true. Many Russians say that they feel a cultural affinity with Americans which they do not feel towards Western Europeans, who seem more alien to them. The big cultural difference between Russia and the U.S. has been Russia’s inclination to collectivism (which predates Communism and has roots in institutions of collective rural land use). Today with Russia enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, this seems to be disappearing".

RH: Cameron's reference to "collective rural land use" alludes to the mir, which among others the Spanish writer Emilia Pardo Bazán wrote about (I wrote an article on that). A few years ago a Russian historian spoke at Stanford. In the question period I asked him if the mir was a source of Russian communism. It took him almost half an hour to say yes.

Randy Black, who was a visiting professor in Omsk and married an Omskess, writes about Cameron Sawyer's comments on the article by Fiona Hill, co-author of The Siberian Curse: " Cameron is correct. Despite the advances in the USSR from the early 20s, my mother in law, who today lives with us in Dallas, and who was born in 1933, did not see her first light bulb until 1947! She grew up in a rural town, and, at age 14, was sent to live with a cousin in a city hundreds of miles away, because there was no way to feed her in the devastated areas left by WWII. She and her parents had survived eating grass and boiling tree bark for weeks, after the Nazis had burned nearly everything they owned. She hiked overland, by herself at age 14, for days, finally hailing a ride on a boat doing in the direction of her destination" RH: A boat? Omsk is located where the Om runs into the Irtysh River. I suppose they freeze over in winter. It must be hard for the Russian people to forget how they suffered under the Nazis, I am as usual confused. I did not think the Nazis reached Omsk. Can Randy explain?

Randy Black recalls Omsk: "Older Russians who suffered greatly at the hands of the Germans in the Great Patriotic War found it hard to forget their pain. However, there seemed to be a paradox in the Omsk Region, which counted about 10% of its population as of German blood. While living in Omsk, I became aware that many of the German-Russians in the Omsk Oblast (region) emigrated from Germany after the war to escape the devastation in their homeland. Others may have been recruited over the decades as skilled workers and teachers. Still others may have been released POWs who remained in Russia on the pretext that Russia was in better shape than Germany. Additionally, thousands of German POWs, held by the USSR at the end of the war, continued to be held in the USSR and were used as slave labor through the early 1950s.

I suppose there are other reasons that persons of German blood ended up in Omsk. I was told by Dr. Alexander Guts, Chair of the Mathematics Department at the Omsk State University, that about 200,000 of the 2 million in the region had German heritage. However, in early 90s, those German-origin Russians were offered the opportunity to migrate back to Germany. I had a couple of students whose families packed up at mid-semester in 1993, turned in the keys to their flats in Omsk and moved to Germany. The talk around the teachers' lounge was that there were thousands leaving for Germany that year and thereafter. Their motivation was almost totally economic, just as it was in 1947, when many had fled the devastation of Germany.

To illustrate conditions in 1993, when I arrived in Omsk in January, the ruble exchanged at about 200 to one US dollar, up from 12 to the buck a year earlier. By November 1993, it took 2,000 rubles to get one US dollar. If you were earning $20 a month as a tenured university professor in Omsk, which line would you have been standing in, the pay line or the train-going-west line? Twenty dollars (in rubles) was an average salary for a professor in Omsk in 1993 at the Omsk State Pedagogical University. Our department Chair received double that, but then he had responsibilities. It was so bad that the typical joke that went around was, The State pretends to pay us and we pretend to work.

The initial excitement of the Russian-Germans who left Omsk for Germany in 1993-1994 was short-lived in some cases, according to the e-mails and letters my wife and I received. Many folks found themselves at the bottom of the economic totem, due to language limitations and their outsider status. Those who settled in East Germany quickly found that the Soviets had left the place in economic shambles. In West Germany, although the situation was better, they found that they were pretty much grouped with all of the other immigrant groups flooding Germany from North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. In other words, they were looked upon as many Americans look upon the Latin Americans who are settling in the United States today".

Randy Black says: "In my one year as a visiting lecturer at the Omsk State Pedogogical University and the Omsk Transportation Institute, I never met one person who claimed that "Communism was perfect." Thus, I totally agree with Dr. Albalakina's comments on the issue. In fact, the consensus among the teachers, professors, local cops and lawyers and my circle of Russian friends was that pure communism never existed in the USSR. Certainly there were those who espoused the positives about communism, but even Khrushchev's opinions, as translated in his biography, "Khrushchev, The Man and His Era" by Taubman (and edited by Khrushchev's son), and later, his autobiography, based on his tapes smuggled to the west, echoed that conclusion. Khrushchev certainly did his part to extend the communist ideology across the land, but in the end, he admitted that it was impossible to stamp out the independent and creative elements of the human spirit that would have made communism the accepted norm".

RH: From my experience during the Soviet period there was a much wider belief in communism than Randy suggests. Naturally, after the fall of communism, when he was in Russia, a natural response was to disavow communism, just as in Germany it was hard to find people who admitted that they had been Nazis. The official theory was that the USSR was passing through a socialist phase on its way to communism.

Randy Black, who was in Russia after the collapse of the USSR, said he met no one who believed in communism. I commented that after the fall of the USSR, this was to be expected. From Moscow, Cameron Sawyer says: "I have two comments to Randy’s posting:

My friends tell me that until the Gorbachev era (until the Soviet economy started to fall apart due to the Reagan-stimulated arms race of the ‘80’s), they all believed in Marxism-Leninism, more or less. Perhaps with some reservations, but in general sincerely supported the system and believed that they were building a better world where selfish interests were subordinated to the common good. I even know people whose relatives were killed in the Stalinist repressions in the ‘30’s who say this.

Randy says that “pure Communism never existed in Russia”. Of course it didn’t, and no one ever claimed that. “Communism” is the final stage of development of society, according to Marxist-Leninist pseudo-scientific view of progress, which occurs after the “withering away of the state”. The Soviet Union was, officially, a “socialist” state, in the process of “building Communism”. Under Communism there is not supposed to be any state whatsoever; the state and all of its mechanism of repression was supposed to be a temporary institution needed only until stamping out of “false consciousness” and final victory of the proletariat over its “class enemies”. It was supposed in the beginning to be possible only after the whole world turned Marxist-Leninism. So “Communism” was never supposed to have been tried; it was always the “svetloe budushee” – the bright future – which Soviet citizens were expected to sacrifice so much to build. That was why Soviet citizens were, to us, surprisingly patient and tolerant of all the obvious flaws in their “perfect system” – these were explained as intermediate steps along the road to the “perfect society”. "

RH: This is an expansion of what I said.

Ronald Hilton - 01.25.04


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