Ten days that shook my world


I wrote what follows in July 1990 immediately after returning from a two week trip to Moscow. I was part of a group with the now sadly departed Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (Idasa). The original was published in Democracy In Action, the institute’s monthly newsletter. I had looked for a copy for years and Paul Graham the last executive director of  Idasa, and a man for whom I have the highest regard, went to considerable trouble to find the article for me as he was closing up shop. I am republishing it here exactly as it originally appeared, although I have to sit on my hands to stop myself stripping out much of the sentiment and youthful taking-of-oneself-too-seriously – and thereby cutting two thirds of the length. (I would also quite like not to admit to some of the things I once believed which I admit to in the article … and I would love to add a bit of irony … but it is all too late for that now.)

Why am I bothering – I am not unaware that this was not exactly seminal?  No special reason, except my desire that it form ‘part of the record’. I wanted it “out there” in the electronic universe to remind myself of the precise moment I stopped being a confused socialist and carried on with being just confused, an altogether less satisfying state than I had experienced previously. It was  bitter-sweet for me, this moment, and I have never entirely resolved the conflicted feelings that it evokes in me. I don’t promise that what follows will be madly interesting to anyone but myself and perhaps some others directly involved in the events I describe. So, if for no other reasons than the much vaunted record, complete and unexpurgated, here is:

Ten days that shook my world

Standing on the Leningradsky Prospect – the “straight way” to Leningrad – just outside Moscow I was filled with an unhappy mixture of dismay and despair.

I had reached an unbearably poignant shrine. In heroic proportions and cut deep into huge blocks of concrete was the visage of the Soviet version of the Unknown Soldier. The young interpreter translated the script alongside that  haunting face in hushed tones. “It says that, ‘the defenders of Moscow defend here forever’. Here they fought an important battle in the Great Patriotic War. Many people died. But for us this is very sad.”

Twenty million Soviet citizens died in that war. more than all the other deaths put together. The German army failed to take Moscow or Leningrad and eventually broke its back on a bitterly defended Stalingrad and the even more bitter Soviet winter.

Standing at that memorial I felt dismay at the enormity of suffering the people of this country had experienced in the last 100 years. I felt despair because by that stage of the trip I already sensed than another tragedy was befalling this oft punished country.

How do  you record a credible impression of a country with 290  million inhabitant and more mutually unintelligible languages than anywhere else in the world after a brief two weeks spent in one city – albeit Moscow?

The answer is you probably can’t.

It was sunny mid-June and I was part of an Idasa delegation of “young researchers” on a fact-finding mission hosted by a group called the Committee of Youth Organisations. For me personally the visit was of particular importance.

The Soviet Union was the land of milk and honey for many of us who grew up politically in the student movement in the late 70s and early 80s. This was the flagship of a growing fleet that would rid our world of the uncaring and greedy imperative of profiteering capitalism and the misery it had brought our country.

We could quote chapter and verse of statistics that demonstrated the availability of basic goods and services to all Soviet people. We could parade the achievements of Eastern bloc socialism – in the production of iron and steel, in the eradication of illiteracy, in culture, the arts and in sports.

In response to perestroika and glasnost we had all reformulated our ideas and I wanted to discover two things: the soul of the Soviet people and  whether the red flag was still flying. We were not able to answer any of these questions conclusively and were left with a series of often unconnected impressions.

I was quite unprepared for what I found in Moscow.

We sat in a meeting with the editor of the Moscow Communist Youth Organisation (Komsomol) daily newspaper. The paper has a subscriber list of one and a half million and is delivered daily. This man was a political appointee yet he harangued us for over an hour about the evils and absolute unworkability of socialism.

We didn’t understand. Here was a powerful and influential communist, picking up a glass on the table and asking, “Who does this belong to? To the state, or the people, or some vague body? I don’t care about this glass,” and he made as if to throw it out of the window.

In an intense and growing fury he took a Parker pen from the inside pocket of his coat. “This is my pen! If this man (pointing at his second in command) breaks this pen, I will beat him,” he said, shaking his fist angrily.

Reaching some kind of climax, the editor rose to his feet and shouted pointing out of the window at the inevitable queue at a shop across the road: “Those people are queuing for children’s slippers. This is not how people should live! This is not even how animals should live!”

The sentiments behind these ragings were expressed by everyone we met – more cautiously only by the most senior members of the Communist Party.

The economy has clearly failed to meet the requirements of the population and the list of reasons they give reads like a tirade from the New Right.

Here is a selection of rough quotes as I jotted them down in my notebook or remember them now:

“The authoritarian, bureaucratic, administrative command system has created impossibly skewed production priorities.”

“Why work hard, or with any care and attention to detail if you are going to get your 300 roubles a month no matter what and anyway, you are not going to be able to buy anything with it? We have created workers who don’t know how to work.”

“Goods are expensive and if they are made here they are of inferior quality. It is very difficult to get imported goods and usually these are impossibly expensive.”

“I have lived here all my life. Now it is worse than anyone can remember. There are just no goods in the shops and for the first time we are really worried about hunger.”

Almost without exception the people we spoke to blamed socialism for their ills. When those of us with deep philosophical and political roots in the South African socialist movement protested that it wasn’t socialism per se that was the problem, but rather the errors committed in the building of the society and economy of the Soviet Union specifically, we were laughed out of court.

“It is the ideas themselves. 1917 was a disaster for us. We need the market economy,” was the refrain we heard time and again.

There seems no doubt that there is a developing  consensus amongst the intelligentsia in Moscow at any rate, that the “free market” is the panacea to many of their ills. It would have been impossible, and extremely presumptuous of us to lecture them on the evils of rampant capitalism. They want it and they want it now.

When Germany and Japan start buying up state enterprises for a pittance and fill the shops with goods that only a few can afford; when unemployment and lack of housing becomes a problem for the previously protected underclass and when access to a whole lot of goods ans services becomes determined by income, they may change their minds, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

The citizens of Moscow (a relatively wealthy city) are struggling, increasingly despairingly, to survive. At first I was tempted to argue that they are better off than the unemployed in the First World, but it just doesn’t appear to be true, especially as far as countries with social welfare systems are concerned.

The problem, of course, is that the capitalism that will be built in the Soviet Union will be a mean and half-starved animal.

The Soviet people look at the highly developed capitalist economies of the West for a vision of their own future. The truth is that they can expect only the vicious and exploitative versions of the system that exist on the periphery in the Third World.  The creation of that system is going to be extremely painful.

The other element of the unfolding drama in the Soviet Union is the collapse of the political entity itself.

The republics are finally starting to be flung off the edges of the vortex of rapid political change. Long repressed nationalism, often highly chauvinistic, is emerging everywhere and Gorbachev is finding it almost impossible to hold the show on the road.

The dark spectre of the Soviet Union’s collapse into 15 disgruntled, warring, potentially economically unviable Third World states with terrifying military resources at their disposal is starting to haunt the wold.

And what about the Russian people?

We were all astounded at the depth of education and cultural and philosophical literacy in the wide cross-section of people we met. A deep abhorrence of war and commitment to peaceful change was the characteristic feature. In response to the question “what do you want, or see as an alternative?”, the most common phrase was, “respect for universal human values.”.

We asked many young people if they were proud of any of their national achievements – the beautiful, cheap and efficient Moscow underground, the low price and ready availability of books and records and the level of literacy and education.

We were told (variously): “The Soviet Union is not a country, we have no national achievements”; “how can we be proud if it takes all our effort and time just to buy a loaf of bread in a shop”.

Almost every young person we met had a burning desire to leave the country. The most popular movie on the circuit is a “documentary” comparison of life in the Soviet Union versus life in the West.

Apparently this films looks at the worst of Soviet life compared to the best in the West. It sounds like the worst kind of anti-communist, American ultra-right chauvinism –  except it was made by a Soviet film producer. What is more, the public swallow every last detail in an orgy of masochistic self-hatred.

Media freedom

One thing we found interesting and encouraging was freedom and vibrancy of the media.

Organised political opposition to the Communist Party is weak (outside of the national movements in the republics) and many of the new parties have no real experience at mobilising the population. However, the press and television are filled with debate and exploration of new ideas and harsh examinations of social problems ranging from alcoholism through to child abuse.

By the end of the 10 days, the six of us were punch-drunk and exhausted. We spoke together for hours trying, unsuccessfully, to draw out the essence of the experience. We all had the sense of being in an important place at an important time. This was the exact point where a grand enterprise had come off the rails.

The resounding shock waves of that catastrophe have changed the whole world, not least of all our own country. We struggled with the enormity of it and the sense of hopelessness we were left with.

As the last day of the visit dawned, I spoke to a wise and gentle man about my confusion and disappointment. He said: “Yes, this is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions, but you are wrong to say our people are hopeless or despairing. They have spirit and humanity. We will win through in some way.”

(I was accompanied on that trip by Ian Liebenberg, Hermien Kotze, Zorah Ebrahim, Khehla Shubane and Mark Swilling – and I wish them well wherever they may be.)

12 thoughts on “Ten days that shook my world

  1. Geez Nick. I think this note would be a good thing for every economics student to read. I am going to have my high school age kids read it. Thanks. LT

    1. Thanks Lawrence … I can’t believe how long ago that all was – the issues feel the same just the places change (as do we of course!) It is excellent to hear from you and I hope you are well. Please look me up when you are in Cape Town again.

  2. Thank you for all your insights Nic. Please keep it up, I know it is a lot of effort but some of us find hope in your opinions and perspectives. 🙂

    I learned from your articles that it all is not black and white (no pun). There are a host of matters, factors, relations that make up our society and due to the long history, it is a rather complex place we live in today. (In my simple view, the more complex it is, the more problems there are, but that’s just me.)

    Then one adds basic human nature … eish … now it really gets complicated.

    So that made me wonder, what is Nic saying here? (Sorry, I am not the brightest bulb in the room therefor I rather ask.)

    Today, 23 years after you wrote the above article, after gaining 23 years of experience first hand, are you today more, or less, confused and disappointment than what you felt after those 10 days abroad?

    And did that wise and gentle man’s insight turned out to be true, for Russia, for SA?

    1. Hi Jaco – you ask difficult questions! The first point I would make is politically and economically South Africa is in a better position than Russia. We casually talk about South Africa having becoming a system of crony capitalism, that the state is being used to settle scores, but the truth is these are ‘tendencies’ in our society and there are lots of countervailing forces and, on balance, the forces that balance or combat cronyism and kleptocracy are winning, albeit only just, in our country. The same is decidedly not true for Russia. I speak to a lot of foreign investors who are completely clear that “political risk” is significantly higher in Russia than in South Africa … and for them the peer comparison is one they routinely make because their investment universe typically consists of South Africa, Russian, Turkey, Latam etc (Global Emerging Markets) and, in general, South Africa fairs well in comparison.

      The other issue, I suppose, is that I still believe in a society where the state is efficient and resourced to take care of “the public good”. There is clearly a trade-off between 1) harnessing private energy, creativity (and part of that is letting the individual winners of that process keep their “stuff” – wealth, advantage etc) and 2) raising taxes and building a state with a social welfare system and a system that provides public services that can be accessed by all. It is all in the balance and, unfortunately, we witness the incredible inefficiencies of “the public” in our own country and the excesses of “the private” also in our own country (and the world).

      Am I more or less confused? I am more convinced than ever that individual effort needs to rewarded and differentiated …. that the essential engine of human development consists in the harnessing of that desire to “get ahead of the pack” to be the survivor in the great culling that is life; that rewarding everyone equally, no matter what they do, or what their talents, allows awful mediocrity to flourish. But I am also more convinced than ever that without a collective endevour, without some form of state to control human competition and force the prioritisation of public good above private choice our species will destroy itself and the world, and the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer the most and the earliest. So my confusion remains … I just do not know how to balance such priorities … and I am even uncertain if I am phrasing them with the adequate level of complexity and sophistication. I have jokingly said in the past that humans will catch the last fish, cut down the last tree and take the last food from the poorest unless they are machine gunned back from the edge. Chuckle chuckle, ha ha, but jokes aside it is a bleak vision in which I am juxtaposing individual human creativity and an authoritarian “benevolent” (in a Judge Dredd kind of way) state. I am sure there are those who believe culture will evolve in a way that consensus about new forms of behaviour become possible that allows the public and private goods to coexist in harmony … and that technological development will be quick enough for us to never have to get our fingers on the actual machine gun trigger … but I am a bit of a pessimist at heart.

  3. It was, I think, largely a historical accident, and one that I wish I understood better, that the struggle for democracy in SA became aligned in the ways that it did with the ideological ‘cold war’. The Soviet Union was hardly a model defender of democracy. In various important ways (intervention in the economy, restriction on press freedom, restriction of other freedoms, interference in the content of education, severely circumscribed sham of ‘democracy’, …) it had more in common with the Apartheid state than with the so-called “West”. The extent of misery within the Soviet Union, and of hostility to socialism, was a shock to many when the opportunity to acknowledge it came along. I’m glad you posted this. I hadn’t read it before.

    1. Thanks David – I tend to agree with you. The conventional wisdom in the parts of the ANC I fitted into in the old old days was that we had first gone cap in hand to the West, but it was the Soviet Union that “took us in” – militarily as well as access to universities etc. Of course there was huge amounts of aid, comfort and succor from the Scandinavian countries and everywhere the anti-apartheid movement was strong so actually what we were getting from the USSR was primarily militarily and a particular insertion into the Cold War. I am more embarrassed than comes through in the article at how blithely I accepted a lot of the propaganda – I took me actually seeing the foreign currency and ‘party official’ shops in Moscow … experiencing, rather more intimately, some of the real differences between different sides of the wall in Berlin to realise that I had made a serious error of judgement – ethically, politically. And let’s face it, it wasn’t that the information about the Soviet Union wasn’t available to me … I could have done the reading … but unfortunately I was busy with Lenin – What is to be Done …. and similar … and chose to believe that my enemy’s enemy was my friend. The more we heard (from Cold War warriors or the apartheid government) about the Russian bear threatening Africa, pushing via Cuba through Angola, the more confirmed we became that this was our ally and friend. It’s a salutary lesson for me to take as much care as possible when deciding on who are the ‘good’ and who are the ‘bad’ guys – causing me to probably err on the side of indecisiveness as I get older.

      1. Thank you for responding, Nic. Very loosely, and at the risk of stating the obvious, part of the background (to my original half-question) is surely that some important Pan Africanists had in some broad sense ‘socialist’ views, and that some developed democracies were actively involved in subverting democracy in various African countries in the 20th century. (For example Belgian, British and US involvement in the death of Patrice Lumumba, at the same time as the Soviet Union intervened in other ways, at least superficially more friendly to Africans.)

        I also think that some level of confusion is about the only reasonable attitude to the problem you identify about balancing priorities. We’re doing a gigantic (planet wide) experiment with no control group, no research ethics approval, and no remotely relevant precedents. Nothing can really tell us how to manage 7+ billion people while racing towards various crucial resource limitations and crises. The rate at which forms of work are being made obsolete is accelerating too, driving down (not in all in cases) the returns on education, and making earlier visions (either ‘left’ or ‘right’) about the attainability of approximately full employment seem increasingly quaint and absurd.

  4. Thanks for this Nic. You told me about your shake-up when we last met in person (you were a disillusioned garlick farmer), and I never really grasped the intensity of it. To me, having focussed on methodology at varsity, it was just paradigm shift. The analytical framework had reached its limit. The Soviet collapse didn’t disturb me at all, despite having been a keen propagandist. Its very intriguing reading this with the current benefit of hindsight.

  5. Am I wrong to get the chills when I think of?
    Unions who want to share the wealth at the risk of business success.
    Ever increasing welfare budget.
    Lowering of pass marks.
    Youth unemployment rates souring.
    Protection of Information Act.
    Thinking all the time that possibly all our current leaders came from a similar “indoctrination” hearing /reading the word ‘comrades’ on TV, the newspapers knowing one can vote for the SACP whom are solidly entrenched in SA politics / government?

    Or am I missing something?

  6. Gosh, you people (specifically David and Nic) are pessimistic about the world. The empirical reality is so obviously different. Things are getting better.

  7. I consider myself cautiously optimistic. Large parts of Africa are doing very well recently, compared to much of the preceding decades. (By well I include various measures of governance and growth.) We’re still racing into uncharted territory, and with some unprecedented challenges…

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