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Growing Up in a Progressive Utopia

I grew up in one of the most progressive societies in the history of humanity. The gap between the rich and poor was tiny compared to the current gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ we find across much of the West. Access to education was universal and students were paid to study and offered free accommodation. Healthcare was available to all and free at the point of use. Racial tensions were non-existent, with hundreds of different ethnic groups living side by side in harmony under the mantra of ‘Friendship of the Peoples.’ Women’s equality was at the very heart of Government policy. According to the prevailing ideology “all forms of inequality were to be erased through the abolition of class structures and the shaping of an egalitarian society based on the fair distribution of resources among the people.”

You are probably wondering whether the idyllic nation from which I hail is Sweden or Iceland. It was the Soviet Union. In modern Britain the top 10 percent earn 24 times as much as the bottom 10 percent but in the Soviet Union the wealthy and powerful barely made 4 times as much as those at the bottom. The illiteracy rate in late Soviet times was just 0.3 percent compared to 14 percent of the US adult population who cannot read today. University students were paid an allowance to study and those from working class backgrounds were often given preferential treatment to facilitate better access to higher education. Free accommodation was available for students studying outside their home town.

The Soviet Union was a huge country populated by hundreds of ethnic and religious groups that had been slaughtering each other for centuries. In this shining example of a successful multicultural state, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians, Russians, Tatars, Moldovans, Belarussians, Uzbeks, Chechens, Georgians, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Turkmens, Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians, and dozens of others all lived side-by-side as friends and neighbours.

The USSR actively promoted women’s equality in order to get more women into the workforce, with some of Vladimir Lenin’s first steps after the 1917 Revolution including simplifying divorce and legalising abortion with the stated goal of “freeing women from the bondage of children and family.” Maternity leave was generous and the state provided ample childcare centres, one of which I myself attended.

Unfortunately, despite these facts and the lofty ideals from which they were derived, the reality of life in the Soviet Union was rather different.

Low levels of wealth and income inequality were achieved by making everyone poor and restricting access to basic goods such as food, domestic appliances, and basic clothing. The ’emancipated’ women of the USSR were denied the evil fruits of misogynistic Western civilisation such as tampons, washing machines, and the ability to feed their children. And while healthcare provision was universal, it was also universally poor and entirely corrupt. Only people with influence, connections, and the ability to pay bribes could actually obtain good treatment.

University places which paid students to study were subject to the same corruption with examiners able to solicit bribes and favours. In exchange for an education, you forfeited the right to a future career of your own choosing—instead, you would be allocated a job by the state system, often in a completely different part of the country.

The temporary lull in ethnic and religious strife was achieved through systematic murder, forced starvation, mass deportation, imprisonment, and ruthless ethnic cleansing by an oppressive police state to keep everyone in check. At least 50 million people were killed or sent to concentration camps to create this ‘peaceful’ society, to say nothing of millions who had their property seized ‘for the benefit of society.’ These enemies of the state included my great-grandparents who met in a Soviet concentration camp for political prisoners. Every morning at their camp, three people would be picked out at random from the general population of the camp and thrown into the icy waters of the lake to freeze and drown in full view of the other prisoners to ‘keep things under control.’ And the moment the regime was no longer able to keep a lid on this volatile melting pot, it exploded into horrific ethnic conflicts, which erupted all over the former Soviet empire and resulted in the deaths of millions of people.

With this background, I am—perhaps understandably—hypersensitive to the emerging far Left in Western politics. I can’t help noticing similarities in the rhetoric about “eradicating inequality,” “smashing the class system,” and a new age of “radical egalitarianism.” And when I do, I shudder.

I shudder because such people no longer appreciate what they have in the West: one of the most prosperous, free, fair, equal, tolerant, peaceful, and open societies not just in the world today but in the entire history of our species. This isn’t an abstract point about the ungrateful youth of today, it’s a reminder of the unforgiving reality that those who don’t realise how good they have it, or take their lives of plenty for granted, are vulnerable to demagogic ideologies that promise to tear it all down to build a ‘better tomorrow’ just as the founders of the Soviet Union did before them.

I shudder because I know that an environment in which anyone who does not hold the correct political views is ostracised can eat away at the heart of what makes Western society a beacon of hope to the rest of the world: the fact that we value free speech and individual autonomy above anything else, including material or practical considerations.

I shudder because the murderous track record of the far Left is no better, and arguably far worse in terms of raw statistics, than that of the far Right. I say “Nazi,” you say “Holocaust,” but “Communist” does not bring to mind the 50 million who perished in my country or the 80 million murder in Maoist China.

In an ideal world, everyone would be equal in every way and we would all ride our unicorns to the end of the rainbow. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world we live in this one. We must deal with reality as we find it not as we wish it to be. And we must bear the cruel lessons of history in mind as we do so.

 

Konstantin Kisin is a Russian-British comedian based in the UK, moderator at the Kilkenomics economics & comedy festival, and the co-host of TRIGGERnometry. You can follow him on Twitter @KonstantinKisin

57 Comments

    • dirk says

      And the dystopias from literature (there are many, -We- from Zamyatin, 1984, Brave new world) warn us for the risks and abysses.

        • dirk says

          Oh yes, Zamyatin, the early bird of dystopia, where reason and logic reigned, equality, numbers and unis were the norm, well controlled by the secret police, and where dreaming and (alternative) reflections were deemed a symptom of mental illness. The early sovjet censors did not know what to do with it, but the poor man got the chance to leave Russia (thanks to his colleagues) before the regressivity took hold firmly.

          • Orwell’s book deserves its praise, but it’s a pity ‘We’ lingers in its shadow.

    • Chris says

      It’s important to remember that the word “utopia” literally means “no place”!

    • kris says

      Precisely.
      But what Kisin seems to be blind to is that Utopia is not even a desirable state. The word comes from the Greek meaning ‘No place’
      When he sais: “In an ideal world, everyone would be equal in every way. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world”
      But It is actually very fortunate we don’t live in such a world. It would be impossible for Humans to live in such a world. It would be like living without oxygen. Differences in every diverse way possible are the driving force of all humanity. It is what provides the challenges that we strive to meet, the motivation to achieve the impossible, the need to explore new ideas and the inspiration for great art.
      Life is about the journey not the destination.

  1. dirk says

    I love the picture of a woman garding her cow. All through sovjet time, people were allowed to have some private property and a small datsja, where they had potatoes planted, cucumbers, some chicken and 1 or 2 cows. Even now, I understand, 50% of all dairy produce comes from those tiny individual plots and not from the giant mega enterprises with 10 or 15 thousand dairy cows (and 90% of the national potato output as well is from those plots). Inequality is still rampant, in another way.

    • dirk says

      Sorry, not garding, but feeding, I now see when looking better, out of a bucket (because the grass looks miserable), probably leftovers from milling or second grade grains. Beautiful landscape, wide horizon, better than my small appartment in town.

    • kris says

      Talk about “Romancing the Stone”
      You must have a big pair of rose coloured glasses.

  2. George Ou says

    In before “but but but … that wasn’t real socialism”

  3. Charles White says

    I really enjoy the quality of writing on this site. Kisin’s 180 degree segue in the middle of the article was brilliant. The first four paragraphs were written so sincerely, I was convinced I was reading an article by a Soviet apologist until the segue.

  4. dirk says

    @ Charles: do you think, a similar story, but without that segue, could have been written by some Russian or other happy intellectual now in the East or the left spheres? I once traveled in a train from Chisinau to Edessa, and, yes, something of the kind was told to me by an elderly lady with rather good (and no bad at all) remembrances of the Sovjet time (unbelievable maybe, but it just happened). But I agree, the segue did the trick in the above, nice to read.

  5. Zachary Reichert says

    14% of adults in America who can’t read today? Is that right? ‘Cause that doesn’t seem right.

    Whelp, time to go dig in to that, ’cause that’s interesting.

    • dirk says

      @Zacharias: the figure (this one and many more in different essays) depends very much on whether you want to prove that the situation is good or bad. If you want to show how bad literacy is, you add also all people that read with some difficulty longer texts (in the NL= 20%), if the other way round, you stick to people that don’t know the alphabet and can’t write their names.

      • dirk says

        I checked for you Bat, depending on the mission of the research team, the figure goes from 10-20% in the NL (people that cannot or with difficulty read texts), if you are going to be paid for further alphabetisation, the figure is at the higher end, if you are from the ministry or institutes responsible for education, at the lower end. For the whole world, I came across a figure of 800 million. In sovjet Russia, without doubt, it was very low (as was also the figure of prostitution at that time).

  6. Joaquim C says

    Amazing article; made me puzzeled for some 10 seconds wondering where was that place.

    • dirk says

      Even with that picture at hand, the house, the dress of the woman? the scenery? I can’t keep my eyes off from this pro?-/re?-gressive utopia.

      • Michael D in Calgary says

        Doesn’t that depend upon the culture making the value judgement? Germany had no Magna Carta, no tradition of individual rights. The Nazi tradition was that of the older serfdom culture, and they were vehemently anti-capitalist. That means that they were the traditional German conservatives (for German culture, this meant going back to landowners and their properly the serfs, and government restrictions on trade and wealth generation) in one way, but the antithesis of Anglosphere conservatism (which rests on a bedrock of capitalism, individual rights and freedoms as a preventing mechanism opposed to slavery and serfdom, and the belief in equality before the law regardless of “class”).

        As we are conversing in English, the Nazis were on the left. German and Russian speakers would disagree. Which side they are upon depends upon your host culture and its institutions and beliefs.

        • dirk says

          Where stood Mussolini actually, he was a fascist, but certainly he leaned towards the left in his programmes for the working classes, and De Gaulle?, against the upheavals of 1968, but for a free Algeria, and what about Jordan Peterson and Yuval Harari? I wouldn;t know, maybe, the definition needs an update.

        • KD says

          If National Socialists were Leftists, who then would the Anti-Fa beat up?

          If you beat someone up based on their political commitments, doesn’t that make them your political enemy and opponent? And if you are political opponents, doesn’t that put you on opposite sides of the political conflict?

          Conversely, if Hitler was a Leftist, why did he put the Communists in the concentration camps first?

          This undeniable fact of opposing political alignment does not, of course, preclude morphological similarities between the movements. In fact, much of National Socialism was copied from the Communists and socialists, whether you are talking about the party state, or the use of concentration camps on domestic populations (thank you Joe!), control of media, etc. But that makes National Socialism a right-wing mirror strategy, copying your opponents tactics in an effort to out-do him.

          • Gonout Backson says

            @KD
            “Conversely, if Hitler was a Leftist, why did he put the Communists in the concentration camps first?”
            After having collaborated with them, organized the 1932 strike together, and marched together ?
            For the same reason Lenin and Trotski attacked the Socialist Revolutionaries first : competition.

      • Jeffery D Martin says

        They were National socialists..as the party name indicated and described.

  7. Morgan says

    Of course, because people are unequal, those at the bottom deserve to suffer for it?

    I understand you had a bad time. But you’re probably the last person who should make political or economic choices. Your experience blinds you. Most leftists admit that Stalin and Mao were bad. Marx would probably have agreed. But you don’t care about that. You just want to drum up fear for something by bringing up the specter of Stalin and trying to scare all the little children reading your stories. Nevermind that the liberal revolution also had a dictator, one who killed millions, one who gassed misbehaving slaves. Does that mean all liberalism is just as evil? You vision of America would disagree.

    Did you know there were people around the time of Mr. Revolution himself who claimed that Napoleon was a symbol for all the reasons why liberalism was evil, and why everyone should return to monarchy?

    • You do not have to bring up Stalin, but Stalin and USSR is prime example. You could bring up literally an other former Soviet block country. They all differed in degree of oppression but they all killed people, sent them to working camp, disallowed them to enter universities based on lineage, etc. They were corrupt like he mentions. Their health care was free and sometimes decent but yes, people were bribing doctors as a matter of course because they wouldn’t get the decent treatment otherwise. Etc.

      • Jay Salhi says

        There are plenty of examples outside of the Soviet bloc. The latest socialist paradise is Venezuela.

    • Nicholas says

      @Morgan you’re missing the whole point. No of course people at the bottom don’t deserve to suffer. In communist counties that’s exactly what they do though. Murder on an industrial scale, whole towns starved to the point of cannibalism, unspeakable abuse of power and terror.

      The unitied states is by no means perfect, and our government does some pretty awful things, BUT the average household *below* the poverty line has 2 cars, 4 tvs, air conditioning, and well in excess of 2,000 calories/person/day. It may shock you to learn, but they are also in the top quintile of global income distribution. That’s right, capitalism’s poor are unwitting members of the global financial elite (oh the irony of occupy wallstreet). It may not seem ‘fair’, but I submit we should put our own warm fuzzy feeling aside and look for a system with a proven track record of alleviating extreme poverty rather than a system with a proven track record of exacerbating and imposing it.

    • Ivan says

      With the exception of homeless people, those “at the bottom” (that is working class?) in Western capitalism live freer, healthier and better than the majority of “equal” people in USSR, not even mentioning all the famines, camps and executions.

  8. dirk says

    My whole youth I was told (by parents, school, church, political party) that communism was something like hell and totally wrong. Many details have been told in the article and comments that without doubt were, at least exemplary, true. But when I for the first time visited such a mistreated country, Slowakia, just after the fall of the Berlin wall, I met a farmer who had worked there for a long time with a horse and had his own house and plot. I asked him, but you must have been disowned by force to join the kolchoz. To my great surprise he answered: Yes, there was a red commission that asked me to join, and told me the advantages, but I refused and stayed on my own property, on my own land. I was stupefied, so, this was also possible? I had never read about it in newspapers, colleges or literature. But I learned that frasing and smearing the enemy is the rule, always and everywhere. But, of course, the truth is never simple and homogeneous. For example, that you had to bribe the doctors, I am sure that this has happened once in a while, but was it the rule? Don’t forget that most people, wherever you come, are rather honest and well meaning, at least, that’s my experience, after living and working in about 10 countries, with different religions and systems.

    • Steve Munn says

      They spared this farmer friend of yours… I don’t doubt that fact. They couldn’t kill everybody, after all. But to connect the reality that not all could be killed with the idea that communism is not “something like hell and totally wrong” is naïve. Of course, nothing is completely black and white in terms of good and evil. Good people can harbor malevolence and evil people can show kindness. But to argue that communism isn’t much more on the evil side of the scales is at best naively optimistic and at worst dangerously ignorant of the piles of bodies stacked up in pursuit of equality.

      • dirk says

        I had another such experience in Mexico Steve. As a student, I was firmly convinced that the ejido system (appropriation of lands from absentee landlords, and distributed to small landless farmers) was something good, just and logic. I came to work in Veracruz, and saw there how hooligans (not even farmers) occupied well run large farms and made a mess of it, without anybody winning. Again, I had never read or heard in the media that such appropriations also could be wrong, and were often contra productive and even contra justice. Whereever I go, I see things 180 degrees different as what I thought was the truth. I thought that everybody in Surinam would be glad to be independent from their colonizer (as I read in Dutch newspapers). Until I came there, and saw not even one person who was glad with that independence, at the contrary, they all told me, as soon as we are independent (forced through by a small minority), we immediately emigrate from here.

    • First, it is Slovakia. Second, yes, communism was hell even in countries like Czechoslovakia. In USSR, it was 7th level of hell. The farmers that did not join JZD (equivalent of kolchoz in Czechoslovakia) were under tremendous pressure to join. Their land was stolen or “exchanged” for smaller and far away plot. They were harassed by police with home searches. They were put on administrative trial if they did not meet quota of milk or whatever regardless of why they did not meet the quota with the punishment being, again, losing the land. Etc.

      I do not believe you that this has happened or that you actually understood what has or has not happened to the farmer. Also, even in the unlikely case it was so rosy for this one farmer, there are many many more examples of where they were not able to stay on their land.

      Also, this is not just farmers or economy. There were phony court processes where people were sentenced to death or working camps on made up charges with confessions that were tortured out of them. People could not leave the country as they pleased. People were shot at by border patrols if they tried and were spotted.

      If you weren’t a member of the Communist Party or at least your parents weren’t of worker class here you could forget good education. Some schools simply would not accept you because of that.

      World War II heroes from west front, pilots that fought Battle of Britain, were harassed and sometimes jailed on trumped up charges.

      Your story is anecdotal. There are so many examples of the hell of Communism that manifested here. And they are actually documented.

      • dirk says

        Surely anecdotal vzeman, I told it as such, but the first encounter for me with an ordinary manr from behind the Iron Curtain. It was on a holiday ” Meet the farmers”, somewhere close to the Polish border, where also many farmers were left, and not forced into kolchozes , and in a hilly area that was less attractive to be expropriated, but nevertheless, I enjoyed.
        I can easily talk maybe, being a tourist from the West, and with good money (everything there was extremely cheap, you could eat in a restaurant for less than 1 dollar, though not so in the new McDonalds). There was also a group of US tourists , guided around by a Slovakian guide. She told these tourists that, of course, freedom and western standards now were a bless, but then started a monologue with some disadvantages. High rents, no more work (most factories closed), high prices even for bread and vegetables (and that was before the later hikes), no more free education, medicines, and so she went on for some time. I saw the surprise on the faces of these elderly tourists, and one cried out….. But, But,… that means….., you are actually not happy at all with the new freedom?
        It was funny, it was my second anecdote there. And be sure, I am happy to have been brought up in the capitalist West and not in the East, but that does not mean that I miss the disadvantages, and that I believe all the smearing and mud slinging in the article and some comments here.

    • Ivan says

      It’s not a slippery slope fallacy, it’s a warning – don’t romanticize socialism. Look carefully at history and don’t repeat its mistakes.

      It’s also not a false dichotomy – Konstantin doesn’t argue for hardcore capitalism, nor does he say there are only two options.

  9. Susan says

    A St. Petersburg tour guide told me three years ago that the current economy operates on bribes and baksheesh. Everyone (doctors, policemen) earns about $3000 officially but the average income is about $56,000. It sounded like bribing the doctors did not happen “once in a while” but as a way of getting medical care.

    • dirk says

      But Susan, you are talking about the situation now, under Putin, in the wild east, where freedom reigns at very high social costs. But Konstantin and vzeman were talking about the sovjet time, time of equality and low material standards for all (except, maybe, some politicians and athletes, but certainly not the ordinary doctors, engineers and lawyers). Don’t mess things up here!

    • Kessler says

      Communism created a culture of corruption and dishonesty. USSR may have fallen, but the damage it did to people remains and would likely to persist for generations.

  10. Kessler says

    My parents are from USSR and they hold the same opinion – the West enjoys such prosperity, many people lost sight of how fortunate they are to live in capitalist countries. Let’s say there weren’t work camps, oppression and executions in USSR – it would still be a country, where you’d need to get on a waiting list to get a car, where you’d be lucky to buy meat in a shop or not to have to share your home with others, in a communal living. And that’s for people living in major cities, the villages were dirt poor, compared to regular poor. That was communism done right – where an incompetent, unproductive drunk would be equal to a brilliant, hard-working engineer. That’s what equality of outcome actually means – that individual effort doesn’t matter. You can’t have equality and wealth – inequality drives innovation, competition and thus wealth generation. Communism lives off wealth, that was generated by Capitalism and then it goes bankrupt. Now, maybe there are arguments for limited wealth redistribution and reduction of inequality, without turning country communist. But I have zero trust for the current Left to execute such measures properly.

    • When Gorbachev went to China in 1988, his whole entourage spent their time shopping and buying anything, including boxes of oranges. If people travelling with the leader were that desperate to buy thing as simple as oranges it beggars belief how grim it was for the ordinary ‘Comrades.’

      • dirk says

        @John: Oranges don’t grow in the former Sovjet states, and neither bananas or pineapples, but apples, strawberries and cherries and plums do, so, I can understand that you use your foreign currency for other things. The Chinese now fear that they can no longer buy avocados and almonds from the US, because of Trump’s measures, but they have a lot of other juicy fruits, oranges for example. The less you carry fruits for 1000s of miles from here to there, the better it is for the climate and the purity of the air.

  11. “–I’ll tell you in secret … I was friends with Oksana, she was from Ukraine. It was from her that I first heard of the horrible hunger in Ukraine. Golodomor [death by hunger]. You couldn’t even find a frog or a mouse– everything had been eaten. Half the people in her settlement died. All her younger brothers, her father and mother died, but she saved herself by eating horse dung at the kolkhoz [collective farm] stable by night and eating it. Nobody could eat it but she did: “When it’s warm it’s disgusting, but you can eat it cold. Frozen is best, it smells of hay.” I said, “Oksana, Comrade Stalin is fighting. He destroys the saboteurs, but there are many.” “No,” she said, “you’re stupid. My father was a history teacher, he said to me, ‘Someday Comrade Stalin will answer for his crimes…”

    • From Svetlana Alexievich, The Unwomanly Face of War. An oral History of Women in World War II. Oksana was a KULAK who died fighting in WWII.

      • dirk says

        For readers here that don’t speak Russian: a KULAK is a well to do farmer using farmhelps and workers to do the jobs on his land. So, a capitalist in the eyes of the sovjet government (but not in the farmers eyes of course).’Svetlana served in the army of the Sovjets, I suppose, so that was about 10 years after the Great Famine in the Ukrain. Logical that there are no movies or books about that famine in the sovjet time, but in the meantime? By Oksana, for example?(or is that oral history also in book form available?)

  12. Svetlana Alexievich interviewed female Soviet WWII veterans in the 70’s and wrote them up in a book called ‘The Unwomanly Face of War.’ She won a Nobel Prize or something. She shows the horror of the war and how it was amplified by the horror of Soviet Russia.

    Passages such as the one about Oksana were censored from the original and only appeared when the book was recently re-released.

    https://www.amazon.com/Unwomanly-Face-War-History-Women/dp/0399588728

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/aug/02/unwomanly-face-of-war-svetlana-alexievich-review

    • dirk says

      Thanks John, I dived into that book (via Google) and was impressed, never heard of it, even if it was worth a Nobel price. I even found a sovjet movie on that pre-Holodomor, Earth (1930) from a certain Dovshenko (censored, like Setlana’s book). And an early Western book about the case (5 million deaths), The Great Terror (1968) from Robert Conquest. The great villain: Joseph Stalin!
      But even in Russia, this was acknowledged already by Krutchjev!

  13. IK says

    Ok so most murders in USSR were committed during Stalin rule, but lets not forget that after his death this state lasted for 35 more years before it started to collapse, and while number of arrests and deportations were down from Stalins era, KGB was still very active and all other “peculiarities” of system also lasted until the end of USSR.

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  15. The Soviet Union only failed because they didn’t have the right Top Men. They’ll get it right next time!

    And yes, I’m being sarcastic.

  16. jack north says

    Utter nonsense, the usual fearmongering about progressive politics. Thankfully the young aren’t buying it.

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