“I grew up in a socialist country. And I have seen what that does to people. There is no hope, no freedom. No pride in achievement.”And that’s what I see happening here.”
So begins an ad that’s been airing in the run-up to November elections, narrated and paid for by Thomas Peterffy, in support of Republican candidates.
Peterrfy, the CEO of Interactive Brokers, came to America in 1965 to escape Communist Hungary.
He fears a world where, if we’re not careful, “people will lose interest in really working hard and creating jobs. I think this is a very slippery slope.
“It seems like people don’t learn from the past.”
Is the U.S. really starting to resemble the country he left?
We turned to “Steeltown, USSR,” a book-length work of reportage from current Princeton University History Professor Stephen Kotkin, to see what life under socialism is really like.
Published in 1991, the book is Kotkin’s account of his trips to the Russian city of Magnitogorsk in the late-80s, on the eve of the fall of Communism, and his interviews with the city’s residents.
Kotkin speaks with one outspoken middle-aged factory worker who tells him:
'We built it all right. We worked, we toiled, we built. And now they can't figure out what the hell we built.! No one knows what to call it: barracks socialism, Stalinism, totalitarianism. You could spend the rest of your life thinking about it, but you'll never come up with the right name. What we built -- it's unnameable.'
The Hungary Peterffy, born in 1944, grew up in had been occupied continuously by the Soviets since the end of the war. Their control was reinforced after the brutal repression of the 1956 uprising. Kotkin:
'Socialism...would not come about naturally. To bring about the unprecedented undertaking of noncapitalist transformation required a special instrument, 'a party of a new type' (in Lenin's phrase), which amid the chaos of a war-torn country managed to seize power...'
It often took years to get basic quality goods and services. Again, from the middle-aged worker:
'This apartment, I waited 18 years for it. During that time, we lived four in one room. No one remembered what colour the walls were. You couldn't see them, they were so covered with our belongings stacked up to the ceiling. I worked and struggled and endured all manner of humiliation for eighteen years for this pathetic, unexceptional new apartment. It makes me sad and angry to think about it. How much evil has accumulated! I have so much on my soul!'
It was actually better to simply be a nameless cog. Once again, the worker:
'If you work hard, they demand from you. You have to get up in front of everyone and make speeches; they give you medals with pompous names. So it's best to stay quiet, not attract attention to yourself. Once in a while, you work like a bull; the remainder of the time, you rest.'
Getting ahead in life was about appeasing local rulers. The worker, one more time:
'No one makes a move until we see where the power lies. As soon as it is clear, we all quickly take that side. We're completely dependent on them. Food, clothes, apartments, furniture, day care, summer camp, vacations -- everything is allocated by them according to their lists, with which they rule over our lives. Everyone has something to lose. It might seem you have nothing, but they take something away, and you have even less.'
You would need major connections to advance your career. Kotkin:
'A handful of Magnitogorsk youth were fortunate enough to gain acceptance to university in Sverdlovsk, the 'capital' of the Urals, or even to Moscow University. Yet even this select group often found itself back in Magnitogorsk upon graduation, unable (in some cases unwilling) to secure the necessary official permission to remain in the larger city.'
Shortages were a way of life. Kotkin:
'For every 100 Magnitogorsk families, there were 96 radio receivers, 99 TV sets, 39 tape recorders, 34 photo cameras, 92 refrigerators, 70 washing machines and five cars.'
Sugar, meat, butter and sausages had to be rationed -- they could only be purchased using coupons distributed at residences in accord with the number of people in the household. Kotkin:
'At a shop selling toothpaste that a reporter from the Magnitogorsk city newspaper visited in the fall of 1987, there was a gigantic queue. A salesclerk was approached and queried. 'They've been buying 10 tubes apiece,' she gasped.'
Fewer than 50 per cent of Magnitogorsk residents enjoyed their own self-contained apartments without living with the rest of their relatives. You had to qualify for new housing by having less than 9 square meters per person. And you couldn't move. Kotkin:
'The largest and most desirable cities, such as Moscow, were officially 'closed.'...And even when a city was 'open,' without having some kind of housing there (meaning relatives), one was not legally allowed to obtain employment.'
If you were making average pay, it could cost up to seven years to purchase one. Kotkin:
'There were approximately 30,000 cars for the city's 438,000 residents (135,000 households). Only 22,000 were privately owned... the wait to purchase a car was more than 10 years.'
Prices for a given good were the same everywhere. Kotkin:
'There was only 'children's' shoes, 'women's' boots or 'men's' coats...Discounts or markdowns were not permitted, even if goods were not selling. There were no seasonal sales.'
Your entire existence and status revolved around where you worked. Kotkin:
'An individual established himself or herself in the community not by purchasing a home in a particular neighbourhood but by landing a job in a favoured shop. 'The shop or work unit is an entire social milieu,' one official explained. 'It's not a job, but a life.' In short, the steel plant was not relaly a 'business'; rather, it was an industrial welfare agency.'
Kotkin speaks with one elementary teachers who describes daily conversation in the USSR:
'At home we get together with friends, sit around the talbe. All we do is talk about our problems, and insufficienceis, endlessly, until someone bangs the table and shouts, 'Enough. No more about that.' But what else can we discuss?'