Is life better under communism? On the economic crisis in post-Soviet states

Never waste a good economic crisis.

The problem is that the Right has been making hay in the latest one, especially in Eastern Europe. Faced with the vestiges of public assets – public transport, medecine, education and so on – the Right has aggressively offered the spurious claim that these are the source of ‘sovereign debt’ and has been jumping in to turn these dreadfully unprofitable ventures into sources of profit. And what better way than to force the sale of those public assets to your cronies in organised crime the business world. But it turns out to be the latest phase in a consistent assault of over two decades.

As Rossen Vassilev points out in ‘The Tragic Failure of “Post-Communism” in Eastern Europe‘ (10 March 2011):

In Romania:

Romania is mired in a severe recession and its battered economy is expected to decline by at least 2% in 2010, after contracting by 7.1% the previous year. Instead of trying to assist the unemployed and the socially weak, the Bucharest government, which is reportedly riddled with corruption, cronyism and nepotism, has slashed public-sector pay by one-quarter and trimmed all social expenditures, including heating subsidies for the poor as well as unemployment, maternity, and disability benefits. At the same time, the national sales tax was hiked from 19% to 24%, as the authorities are striving to hold the national deficit down to 6.8% in order to meet the stringent fiscal requirements of the European Union (EU), which Rumania had joined in January 2007.

In the Czech Republic:

20,000 hospital doctors were quitting their jobs en masse to protest the decision of Prime Minister Petr Necas’s cabinet to cut all public expenditures, including healthcare spending, by at least 10% in order to keep the country’s troubled finances afloat. These mass resignations were part of the “Thanks, We Are Leaving” campaign launched by disgruntled physicians across the country aimed at putting pressure on the Prague authorities to increase their low wages and provide better working conditions for all medical workers. Confronted with the worst healthcare crisis in the ex-Communist country’s history which was endangering the lives of many patients, the Czech government threatened to impose a state of emergency which would force doctors either to get back to work or face harsh legal and financial penalties.

In Latvia:

Latvia’s conservative government borrowed heavily from the EU and IMF on punishing repayment terms that have imposed such harsh austerity policies that the Latvian economy shrank by 25% (neighboring Estonia and Lithuania have experienced an equally steep economic decline) and unemployment, currently running at 22%, is still rising. With well over a tenth of its population now working abroad, Latvia’s guest-workers send home whatever they can spare to help their destitute families survive. Latvian children (what few of them there are as the Baltic country’s marriage and birth rates are plunging) have been thus “left orphaned behind,” prompting social scientists to wonder how this small nation of 2.3 million people can survive demographically. These are the results of post-Communist austerity budgets that have cut ordinary people off at the knees while international creditors and local bankers are bailed out.

In Bulgaria:

Official statistics show that both the annual gross national product (GNP) and the per capita income of the population have plummeted, the social-safety net has disintegrated, and even the physical survival of many impoverished Bulgarians is in peril. The immediate effects of market-oriented “reforms” have been the destruction of Bulgaria’s industry and agriculture, unemployment, inflation, flagrant inequality of incomes, crushing poverty, and even malnutrition. Organized crime and endemic corruption in the form of nepotism and cronyism, graft on the job, embezzlement, bribe-taking, influence-peddling, smuggling, protection rackets, illegal gambling, prostitution and pornography rings have exacted a heavy toll on post-Communist living standards and livelihoods. Another unfortunate effect is the widespread neglect of the economic and social rights of ordinary Bulgarians, for many of whom the 8-hour work day is now only a memory.

Right across ex-Soviet countries the story is the same:

Sharp government cutbacks in social welfare, education, healthcare, public transportation, and other basic social-infrastructure spending threaten to undermine economic security, long-term development, and political stability across the ex-Soviet bloc countries, young people are emigrating in droves to better their lives rather than suffer in an economy without any employment opportunities. The citizens of the ex-Communist nations now have to pay out of their own pockets for all previously free, government-provided medical services even though they also have to pay income, real-estate, and sales taxes—something they did not have to do under the Communist regimes. There is also the monetization and/or privatization of the previously free educational services, especially in higher education and the new private schools, colleges, and universities where students have to pay for their training, including many fees that each student must pay for taking entrance exams and other mandatory tests required at every level of schooling. Government subsidies for everything from healthcare, education, and legal representation to housing, energy, and public transportation are disappearing in the scramble to slash social spending and trim budget deficits, making it even harder for ordinary people to survive in their daily struggle for existence.

Who has gained from all this?

A new breed of rapacious and ruthless plutocrats with insatiable appetites for wealth and power has pillaged—through an unjust and corrupt process of privatization—the assets of the formerly state-owned economy.

In other words, capitalism as usual.

The upshot:

Nearly all of these twenty-eight Eurasian countries have experienced a long-term economic decline of catastrophic proportions (only Poland has thus far surpassed its Communist-era GDP). Grave economic setbacks, deep-rooted corruption, and widespread popular frustration with the hardships and deprivations of the seemingly endless post-Communist transition are undermining the prestige of the new authorities and even the population’s belief in Western-style democracy and market-based capitalism.

So is communism really better than this? As a 68-year old retired Romanian mechanic said:

I regret the demise of Communism—not for me, but when I see how much my children and grandchildren struggle. We had safe jobs and decent salaries under Communism. We had enough to eat and we had yearly vacations with our children.

In another time and in the same place, Lenin and the communists turned an economic crisis in a very different direction.

(ht tp)

What was Lenin’s favourite outdoor activity?

What were Lenin’s favourite outdoor activities? Addressing crowds of workers and peasants? Chasing down whiteguard counter-revolutionaries? Not even close. What about ice-skating (at which he was very proficient), hunting (at which he was completely hopeless), or swimming? Getting closer. But the answer would have to be either long-distance hiking … or cycling.

He and Nadya (Nadezhda Krupskaya) would go for long, long walks in the Swiss mountains, on the Siberian steppes, in the countryside around Krakow, Paris, Munich or Copenhagen. But they would also cycle:

In letters to his mother, sisters and brothers, written by either Lenin or Krupskaya, we find constant references to cycling (all references from Collected Works, volume 37). It soon became a primary mode of transport for everyday life, relaxation and holidays. In exile from Russia, Lenin first notices bicycles in Munich: ‘The traffic in the streets here’, he writes to his mother 1901, ‘is far less than in an equally large Russian city; this is because the electric trams and bicycles are completely ousting cabs’ (p. 332). However, it would take another few years before he and Nadya actually got on some bicycles, first on holiday in Stjernsund, Sweden, where they were soon ‘leading a holiday life – bathing in the sea, cycling’ (p. 369), and then more regularly in Geneva, which seems to have been very congenial for a novice cyclist. In addition to his notorious cold bath or shower at 6 am, Lenin now refers regularly to cycling in his letters (p. 387).

By 1908 they were planning a move to Paris, and by now the bicycles were important enough to contemplate taking with them: ‘We are going to find out what to do with the bicycles. It is a pity to leave them behind; they are excellent things for holidays and pleasure trips’ (p. 397). But Paris was not Geneva, especially in terms of traffic. Soon after arriving, Lenin writes to his sister:

Dear Manyasha,

I have received your postcard – merci for the news. As far as the bicycle is concerned I thought I should soon receive the money, but matters have dragged on. I have a suit pending and hope to win it. I was riding from Juvisy when a motorcar ran into me and smashed my bicycle (I managed to jump off). People helped me take the number and acted as witnesses. I have found out who the owner of the car is (a viscount, the devil take him!) and now I have taken him to court (through a lawyer). I should not be riding now, anyway, it is too cold (although it’s a good winter, wonderful for walks)’ (p. 447).

By the end of the month (January 1910) the case had gone in his favour and he was back on the bike: ‘The weather is fine and I intend to start cycling again since I have won the case and should get my money from the owner soon’ (p. 452-3; see also p. 450). All the same, he continued to curse Parisian traffic: ‘I have often thought of the danger of accidents when I have been riding my bicycle through the centre of Paris, where the traffic is simply hellish’ (p. 452).

Yet now Lenin was hooked, a committed cyclist who would get out whenever he could – as did Nadya. Not being city people, they preferred places on the edge of town and close by the country. Later that year, he writes to his sister Anna: ‘I have been cycling for some time and I often go for rides in the country around Paris, especially as we live quite near the fortifications, i.e., near the city boundary’ (p. 458). They would send postcards from cycling tours, such as this one from June, 2010:

Mother dearest,

Greetings to you, Anyuta and Mitya from our Sunday excursion. Nadya and I are cycling. Meudon Forest is a good place and close by, 45 minutes from Paris. I have received and answered Anyuta’s letter. A big hug from myself and Nadya.

V. U. (p. 460).

In fact, like any good cyclist Lenin grew impatient for spring, when he could get out his bike and start riding again. As he writes to his mother: ‘It seems that we are having an early spring here this year. Some days ago I again went cycling in the woods – the fruit trees in the orchards are all covered in white, “as though bathed in milk”, and such a wonderful perfume – a really delightful spring! It is a pity I cycled alone; Nadya has caught cold, has lost her voice and has to stay at home’ (p. 475). On such rides he would encounter storms, weariness, exhilaration … and flat tires, that universal moment of the cyclist. Nadya narrates from Krakow in March 1914: ‘Volodya went for quite a long ride on his bicycle but had a burst tyre’ (p. 515). And he could sometimes overdo it, as Nadya puts it in a letter to his mother: ‘It is very beautiful here [in Poronin, Poland]. Fortunately you cannot do a lot of cycling, because Volodya used to abuse that amusement and overtire himself’ (p. 498).

In other words, the leader of the most successful communist revolution was a committed cyclist, pedalling as often and as far as he was able. An image of a typical day for Lenin is provided in this description by Nadya from their time at the socialist commune in Longjumeau, France, in 1911:

Volodya is making good use of the summer. He does his work out in the open, rides his bicycle a lot, goes bathing and is altogether pleased with country life. This week we have been cycling our heads off. We made three excursions of 70 to 75 kilometres each, and have explored three forests – it was fine. Volodya is extremely fond of excursions that begin at six or seven in the morning and last until late at night (p. 610).

How to respond to your salary increase

To: Vladimir Dmitriyevich Bonch-Bruyevich,
Office Manager, Council of People’s Commissars

In view of your failure to fulfil my insistent request to point out to me the justification for raising my salary as from March 1, 1918, from 500 to 800 rubles a month, and in view of the obvious illegality of this increase, carried out by you arbitrarily by agreement with the secretary of the Council, Nikolai Petrovich Gorbunov, and in direct infringement of the decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of November 23, 1917, I give you a severe reprimand!

Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 35, p. 333