A special corruption

A. M. Rosenthal

November 27, 1991|By A. M. Rosenthal

SOMETIMES, when I read the stories from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union about how the corruptions of capitalism have set in after the fall of communism, my mind is seized with memories and with wonderment.

The stories are all true, I know, and should be told. And there will be many more of them that will have to be reported.

But the stories present me with memories of the couple of years I spent living under a kind of corruption that I had not known existed.

It was corruption not as a sometime thing but as the sum of society. It touched every day, almost every hour of life -- what each person ate, where he or she went to school, worked, resided. It touched the privacy of your sex life, who your friends could be, what you could say to them, and often enough, how you died.

I came to understand the real meaning of ceaseless, enveloping corruption only when I was stationed as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times in Warsaw.

In all those decades of communism in Eastern Europe and the overshadowing Soviet Union, never did any communist government even fight corruption. I came to understand that the very thought was foolish, because the communist governments ruled through, by and for corruption.

Corruption was not a byproduct of communism. It was a system created by the communist governments to set and control the boundaries and limits of each citizen's social and personal existence.

The government ruled and commanded through the components and techniques of corruption. It switched funds from workers' salaries and "union" funds to the Communist Party. It demanded allegiance to party bosses and party commands as the payoff for the privilege of working or buying food from workplace shops, or keeping an apartment.

Like any other gang leaders, the communist chieftains had enforcers -- the well-booted and well-armed street militia and the judges, cops and jails of the secret police.

Control of the mind -- which means its corruption -- was an essential task of government. As the sole national editor, publisher and censor, the government determined what citizens could read, hear or say without being imprisoned or deprived of work, which is the right to survive.

Capitalism can bring acts of great corruption. Westerners nod wisely at that discovery when business corruption is found in Eastern Europe.

But we don't seem to talk much about the difference between nasty but separate acts of capitalist corruption outside the law and the life-enveloping, total, enforced corruption of communism. That is the wonderment to me -- we act as if yesterday never existed or had no effect on today.

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