Soviet dawn heralded only fear, poverty


December 29, 1991|By Scott Shane

In 1931, a venturesome 20-year-old American named John Scott graduated from the University of Wisconsin, pondered his possibilities -- and headed for the Soviet Union.

It was not an irrational choice. The United States was in the grip of a deep depression that seemed to betray a fundamental flaw in capitalism. Millions were out of work, and plants were closing every day.

Scott was intrigued by what he heard of the Bolshevik experiment. In once-backward Russia, plants were opening, not closing. The proletariat, led by the great Josef V. Stalin, was powering a breakneck industrialization unprecedented in history. There was talk of a "new Soviet man," Homo sovieticus, motivated by communist ideals and not base self-interest.

Soviet factories were owned by the workers -- and not subject to the whims of absentee, coupon-clipping capitalists. In the Soviet Union, there was no unemployment. The economy was not rocked by mysterious and terrifying cycles of boom and bust. It was ruled by the Plan, a scientific blueprint that would tell managers how much to produce and what to sell it for.

Scott "came to the conclusion that the Bolsheviks had found answers to at least some of the questions Americans were asking each other," as he wrote later in his book "Behind the Urals." "I decided to go to Russia to work, study and to lend a hand in the construction of a society which seemed to be at least one step ahead of the American." He embarked for the Ural Mountains to join thousands of workers building the world's biggest steel plant at Magnitogorsk.

The Soviet Union, after a lingering illness at the age of 74, has now slipped into history. The utopian promise that caught John Scott's imagination had long ago been shattered by terror and poverty, though its grandiose rhetoric lived on.

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics died in such penury, political chaos and universal disgrace that it was hard to remember the more vigorous days of its youth and middle age. The Soviet Union had, to a considerable degree, shaped the century's American politics, from the allied intervention in the Russian civil war, to the anti-Hitler coalition, to the Red scares and basement bomb shelters of the Cold War. U.S. soldiers called their war-game adversary "Ivan." U.S. athletes fell every four years to stronger Soviet teams in such a potent symbol of peaceful international competition as the Olympics.

At the end, it was hard to remember that for most of the Soviet Union's seven decades, it was far from a foregone conclusion that Soviet communism would perish while American capitalism survived, and not the other way around.

Take 1943, when Wendell Willkie, the businessman and Republican presidential candidate, made a wartime tour of the Soviet Union, which was bearing the brunt of defeating Hitler and paying for it with 27 million lives. "There is hardly a resident of Russia today whose lot is not as good as or better than his parents' lot was prior to the revolution," Willkie wrote. "Russia is a dynamic country, a vital new society, a force that cannot be bypassed in any future world."

Stalin made a particularly positive impression. "Mr. Willkie, you know I grew up a Georgian peasant," the generalissimo told him. "I am unschooled in pretty talk. All I can say is I like you very much."

Ruthless superpower

Take 1957, long after the cheery vision of Willkie's book, "One World," had been --ed by the Cold War. One October day, the Soviet Union shook the United States from complacency by launching the world's first satellite.

Sputnik I seemed proof that, far from being the inefficient, second-rate power of U.S. propaganda, the U.S.S.R. was a disciplined society able to compete and win on the cutting edge of technology.

Take the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1967. In "The Soviet Achievement," the British historian J. P. Nettl concluded that the achievement was impressive indeed. He saw bright prospects: "The Soviet consumer will undoubtedly continue to be substantially better off. His rate of betterment will appear . . . extremely favorable in comparison to Western countries, for the industrial basis of a high expansion rate of consumer goods exists."

Or take, even, December of 1979, when Westerners' Christmas was interrupted by the news that Soviet troops had invaded Afghanistan. U.S. officials argued over how vehemently to respond, but no one doubted that the Soviet Union was a superpower that would ruthlessly pursue its geopolitical interests.

There was objective basis for both respect and fear. Where central control and planned application of resources worked, the Soviet Union worked, as anyone who ever rode Moscow's fast, clean, reliable, even elegant subway can attest. The Bolsheviks made a peasant empire literate, extended the benefits of basic public health to the cities, built a mammoth transportation and energy system and hammered heavy industry into the No. 1 spot in world production of concrete and steel.

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