Westerners are puzzled by the recurrent nostalgia for communism that is found throughout the former Eastern Bloc. Apart from the fact that every generation looks back on the years of its youth with rose tinted glasses, there is a longing for the trappings of the old, failed economic system that can be hard to understand from behind the old ideological ramparts of the cold war.
Communism, to the people that lived under it (and I count myself as one, having lived in Poland for a few years as a child), was a dreary gray yoke. There were shortages of everything. The government seemed in turns incompetent, malevolent, or corrupt. Bureaucracy and red tape approached the Kafkaesque. On the other hand, crime was low, almost non-existent. Culture was taken seriously, as a matter of national importance; even small rural villages would get visited by first-class touring music or theater ensembles. Though the Party’s reach was often stifling, its presence everywhere ensured that people throughout the country felt, for better or worse, part of something. On a very basic level, communism is about togetherness, cooperation, and economic altruism. These were noble goals which allowed any citizen to see themselves as integral to the State, and added a shade of meaning to the lives of even the most wretched of drones.
What is breathtaking to me is how this combination of authoritarianism and esprit de corps manifested itself in the aftermath to the Chernobyl disaster. Hundreds of thousands of people worked in conditions that they knew were dangerous, even lethal. Many died, others suffer to this day. The miners that were brought in to dig an emergency tunnel under the meltdown toiled in highly radioactive conditions in temperatures well over 100°F; they knew how dangerous it was, but what could they do? In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, things needed to get done.
I don’t have any soft spot for the communism that fell in Eastern Europe. But the response to Chernobyl that the USSR was able to muster, in all its inefficient, fin-de-siecle glory, is terrifying and awesome. And I wonder how the United States would have responded had the disaster occurred here.
Now, further photographic documentation of the efficiency and alacrity of the Soviet evacuation of Pripyat
Floors which roil like seas
Of mayhem and moss