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
2 thoughts on “On the Merits of Authoritarianism”
Very much enjoyed this set, I spent minutes looking at each one. I remember seeing photos of the rooms with all the masks on the floor many years ago, one of the first images that piqued my interest in this entire genre.
You nailed it with your words TR. While you alluded to it and didn’t say it, I will: I think our capitalist freedoms have turned us into a rapacious lot. Perhaps in an exaggerative sense, a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah.
Why do you think crime was lower back then in Poland? I have never lived under communism, but I now appreciate some of its resulting effects on the traits of the population. Specifically to your point above about the importance placed on working together, honor, respect. I think every system has its faults, but the positive side of the communist coin is probably undersold in our democratic country’s history classes.
I won’t go quite as far as you will, though I sympathize with the Sodom and Gomorrah argument. In general, I’m kind of in the middle: I think a system that blends elements of capitalism and socialism is best. Also, the face of each is heavily influenced the host country. We have, as a nation, a strong libertarian streak as well as distrust of government. This leads to the kind of excess you’re referring to. Similarly, I think communism was permanently colored by its emergence in Russia, which lagged behind the rest of Europe in economic development and civil liberties.
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