Wednesday, October 21, 2009

a real life story from a person who spent half of his life in a socialist paradise

Forward to the Past
October 20, 2008

I was born in the Soviet Union, in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, majestic St Petersburg. I knew it was majestic because all the history and guide books were telling the same thing – that St Petersburg is a jewel of the world, it is beautiful beyond imagination and has no comparison anywhere.

My grandfather was telling me about the city as well. How beautiful it was when he came into it in after graduation from the law school in 1916 to practice law. I believed him more than all the history books combined.

In fact, St Petersburg of my youth was a gray, quite boring and enormously dirty city. Al it’s palaces, sculptures and other wonders were covered by a thick layers of dust and corrosion. We lived in a historical center of the city and my grandfather (in Russian you call your grandfather for short “Deda”) often took me around and told me about buildings with marble walls, sculptures on the roofs and grandiose stores that once dominated the area. I loved his narrative about the closest shopping district situated on a street called in my time “Pestelija”. The name was of an aristocrat revolutionary, who took part in the 1825 failed military coup attempt against Tsar. I do not believe the street had the same name under Tsar’s rule.

Deda would take me, a 6-year old boy, by hand and we would walk the street and he would tell: “Here was a great food store where dozens of different kinds of sausages were sold, some from Ukraine, others from Germany and Austria, birth place of the very best sausages in the world. And near them in a cheese department there were at least thirty different types of cheeses, not including cottage cheeses from around Russia, Estonia and Finland. The entrance” – he would reminisce: “… was majestic, at the door I recall there was a huge man in a uniform who would help older clients to climb two stairs up to the store and handed to passing by children small bits of baked goods. In the store were great chandeliers, a lot of light, it was clean, with great smell of bakery and hot chocolate, and there always was someone who would come to you and offer to help to find anything you need or carry goods to your home.” It sounded like a fairy tale, and what child doesn’t like fairy tales?

While Deda was talking to me we were standing in front of the entrance of a crummy and bad smelling food store. On its dirty and broken steps where usually a couple of drunks begging for small change to buy a drink. In the smelly dairy department there were no cheeses from Finland and in the meat department with even stronger smell were no sausages from Germany.

The store was never renovated or repaired since the communist revolution, and was known for its personnel cheating with weights while selling products and chronically under-giving the change. When you would say something about it, the employees of the store would gang up on you, start yelling and practically run you out of the store. To call the police was useless, since they used to give the policeman small presents and the peace officers were always on their side.

Another great Deda’s story was about a famous (during his youth) barbershop with the “best in the whole city” men’s hair stylists. At his time the place had a small private bar (free to the clients), newspapers from around the world can be found there, cigars and a host who would entertain clients while they were waiting in deep leather armchairs smoking cigars, reading newspapers and talking about news and politics.

I knew the place pretty well - I used to go there to get haircuts, but my recollection of the place was somehow different. The barbershop in my time had a smell of a gym; there were four half-broken chairs where you would get a haircut, but no cigars, no leather, no host, no free newspapers and above all no talk about politics. God (& Stalin) forbid! The place was cheap, fast, bad haircuts, no complains, no pleasure. We were told during my childhood that haircuts are not for pleasure; it is a necessity like water. And real Socialists shouldn’t think about such things as personal beauty. Real socialists for example love each other not because of the looks, but because of their mutual interests in social issues, their love to the country & willingness to sacrifice everything to the Greater Good of the fatherland. As a matter of fact, we didn’t have hot water during my childhood for about 3-4 months every year. Every time it happened the government called it “prophylactic works”. Probably hot water wasn’t a necessity, but a luxury and as such the citizens of the greatest Socialistic country in the world didn’t need it all the time.

My Deda died when I was seven. He had a heart attack when he was taken (for the third time) to the KGB headquarters. He was told that he would be proclaimed an “Enemy of the State” and as such will be shot, unless he signs a paper that two of his attorney colleagues approached him and asked to kill a whole bunch of leaders of the communist party of the Soviet Union. Deda didn’t sign the paper – he died instead. The KGB people called my mom and said that her dad (my grandfather) is lying there in the corridor and if she wants she can come inside and pick him up. She did.

Many years past since that time. In 1973 the United States senate voted to attach a little provision to the bill regarding sales of wheat to the Soviet Union. The Jackson-Vanik provision required the USSR to allow free immigration. The Soviets made a deal with the US and allowed about fifty thousand citizens to leave. My family was one of the lucky ones. We remembered words my dear Deda said – if the in the fence surrounding the USSR will open even with a smallest crack, run your heads off. We did. Just before I left, I visited the Pestelija Street. Nothing changed from the days of my childhood. Same dirt, same nauseating smell, same drunks (or may be they were the children of those drunks I knew during my childhood).

Then came Ronald Reagan, destruction of the Berlin wall, end of the Soviet Union. I visited place of my birth and was on Pestelja in 1989, then in 1995. Same dirt, a bit less smell, and a bit more products on the shelves. I was told that the stores, apartments and buildings are being now privatized. People who lived there were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to buy anything on the street. “Those new Russian, those capitalists thinking about themselves and themselves only. We will die without food and goods, they wouldn’t care”, that what I was told by my ex-neighbors. All my words that capitalism is good in producing wealth for everyone were taken with healthy skepticism.

In 2003 I visited the street again. Where are you, my beloved Deda! May be I was dreaming? The walls of almost all the buildings on the street were decorated with marble. The whole block of my childhood was filled with stores, some of which were selling food, some designer clothes, some antiques or electronic gadgets and video games. On the second floors of the buildings were law offices and physical therapy cabinets, offices of travel companies and evening classes for adults. The street was clean, smelled with perfume and filled with families shopping their heads off. On many stores I saw a sign “7x24”. The shopping district worked 7 days a week, 24 hours a day!

At the entrance of the main food store, in front of two perfectly repaired steps was standing a huge Black man in a uniform (where did they found an African in Russia?), smiling to passers buy, helping older people to get in, and handing pieces of baked goods to children. WOW! On top of the building was written in golden letters “Proudly owned by Rybakoff family for 150 years”. And quite suddenly I remembered – I was in the same class with Anatoly Rybakoff who once, we think as a joke, said that his grandfather owned this store. He got it back and now brought it to its past glory. Something that when it was owned by the state no managers and employees were able (or wanted) to do.

I rushed to see the barbershop. Six deep leather armchairs were standing in a beautifully designed waiting room. I didn’t notice cigars, but drinks, newspapers and talk about politics was on and heated as ever. Why is everything that state touches (even when attempting to do good to people) is getting sour, and when a person attempts to make his leaving, when his motivation is a pure greed, it is turning for the good of all?

That got me thinking. For seventy years Russia’s socialist government was saying that it was trying to achieve this Greater Good for all the people. The books and TV programs, lecturers at work and teachers at schools were educating citizens of Russia to help each other, to share, to think about their neighbors and participate in the variety of Common Good programs. They took all the surplus produced by the state and gave it back to the people. They nationalized all the factories, universities, banks, communications and natural resources and distributed profits between the people. And the results were devastating. Actually in all the countries that attempted this experiment of taking property and wealth-producing enterprises from private hands in order to re-distribute among the whole population, was a huge economic and social failure.

When capitalism came back, in less then a decade the world the Soviets lived in for seventy years was magically changed, and all of the society (not only newly rich) benefited from it.

Do not misunderstand what I am saying - I am not happy with what is going on in the new Russia. Many things still didn’t change from the Soviet era. But when I see that one way of doing things produces great results, and another doesn’t, I vote for the way that brings results. And what about you? Which direction you will choose for the United States in November 2008?

When I am asked to change our system of life in order to… change our system of life, I am puzzled. When I am told, “Because this system works badly”, I am looking around. Is there a system that works better?

The system we are offered now by Barack Obama called socialism. It is not new, actually it is quite old and quite proven time after time to be bad to us the people. So I am hoping for the best while repeating an old Chinese proverb “God forbid to be born at the time of major changes!”

How did ancient Chinese know about Obama?

Leon A. Weinstein

Leon Weinstein is an author of "Looking for Hugh: The Capitalist Guidebook." He is available for interviews, comments or speaking arrangements.
Please contact him at (818) 716 7064 or at his email address above.
Please feel free to post/print/publish this story.

Comment: Excellent writing; a good story. I do not necessarily think that the US is on a path to Russian-style totalitarian Socialism. I feel we are on a path however to European-style nanny-state socialism which in my view is a path leading in the wrong direction.

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  1. You have good memories of your Deda (lolo in our country). Truly I enjoy reading it. It's nice to remember looking back where you once belong and sad that we once feel bitter where we came.

  2. Good post. I hope the US notices the little foxes before they eat all the grapes.

  3. What a great story. Too bad nobody on the left cares to listen to relocated Europeans who have been saying for months that our system is better than theirs.

  4. Russia gets a lot of oil money, that enables them to fund those little stores he talked about. Do not go hating on socialism because one Russian immigrant has notices that new stores and products came to Russia. Western Europe.. that hub of nanny capitalism.. has been living like that for decades. Has anyone been to Paris, Amsterdam, or a number of other 'socialist' countries?

  5. Other than making the classic error of writing as if communism and socialism are the same thing, an interesting post.