Everyone (well nearly everyone) would agree that Stalin’s regime represented the greatest disaster of the communist movement and indeed – both on account of what it meant for its victims and its long-term repercussions – ranks among the great disasters of recorded history. Over subsequent decades its record supplied much of the fuel for the relentless ideological offensive conducted from 1945 up to the collapse of the Soviet Union – and beyond – by the West in general and the USA in particular.
What is remarkable is the speed at which matters changed for the better following Stalin’s death, although the USSR remained an intensely authoritarian society with a basically unviable economic system and continued to exercise by force a hegemony over eastern Europe which bitterly affronted national feelings. Still, it ensured to its citizens the necessities of life together with a range of basic amenities, often of a relatively high standard.
How then did the USSR’S record from the mid-fifties onwards compare with its great rival? In terms of average well-being there seems on the face of things – despite large sinks of poverty and racism continuing to exist in the fortunate West, not least in the fabulously wealthy United States itself – to be a situation of ‘no contest’.
On closer inspection though the verdict appears less evident, for while there is no doubting the unprecedented high average living standards enjoyed in the Western metropoles, the indescribable deprivation and near-starvation prevailing throughout the Third World were no accident but a product of Third World relations with the industrialised West, particularly for the societies held in colonial bondage.
The episodes of Soviet malpractice that stand out in the post-Stalinist decades were the invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Berlin Wall in 1961 and sponsorship of the 1981 military takeover in Poland, of which communists never ceased to be reminded. Far worse crimes were committed by Mao’s regime during the Great Leap Forward of the late fifties (the Soviets advised against that initiative) and during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the late sixties (by which time the two communist powers were enemies) – but none of that prevented Nixon’s administration from embracing Mao (literally and figuratively) immediately afterwards, nor from a later President, rather than congratulating Soviet-supported Vietnamese for overthrowing the genocidal Khmer Rouge providing instead all possible diplomatic and material support to the guerrilla remnants these pseudo-communist genocides once the latter could be employed as a tool against the unforgiven Vietnamese, meantime ensuring the continuance of various murderous regimes throughout Latin America, especially in Chile Argentina and Brazil, not to mention the discreet underpinning (in spite of platonic verbal condemnations) of South African apartheid.
Back to the fifties. Even as labour camps were being shut down in the Soviet Union worse ones were being constructed in Algeria and Kenya by the US vassals France and Britain. In these, starvation, torture, mutilation and arbitrary murder were all routine. A CIA sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954 unleashed a right-wing terror that killed innumerable thousands over several decades. The point has been made that Stalin’s blood-lettings in the East European satellites after 1945, were on nothing like the scale, nor nearly so indiscriminate as those practised by ‘our bastards’ (Roosevelt’s term) in Central and South America.
The US atrocities in Vietnam are well remembered (not least because the USA lost). Less so is what was certainly the worst one of them all when in late 1965, under CIA supervision the Indonesian military within a few weeks slaughtered at least half a million suspected leftists – that was the minimum figure; the maximum estimate is two million – and confined the few survivors for decades in horrible gulags.
The grisly record goes on – US administrations seem to have had a particular taste for the most murderous, sadistic and corrupt tyrants they could elevate – Suharto in Indonesia, the Saudi royals, the Shah of Iran, Saddam in Iraq, Mobutu in the Congo, the rebel Savimbi in Angola, Somoza in Nicaragua, Pinochet in Chile and his Argentine equivalents, Zia in Pakistan and his creation, the Taliban in Afghanistan – the list goes on endlessly. Beside that record Hungary and Czechoslovakia look almost like petty misdemeanors, and only one Soviet ally post-1956, Mengistu in Ethiopia, came near to rivaling the USA’s array of bloodthirsty kleptocrats.
Overall, it is possible to conclude that after 1953 and certainly after 1956 the Soviet bloc for all its crimes and shortcomings, its lack of democratic institutions and its notably inferior material wealth, had on a global scale a record that was far more positive and humane than that of its Cold War antagonist. A case could even be made for the command economy despite or even because of its gross inefficiencies – for although the actual environmental record of the Soviet bloc was deplorable, in principle if that problem had been adequately addressed the inefficient centralised economy at least gobbled up irreplaceable natural resources less insanely.
Part 2 will look at the record since 1991.