Soviet collapse
The Australian
February 8, 1992

Defending the bad against the worse has been a losing battle because the bad has so often turned out to be rotten.

When C. Day Lewis, later poet laureate, drew that distinction in the 1930s, his bad was Stalin and the worse was Hitler. Today, Sovietism is seen as the worse, and market reforms and ethnic violence are merely the bad.

Disputes such as the civil wars in Georgia and Yugoslavia, or the battles between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, seem likely to grow in number and nastiness. Worse still, because most ethnic minorities are linked to the majority roup in a neighbouring nation, each domestic conflict could expand into a war between sovereign States.

Should the one-time communist empire become a delta of killing fields, the temptation to regret the passing of the safe old days of dictatorship will grow.

Conservatives will become alarmed by the breakdown of order and pine for the social discipline that prevailed before glasnost.

Leftists are already taking the surges of anti-Semitism in the former East Germany as proof that a strong hand was needed to control the unreconstructed Nazis.

That the racial violence is worst in the erstwhile communist areas of Germany hardly justifies the achievement of the thought police. Those recent outbreaks prove the failure of repression at reducing prejudice. Why should a further forty years of Stasi files, censorship and propaganda enlighten anyone’s racial attitudes?

Immediately after the anti-fascist war, the western areas of Germany were less thoroughly de-Nazified than the East. Eventually, the Bonn government allowed its people to develop a sharp sense of individual and collective responsibility fro their past. The self-congratulatory anti-fascists in Berlin meanwhile applied the authoritarian mentality inherited from Imperial Germany. Their pre-war, anti-fascist heroism became a licence to stamp out Nazism from the top rather than to stimulate a political debate about what had gone wrong in the 1920s, including failings of the Communists.

Although vicious racists from the western zones have been inflaming economic resentments among the Easterners, the racial problems cannot be separated from the anti-democratic way the communists ran the DDR.

The more Manichean became the party’s interpretation of the years 1933 to 1945, the more easily could alienated young Easterners imagine that Hitler’s reputation was just another victim of their oppressors’ mendacity. If the regime lied about the pollution that was up everybody’s nose, why should its claims about the Nazi’s stench be believed?

Parallel complexities persist throughout the old Soviet bloc. For nearly 70 years, the Soviet Union kept a tight lid on racism, or incorporated its hatreds into government policy through militarised borders or murderous population transfers. Much of what passed for working-class internationalism after 1930 was little more than great Russian chauvinism, which can recrudesce under populist bullies such as Boris Yeltsin.

The recent troubles are not caused by nationalism so much as by its repression, through the erasure of minority languages or art forms, with religion as a complicating factor. Removing the Red czars will not end the racial problems that 70 years of internationalist rhetoric could not defeat.

If bread-and-salt circumstances in the Commonwealth of Independent States were not so desperate, the impetus to hit out at minorities would be less likely to erupt into violence. The Soviet economic model was not just planning, but centralised on Moscow, which intensified Russians dominance over the other nationalities.

The worries about ethnic conflicts and economic crises carry us back to pondering which is now the bad and which the worst? Would life have been better for most people if the old control and command system had stayed in place?

Our propensity to answer “yes” or “no” will vary with the numbers being killed or left to starve. A few hundred corpses might be accepted by the Wall Street Journal as the market price of opening the borders to US-style liberties. A few hundred thousand dead, or a couple of million refugees, will tilt the balance of popular sympathies back in favour of the KGB that would have kept the warring groups apart, and the food queues in line, which the United National will never manage.

If, in the face of new terrors, such preferences start to appear humane, they will nonetheless be illogical. No matter how terrible the situation becomes, the economic disasters already honing ethnic hatreds would never have gone away under the iron rule of the Russian chauvinists.

The longer that ancien regime dominated, the less productive the Soviet economy would have become. Resentments would have multiplied, straining to burst out with even greater fury than they are doing.

Dreadful as the present appears and bloody as the future seems capable of becoming, the choice for people in the Soviet bloc during the 1980s was never between the perpetual immobility of a police State, and the present level of unrest and deprivation.

The dilemma they never faced was painful change now or far great suffering in the future. Neither Adam Smith nor Karl Marx can tell us how to skip from the bad to the best. The miseries stalking the CIS may unveil a new “worse”.