Is Post Communism Better or Worse Than Communism?
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it is believed the Western muscles and ideology triumphed over the “unnatural” communist system which existed for 74 years. It was the end of the Cold War and better days with a better system were thought to be ahead. But with the extensive problems Russia faces during her transition, many question whether the new Russia, with its democratic capitalist structure, is a better alternative than the communist system before it.
The political system that characterised the Soviet Union, has its roots in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks were the small minority of educated people who firmly opposed the tyranny of Czar Nicholas II and the social and economic problems that marked his rule. The revolution led to the Czar’s ousting and eventual murder. Once the revolutionaries seized control of the country they drafted a constitution which stipulated only the Russian Communist Party (as they later called themselves) would govern Russia. The system that Vladimir Lenin, head of the party, implemented was so rigid that those who express conflicting opinions were sanctioned. In this new system the end and be all was with the party leader, underlining the fact that there was no separation of powers
When Lenin died in 1924, he was succeed by Joseph Stalin, who developed the system that would define communism. He became more oppressive that the Czar he had help to overthrow and under his regime persons who opposed him was murdered (Compton’s New Encyclopaedia, 4th ed., s.v. “Russian Revolution”; Munroe 1993). Essentially under communism the people had very limited political rights or personal freedoms.
Contrastingly, now Russians live in a democracy where they are constitutionally guaranteed their fundamental human and political rights. Having been denied these rights for so long, the people have become very rights conscious. This phenomenon is captured in a 1988 survey done by Gibson, Duch and Tedin which shows that the Russians value their right as just as much as if not more than their western counterparts.
Economically things have not fared as well. The Lenin lead communist party favoured some characteristics of market economy (Ibid), but Stalin’s ascension brought a far more monopolised one. He seized the vast majority of the country’s assets and placed extreme restrictions on private ownership and he created the “command economy” by setting prices and wages. The double effect of keep wages very low and while absorbing all of the profits from industries dramatically increased Russia’s Gross National and Domestic Product between the mid 1920s to 1950s (Olson 2000). Because the economic principles the system was based on were so unnatural it was doomed to fail and began showing signs of deterioration even in the early period of rapid growth (Aslund 1992). Stalin in an attempt to maximise profits kept all goods at a minimum and so the people’s existence became marred by shortages and rationing (Olson 2000). After his death in 1954 the economic boom began to plateau. Marie Lavigne (1995) explains that the Stalinist model was greatly dependent on the fear that Stalin himself generated and when he died the fear the people felt tapered somewhat resulting in the beginnings of the states economic downturn.
By the 1980s the “command economy” was clearly in trouble. Although the Soviet Union was a relatively isolated society it did trade with other countries, but during the recession of the decade, trading partners were dwindling in numbers. On a domestic level most people on their small wages could not even afford to pay for the inferior products. So with no one to consume the goods, production slowed, drastically reducing the country’s revenues. Furthermore, as the CIA estimates, the Soviets spent sixteen percent (16%) of their rapidly shrinking GNP on the arms race with the United States (Lavigne 1995). No doubt this was a large stain on the economy.
Mikhail Gorbahev’s implemented reforms to jolt the stagnating economy. The government began loosening its control on the market and opted for substantial private ownership, and it tried combining technological advances with the large scale industries. Neither was successful. Private ownership only widened the gap between the rich and the poor and industry was so fixed and streamlined that technological adaptation was extremely difficult (Aslund 1992). The command economy was on its last leg.
During the early years of transition the economic woes of the state intensified. In 1992 one year after communism demise and the creation a capitalist state, the cost of living rose to over 1300 percent. (Monroe 1993). Aslund (1992) argues that this inflation is misleading as the prices that previously existed were being kept artificially low. So while it may be impossible to state a true inflation figure it is understood that it would be lower that the official 1354%. Along with the transition came a great deal of privatisation. The Russian government no longer owned the industries and market from which to gain revenue and according to Olson (2000) the resulting fifty percent slash in the GNP made the great depression seem like child’s play. With regards to the GNP, Olson agrees with Aslund on the matter of statistical errors. He states that in a “command economy” the government exaggerates its production to appeal to a disheartened populace, while in a market economy people downplay theirs to avoid taxation. So the difference between the GNPs of the communist and post communist eras may not be as big a gap as it seems, at least in figures.
The despair continued when the private companies—which entered the new economy to boost it—began moving their capital elsewhere due to the unfriendly business atmosphere in Russia. The de-stabilised Post-Communist economy finally hit bottom when the stock market came to an absolute crash in 1998. The following year there was growth of only two percent but it was a welcomed improvement (Cohen 2000).
It is widely thought that the economic situation any given society will determine the social situation and vice verse. Russia is no different.
The Soviet Union’s social welfare was a triumph. The populace enjoyed the rights of free education, housing and health care. Security was assured, for violent crimes were kept low, social unrest was unheard and ethnicity and nationality—which could produce confrontation—were suppressed by the all-powerful police. People had job security, as unemployment remained low (because government subsidies kept people unnatural employed) and even if persons were unemployed they received unemployment benefits (Monroe, 1993). But this perfect social system began deteriorating even before communism’s fall. The people began loosing faith in the government when they saw the distance between themselves and their leaders widening. They ceased working for a system which they believed no longer represented their moral values and began working for themselves. In doing so they became more empowered. The Soviet Government tried very hard to restrict the people’s knowledge of life outside Russia, but between the few who travelled abroad and the tourists who visited Russia, the people were increasingly aware of a better existence than the one they experienced. Coupled with Gorbachev’s reform policy of Glasnost, they began voicing their discontents and demanding greater freedoms.
The previously mentioned economic situation of the government did allow them to provide the array of social services they once did, so by the mid 1990s Russians had received their freedoms under the new democracy but at the price of most of their social programs. For example unemployment was high, for the private sector has no policy of keeping the inefficient employed, and there were no benefits to be had. The people who were so accustomed to governmental dependency now had no one but themselves to depend on. They were in a completely unfamiliar situation and many failed at being independent. This resulted in sky rocketing homelessness and poverty (Lavigne 1995). The new economy also yielded a new kind of rampant corruption. Corruption had always been a social phenomenon of Soviet Union. It was so woven in to party monopoly and the command economy itself, that it indirectly contributed to the society as everyone, even the lowliest factory workers engaged in corrupt activities (Lavigne 1995). But now the only persons able to benefit from corruption are the government officials (Cohen 2000). Violent crimes—which often show itself through ethnic strife as is the case in Chechnya—prostitution and drug use, have ragged since the transition, as the police have no firm control over aspect of the society.
Current President Vladimir Putin’s restrictions on the press and the on going fighting in Chechnya, which has yielded many human rights violations, are clear infringements on the people’s rights as stipulated by the constitutions, and have lead some to question the democratic nature of the Republic (Europeans Worry 2001). Although there is no excuse for these actions it must be understood that the constitution is only ten years old. This means the political culture of the previous political system (characterised by human rights violations and restrictions) is still very much alive, as ten years in no time in which to develop a completely democratic culture. Some use these lapses in the democratic process to show that Russia is at heart a communist state, which can only function under the Stalinist model devoid of reform. But this is refuted as the worlds two leading communist states have adopted capitalist measures and meaningful reforms as they realise the Stalinist model is unsustainable and if reformation does not place then they will encounter a collapse similar to the Soviet Union.
Seemingly the Russian people traded in both their social and economic positives under communism for one political positive—which has encountered many threats—under democracy, leading some to believe that the transition from plan to market is a ‘out of the frying pan into the fire scenario.’ However, at this point, declaring the Russian market economy a complete failure and pronouncing communism as better than post-communism would be unfair. The “command economy” had 60 odd years to fail and the market economy is barely 10 years old. The “command economy” started with a big bang and diminish until it collapsed. Just maybe the Market economy is taking opposite route, starting and the bottom and working its way up.
Aslund, Anders, Post Communist Economies Revolution: How big a bang? Washington,
District of Columbia: Centre for Strategic and International Affairs, 1992.
Cohen, Ariel. “From Yeltsin to Putin: Milestones on An Unfinished Journey.” Policy
Review. April 2000. <http://www.policyreview.com/apr00/cohen_print.html> (3 November 2001).
“Europeans Worry about Democracy in Russia.” Pravda. 24 April 2001.
<http://english.pravda.ru/main/2001/o4/24/4086.html> (14 November 2001).
Gibson, James., Raymond Duch and Kent Tedin. “Democratic Values and
the Transformation of the Soviet Union” Introduction to Politics Reader. 1997.
Lavigne, Marie. The Economics of transition: From socialist economy to Market economy.
London: Macmillan press, 1995.
Munroe, Trevor. Introduction to Politics: Lectures for First Year Students. Kingston,
Jamaica: Canoe Press, 1993.
Olson, Mancur, Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist
Dictatorships. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000.