Decay of Empire

Or the Soviet Experiment and the ‘Future of Europe’. Life experiences highly influence what you choose to read and believe. In my case, four main experiences helped shape my worldview.

First, my experience as a citizen of a miniscule, newly independent Roman Catholic state — Malta, where politicians are a phone call away and citizens believe they truly own the place, even after the EU took over the main functions of the state.

Then came my Soviet experience, where I studied for some time, only to discover a world of illusion and suppression. This was immediately followed by my time as a gazetted officer in the Malta Police Force, where I ended up heading the Economic Crime Unit, gaining an insight into real and false crime, and the evolving power of the State to suppress both types.

And, finally, my experience in the European Parliament, where I am (still) employed in the communications field.

This article deals mainly with the Soviet experience and how it relates to my views of the European Union.

The calm before the storm: the Soviet dream in decadence

It was at the oblivious age of 18 that I found myself enrolled as a foreign student in the Soviet Union. It was 1979. A decade was coming to an end and the Brezhnev era was in decline. State apathy and corruption reigned. The lack of public respect for Leonid Brezhnev was evident in the many jokes doing the rounds those days.

President Carter arrives in Moscow and Brezhnev furtively walks up to him. “Did you bring jeenzi (jeans)?” he asks, shaking hands.
Jimmy Carter nods affirmatively. “What size, what size?”
“42.” Brezhnev spits and swears: “Again it’s for (Prime Minister) Kosygin!”

It’s a stupid joke, but one that typifies those times – when although the Soviet experiment was in social and economic decay, the Soviet power-pyramid still appeared as strong as ever.

In those days of Soviet prohibition of private enterprise and free speech the spekulyanti were a criminalised lot. The spekulyanti, of course, were self-employed commodity traders and currency dealers (the word ‘biznismyeni’ was not yet in vogue). But most Soviet citizens indulged in some form of illegal transaction. A sub-economy permeated across the Soviet Union, only loosely connected to the State economy that was centrally planned every five years. It was an unregulated economy made of private trading and corruption – within a pervasive, back-scratching network of various znakomiye (acquaintances), as procurement contacts were called.

The Znakomiy economy

No matter how harsh Soviet penalties and caging conditions were, the Soviet authorities never quite got to grips with this underground economy. Indeed, the authorities themselves formed an integral part of it. Everyone seemed to indulge in some form of znakomiyism: from the factory girl able to procure the best drapery from the State enterprise she worked at, to the butcher who saved the best pieces of State pork for her in return. The higher your position in the Soviet state pyramid, the better was the booty you could lay your hands on in order to trade, sell or be bribed within the znakomiy economy.

Food stores were nearly empty, yet every home I visited had its fridge bulging with a variety of food and drink. And if it was 4 a.m. and your drinking party ran out of vodka, you knew which street to go to – provided you could pay 10 roubles instead of the 6-rouble State price. The same with particular train, plane and theatre tickets, or the best restaurants and cafes … you paid your way through. And if you could not find a taxi, you’d find private cars willing to do the run for a pre-agreed fee. There were, of course, the unlucky ones who found themselves “winning” the State lottery of arrest and caging — but by 1979 this was generally reserved for the more uncultured street-spekulyanti who were regarded as common thugs.

The top of the pyramid was of course on a planet of its own. It owned the currency, it allocated expenditure, it dictated the economy, and it managed what seemed like a pluralistic media network, thus controlling the illusion within which Soviet society appeared to thrive.

Gone were the days when ‘anarchists’, ‘saboteurs’ and ‘counter-revolutionaries’ acted out their forced roles in Uncle Stalin’s show trials. The purges were long over. And by now, it hardly mattered that it had all been exposed as a deceptive illusion by Stalin’s former minion, Nikita Krushchev, when he felt he had enough power to do so in 1958 — five years after Stalin’s death.

By 1979, Krushchev had become an insignificant blip, mostly famous for his blunders and well on his way to being erased from memory. By then, what mattered was that the treacherous counter-revolutionaries had been rooted out and the Proletariat, having prevailed over the Nazi fascists, would now prevail over the imperialist West, before the promised land of Communism could be attained.

By 1979, the Soviet economy had become an unchanging dinosaur. State prices hardly varied. Roubles were fairly plentiful but unevenly distributed. And the State supply of goods-in-demand was getting scarcer and scarcer. Unbeknown to anyone at the time the Soviet era was nearing its close; waiting for Gorbachev to ease it from the pain of its continued existance. Many were aware that the system was failing, but no one could foresee the experiment being called off and the laboratory dismantled.

The effects of Soviet totalitarianism

Humans adapt to their socio-political surroundings in mysterious ways. By 1979, the social response to Soviet totalitarianism had evolved into a politically-apathetic mainstream. It was still patriotic and proud of the Soviet heritage, it actually feared a NATO attack and was disgusted with ‘Western imperialism’ which was viewed as wholly justifying the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Homo Sovieticus was taught to read the press and that was what the Soviet people were doing. Soviet television was so interesting the masses couldn’t live without it: the evening news was religiously followed by most.

Indeed, the Soviet media was doing a fine job — a better service than the KGB and the Soviet penal system could ever provide:

“How’s it going with you these days?” one old classmate asks another when they meet in a line for milk.
“Really great!”
“Got any time to read the papers?”
“Sure! How else would I know?”

The Soviet mainstream had long learned that political activism would not feed and clothe them. In their eyes, dissidents were foolish martyrs at best, dangerous agitators at worst. In any case, dissidents were a thing of the past, even if, as rumours had it, a handful still existed. The Communist Party had to be right after all, because it was all-powerful and legitimately so. Free speech and free enterprise would hand victory to Western imperialists and capitalists, who funded agitators to destabilise the USSR, the first Socialist country in the world…!

So, all seemed well with the multi-national USSR. It was a modern, scientific State. It industrialised the country for the good of all. It took care of you from cradle to grave. There were jobs for all and forever. Health care was omnipresent — even if you had to bribe your way to some decent service. And while most Soviet citizens were disenchanted with their low-paying State jobs, they were motivated by their secondary earnings within the znakomiy economy.

In the Soviet Union through which my life-course happened to pass, you could tell a dissident joke and listen to Western music, you could trade here and barter there… and as long as you kept to your own network of ‘acquaintances’ you had little to fear except for the insatiability of your own desire for worldly goods and services.

There was only one thing that continuously nudged at the illusion: Western products. By the late seventies a heavy influx of western products brought by students and smugglers allowed urban Soviets to make comparisons. A Toshiba stereo cassette player looked like sci-fi equipment compared to its drab, inefficient Soviet counterpart. The question of why Soviet jeans looked so horrible lurked continuously in the minds of urban youth.

The counter-argument was that the arms race instigated by the West took much of the resources and brains that would otherwise be used to raise quality and choice. Defending Soviet freedom was the obvious priority since the enemy was always around the corner.

This bubble eventually burst when Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika (transparency and restructuring) lifted the prohibitions on speech and enterprise.
What emerged was not a hybrid of the Soviet and the znakomiy economies, but a new type of cut-throat market. Spekulyatsya, the art of being a spekulyant (which was the more criminalised aspect of the znakomiy economy), was the informal Soviet version of a free market. Together with State corruption, it was the only form of entrepreneurship known to the Russians upon their awakening from the failed Soviet dream. The business acumen that emerged after perestroika, therefore, had to evolve from spekulyatsya, which had by then become legalised “crime”. Thus, upon the decriminalisation of private enterprise, the spekulyanti, who were innately prone to law-breaking, became market-lords rather than businessmen. They joined forces with corrupt communist industry bosses to form the oligarchies that dominated the post-Soviet economy. This natural state of post-Soviet affairs was what the West immediately came to call ‘the Russian Mafia’, characterised by the drunk and corrupt Boris Yeltsin — a hero to Western governments.

The European dream in the 70s

In 1979, the European Union was still a nine-member economic club known as the European Economic Community (EEC), or simply the Common Market. Ambitions for political union were still on the back-burner. Politics in western Europe was characterised by a multitude of political parties inside a diverse array of nation states, each pursuing their own cultural, economic and political goals.

Among the strong political movements of the time were the Euro-communists. In Italy, where they were strongest, only a corrupt, long lasting, five-party coalition (il pentapartito) kept the Italian Communist Party out of government. The Euro-communists of the ’70s liked to believe they were the democratic alternative to the totalitarian Soviet version shaped by Stalin the tyrannical Georgian. They liked to believe that they were keeping the Marxist banner flying high after its betrayal by the Soviets. It did not seem to matter to the European rebels of the time that their concept of a democratic alternative to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a contradiction in terms. The historical twists and turns of Marxist-Leninist ideology were for most of them highly irrelevant.

In those heady days of Euro-communism, particularly in the Roman Catholic world, if you were a dissenter, an anti-establishment maverick, a progressive anti-cleric, or a militant trade unionist, then the Communist party was the place to be. It was a sort of international club for dissenters against old Reaction; a movement for progressive disdain, where thinkers could intellectually masturbate and instigate street battles with the state police in the name of the workers. It was a role which the European Establishment was fond of, since it gave a semblance of pluralistic democracy while workers achieved nothing but an inflated currency and a dwindling standard of living.

Ultimately, notwithstanding the supposed differences between Euro-communism and Soviet communism, the collapse of Sovietism also meant the collapse of Euro-communism. Most then became champagne socialists. The rest declined into negligible political forces – old champions for old voters.

The 70s were indeed a strange period for Europe, times when the European experience was passing through what seemed to be a socio-politically heuristic phase, when life could have appeared to take any direction on the libertarian-authoritarian-totalitarian scale, and yet, the current system was already written on the post-democratic walls.

What followed was a post-rational, post-political dystopia where Eurospeak defines the ‘rule of political correctness’.

In 1979, three different dreams were about to pass: the heroic Soviet dream was in tragi-comic decline; the fabled American dream was becoming more elusive – and the internationalist Euro-communist dream was gradually giving way to an arcane European dream of Empire.

1980: ‘The Evil Empire’

Landing at the old Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow in the autumn of 1979 my first view was armed soldiers. This was the first time I had ever seen armed soldiers policing civilians — quite commonplace today in the Western world, obsessed as it is with security and terrorists… anarchists, saboteurs, killing innocent people…

If this is the airport, I thought, I can only imagine what a Gulag might look like. My first impression was one of pervasive, drab shabbiness. No style at all. No taste. No finesse. No colour. A desolate, grey sort of sadness overwhelmed my mind as I embarked on the long train journey to Kiev for a year-long “preparatory course”.

It did not take long for me to settle in the Ukrainian capital — not, however, before solving some initial horrors, such as door-less Turkish toilets in the hostel. We were all in the same fry at the faculty — all foreigners — and the Soviet teachers drooled over us as if we were star children. Students came from across the third world. Very few were from Europe. It was mostly Africans, Latin Americans, Afghanis, Syrians, Lebanese, Vietnamese. Though, my friends that year were mostly Greeks and Cypriots.

On the streets we could not communicate in any language we knew, so learning Russian became a priority. This came with unexpected ease, while classes and text books were just a secondary aid in the process. And since, at the hostels, we lived with Soviet students who attended the Kiev University in the centre, the evening drinking parties took a life of their own. We enjoyed the Soviets’ drinking bravado and they loved our embrace of their culture, which entailed drinking full large glasses of vodka at a time. Receiving Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ in December 1979 must have been the high point of my existence in Kiev: I was the guy with the latest Pink Floyd double album on vinyl — it was huge!

Within the year, I came to know the Russians and their satellite Slavic nations as a jovially melancholic people. I grew to respect them as a deep nation of extreme contradictions, even if by the autumn of 1980 the Soviet routine was steadily killing me. Every morning, across the hostel hallways, the sickening Mayak cable-radio bellowed out the Moscow Nights jingle for the usual grim voice to repeat the same announcements of the progress registered on collective farms and other State enterprises, the goals attained, the evils of the West, the heroes, the villains, the hope, the adventure: Communism shall be attained!

In September 1980, my preparatory honeymoon was over. After a short summer spell in Greece and Malta, I moved back to Kiev for a two-week registration period and to await the news of where we were being sent. Only my Cypriot friend and I were to read aeronautics (don’t ask why). It was rumoured that apart from Kiev, there was the possibility of Riga, the capital of the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. “That’s ‘The West’ of the Soviet Union”, our Russian and Ukrainian friends would say — cool! So we were delighted to be informed that we were to be sent to “The Riga Red Banner Institute of Aeronautical Engineering, Named V. I. Lenin”, RKIIGA for short … just until we got to the hostels at Lomonosov Street 1, which looked like Prussian infantry barracks – just after the Seven-Year War!

My first impression of life in Riga was that the sun never seemed to rise. The morning lectures were under neon lights, which made me doze off. Special subjects made me even drowsier, such as the totally irrelevant, yet absolutely compulsory “Istoriya KPSS” (History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). As depressing as the wintry weather were the long lines, the ubiquitous red banners trumpeting “Slava SSSR” (Glory to the USSR) or “Slava KPSS” and the many Marx and Lenin busts and portraits, together with all the rest of this religion’s holy saints.

But … the restaurants were relatively good, the vodka parties hilarious, the girls friendly, and life in Riga just glazed by gracefully. I felt as free as a lost sparrow. I was living in “the evil empire” and I didn’t even know it!

It was November of 1980 when I tuned to the BBC World Service late one evening, keen to find out whether the contesting former actor had won the US presidency. At the sound of the BBC one of my Russian room-mates turned hostile. He ordered me to switch off the radio at once — a rather sad approach to meet his needs since compliance and respect for authority were never my main qualities.

This was no ordinary student. Not only was he about five years my senior, he was also the Predsidatyel Studsovyeta — a sort of Soviet prefect whose powers were to me unknown and quite irrelevant. He tried forcefully to switch off my radio and a short scuffle ensued until the Predsidatyel would settle for this option: I could listen to the BBC in the stairway outside our room but only under the threat that he would report me to higher authorities. Little did I care for this type of Soviet authority. In my case, banishment was the ultimate punishment — which only meant going back home.

Little did the prefect know, that November evening, that the enemy had just elected a new president who would eventually force him and his comrades to spread a little less butter on their smaller pieces of bread. Little could we envisage then that the Soviet empire would soon give way. In truth, the Soviet colossus did not need Reagan’s ‘evil empire’ crusade for it to implode. It was already on the verge of collapse.

1982: the end of an era begins

The morning Leonid Ilyich died, on 10 November 1982, I was purchasing a Soviet colour TV set — a small-screened fatso which cost me around 560 roubles. That was not much by my standards, although it was over two state salaries for the average Soviet earner. For me it meant I had to sell three pairs of jeans at around 180 roubles each. Jeans cost me nothing. My parents used to send me regular parcels with clothes, records, toiletries and anything you’d need to live the Soviet life with relative ease. The 90-rouble University stipend was treated as pocket-money in comparison to the lucrative spekulyatsya in jeenzi. All foreign students were criminals. But we soon found out that the Soviet authorities — from the police to the faculty deans — shut their eyes to foreign students’ trading in Western goods.

I had given up aeronautics and switched to Moscow State University that cold November day of ’82 when I switched on my brand new TV set. Solemn eulogies to Brezhnev were of necessity dominating the screens. Two days later, Brezhnev’s funeral characterised the slurring old man’s life with two linked incidents that perfectly parodied his final years and the Soviet Union that passed away with him:

“When the coffin was lifted to be placed on the catafalque for the lying-in-state on 12 November, the bottom collapsed and Brezhnev’s body fell through the hole. Within a couple of hours, a new metal- plated coffin was produced as replacement. It was this change that caused the slip which millions of Soviet viewers watched in amazement. The two funeral attendants who had been selected to lower the coffin slowly into the grave suddenly found that the coffin was too heavy for them. One of them could not keep hold of his rope and the coffin dropped. It hit the ground with the sound of an explosion, at the very moment that the first gun salutes shook the air.”

Zhores A. Medvedev in ‘Andropov’:

So ended the final moments of the Brezhnev era. The Soviet clock ran faster after his death, even if decadence outlived him for some time thereafter. Brezhnev’s successor, Yuri Andropov, was said to be for reform. If this is true, he was an ailing reformer and no one will ever know since he was dead by February 1984. Following Andropov’s 15-month interlude, during which he elevated Mikhail Gorbachev to full membership of the Politburo, came the even briefer rule of Konstantin Chernenko. Chernenko, who was said to have emerged from the Brezhnevite school of thought, seemed to be on the verge of dying even as he acceded the Soviet throne.

By March of 1985 Gorbachev came to power and the old Soviet order was drastically altered. In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the Iron Curtain was lifted. By 1991 the Soviet empire was ready for burial.

It is ironic that some of the best days of my life were spent behind the Iron Curtain. Having discontinued my studies there, I left the Soviet Union in June 1983 when Andropov was still alive but hardly kicking. Since then, I have not revisited the land of the Soviets and I know I will never be able to. I had been a participant observer inside this vast laboratory called CCCP and I had witnessed the last of the decadent Brezhnev years which led to the end of the long era which had started with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Politburo, the Presidium, the Supreme Soviet, the Council of Ministers, the Congress of People’s Deputies… they were all gone.

1992: The European experiment unfolds

It is perhaps incidental, but still significant, that just one year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the future of the European Union was ordained with the Maastricht Treaty. The European Economic Community was dead. Long live the European Union! Maastricht was the treaty that established political goals over and above economic gains. Europeanists had dreamed of this political shift since before the establishment of the EEC’s precursor in 1951, the European Coal and Steel Community. As the founder of the European Movement, Jean Monnet, said in April 1952 when Stalin was still kicking: “The fusion [of economic functions] would compel nations to fuse their sovereignty into that of a single European State.” A euphoric Helmut Kohl, then German Chancellor, describes the event in April 1992:

“In Maastricht we laid the foundation-stone for the completion of the European Union. The European Union Treaty introduces a new and decisive stage in the process of European union, which within a few years will lead to the creation of what the founding fathers dreamed of after the last war: the United States of Europe.”

Other than enhancing the EU’s legislative powers for a sound political foundation, Maastricht paved the way for Economic Monetary Union and the single European currency, the euro, in full knowledge that fiscal, economic and political union would eventually have to follow.

2009: The birth of Empire – collectivising Nation States

The EU has come a long way in its quest for ‘more Europe’. And since economic union is tied to political union, future prospects are unbounded. For example, with the failure of the first 10-year economic plan (the Lisbon Agenda 2010), the solution was found in ‘more Europe’. Likewise, the failure of the ‘Europe 2020 Strategy’ will also be blamed on disunion, just as the failure of the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact has paved the way towards EU economic governance. ‘More Europe’ will perpetually solve the problems the EU itself creates.

Like the Soviets, we need not worry. The EU constitutional treaty, now the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force in December 2009, provides enough legislative tools to ensure ‘more Europe’ forever.

Free speech may now be sacrificed on the alter of political correctness, as our civil liberties are eroded for our own security. Meanwhile the ‘free market’ is further regulated by EU bureaucrats in cahoots with member states’ big governments and global corporations. One should not blame them for fighting off competition like desperate Soviet dinosaurs, much in line with the philosophy of John D. Rockefeller, who once proclaimed that ‘competition is bad for business’. Indeed it is. At this rate opening a tobacconist will soon become a steep enterprising feat.

The Western illusion grows steadily.
Markets are managed, yet we think they are ‘free’. We vote red, blue, green or yellow, yet big government keeps getting bigger and the corporatists always win. We have pluralistic media networks which see so-called Euro-scepticism as un-European; which embrace the collectivisation of nation states and push the supra-national agenda. We see culture, nation and country denigrated, for these give people a sense of identity, which is a force of resistance to supra-national governance. We also see one race played against the other and one culture brushed against another in a multicultural paradigm, disuniting the nation states towards collectivising them.

Collectivism was good for the Soviet supra-national elite. In fact, collectivism is good for any elite. It keeps nations in perpetual serfdom. It keeps political power in the hands of the very few, and commercial and financial competition at bay. How else would you save dinosaur corporations in a ‘free market’ if big government does not prop them up? Without corporate-inspired legislation, ever-changing social and technological circumstances would mean that some of the more flexible, smaller enterprises eventually win over the larger uncompetitive behemoths. Rockefeller was right. Competition is bad for business. Serfs cannot be allowed to be entrepreneurs.

And so we come full circle.

Collectivism is not unique to the Soviet-inspired format, after all. We have witnessed it in the last European nations to unify: Italy and Germany. We have seen Mussolini emerge from the socialist woodwork to provide his corporatist brand of socialism, which he called ‘fascism’. Although known as the political ‘Right’, like its German National Socialist counterpart, its roots emerge from a collectivist philosophy that favours a small elite at the expense of the general citizenry — all in the name of the workers’ cause. Was it not Goebbels himself who admitted that German National Socialism and Bolshevism shared the same basic ideology? One claimed to be nationalist, the other internationalist; one was racial, the other multicultural. But both were collectivist and very much related to the elitist ‘one world government’ philosophy, of which both the EU and the USA now form an integral part.

Workers of the world unite — so you can all be better controlled by the few who know best.

Article provided by Kevin Bonici

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the 18 March 2002 issue of The Laissez Faire Electronic Times, Vol. 1, No 5 (now defunct); Editor: Emile Zola (J. Orlin Grabbe, deceased 15 March 2008).

%d bloggers like this: