I am a big fan of harp-guitar players and one of my favorites is Stephen Bennett. Here is one of my favorites from him, entitled Merry Christmas Mr. Gorbachev. It’s a happy sounding song, as it should be. I imagine he wrote it as a reference to the (in)famous Christmas night in 1991 when Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev stepped down, signalling the collapse of the communist party and relegated the disastrous USSR to the dustbin of history.
I’ve said many times on this site before that the story of the Soviet Union is drastically undertold in this country. Indeed, most of the students I have ever taught were born after the collapse of formal Communism — these kids never grew up in an era where total state control of the political and economic lives of a people were common across the globe they lived in. I’ve run into my share of new age communists (I don’t have a better word for them), particularly in my dealings with the “E”nvironmental community. As such, I am going to try to make a regular feature on this site a reminder of exactly what was going on behind the Iron Curtain. I’ll start by reprinting a piece of Vasily Grossman’s (not so fictional novel) Life and Fate, taken from the introduction of a book I’ll be blogging next, Dismantling Utopia, by Scott Shane. Those of you who have followed my frustration at getting information accurately disseminated on the environmental movement may begin to understand why this resonates with me. I’ll leave the commentary for you.
Ah, dear comrades, can you imagine what this is, freedom of the press? When instead of the letters of laborers to the great Stalin, or the information about the workers of the United States entering a new year in an atmosphere of despondence and poverty — when instead of all of this, you know what you find? Information! Can you imagine such a newspaper? A newspaper that brings information?
“And so you start to read: crop failure in Kursk region, an inspection report in conditions in Butyrsky Prison, a debate in whether the White Sea-Baltic Canal is really necessary; you read about how the worker Golopyzov opposes the issuance of new bonds.
“In general you know everything that’s happening in the country: good harvests and crop failures; enthusiasm and breaking-and-entering; the opening of new mines and mine disasters; the disputes between Molotov and Malenkov. You read reports on the course of a strike set off when a factory director fired a 70-year-old chemist; you read the speeches of Chruchill and Bloom, and not that they ‘stated that allegedly…’; you read reports of the debates in the House of Commons; you know how many people committed suicide yesterday in Moscow, and how many people were taken to Sklifosovsky emergency room to be stitched up. You know why there’s no buckwheat groats in the stores, and not just that the year’s first strawberries have just been delivered from Tashkent to Moscow by air. You know how many grams of bread a collective farm worker gets per working day — from the newspaper, and not from the cleaning woman whose niece is from the village has come to Moscow to buy bread. Yes, yes, and on top of that you remain fully and completely a Soviet citizen.
“You go into a bookstore and buy a book, remaining a Soviet citizen, you read American, English, French philosophers, historians, economists, political observers. You figure out for yourself where they’re wrong; you yourself, without a nanny, walk the streets …”
All at once Sokolov brought his fist down on the table and said, “Enough! I emphatically and insistently demand that you stop such talk.”
It’s fictional of course. Fictional.