30 Years Ago, the Soviet Dictatorship Ended, but Socialism Was Worth Saving

By Glenn Sacks

Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union dissolved. On a superficial level, events vindicated the longtime American assertion that socialism “doesn’t work” and that capitalism is the superior system—the goods available to Soviet consumers lacked both quality and variety and were often in limited supply, agriculture was a continual disappointment, and, in the USSR’s later years, labor discipline grew very lax, and corruption flourished. 

However, for the majority of the USSR’s existence the socialist system did work and allowed the country to achieve the most rapid industrialization and modernization of any nation in history, with the possible recent exception of China. The US-USSR comparison widely used by American free-market ideologues to demonstrate “capitalism good, socialism bad” was an apples-to-oranges comparison that thinking people should never have accepted.

British economist Angus Maddison estimates that in 1913 the US’ Gross Domestic Product per capita was the highest in the world at $5,301 (in 1990 dollars). That of the Russian Empire—the future USSR—was only $1,488 --17th in world, well behind even Mexico.

Sixty years later, the US figure had risen to $16,689 and the USSR’s to $6,059, the USSR narrowing the gap by 23%--a considerable achievement considering the extremely different circumstances faced by each nation.

The US entered World War I late and lost 115,000 men. By contrast, between WWI (1914-1918), the Russian Civil War (1918-1921), and the consequent famine, Russia/USSR lost over 10 million citizens. The country the communists inherited was so poor, wrecked, and starved that cannibalism was widespread. According to United Nations data, in 1920 Russian life expectancy was a mere 20.5 years, as compared to 55.4 years in the US. This is the starting point of Soviet socialism.

As bad as that was, it got worse. During World War II the USSR faced Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa--the largest military offensive ever--and suffered a staggering 27 million deaths, 70 times America’s WWII losses. The USSR lost 1/3 of its national wealth and ended the war with millions starving and 25 million homeless. 

At the time General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, noted:

"When we flew into Russia, in 1945, I did not see a house standing between the western borders of the country and the area around Moscow. Through this overrun region, [Soviet] Marshal Zhukov told me, so many numbers of women, children and old men had been killed that the Russian Government would never be able to estimate the total."

Historian Isaac Deutscher, citing the post-war Soviet census, explained, "in the whole adult population of the Soviet Union, there were only 31 million men compared with 53 million women. For many, many years only old men, cripples, children and women tilled the fields in the Russian countryside. Old women had to clear, with bare hands, the immense masses of rubble from their destroyed cities and towns…[they] had lost 20 million men in dead alone – and only think how many of the 31 million men that were left alive were the cripples and invalids and the wounded of the world war and how many were the old-aged…”

By contrast, the US came out of WWII physically unscathed and in a position no nation ever had been in or ever will be in again—with 6% of the world’s population and 50% of its GDP. To expect the USSR to catch up--all the while matching the US in military spending and in aid to Cold War allies--was never realistic.

Nonetheless, what the Soviet economy did achieve was still considerable.

  • During the 1930s the USSR industrialized at an unprecedented pace. This remarkably rapid transition from an agricultural to an industrial society was accomplished despite the destruction and chaos of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s murderous purges and farm collectivization.
  • The USSR inflicted 85% of Germany’s wartime casualties and was principally responsible for Nazi Germany’s defeat. Britain’s conservative wartime prime minister Winston Churchill--an arch opponent of communism--told the House of Commons, “[T]he obvious, essential fact to this point [is] that it is the Russian Armies who have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army.”
  • In 1900, Russian life expectancy was only 63% that of America’s, and only 37% as much in 1920. By the early 1960s Russia had reached 97% of the US level. In 1915, Russian infant mortality was 267 per 1,000—by the late 1980s it had been reduced by well over 90%.
  • Despite the massive loss of the young men critical for industrialization and heavy industry, the USSR re-industrialized rapidly during the 1940s and 1950s and retained robust economic growth rates into the 1960s. It is only then that the Soviet economy--under the weight of bureaucracy and mismanagement--began to slow down. 

One study noted that while between 1950 and 1976 the advanced capitalist economies grew 4.4% annually and the poorer capitalist economies grew 5% annually, the centrally planned economies of the USSR and the Eastern bloc grew 7.7% annually—75% and 54% higher respectively (Scientific American, September 1980). 

The exhaustive 1988 RAND study Soviet Economic Growth: 1928-1985 explains:

Since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Soviet Union has transformed itself from an undeveloped economy into a modern industrial state with a GNP second only to that of the United States. Until the late 1950s, the main question among Western scholars was “When would the Soviet Union catch up with the United States?”… 

Though it's forgotten now, alarm over Soviet economic growth was a major theme of John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign. In a speech to the Associated Business Publications Conference in October 1960 he warned:

"The first and most comprehensive failure in our performance has been in our rate of economic growth. From 1953 until the end of last year, our average annual increase in output - the real rate of growth - has been only 2.4 percent per year. The rate of increase in the Soviet Union, on the testimony of Mr. Allen Dulles, of the CIA, has been better than 7 percent."

At the famous Moscow “Kitchen Debate” in 1957, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and Vice-President Richard Nixon sparred over which economic system--capitalism or communism--was superior. Enthused by the USSR’s excellent post-war economic growth, Khrushchev foolishly said, “in another 7 years we will be on the same level as America. And then we’ll move on ahead. When we pass you along the way we’ll greet you amicably…Then if you like, we can stop and invite you to catch up.” 

After Khrushchev’s fall in 1964, it is said that of all his mistakes, the one his successors could least forgive him for was giving the Soviet public the idea that the USSR’s living standards were somehow going to outstrip those of the US. 

Nonetheless, according to the RAND study, from about one-quarter the size of the U.S. economy in 1928, the Soviet economy climbed to about 40 percent in 1955, 50 percent in 1965, and about 60 percent in 1977.

As poor as European Russia was at the dawn of Soviet socialism, the USSR’s large Muslim regions were even poorer. These areas, in 1917 largely as backward as neighboring Afghanistan, saw tremendous progress in improving living standards and life expectancy, eliminating illiteracy, and reducing infant mortality.

For example, the life expectancy in Kazakhstan, one of the largest of the USSR’s Muslim regions, was only 30.6 years in 1915. By 1949 it had risen to 54.3, comparable to the rest of Russia. According to United Nations data, in the early 1950s the life expectancy of Afghanistan was 29 years, whereas that of the Muslim Soviet Central Asian republics--Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Kazakhstan—had all risen to between 51 and 56 years.

The Soviets also achieved a remarkable rise in the status of women, as women came to make up a significant portion of the Muslim regions’ doctors, engineers, and teachers.

Marianne Kamp, a Central Eurasian Studies professor at Indiana University Bloomington, explains:

“Measured against conditions for women in neighboring Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China in the late 1980s, Central Asian women in the Soviet era were living the dream, with high literacy rates, universal education through middle school levels, free basic healthcare, the same (limited) political rights as men, and high levels of participation in a state directed workforce that received pensions, insurance, and maternity and childcare benefits.”

In the West we were told that in the USSR, the Russians, who made up half the population, oppressed the many ethnic nationalities of the USSR as well as the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact. There was some truth to this, but there’s also another side to this issue.

Remarkably for an “empire,” people in most of the Warsaw Pact nations, and many parts of the USSR, including the Baltic republics, had a higher standard of living than the Russian people themselves did. The “imperial” Russians subsidized the other parts of the “empire” with investment diverted to the poorer areas of the USSR, particularly the Muslim regions.

Russian-born British economist Alec Nove, described by the New York Times in its obituary as a “longtime critic of the Soviet system”, acknowledged "The wage rates in Central Asia are similar to those in Central Russia, the prices of cotton, citrus fruits, grapes, tobacco [the region’s main exports], have been relatively favorable, the social services provided in Central Asia have been on the standard 'Soviet' scale, and budget statistics show that additional sums are earmarked for the budgets of backward republics"

This is one of the main reasons why these regions were not anxious to pull away from the USSR. A referendum held in March 1991 across the USSR asked voters if they “consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Of all areas of the USSR, the Soviet Central Asian Republics’ approval of this measure was the highest, in the 90%+ range throughout, and with high voter turnout.

It is also worth noting that the USSR subsidized the Warsaw Pact nations with oil and natural gas sold well below international market rates, and even made crisis-wracked Poland’s debt payments to Western banks during much of the 1980s. When Warsaw Pact nations traded with the USSR, they often exported them consumer goods that were of low quality even by Eastern European standards.

Given the USSR’s horrific WWII population and economic losses, Soviet leaders never wanted an arms race and conflict with the United States. Nevertheless, the USSR managed to keep up with the US through every stage of the nuclear arms race.

According to Deutscher, early on in the Cold War “…the experts told us in those years: Russia…will never have an atomic bomb because…Russia didn’t have the engineering resources to produce nuclear energy. Then Russia didn’t have the know-how. And then, when Russia did explode the bomb, we were told that she couldn’t produce nuclear weapons in sufficient numbers to change the military situation. Then we were told that the Russians would never have the means of delivering those warheads. And then we were told that Russia couldn’t produce the H-bomb. Illusion after illusion. A chain of illusions, one exploded after another….”

Obviously, the US putting a man on the moon was an enormous achievement. However, while Americans are always told that we “won” the Space Race, the comprehensive list of Soviet space “firsts” is as impressive as the US’. These include:

  • The first earth satellite (Sputnik)
  • The first animal to successfully orbit the earth
  • The first spacecraft to reach the surface of the Moon/first human-made object to make contact with another celestial body (Luna 2 probe)
  • The first man and the first woman in space (Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova respectively)
  • The first spacewalk (Alexei Leonov)
  • The first remote-controlled rover on another celestial body (Lunokhod 1)

Even as the USSR began to unravel in the late 1980s, their space program was performing extremely well, and some considered the Soviets to be ahead of the US. 

In October 1987, TIME magazine worried “the rising fortunes of the Soviet space program have posed troubling questions for Washington that cannot be ignored…Considering the Soviet lead, is it possible to catch up?”

TIME explained:

“…space experts in the U.S. and Europe are now conceding publicly…that the Soviets have surged past the U.S. in almost all areas of space exploration. If unchallenged, Moscow is likely to become the world's dominant power in space by the 21st century…The Soviet drive into space is taking place while American space efforts are all but moribund…the [Challenger] tragedy was more than a setback for NASA. It exposed the agency as an unwieldy, indecisive bureaucracy unsure of its direction.”

German space-technology professor Heinz Hermann Koelle, a director of future projects at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, told TIME that "American pre-eminence in space simply no longer exists." Another expert warned that the Soviets could be able to “make us eat space dust for a long time to come." 

Cornell Planetary Scientist Carl Sagan praised a 1987 Soviet Mars mission as “not just world class [but also]…novel, diverse and appropriate. The whole idea is very clever." 

The Soviet bloc also made impressive strides in advancing women, often well before such advances came to the West. For example, the Soviets launched the first large-scale attempt to take the domestic tasks normally performed by women, such as childcare and cooking, and provide government-subsidized assistance with these tasks, so they’d no longer constitute a significant burden or impediment to women’s careers.

At the end of World War II, Eastern Europe was backwards—far poorer than Western Europe, and far behind in its attitudes towards women. Nonetheless, the Soviets and the Soviet-backed regimes instituted progressive policies for women which American women could benefit from even today. Russian and East European studies professor Kristen Ghodsee explains:

“Eastern bloc women enjoyed many rights and privileges unknown in liberal democracies at the time, including major state investments in their education and training, their full incorporation into the labor force, generous maternity leave allowances and guaranteed free childcare.”

Benefits also included subsidized children’s clothing and basic foods, free healthcare, and flexible work schedules.

Soviet women’s labor participation was far higher than in the US, and the Soviets were way ahead of the US in training women in science, math, and technology. Decades later, in many ways, the US still hasn’t matched this success.

The gender wage gap in Eastern Europe wasn’t completely eliminated, but it was reduced. Moreover, most of workers’ “wages” came in the form of highly subsidized housing, higher education, public transportation, childcare, healthcare, food, utilities, and other necessities that were available to all for nominal charges. Thus, most of a potential “wage gap” was eliminated before workers ever saw their paychecks.

Ghodsee notes:

“Communist women enjoyed a degree of self-sufficiency that few Western women could have imagined…[many Eastern European countries]…committed extra resources to support single mothers, divorcées and widows….This reduced the social costs of accidental pregnancy and lowered the opportunity costs of becoming a mother…single motherhood did not lead to destitution.”

Though the Soviets started from (and, after WWII, re-started from) a much lower level than the US, and despite their economy’s many shortcomings, they did succeed in creating a society where everyone’s basic needs were met.

One of the scourges of a free-market economy is unemployment and underemployment. Today there are roughly 220 million unemployed people in the world. In 2019—before COVID—there were 187 million—one out of every 19 of the people counted worldwide. 

By contrast, the Soviet Union guaranteed full employment for all. According to a 1999 United Nations Development Programme report, in the Soviet era the USSR and the Eastern bloc nations “were notable for providing their populations with a high degree of basic security….People’s right to full, lifetime employment was guaranteed. Although cash incomes were low, they were stable and secure. Many basic consumption goods and services were subsidized and regularly supplied. People had food security and were adequately clothed and housed. They had free guaranteed access to education and health. They were assured pensions when they retired and regularly benefited from many other forms of social protection.”

Pavel Voloshin, a Saint Petersburg real estate lawyer, acknowledges the deficiencies of the Soviet system, but also asserts:

“I will never support the idea that the Soviet Union was a terrible place to live in…With the exception of that trash that started happening around 1990 I would say that our life was pretty good…I had a great school which got a computer class equipped with the Soviet Agat PCs in 1986. I had free swimming lessons in a pool. I had all the medical services I needed in my age from different vaccines to free massages at a local clinic…true, I ate bananas only 2 or 3 times in a year…but I could eat apples, pears and cherries as much as I wanted.

“Together with my parents I was spending my summer vacations at the warm Black Sea in Georgia and my winter ones at health resorts on shores of Gulf of Finland (those ones were almost for free too because were provided by a labor union). Sometimes I think that life in the Soviet Union is like the service on board of the starship Enterprise…Everybody lives in similar quarters. Nobody cares much about money and mostly everything is provided…”

Alexey Godin, an associate professor of math and a software engineer in Moscow, says he doesn’t miss the lines, shortages of consumer goods, and ideological rigidity of the USSR, but he does miss “real equality.” He explains:

“There was some inequality in the late USSR, but it was a bag of laughs compared to nowadays. [We had] stability. You knew you will have work…pensions, paid vacations. Infrastructure for children: free kindergartens, sport/science…Generally the benefits of the social state. The general atmosphere where people were judged by their intellect/good spirit instead of money.”

I asked Alex Yeghiazaryan, an Armenian emigre I interviewed, “In Armenia, is life better now or was life better under the Soviets?” He replied:

“For me I think life is better now but most Armenian people will tell you it was better under the Soviets. You never had to worry about anything. All the basics were paid for. There were shortages, sometimes people had a lot of money and nowhere to spend it because of the shortages, but life was easier. And you could travel a lot – my father was a postman in Armenia and used to travel to Russia for a vacation nearly every weekend – it was easy, it was cheap.

“The other thing that Armenian people liked about the past is they were protected. Now they feel under threat from Turkey and Azerbaijan, which is backed by Turkey. Armenia is a small nation, but when we were part of the Soviet Union, nobody messed with us. Nobody.”

According to Forbes magazine, as of a decade ago Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman was the 43rd richest man in the world. In her book Sale of the Century, Canadian journalist and politician Chrystia Freeland describes him as “one of the biggest winners” of Russia’s conversion to capitalism. Yet, remarkably, of the Soviet period Friedman says:

“My life was very carefree, just as life was for everyone in the Soviet Union....Materially, of course, people did not live very well, but no one had to worry about anything. The main thing, what was really intense, was friends, spiritual interests, books. The relations between people were far more open. People did not compete. There was not the same disproportion or envy. People today are far more stressed.”

Our media, our leaders, the educational establishment and its school textbooks, and practically every other institution in our society tells us that Soviet socialism failed, and that socialism inevitably does. In reality, the Soviet economy succeeded in some respects and failed in others. 

Part of the reason for the later Soviet economic decline was that as the Soviet economy developed and moved away from extensive economic growth (building new factories and productive capacity) and towards intensive economic growth (making those resources function more efficiently), it stumbled. Poor labor discipline combined with bureaucratic resistance to technological change to stunt the USSR’s intensive economic growth. Why?

There are numerous reasons, but the biggest one was the Soviet regime’s lack of democracy and freedom of expression. The parasitism, corruption, mismanagement, and cynicism of the ruling Soviet bureaucratic caste of the late Soviet period could never have come to pass in a society with freedom of the press and freedom for independent political action. 

As the USSR’s last premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, understood, insulating the government and bureaucratic elites from public criticism was very detrimental to the country’s economic performance. But what if the USSR in the 1970s and 1980s had been an open society such as ours?

Factory managers and political leaders responsible for the shoddy consumer goods offered to the Soviet people would’ve been skewered alive in the press, and their successors would quickly have whipped production into shape. 

The Soviet working people’s morale and general work ethic--continually sapped by the USSR’s numbing dictatorship and general bureaucratic mess and malaise--would have appreciated the benefits of democratically controlling their workplace and their society and would have seen their creative energies set free and their work ethic revitalized.

The five-year-plans would have been debated and dissected, instead of being imposed from above, and they would have benefitted from popular input. Moreover, with popular buy-in, there would have been much more popular commitment to meeting the targets and fulfilling the plan.

Of course, the USSR would still have had to contend with the enormous pressure of the Cold War in general and President Ronald Reagan’s arms buildup in particular. The RAND study noted that in the mid-1980s the Soviets were spending roughly 16% of their GNP on defense--three times as high as that of the United States. That aside, for all of the USSR’s problems, there was little wrong with the Soviet economy that democracy and a free press couldn’t have cured.

As the USSR unraveled in the years 1989-1991, this democratic push should’ve come from the Soviet trade unions. Long state-controlled but, in that era, increasingly independent, they could have shaken off the brittle bureaucracy and its stranglehold on society and established a true democracy--the “workers state” the Soviet government always claimed the USSR was.

Unfortunately, it didn’t come to pass. The Soviet working class, long depoliticized and made apathetic by the Soviet dictatorship, was mired in confusion. There were many strikes, by coal miners, factory workers, dockers, railway workers, and others, but the strikers did not advance a coherent political program. Soviet agricultural workers, largely older and cut off from politics, played little role.

Instead, an anti-socialist grouping coalesced in favor of capitalist restoration. Some of them were well-connected, cynical Soviet bureaucrats and factory managers who wanted to make themselves property owners, instead of just managers.

Others were educated professionals, who looked longingly at the West’s freedoms and the high living standards the educated here enjoy. Still others were religious reactionaries or petty traders, currency speculators, black marketers, and back-alley businessmen.

With the Soviet government discredited, and the Soviet trade unions politically confused, it was on the backs of these disparate groups’ support that Russian president Boris Yeltsin rode to power and re-instituted capitalism.

“Throw the baby out with the bathwater” is a timeworn phrase, but it applies here. Instead of reforming and regenerating the system through democracy, the Soviet working people allowed Yeltsin and his allies to destroy it.

Opinion polling has repeatedly shown the Russian people regret the collapse and destruction of the USSR. After 1991, Russia experienced the largest peacetime economic crash in modern history. According to Ghodsee, it was the “worst drop in life expectancy in the past half-century in any country that wasn’t an active war zone or experiencing famine.”

With the fall of the USSR, the misrule of the Soviet bureaucratic caste was ditched, as it should have been. But ditched along with it was a rational, egalitarian economy planned to meet human needs, not short-term profits--a system capable of resolving the terrible problems worldwide capitalism is still afflicted with to this day.

Glenn Sacks is an educator who has traveled extensively in Russia and the former Soviet bloc.

This is an extended version of a column which originally appeared in Counterpunch 12/24/21.