The Soviet Dream

[Translated from Aftenposten.no, February 25, 2013, Den sovjetiske drømmen.]

There was more to the Soviet Union than repression. At their best, their dreams were as ambitious and humane as in the West. But optimism couldn’t save a rotten system.

Karnavalnaya-noch_4[1]1956 was a significant year in the history of communist Europe. It was the year the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian dream of building a more humane form of communism.

But it was also the year when the Soviet Union began to thaw, allowing its own people to dream new and bolder dreams.

Stalin had died, the Gulag camps were being dismantled, World War II was long gone, and the great famines were a generation past. Carefully, Khrushchev began to ease the pressure that kept the Soviet people in line, allowing new ideas to be thought and put into practice. In the arts, in books and in movies, people were now allowed to be people again, human beings before Party members – provided, of course, that they didn’t undermine the authority of the Party.

And the economists of the Soviet Union conceived a grand vision of bringing the planned economy into the computer age, creating a communist paradise of abundance.__

Let’s just skip ahead to the conclusion: They failed. There were a few years of optimism and relative freedom, and then it ended. Brezhnev tightened the grip of the state, the economy stagnated, and after one last attempt under Gorbachev to fix communism, the last glimmers of hope faded away from the eyes of the last optimists. The communists had been unable to give their people wealth and abundance, and they were no longer as willing to use power to subdue them as before. So they gave up, and communist Europe expired.

But there really was a period in the late 1950s and early 1960s where you had an excuse to be optimistic. There was repression, and there was poverty, but in between all of that you could also catch a faint glimpse of something rather beautiful: Communism at its smartest and most human.

The Mosfilm dream factory

It’s the Soviet movies of this era that hold the greatest appeal to me. In the long, bleak decades of Stalin’s reign, movies were few and worthless. One of them ends with one of the most absurd scenes in movie history, where daddy Josef flies in over the ruins of defeated Berlin almost like a god descending from heaven. He lands amid a great mass of people from all the nations of the world, who sing in his honor. These are movies by and for the kind of people who applaud continuously for ten minutes after their leader has spoken because they’re afraid of being the first to stop.

But Soviet filmmakers hadn’t gone away, just gone into hiding in film schools, where they kept their heads down and taught what they knew to their students. When Khrushchev cautiously lifted the Iron Curtain, both old and new filmmakers stood ready to film the Soviet dream.

Karnavalnaya-noch[1]The most watched movie of the Soviet Union in 1956 was a comedy that made fun of senior managers and their stuck-up, self-important ways.  In Karnavalnoya Noch, a group of young economists are planning a New Year’s party for the department they work for. Their director, a pompous fool, wants to ruin the party by filling the evening with old-fashioned music and talks on serious subjects, but the youths have no fear for serious old men of the past. In the movie’s hilarious climax, they manage to outmaneuver the director, and bring off a party filled with nothing but song, dance, food, drink and fun. As the movie ends, the clock strikes 24:00, the year is 1957, and a new generation stands ready to bring the Soviet Union into the future.

Other movies from this period have a darker tone. They show people working hard in ugly industrial buildings. The streets are muddy, and paradise is far, far away. But it is human beings, not the state or the Party, that stand at the center of these movies. The people are basically good, and carry great and beautiful dreams for the future. Even the war movies are primarily about the suffering of ordinary people.

These are movies by and for people who know that the road to paradise is a bitter one. But they see a gleam of hope in the eyes of young dreamers, who look at all of this, all the hardship and suffering, and say: It’s our turn now, and we’ll do our best.

Is it any wonder these movies make me wish I could be young in the Soviet Union in the 1950s? Never mind all those western hedonists with their easy lives and superficial pleasures. Come to Moscow, where you can work hard and feel at home!

Computer-age prosperity

There’s spring in the air in these movies, much like on a mild February day in Oslo. It doesn’t feel propagandistic or artificial, it feels human. But it’s difficult to ease the pressure in a dictatorship. Once you begin to allow people to think for themselves, they’ll soon start asking hard questions like why their leaders are all bandits, and why the gap to their neighbors in the west continues to increase.

If the planned economy had been a success, it is possible that the thaw could have gone more smoothly. And there were some economic achievements. The Bolsheviks, with all their conscienceless idealism, did turn the Soviet Union into an industrial nation with a highly educated population. But by the late 50s, Stalin’s economy was running out of steam. To bring it further, Khrushchev would need to find some new ideas.

Francis Spufford - Red PlentyThose new ideas are the topic of the novel Red Plenty by Francis Spufford. It’s a semi-fictional historical novel, but Spufford keeps track of what’s real and what isn’t so carefully that you can read it as a history book. He tells the story of the economists surrounding the math genius Leonid Kantorovich, the only Soviet citizen to ever win the Nobel Prize in economics.

Kantorovich wants to build a computer system that can be used to determine all the prices of all the goods in the Soviet Union. Optimal prices will help the economy to grow at a speed that is simply not possible in a market economy, where prices are set aimlessly, and companies waste their energy on destructive competition.

Khrushchev has made a promise: The communist utopia will be introduced, more or less, by the year 1980. The economists around Kantorovich believe they can fulfill that promise.

They fail, of course. One reason is political. Nobody likes high prices. It’s no use pointing out that an artificially low meat price causes meat shortages, and that therefore the smart thing to do is to increase the price. Economists understand this, but people see only the surface result, higher prices, and become angry. In the West, politicians have a convenient excuse: They can shrug and blame “the market”, that mysterious force beyond political control. But under communism, the Party has taken responsibility for the entire economy. When prices rise, they get the blame.

Spufford takes us to the massacre at Novocherkassk in 1962, where workers protest against higher meat prices. The army and the KGB are called in, and open fire on the crowd, killing many. Food prices are a deadly serious business. The leaders who take over after Khrushchev, Kosygin and Brezhnev, understand this, and reject the idea of a computer system that determines prices without political control. They refuse to make themselves hostage to a computer program. Instead, they introduce more cautious reforms that do not really achieve anything at all.

They’re conservative. They believe it’s better to preserve what one already has, an industrial economy that provides a fair enough standard of living, than to risk it all on something new. The economy stagnates. And when 1980 arrives, people joke that you can get arrested for anti-Soviet slander if you read publicly the promises of the Khrushchev era.

A nation-sized poker game

But even with support from the political elite, the Kantorovich plan would not have worked. A computer system is no better than the data it has to work on, and the economic date in the Soviet Union are rotten.

In theory, Gosplan, the state planning ministry, is in full control of everything. It gathers reliable economic data from every part of the country, creates an efficient plan, and sends its orders to every manager in every factory, near and far, like stone tablets to Moses. Your plan is to buy so and so many tons of raw material, and deliver so and so many units of finished product. If you achieve this, you’ll get a huge bonus. Go for it!

In reality, the economy is more like a gigantic poker game. Nobody ever tells the truth, and the only way to fulfill your quota is by cheating, and relying on favors from friends.

In the book Factory and Manager in the USSR by Joseph Berlin, from 1957, emigrants explain what life is actually like in the Soviet factories. It’s a surprisingly entertaining read. A market economy is more fun to be part of than to read about. A planned economy is the opposite: More fun to read about than to take part in. It’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland, absurd but recognizable.

In one of the stories Berlin shares, an inspector comes to visit a factory that has failed to deliver the machines it was supposed to produce. At the factory he comes across row upon row with nearly finished machines. He asks the director about this, who explains that although the machines are almost finished he is unable to deliver them, because the specification clearly calls for them to be painted red, but he only has green paint left. He fears he will be sent to jail if he violates the requirement. The inspector does not dare to grant an exemption, because then he too could end up in jail. They ask for permission from people higher up the system, everyone is too afraid to say yes. Nobody wants to stick their neck on. Finally, after a long wait, a message arrives from high up in the ministry, saying that yes, it is okay to paint the machines green instead of red.

Decisions at all levels of the economy are made from a combination of fear, greed for bonuses, and greed for status. In a market economy, the power of greed has been harnessed, and mostly aids the economy. In the Soviet Union, there’s more money to be made by sabotaging the economy than by aiding it. You can lie about how much materials you need, and how much you are able to produce. You can lie about the hidden reserves you have stashed away in a secret storehouse. You can lower the quality of your products in a way that the quality inspector can pretend not to notice. There are lots of options, and they all have in common that they make the economy less productive.

Instead of an open market where anything can be bought for money, the Soviet Union has a hidden gray market where anything can be arranged through the exchange of favors between friends, or blat. Blat is not only useful, but absolutely necessary, because there’s always something that goes wrong with the plan, an unexpected event that requires improvisation. Everyone is in on it, because otherwise you would never get anything done.

A market economy has salespeople, charismatic people who convince you to buy things you didn’t know you wanted to buy. The Soviet Union has professional buyers, tolkachi, charismatic people who convince you to sell things you didn’t know you wanted to sell. It works, sort of, except for the end consumers, who are poor in both blat and tolkachi, and get only the crumbs off the table.

There was nothing in the reforms that were planned under Khrushchev that could have fixed this. The Soviet economy was eating itself. The system was rotten.

A bit like us

A long time ago, in a world far away? Yes, but apart from the genocides, the famines, the slave labor and mad dictators, the distance between the Soviet Union and our own society is actually not as great as one might think.

All large private and public organizations, also in our own society, suffer from sub-optimization, a problem where the actions that benefit an individual employer or department actually harms the overall goals of the organization. This is not a communist problem, but a planning problem, and the larger an organization is, the more difficult it is to make plans. The Soviet Union turned itself into one single gigantic organization, and therefore they also had gigantic planning problems. Our own are smaller, but otherwise similar, especially in our largest organizations.

Every company that believes it can plan its way into the future carries a bit of the Soviet legacy with it.

The communists were like us in another way as well. They believed, as we often believe, that if you only you dream hard enough, if only you believe, you can change almost anything. The Chinese Maoists went the furthest in this. They declared war on reality itself. Soviet idealists were less fanatical. They were more like us. All they wanted was an affluent society without suffering, populated by rational people. Making this happen was simply a matter of political will.

What the Soviet Union needed in the late 50s and early 60s was not idealists and optimists, but cynics who could tell them that their system was rotten, and pessimists who could tell them that much of human nature is rotten too. Systems can sometimes be improved, but human nature is what it is, and always will be. All you can do is try to make the best of it.

The Soviet dream of the Khrushchev era appeals to me. I love the spirit of their movies in particular. They really do make a part of me want to go live in Moscow in 1957. But I know how it turned out in the end.

I think of this whenever I look at the big dreams we have today, in our own society, dreams of peace and prosperity and technological miracles.

Will people fifty years from now look back on our own age and say the same thing, that what our time would have needed most of all would have been more cynics and pessimists?