Life in the East
To the Editor:
Arch Puddington’s excellent article, “Totalitarianism Today” [December 1984], raised many important points which cannot be repeated often enough. We have become so accustomed to thinking of Communist rulers as decrepit and inefficient that we tend to forget that there is one area in which they are truly unrivaled: namely, what Mr. Puddington calls “regulating the most mundane details of an individual’s existence.” . . .
This is why I feel uneasy when Mr. Puddington characterizes the present-day manifestations of totalitarianism in Eastern Europe as “softer” than in previous years. The characterization would seem to imply some degree of intentionally benign loosening of restrictions. Indeed, some might even take it as a sign of weakness due to aging. Unfortunately, the opposite is true: the apparent “softening” is a sign of unprecedented strength.
Mr. Puddington gives an indication of this himself when he quotes Lenin’s description of ideal behavior in Communist society:
When all have learned to manage . . . the escape from this national accounting and control will inevitably become so increasingly difficult, such a rare exception, and will probably be accompanied by such quick punishment . . . that soon the necessity of observing the simple, fundamental rules of everyday social life in common will have become a habit.
I am afraid that this ideal has almost been reached in the Soviet Union, so that with its power over the minds and actions of its citizens securely consolidated, the state can do without “more dramatic and brutal manifestations” of its power.
All my fellow refugees from Communist countries have their favorite stories about the bizarre world we left behind. One of mine is about the relentless reediting of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia in the 40′s and 50′s. Whenever yesterday’s revolutionary hero was declared to be today’s enemy of the people and was dealt the “full strength of socialist justice,” his name and life history had to be deleted from the encyclopedia. A new page would then be printed with some innocent entry (indeed, a biologist friend of mine claimed that a single stroke of the censor’s pen thus created a new genus of frog, heretofore unknown to science). The new page would be mailed to all owners of the encyclopedia with instructions to paste it on top of the old page, thus obliterating the offensive entry. There is nothing surprising in the fact that the government would do something like this: after all, rewriting history is the most fundamental principle of the Communist world order. But it is truly mind-boggling that thousands of Soviet citizens in the supposed privacy of their homes scrupulously and conscientiously carried out these instructions.
My parents were of the first generation that was born and raised after the revolution: their formative years were spent in a Russia terrorized by Stalin; all their lives, their predominant emotion was mortal fear. My generation had a very different experience: the state did not come down on us like a ton of bricks for the slightest offense. But when I stopped to reflect on this during the twenty-four years I spent in the Soviet Union, I was sickened by its implications. The state trusted us. We were those ideal citizens Lenin dreamed of: the state’s “fundamental rules” had become our “habits.” We could be trusted, for example, to vote unanimously for moving Soviet tanks into Czechoslovakia: not out of fear (as our parents would have done), but simply as a matter of habit, because disobedience would not even have occurred to us. Our leaders were right, too. All of six people (out of 250 million) came to Red Square to protest this shameful act. As for the rest of us, they had us exactly where they wanted us. The totalitarians have won: they have devoured the soul of the nation. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
I would like to express my appreciation for your publication of Arch Puddington’s “Totalitarianism Today.” I am a twelfth-grade government teacher who attempts to teach students about the “real world” distinctions among democratic, totalitarian, and authoritarian governments. Mr. Puddington’s article will be invaluable in creating lessons dealing with these distinctions.
Michael M. Yell
Arch Puddington writes:
I would like to thank Lena Mandel and Michael M. Yell for their generous comments. Lena Mandel is quite correct: the insidiousness of Communist regimes stems from their ability, once power has been consolidated and “class enemies” dealt with, to manipulate and coerce their societies without the necessity of resorting to mass terror. I would, however, disagree with the despairing conclusion that the “totalitarians have won.” Resistance, in varying forms and degrees, exists wherever the Communist system prevails. The best example, of course, is the fact of Solidarity’s impressive ability to survive for more than three years after the declaration of martial law. While Communist regimes have been compelled to put down uprisings on a number of past occasions, never previously have Communist rulers been unable to regain absolute party-state dominance. There are, moreover, a number of developments within the Communist world which will further complicate the state’s ability to control the people. These include a better-educated populace with greater access to non-Communist sources of information, the rejection of Communism by the younger generation, and the inevitable changes in Communist economic systems. To be sure, Communism has proved itself ingenious at anticipating and smothering potentially troublesome currents within the societies it controls. And, in Europe at least, the Red Army remains the ultimate guarantor of Communist rule. Nevertheless, we in the West would be committing a serious error if we were to ignore the social, economic, and political trends which threaten the stability of the Communist system. We should, as well, actively (though prudently) support those engaged in the resistance struggle, whether they are Jewish refuseniks, Catholic clergymen, intellectual dissidents, or embattled trade-unionists. As these people have repeatedly stressed, it is the watchful eye of the West which prevents their oppressors from crushing them with impunity.