Life Under Communism Today
The 1988 Olympics held in Seoul, South Korea, went down in history as yet another triumph for the Communist world. As anticipated, the Soviet Union walked off with the largest number of medals, and while Soviet dominance was not quite so pronounced as in previous years, much of the slack was taken up by athletes from Soviet-bloc nations in Eastern Europe. East Germany’s runner-up showing was especially impressive, given that nation’s small population, but Bulgaria, Rumania, and Hungary also finished among the top ten overall medal winners, and each gave evidence of strength in a surprising variety of events.
In the past, the socialist camp’s Olympic conquests were regarded—both within and outside the Soviet bloc—as a potent symbol of Communism’s achievements. Soviet athletes seemed like adjuncts of the Red Army—confident, disciplined, unemotional, not prone to the sloppiness which has occasionally marred American performances. Yet while the standard of excellence in Seoul in every way equaled past performances, the impression of an invincible, totalitarian juggernaut was missing. There was, in fact, something a bit grotesque about the magnificent accomplishments of athletes representing nations which, in practically every other sphere, are in various stages of decline. Instead of an advertisement for Communism’s strengths, the Olympics could well be seen as a prime example of Communism’s warped priorities, for here are countries that under state direction churn out world-class runners and gymnasts while the rest of their society experiences steady, and sometimes precipitous, decay.
Although Communism’s economic difficulties have been frequently commented on, it is only in the past several years that something approaching an honest accounting has been given wide publicity. To the policy of glasnost, of course, must go much of the credit for expanding our understanding of Communism’s systemic failures. Embarrassing Soviet health statistics were once camouflaged or omitted; now they are published, and no less a figure than the Minister of Health has issued a scathing analysis of the shortcomings of the Soviet system of health care. In Poland, the “propaganda of success” which predominated under former party chief Edward Gierek has been replaced by gloomy accounts of across-the-board crisis, whether the subject be housing, the environment, the hospital system, or the restructuring of industry. Even Czechoslovakia, where hard-line party leaders until recently sidestepped economic change, has begun to acknowledge the system’s inadequacies.
The attitude of candor taken up by Communist officials and media has had a ripple effect on Western reporters and scholars. Under Brezhnev, journalistic scrutiny concentrated on rumors of leadership changes and the persecution of dissidents and Jews. Reporters tended not to delve too deeply into the dark corners of Soviet society—largely because they were denied access to ordinary citizens and because overzealous investigative work invited expulsion. As for academic researchers, those specializing in Communist economic and social-welfare questions appeared more intent on building a case for enhanced symmetry between Communism and democracy than on analyzing whether the system worked. But with glasnost and the example of the emboldened Soviet media, cautiousness and self-censorship have given way to unprecedented aggressiveness, as Western reporters take advantage of access to officials, workers, collective farmers, economists, black marketeers, advocates of nationality causes, and religious believers to assemble unsparing assessments of internal conditions. Perhaps the most important consequence of journalistic boldness has been widespread Western doubt over the ultimate fate of perestroika, a skepticism cultivated by innumerable press accounts concluding that the measures advanced by Gorbachev are inadequate and that many Soviet citizens, workers most notably, are strenuously resisting the new course.
Another source of information which deserves mention is the unofficial or independent media of the Communist world. The word “unofficial” is used deliberately, for the independent press of today occupies a different role from the “underground” or samizdat press of the 1970’s. Basically, where the latter was subject to unrelenting persecution, the former is tolerated in greater or lesser degrees in Poland, Hungary, and even Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. As for content, unofficial journals devote far more attention than in the past to Communism’s socioeconomic predicament. Their coverage, not surprisingly, is marked by a willingness to challenge the foundations of the socialist system, and is also notable for the talent displayed by the independent-minded experts who do not hesitate to advance far-reaching critiques of the failure of state socialism.
Interestingly, it is Communist officials, and not their antagonists from the opposition, who often seem the most pessimistic about the prospects for change. Yet this is not as surprising as it might seem, since these officials are privy to the most accurate information and have the daunting assignment of dealing with the emerging crisis within the framework of the prevailing order. By every reliable reckoning, they face an alarming dilemma. It has often been noted that the impetus for perestroika was a growing fear that the Soviet economy could compete neither with the advanced capitalist democracies nor with the industrializing nations of the Third World. The problem, however, cuts even deeper. The question facing Mikhail Gorbachev and his East European acolytes is not simply whether the Soviet empire can be made competitive with market-oriented societies, but whether a catastrophic erosion of material conditions throughout the Communist world can be forestalled. Indeed, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are already exhibiting disturbing similarities with some of the more crisis-ridden societies of the Third World. The signs include spreading poverty, slums, and homelessness, double- and even triple-digit inflation, declining health-care indicators, high rates of external debt, an uncontrollable black market, pervasive corruption.
Probably the single most troubling sign of deterioration is the decline of health care, a development especially humiliating because of the central position which free medical care has long occupied in Communist propaganda. While Communists might admit that advanced capitalist societies were effective in developing highly specialized (and extremely expensive) surgical techniques, it was at the same time claimed that state socialism performed as well, and possibly better, than democratic nations in delivering services to the masses. To bolster this assertion, Communist regimes could cite a wealth of statistical data showing a massive reduction in mortality rates during the first two decades after World War II. Indeed, according to official (albeit questionable) figures, by the end of the 1950’s Soviet citizens enjoyed a higher life expectancy than Americans, and the Soviet infant mortality rate was lower than such European nations as Italy and Austria. At the same time, the Soviets boasted the highest ratio of doctors per person in the world.
Even allowing for the likelihood of statistical cheating, it is obvious that some impressive improvements were registered in a country which had historically lagged well behind the rest of Europe in health indices. Furthermore, the official claims were reinforced by the testimony of Western medical experts, who routinely lauded the high level of care after touring Soviet hospitals and clinics.
The signs of stagnation first appeared during the 1970’s. A clear warning signal was the Soviet failure to publish certain health statistics, most importantly those concerning infant mortality. In addition, several Western demographers, including Murray Feshbach and Christopher Davis, pieced together studies from available Soviet data which indicated that the health of Soviet citizens was not just stagnating, but actually declining.1 When first published, these findings were greeted with considerable suspicion. They were attacked not only by Soviet sources but by many Western medical authorities, some of whom went so far as to accuse the researchers of exaggerating conclusions to provide ammunition for the cold war. But it is now apparent that these studies were highly accurate; if anything, their conclusions understated the depth of the crisis. Nor can it be any longer claimed that Feshbach, Davis, and the others were motivated by ideology, since the most damning information has issued from none other than the top Soviet and East European health-care officials.
The most authoritative statement to date comes from Dr. Yevgeni Chazov, best-known in the West as a co-chairman of the International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, the organization of doctors which was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1985. In one of his first major personnel moves, Gorbachev installed Chazov as Minister of Health, and Chazov has used this pulpit to issue a series of brutally frank assessments of the woeful condition of Soviet medicine. Among his findings: poor training “has led to a lowering in the level of knowledge of the Soviet doctor”; health-care statistics have been falsified; certain basic medicines are in short supply; one-third of the country’s medical-training institutions could be “closed down today with absolutely no problem”; hospitals are seriously overcrowded, and some lack such basic features as running water and sewage systems. In polite bureaucratic language, Chazov has described conditions which would be considered intolerable in a normal society.
Furthermore, the decline in the Soviet healthcare infrastructure has coincided with an increase in health problems stimulated by such factors as poor diet—marked by high consumption of foods contributing to heart and circulatory ailments—alcoholism, environmental degradation, and unhealthy working conditions. It is, of course, true that such problems are an unfortunate aspect of modern industrial society, and not unique to the Soviet bloc Yet other countries, even many Third World nations, have been able to cope with them, as demonstrated by steadily improving indicators like infant-mortality rates. By contrast, in the developed countries of the Communist world health indices register stagnation at best, and in a number of cases, outright decline, a trend which the demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has described as “alien to every thing we know about modern life.”
The most depressing statistic concerns male mortality: in four Soviet-bloc countries—the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland—the death rate for men has at various times actually risen since the 1970’s. A slightly less serious decline was recorded in Czechoslovakia, which nonetheless fell from tenth to 22nd on a list of 27 nations in a life-expectancy survey between 1965 and 1985. Czechoslovakia also moved to the top of the list in cancer-related deaths (according to a survey conducted by the United Nations). In Poland, instances of salmonella, influenza, liver infections, and measles have increased; in Western Europe, by contrast, these diseases have steadily decreased, and in some cases virtually disappeared. Tuberculosis has also risen in Poland, to a level eight times that of Denmark. As for infant mortality, recent statements by Soviet officials rank their country 50th in the world, the worst of any developed nation.
The plight of Polish medicine is the most poignant Both official and independent media have recounted stories of unsanitary hospitals; frequent drunkenness among orderlies, ambulance drivers, and other personnel; a shocking shortage of basic medicines. Because of a lack of sufficient beds, pregnant women are often required to undergo labor sitting in chairs, and to give birth on hospital trolleys. At a hospital in Lublin, patients were admitted only if they brought their own beds and there are shortages of such basic medicines as aspirin, penicillin, anesthetics, and drugs to treat cancer and heart disease. Compounding the crisis are shortages of such ordinary hygienic items as toilet paper, toothpaste, and detergent; infectious diseases like hepatitis have risen owing to the lack of clean drinking water, caused by an almost total neglect of widespread water pollution.
As the quality of medical treatment declines throughout the Soviet bloc, access to decent care is increasingly determined by class and privilege. The most expert and comfortable care is reserved for the party elites and, in some countries, those with hard currency. Below this level are those able and willing to pay “gratuities” to doctors and nurses to ensure proper attention. In practically every Communist country, doctors are vastly underpaid, often earning less than semi-skilled industrial workers. In Poland, for example, a pediatrician may earn a base salary one-third that of a skilled mechanic To supplement their low earnings, doctors have come to expect bribes, whether in the form of money or, as is often the case in the Soviet Union, food. Through this system of institutionalized corruption, some doctors manage to earn several times their base salary. On the other hand, those medical personnel who do not come into direct contact with patients are deprived of the opportunity for extra earnings, a source of considerable resentment.
At the bottom are those who refuse to pay bribes, those who are too poor, and, especially, the elderly. The plight of the elderly is, in fact, perhaps the greatest scandal of the Communist social system. Old people are looked on as a burden to the rest of society; in the Soviet view, as described by the dissident psychiatrist Anatoly Koryagin, “Man . . . is valuable only to the extent that he is of advantage to society.” As “unproductive” citizens, pensioners are treated with arrant contempt by Soviet-bloc medical authorities. The most blatant case of discrimination is the Rumanian practice of refusing ambulance service to those over the age of seventy. Soviet policy is but slightly better; in some cities, ambulances are sent for the elderly only after younger patients have been picked up. Furthermore, old people with serious diseases are often sent away by hospital officials. Asked why elderly people with cancer were not admitted to a Budapest hospital, the chief physician replied: “If we admitted all such patients, we would have no room for those who can be cured.”
Two other groups whose special medical problems can be traced in part to the peculiarities of the Soviet system are the handicapped and women. The major problem for the handicapped is obtaining wheelchairs, prostheses, and similar devices which are routinely supplied in most other countries. Here is the testimony of a man who works in an Odessa prosthesis factory:
It is a huge place and the atmosphere there is awful. People have to wait from two to four years before receiving their application to come for a fitting. When they come, they’re left waiting for months. Hotels in the city are for foreigners, so they sleep at the station in winter and in public gardens in summer and they go without food. They keep pleading to speed up the manufacture of their prostheses and give bribes even though they have no money left for food. They are treated like animals because they form a large crowd and keep pestering the administration with questions nobody can answer. The quality of the prostheses is very low. Models are obsolete, and there are no spare parts. The invalids live hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away, and with a broken prosthesis they can’t do anything.
It hardly needs adding that the elites of Soviet society are spared such gruesome conditions. For the privileged, models of artificial limbs are custom-made in Western Europe, and delivered directly to the factory chief. The models are then duplicated in special workshops, and the individual obtaining the prosthesis is fitted in special rooms.
Women also suffer a set of problems of their own, partially attributable to the abnormalities of the Soviet system. As has been amply documented, shortages of contraceptive devices have made abortion one of the principal methods of birth control. Added to the humiliation of multiple abortions are the miserable operating conditions found in most Soviet hospitals, in particular the absence of anesthetics. In a strange twist, many women actually prefer “back-alley” abortions by black-market amateurs who are somehow able to purchase the necessary anesthetics. Another growing health problem is the tendency of relatively young women to suffer serious diseases of the reproductive organs due to years of heavy physical labor in factories, on roads, or in the fields.
While Soviet and East European authorities are owning up to the deficiencies in medical care, they have yet to acknowledge the relationship of these deficiencies to Communism as a social system. Certain problems can of course be ascribed to Brezhnevian stagnation. But decline has not been limited to the Soviet Union; medical care has deteriorated throughout the bloc, from Stalinist Rumania (where babies who die before one month are no longer counted in infant-mortality statistics) to reformist Hungary. Doctors universally suffer from low salaries and low social standing; in a few countries, they are still expected to participate in “voluntary” chores, such as cleanup brigades or harvesting crops. More to the point, a two-decade-long decline in the percentage of national income devoted to the health sector has occurred in practically every Communist country, as more and more resources have been channeled into heavy industry and, in some countries, the military.
Nor are the prospects bright for a near-term turnaround unless there is fundamental change, and not simply a superficial reordering of priorities. Modernization, requiring the importation of Western technology, is limited by a lack of hard currency and by the competing demands of industry and the consumer sector. Doctors are not likely to work harder without financial incentives, which are still resisted for ideological reasons. As for the environmental dimensions of the health crisis, poor diet and alcoholism will lessen only with a general improvement in living standards, which even the most optimistic observers admit is some years away.
A second pillar of the Soviet welfare system is housing. According to the traditional argument, all Soviet citizens are guaranteed adequate housing as a matter of basic human rights; this position has been adopted by the various East European regimes as well. In fact, however, Communism has been unable to provide housing for millions of people, and the existing housing stock is cramped, poorly built, and often lacking such basic features as running water and kitchens.
A Hungarian planning official has described his nation’s housing situation as “worse than before, indeed, it is hopeless.” Polityka, an official Polish journal, describes housing as “hit by an incurable disease.” Soviet officials, including Gorbachev, have been as sharp in castigating then-housing sector, most notably after it was revealed that the human toll from the Armenian earthquake had been exacerbated by the inferior quality of apartments built during the Brezhnev era. “Hopeless” and “incurable” are words not often employed by Communists to characterize social ills; such defeatism is even more astonishing when applied to highly developed European societies. Yet the conclusion is inescapable: Communism, as a system, has proved unable to provide decent housing for its citizens many decades after its seizure of power in Europe.
Communism, indeed, can also be said to have a truly massive problem of homelessness. Millions of families, while having access to shelter of a sort, do not have homes of their own; they live in crowded quarters with parents, siblings, grandchildren, friends. In Poland, where the problem is most aggravated, some cities have waiting lists of up to thirty years for apartments, and 50 percent of newlyweds are forced to live with their parents, not for economic reasons but simply because sufficient housing does not exist. Some two million Poles, out of a population of about 37 million, lack housing, and given Poland’s high fertility rate, the situation can be expected to worsen in the coming years. It is not uncommon for three generations to crowd together in a one-bedroom flat, and many divorced couples continue living together because of the shortage.
The Polish situation is replicated in other East European countries. In Czechoslovakia, 10 percent do not have homes of their own, and one-quarter live in apartments lacking private bathrooms. The waiting period for many Hungarians is ten years. In Rumania, as part of party chief Nicolae Ceausescu’s villagization program, thousands of village homes are being systematically destroyed, their inhabitants herded into jerry-built apartment complexes lacking kitchens and running water.
Another dimension of the Communist housing situation concerns workers’ hostels. Millions live in these crude facilities, thrown up near construction sites, mines, and large factories. Although usually called dormitories, workers’ hostels are more accurately described as barracks, or modified prison camps. A dentist from the Soviet city of Vladimir, who treated those living in such a hostel, has reported the following:
Families do not have their own rooms, and there are no separate quarters for men and women. Instead, everyone sleeps together in an area housing 100-150 people, partitioned only with torn blankets hung from the ceiling, or plywood boards. There are lots of dirty, unkempt children running around. The air is thick with screams and obscenities day and night Prostitution and drunkenness are rife. Generally, there are no toilet facilities, and in winter there are always lumps of frozen excrement to be found on the street below.
The most promising solution to the endemic housing crisis is some form of non-state construction, either through cooperatives, whereby a group of individuals contribute toward the cost of an apartment building, or by private development. Although a number of Communist countries permit private or semi-private construction, the scale has remained unimpressive, and the obstacles daunting.
Obtaining building materials is one of the most formidable challenges. Often in short supply to begin with, such materials are typically assigned to state construction enterprises; private contractors are frequently compelled to go through the black market or simply to steal. Contractors must also get approval from a lengthy list of government agencies, a process which can take years unless bribes are given. Another problem is price. State housing is notoriously inexpensive; cooperatives or private homes may cost a great deal. Ten years ago or so, private housing was more affordable because people in Eastern Europe had more disposable income. Today, however, an average two-income family barely earns enough to scrape by, and there is no extra money for a major expense like a new house.
Thus, in housing as in health care, the prospects for improvement appear bleak. In most Communist countries, the pace of construction has actually declined during the 1980’s. Unless the authorities take vigorous action to encourage private construction, the defeatism expressed by those officials who best understand the magnitude of the crisis will turn out to be only too justified.
Another Communist icon demolished by glasnost is the claim to have abolished poverty. As recently as 1986, a Soviet commentator, in an article on the human-rights debate, wrote that in the United States
. . . there are millions, in some cases tens of millions of people who are permanently or temporarily out of a job, who are forced to live in slums or who have no roof over their heads at all, who are driven with increasing ruthlessness at work, who are discriminated against on account of the color of their skin, sex, or age, whose incomes stay below the official poverty level, who have been unable to receive even an elementary education or medical care they sorely need, who live under conditions of utter lawlessness, . . . corruption, and rising drug abuse. . . .
Such overheated rhetoric, until recently a staple of Soviet commentaries on American society, could easily and accurately be applied to Soviet-style societies, simply on the basis of recent media accounts of these countries’ social problems.
Judging the extent of poverty in the Communist world by applying generally accepted Western standards is no simple proposition. Housing conditions alone would qualify many families as impoverished. By the same token, the diets of many Poles, Rumanians, and Soviets fall well short of Western nutritional (although not caloric) standards. Likewise with the widespread absence of such basic amenities as telephones. Are we to call impoverished die two-thirds of Soviet citizens who lack hot water, or the one-third who have no running water altogether? Similarly, poverty among the elderly in the United States is no longer a mass phenomenon thanks to Social Security and its various supplements, Medicare, and private pensions. By contrast, statistics from Communist regimes suggest that there is massive poverty among the elderly, due to the miserly level of pensions and discriminatory policies of health care. Some have estimated that 80 percent of the Soviet elderly can be labeled as living in poverty.
An instructive case is Hungary, long considered a shining example of intelligent socialist economic management According to recently published figures, somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of the population can now be classified as “socially poor,” a category which includes roughly 40 percent of the elderly, one-half of families with two children, and between 70 and 90 percent of families with Üiree or more offspring. Another 25 percent endure living standards which in the United States would be classified as working poor.
Nor are the Hungarian poor necessarily invisible. Press accounts speak of growing numbers of beggars, homeless people, and squatters, the latter consisting of families with children who stream into Budapest from the provinces in search of employment The problem of declining living standards is expected to worsen, perhaps significantly, because of economic changes introduced by the authorities. The cost of housing, food, utilities—basic necessities which under previous policies were heavily subsidzed—is now being allowed to rise to levels approaching market value.
Hungary has also introduced an income tax, meaning a further general lowering of material conditions. The tax system has had an unusually corrosive effect on the large group of Hungarians who have taken second or even third jobs in a desperate attempt to maintain a decent life. Furthermore, like other Communist countries, Hungary as a matter of ideological principle refused to establish a welfare safety net; now, when it is desperately needed, the country lacks the resources to provide more than the most meager assistance.
While the Hungarian regime is taking steps to overhaul the economy, the pervading mood within the Communist party seems to be one of exhaustion. One of the bluntest assessments of the country’s plight was voiced not by an opposition figure but by Gyorgy Aczel, a long-time Politburo member until his recent ouster:
The great masses feel that . . . they have lost the opportunity of getting ahead. The poor feel that their chance for upward mobility has been lost. Those who possess something feel that they might lose it. People generally cannot live without prospects; this is especially so under socialism, because this society has become identified in people’s minds with getting ahead.
The Soviets, too, have begun to address the formerly taboo subject of poverty. Although a precise measurement has yet to be published, a number of researchers have conducted studies suggesting a poverty rate between 20 and 40 percent. The elderly comprise a substantial percentage of this figure, not surprisingly given that the average pension stands at slightly below the poverty line. As in Hungary, large families and families with only one parent make up the bulk of the rest.
If Communism has failed to eliminate the abject destitution which seems, in fact, to be growing throughout Eastern Europe, what about other claims made for the system?
In the past, for example, Communist systems have earned credit for having liberated women from their inferior social and economic status. And, as Nicholas Eberstadt observes in his important new book, The Poverty of Communism2 upon coming to power Communist regimes invariably have taken sweeping measures to free women from bride prices and other vestiges of feudalism. Women have been given an equal right to education, and permitted—indeed, practically compelled—to work. But while these initial steps may appear impressive, with the passage of time it is clear that women have continued to occupy a subservient position. They have the crushing double burden of organizing family life while spending their working hours at often physically arduous jobs. Moreover, the professions women have come to dominate—medicine and teaching—have been consciously reduced in status through a wage structure which favors heavy industry. And when it has suited the state’s purposes, women have been eased back into their traditional role of child-bearing. The reason for this is simple enough. Sexual equality has never been an end in itself. Rather, as Eberstadt notes, “It has been explicitly pursued as a means to an end; a way of augmenting ‘socialist’ power, or stimulating ‘socialist’ construction.”
So too with Communism’s boast to function as the engineer of social mobility for the toiling masses. At their inception, most Communist regimes have taken far-reaching steps to give workers, and to a lesser degree peasants, an opportunity to move into higher positions. But once political stability has been achieved it becomes increasingly difficult to advance beyond one’s status at birth. Over the years, a rigid class system has evolved; mobility has become much more problematical than under capitalism or, for that matter, during pre-Communist times.
From the data he has analyzed, Eberstadt draws an interesting conclusion about the relationship between Communism and poverty. When first installed, the Communist state can be expected to advance policies that benefit the poor through the emancipation of women, industrialization, and affirmative-action programs for workers and peasants. But then the interests and policies of the regime change:
From the standpoint of the party and those who direct it, social mobility should henceforth be no more rapid than development plans or political struggles necessitate. The importance of women to the class struggle gives way to a recognition of their importance in reproducing the labor force and filling the cracks in manpower plans. The drive to eliminate illiteracy is replaced by a concern with preventing the populace from learning certain things. Marxist-Leninist regimes, in short, have something like a “window of opportunity” in dealing with the problems of the poor; as this window closes, it becomes increasingly difficult to implement policies which stand the disadvantaged in good stead.
The countries of which we are speaking here are, it should be recalled, European societies. As Mikhail Gorbachev often reminds us, the Soviet bloc is part of Europe, sharing cultural bonds that extend back over the centuries. Economically, however, these countries have failed to achieve the level of prosperity which the free nations of Europe have enjoyed in the postwar period; now, it would appear, they are doomed to fall further and further behind their Western neighbors.
It is true that the Soviet Union and the countries of Eastern Europe have managed to avoid mass unemployment (although they tolerate millions of useless jobs), and do not suffer the relentless destitution found in many Third World countries. But the significant point is the direction Communist economies are headed, and the mounting evidence that a reversal is impossible under the prevailing system.
Nor is the growing resemblance between Communism and the underdeveloped world limited to narrow economic issues. Corruption is coming to be seen as a major problem throughout the bloc. At one level, Communist corruption takes the classic form of highly-placed officials exploiting their positions for personal enrichment. More to the point is corruption linked to the pervasiveness of state economic control. Just as the organization of health care leads to massive, tacitly-sanctioned bribe-taking, a similar pattern can be discerned in the allocation of housing, where influence is routinely used to enable friends and allies to leap to the head of the waiting list. The failure of the state to provide enough consumer goods has triggered the rise of a massive black market; at the same time, legal entrepreneurs find themselves of necessity in the uncomfortable position of employing black-market tactics to overcome the mountain of bureaucratic hurdles thrown up by the system.
Another development with disturbing Third World parallels is mass economic emigration, made possible by relaxed travel regulations instituted by a number of Soviet-bloc countries. It is, however, mainly Poles who have taken advantage of the new rules. The exodus of Poles has been described as the greatest mass movement in Europe since the end of World War II, with some 500,000 having fled since 1983. The most popular destination is West Germany, and many ethnic Poles are sufficiently desperate to claim German origins in order to gain legal residence status. The problem is considered of sufficient magnitude to have elicited complaints of a brain drain from Polish officials, who note that many of the refugees are doctors, engineers, and other professionals. Jerzy Urban, spokesman for the Polish regime, has accused Western governments of “sucking out of Poland some of the achievements of socialism.” But as an X-ray technician, newly-arrived in West Germany, has responded: “I am free at least. The golden West. No more food lines. No waits for apartments or cars. No Communism.”
In one sense, indeed, Third World societies have a distinct advantage over societies where Communism has been firmly established. An important lesson of the Gorbachev era is that the longer state socialism has been in place, the more difficult the process of reform becomes. Even in Third World countries which have recently fallen under Marxist rule, a relaxation of control has invariably led to an immediate burst of economic energy and a noticeable improvement in material conditions. By contrast, entrenched Communist regimes, having spent years indoctrinating their citizens to the presumed benefits of huge state industries and farms, having sworn a solemn pledge of lifetime economic stability for all citizens, and having drummed home the message that profit is evil, are discovering that many have learned their lessons all too well, and view demands for change with suspicion and even hostility.
“Communism,” Lech Walesa recently lamented, “has made us the beggars of Europe.” The real dilemma facing Poland and the rest of the Soviet bloc is that, having failed, failed, and failed again, the same Communist authorities who created the current crisis continue to insist that only they have the right to political power. This argument, backed up by the threat of force, was grudgingly tolerated so long as the promise of ever-expanding material abundance could be even half-heartedly believed. With the rulers themselves now admitting that they have been unable to meet their part of the social bargain, how long can the ruled continue to accept a system which no longer pretends to provide either freedom or prosperity?
1 Social and Economic Rights in the Soviet Bloc, edited by George Urban (Transaction).
2 Transaction, 317 pp., $24.95.